Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Blind to the obvious

Consider if you will Advanced Dungeons and Dragons 2nd Edition.  This roleplaying game is one of the biggest and most influential ones ever created and was by far the one I played most when I was young.  The game started out small with just 2 core books and a binder full of monster stats and eventually expanded to over 50 books of rules. You might think, given the immense amount of time and money that went into this system, that it would be polished and things in it would make sense.  You would be wrong.

I present as evidence:  THAC0.  This stands for To Hit Armour Class Zero.  The system for making an attack in AD&D2 is to roll a twenty sided die, add/subtract any modifiers, add the enemy's Armour Class and then compare the result to your character's THAC0 number.

Example: If I was a 3rd level Fighter my THAC0 would be 18.  So if I roll an attack of 12, add my +1 modifier from Strength and add the enemy armour class of 6 I get a modified result of 19, which is above my THAC0 of 18, so I hit.

Armour class starts at 10 and goes down, so a very heavily armoured target could have an armour class of -10 or lower.  This is a particularly bizarre system when you consider the system of attacking that followed it, which is simply that armour class starts at 10 and goes up.  You roll your die, add your modifier as before and then check to see if you beat the enemy armour class.  This system both feels more intuitive (higher numbers are better) and reduces the number of operations by one (no more need to add armour class in before comparing) but retains the exact mathematical properties of the old.

So why would you have a more complicated, bizarre feeling mechanic when you can have a simple, intuitive one?  Good question.  I think the answer is simply that once a system has been designed the designer is often unable to see alternatives to that system.  We blind ourselves by thinking that since we have solved a problem there can be no better way to solve it.

FMB had a mechanic with the same problem as THAC0.  The way it worked was that each player started with 18 gold and slowly lost gold throughout the game.  The person who ran out of gold first was the loser.  To achieve this I had players constantly acquiring gold but also paying out gold at a higher rate so that eventually someone would run out.  Two days ago Wendy suggested that instead of having people lose when they run out of gold I should simply have people win when they get enough gold.


Why didn't I think of that?!?!  I quickly redesigned the system to accommodate this new idea and it works much better.  I lower the number of transactions in the system, make the acquisition of resources more consistent and keep the numbers the same.  I also neatly avoid the issue of people forgetting to pay their gold costs each turn because there is no payment - only acquisition.  Anyone who forgets to take their resources for the turn is just out of luck and the system solves itself instead of requiring policing by the rules.

I find it so strange that even though I played this game a ton, revised the rules a hundred times and more and feel like my understanding of it is tremendous I missed a fundamental, simple change that would make the game better.  Add instead of subtract, nothing more, nothing less.  It certainly shows that there is real value in bringing in a second opinion from an outsider and being open to their suggestions.  Out of the mouths of babes indeed.  ;)

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Safety first

This past winter I took my daughter sledding on the hill in my local park.  The hill is a very dangerous place, prone to leaving little children in wheelchairs and without eyes.  I can tell this by the signs that have been up on the hill all winter and are still there today.

It must be that the hill is steep and forbidding, perhaps ending in a vertical drop onto a freeway or a raging, icy river.  There must be a history of destruction and mayhem here that must be put to an end.  The city and its people should unite in saving our small ones from the incredible dangers of this killer hill.

Here is the murderous beast in all its glory:

This 'killer' hill bottoms out onto a long, flat, grassy plain.  Even in the late winter under extremely icy, slippery conditions I pushed my daughter's sled as hard as I could from the top and there was no danger to her whatsoever.  Every nice winter day saw dozens of families sledding on this hill, throwing snowballs and building snowmen.  People brought big plastic sleds, tiny crazy carpets, wooden toboggans and 'bum pad with handle' sleds to the hill and had a blast.

This is a classic example of throwing public money out the window to prevent litigation.  I usually am someone who is against the excess of safety regulations that our society has seen fit to implement in recent years but this doesn't even have the excuse of being about safety - it is only about preventing lawsuits against the park.  I think it is a sad state of affairs that a park charged with promoting exercise, activity and the outdoors is forced into throwing money away on these ridiculous signs simply to prevent themselves from being sued.  Expecting personal responsibility is something we are moving further and further away from as a society and it is at the cost of ridiculous waste like this.

I do not hold with the level of safety and security often expected for children these days.  However, at least when a real effort is being made to improve safety there is a benefit to people involved even if it is not worth the monetary and other costs.  This sort of 'safety' expenditure has no excuse.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

RNG and certainty

How much RNG (Random Number Generator) is a good thing?  I have been debating this back and forth with myself about FMB for awhile now - it has been a difficult thing to nail down.

The classic example of an RNG game is War.  In that most classic and terrible of games there is in fact no skill or player input whatsoever.  The cards come out in a particular order and the winner of the game is predetermined.  Most people find War to be absolutely pointless and suitable only for children.  The best examples of the opposite type of game are Go or Chess, in which there is zero randomness aside from who goes first and yet the games are incredibly complex and not even remotely solved.

My issue has been:  How much randomness do I want in FMB ideally, and more generally how much randomness do I like it my games?  I played an awful lot of Magic:  The Gathering in high school and university and loved that and I am a bit of a fanatical fan of board games with low randomness.  I also enjoy poker which is surely an example of mixed luck and skill.  I suppose a good measure of the randomness of a game is an expression of how often a professional player will lose to some random guy who has only played the game twice before.

Chess/Go - 0%  (The professional *could* lose, but it is far less than 1 in a million)

Magic/Poker - 10%  (No matter how good you are sometimes you get manascrewed or rivered out)

Puerto Rico - 20%  (Games with multiple players are prone to people playing kingmaker, otherwise would be lower)

War - 50%

So what is my ideal number?  I surely don't want the situation of War where the rube beats the pro half the time, but I don't think I actually like the Chess/Go ideal of nearly guaranteed victory for professionals either.  The best player losing to buffoons occasionally is fine as long as they will consistently build up a winning record over time to my mind and that ideal number lies somewhere between 20% and 5%.  While something in the back of my brain insists that a game should be pure and following the right strategy should lead to victory I don't seem to actually love games that embody that philosophy.  I like the possibility of pocket aces, I enjoy comboing my opponent out on turn 3 and I love snagging the Gold Mine with a lucky roll of a 6.

I suspect that everyone has a level of randomness that they are most fond of in games and that they tend to gravitate towards that level in their game choices.  I think I am happiest with games that allow me to rack up a winning record against a rube virtually every time after 10 games but occasionally not after 1 game; I don't mind losing a match to a sucker as long as  I have all of his money by the end of the night.  I experimented with some different rules in FMB  looking at options where no dicerolling occurred at all and ended up deciding that my game needs to fit my game preferences:  You roll some dice, and the better player wins most of the time.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

A fight over brawling

Recently the UFC has been trying to get permission to operate in Ontario.  For those unfamiliar, the UFC is a competitive sport organization that holds MMA (Mixed Martial Arts) fights on a regular basis.  It has some resemblance to professional boxing but instead of padded gloves, fisticuffs and scoring it is pure bareknuckle fighting with lots of wrestling, twisting and kicking.

It is an interesting choice that the government faces.  First off the fact that both hockey fighting and boxing are legal in Ontario would suggest that there is a precedent for this sort of activity being sanctioned.  People are absolutely allowed to punch each other in the head for fun and profit so in order to continue the ban on MMA the government basically would need to believe that either boxing and hockey should in fact be banned or MMA is more violent or dangerous than hockey fights/boxing.

The government certainly seems unworried about boxing and hockey fighting and as for MMA being more dangerous, that is simply flat out false.  When the UFC first started up it was quite dangerous but a lot of new rules have been added over the years such that now it is safer than boxing.  There are still an awful lot of minor injuries like bruises, cuts, twists, strains and such but the number of really serious injuries is low when compared to the incredible brain damage most boxers suffer from before they retire.

Some part of me says that we should just let the violent musclebound brawlers do what they want and let people enjoy the show.  Another part of me says that braindamaged, violent people with shattered careers and no marketable skills are not something we want to create more of.  While there certainly are athletes that go into these sports with their eyes open and come out fine they are an awful lot of people that leave them broken in both mind and body.

One good question - is there actually a lot of difference between Olympic athletes in relatively dangerous sports like skiing and fighters in MMA leagues?  I remember seeing an interview with a moguls contender at the Olympics where she talked about everyone in her sport getting knee operations and suffering fairly substantial physical problems due to their competition.  Dying from downhill recreation is not at all unheard of - a luge competitor died during the Olympics itself and skiing is not risk free.  There is certainly a difference in that skiers don't actually injure each other but instead are injured by the terrain, but since the 'terrain' of a MMA fighting ring is extremely safe perhaps this doesn't matter.

While the fighting in MMA leagues may be troublesome ethically I don't think we can really support laws against it given the relative risks people assume in other pastimes.  People will continue to do foolish things in pursuit of the glory of athletic victory and people will also continue to pay to watch it and as long as the sport in question does a good job of trying to prevent accidents I don't see grounds for stopping it.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Wonderful wife, bad internet, puzzling Bible

This post is less of a complete post and more of a couple random notes.

First, my wife is great.  She got me:

World of Warcraft and Philosophy:  Wrath of the Philosopher King.  I have only begun to read it but it is quite a neat book - a broad philosophical look at many issues that WoW can help understand and it is written as if the reader is an avid gamer.

I have turned on comment moderation for my blog.  What this means is your comments will not appear right away but have to wait for me to okay them.  Largely this is to avoid people posting stupid spam/porn site links/advertising on the site which has happened a few times now.  I won't be editing out any useful comment, just the pure spam garbage.  Your comments should go up within a couple hours of entering them though.

I changed the layout.  If you like it or don't like it please let me know, I am trying to figure out the best presentation for the blog and feedback helps.  The current layout allows the posts to go across the whole screen instead of being limited which works a lot better when I am posting pictures but it still isn't quite what I want.

I have finished the first 3 books of the New Testament.  It is almost unbelievable to me the similarity between them - they have so many passages that are literally identical to one another.  They are intended to be the story of Jesus from three different perspectives of course so they should be similar but the idea of telling this one story over and over in almost exactly the same way is just baffling.  It feels like either there should be a definitive version (you know, as if this information was actually handed down by God) or the stories should cover different things and express different opinions.  Multiple nearly identical versions though... strange.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010


3 weeks ago Wendy stopped using our current tube of toothpaste.  She had tried to get more paste out but the tube was just empty, so she moved on.  I am more stubborn than that.  For the past 3 weeks I have been squeezing more and yet more toothpaste out of the tube, each time thinking that perhaps this would be the last and perhaps tomorrow would be the day that I failed.  Finally, yesterday the tube won and I lost - there was flat out no way I could get enough toothpaste out of it to brush my teeth.

The first two weeks were easy, it was just a matter of squishing and smashing, pushing harder and harder.  That last week though was rough as I had to massage the last remnants of toothpaste up the tube near the end and then hold the brush, jam my thumb in the tube to push the paste out and keep the paste from squishing back down the tube all at once.

On the second to last day I only managed to get enough paste by squeezing the paste to the top of the tube and jamming the bristles of the brush in to scrape it out of the tube - I couldn't even get the paste to clear the lip.

On the final day nothing would avail me, the tube truly was done.  It was clear there was an additional smidgen of paste there that could not be brought close enough to the lip for extraction, though if I had truly tried harder and got more equipment I might have been able to get one more day out of it.

It feels a bit like a video game.  I struggle mightily against a fixed opponent, using all my strength, experience and ingenuity to coax one more victory out.  I know there must one day be defeat and that victory can never continue forever and yet the struggle to push the envelope and go as far as I can is irresistible.  It goes far beyond any sort of exercise in economy or environmentalism and is purely man vs. environment where I fight with reckless abandon to hold back in inevitable.

For some reason the fact that the fight is unwinnable has immense appeal.  I long to stand and face the storm, to stare down an enemy I cannot withstand, to do the impossible.  This is some fundamental part of me - the desire to fight the impossible fight.

And there it sits, the thing that beat me, my better.  My loss was inevitable and unstoppable yet that struggle was so wonderful.  I think perhaps that is one of the great lessons of being happy - finding the thrill of competition and victory in the smallest things, such as getting the last possible drop of paste out of a tube that has been discarded as empty weeks ago.

Monday, March 22, 2010

The more things change, the more they stay the same.

I hit a roadblock in my Bible project.  I finished reading Job and got to Psalms and just couldn't summon up the interest to read through them.  The first part of the Old Testament is by far the most interesting and the further on you get the more it is pure repetition and inscrutable poetry.  As such I decided to swap to reading the New Testament.  I hope to go back and finish off the Old Testament afterwards but we will see how my motivation holds out.

I was expecting the New Testament to be drastically different.  I was under the impression that it would be about a God for all people, a kind God, a God of love and forgiveness instead of the bloody, tribal, destructive God of the Old Testament.  Boy, was I wrong.

Jesus comes to the world for the Jews.  He says this straight out many times and focuses on how he is there for the Jews and the nation of Israel.  Jesus also spends a lot of time insulting and belittling other racial/social groups and acting like a real bigot a lot of the time which is not at all what I was expecting.  The other thing that most struck me was his tendency to deliver hellfire and brimstone warnings and threats.  He isn't there to bring the world into a new, peaceful era but rather to inform everyone that if they don't do exactly as he says and place him above themselves, their families and indeed everything else in the universe they will suffer eternally for it.  His speeches are far more reminiscent of a megalomaniacal tyrant than a gentle saviour.

So often when I spoke about the Bible with believers they agreed that the Old Testament had some really strange, bad things in it but that the New Testament was what should be believed.  I have only read the first book of the New Testament so far, but if this kind of Jesus persists throughout I will be forced to conclude that people either:

1.  Never read the Bible at all and are just assuming it contains what they think it ought to contain or

2.  Read the Bible and completely ignored all the things they didn't agree with.

Maybe some of both?

I suppose the most amusing thing I find in the New Testament is Jesus assuredly informing everyone that he will be back within 1 generation to end the current world and usher in the kingdom of heaven.  It isn't vague or unclear at all:  According to the Bible, Jesus will return before all those surrounding him during his life are dead.  Maybe there is a 2000+ year old Jew wandering around still waiting for Jesus to come back - or maybe not.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Only 1 dollar

Today I was walking through the mall with my daughter and went by the coin operated rides.  These are the sort everyone must be familiar with - a cartoonified vehicle made of some kind of plastic derivative, painted bright colours and about 1 meter tall.  As usual they feature missing bits, chipped paint and worn down parts. These particular ones are an ice cream truck, a helicopter and a jeep and of course they will rumble, shake and twitch about for the low, low cost of 1 dollar.  I find the social obligation surrounding these rides very strange indeed.

My daughter loves to play on the ice cream truck ride though I never put any money in it.  Very often there are several parent/child groups on the rides at one time and inevitably the other parents are feeding the machines money.  They often give me very strange looks when their child hops onto the ice cream truck and my daughter gets a free ride when they know that I have not been feeding the machine myself.

I could try to play the 'I'm poor' card to justify this behaviour, though truly that isn't reasonable nor the actual reason behind my decision.  I wouldn't want to put money in those machines regardless of how much money I had on hand - I feel like there are better places to spend that money.  Many people seem to feel that if you are going to let your children hop on these machines then you have an obligation to pour cash into them for awhile and I really don't buy into that.  When I visit the mall these machines are there, taunting my poor, restraint-challenged daughter.  She is going to run onto them regardless of what I want, and though I could drag her off them kicking and screaming to avoid the 'obligation' to pay the price I choose to let her sit on the ice cream truck as long as she wants to.  The makers of these devices know these tendencies and social dynamics well and use them to milk money out of hapless passerby.

There is a part of me that wants to yell at everyone and tell them that they should not accept the obligation to pay.  It has a lot in common with the massive quantity of junk sold surrounding Easter, Valentine's Day, St. Patrick's Day, etc. in that people are under the impression that they just have to throw their cash at these manufacturers and have no choice in the matter without being cast out.  Of course if I succeeded in convincing them all that paying should be optional these devices would vanish from the mall and my daughter would have one less thing to play with.

Surely I cannot affect this part of the world - manufacturers will continue to make junk and try to convince the populace that they have a moral obligation to buy that junk.  No matter that I do not buy masses of useless items on marked holidays and then throw them out the next day and no matter that I do not feed the rides; they will continue on because other people do and I can reap the rewards of free ice cream trucks and silly decorations in the mall on regular holidays.  Am I a freeloader, or am I warrior fighting the good fight against corporate greed?  Perhaps a bit of both.

Friday, March 19, 2010

I quit

Dealing with people who drop out of your raiding guild is tough.  In the past I have seen all kinds of reactions to people quitting:  Sadness, rage, despair, relief, hope and thankfulness just off the top of my head.  It is a strange situation; one day you expect to play games with someone for 10 hours a week and know about their moods and their challenges and you are a part of their life.  The next day you see a post on your forums saying their aren't in the mood to play anymore and suddenly they are gone, usually forever.

Sometimes a person who is generally well liked and relied upon by the guild leaves and everyone panics, wondering how things will ever be the same.  They lament for the loss of a friend and feel existential angst at the thought of a close relationship being severed.  Sometimes a guy who is a complete buffoon and who is not well liked leaves and everyone cheers because now the guild can simply move on and find someone new without the pain and conflict of booting him.  (*cough* Arthimus *cough*) Sometimes the person fades away, making less and less raids, being happy to sit by the sidelines and eventually just stops altogether with nary a whisper, and sometimes they go out with a flaming Bang! making a big, angry forum post lambasting those they disagreed with and mocking those who stay.

Spots and Flirtini announced today that they are leaving.  It is sad from a lot of perspectives since they were both good players and friends.  I enjoyed talking to them about my blog posts, about our kids and about WOW itself.  I enjoyed playing with people who are enthusiastic, skilled and hardworking.  Now I have the unenviable task of sorting through the stacks of fools and incompetents that populate the world trying to find someone or several someones to replace them.  It has always been my philosophy to wish people well and then furiously recruit.  Sometimes people try to shame, guilt or bully players into coming back but if you want someone who is enjoyable to play with and good at what they do you simply have to accept their decision and move on.  So I wish them well and rush out trying to find good people who could take their place in our little army.

I find that after these 4 years of leadership of online groups I have developed an incredible sense of those who will leave.  It is something hard to quantify or measure, just a little spark in my mind that tells me that they are gone.  Much like when I was in sales this information came to me as a certainty and yet I could not pin down exactly where it came from.  Some large combination of social cues from voices, text and behavioural patterns has given me some kind of almost supernatural power to determine when someone is quitting and when they are just taking time off.  Unfortunately I can't use this power because people will be offended if I act like they have already quit when they themselves have not made made that final leap so I must simply stand back and watch the inevitable unfold.

If I could choose from the list of superhero powers I think I have chosen badly.  Flying?  Nah.  Invulnerability?  Bah.  Super Strength?  Meh.  I choose Know When People Are Quitting Your Online Raiding Guild in Advance.  I will call myself Recruitment Man!

Thursday, March 18, 2010


The relativity I usually think of is the relativity of a theoretical train speeding by at some significant percentage of the speed of light and the mechanics of the light beams bouncing around inside that train as observed by both people in the train and outside the train.  Today Wendy and I were talking about a very different kind of relativity, that is the tendency for humans to measure their experiences against those of the people that surround them.

It is well established that people are happiest when surrounded by those less fortunate than themselves.  The difference doesn't need to be huge, just noticeable.  You aren't going to manufacture happiness by hanging around with homeless people when you are middle class, but you are going to feel better when your social circle is filled with lower middle class folks.  The same is true across all kinds of income levels.  When someone over commits themselves to a expensive house in a fashionable neighborhood and tries to hang out with their neighbours they tend to be unhappy, whereas those that buy a house they can easily afford and lots of frills tend to be much happier as their neighbours are, on average, less well off.

It shouldn't surprise us that people decide on how fortunate they are in such ways.  If happiness was based on some absolute level of material wealth we would all be deliriously happy all the time considering how far we have come since the Dark Ages (or nearly any other age).  Instead we tend to base our evaluations of ourselves on those people we see on a regular basis and what their lives are like.  There is some correlation to absolute wealth and happiness, but it only ranges from destitute to lower middle class.  Once you can go to the store and buy decent food and afford a place to live your absolute wealth level means nothing as far as happiness goes.

Of course one of the major people we compare ourselves against is ourselves.  Losing a lot of money or gaining a lot of money are absolutely great ways to lose or gain happiness in the short term.  We clearly compare ourselves to how we were recently because these effects rapidly fade with time.  The only way to make gaining a lot of cash a surefire path to happiness is to constantly gain in fortune throughout your life.  A million dollars at age 30 won't cut it, that would require 5 million by 40, 50 million by 50, etc. to maintain that wave of happiness. Of course instead of chasing constant increases in wealth we could try to be happy with who we are and where we are, but it seems that few humans end up making that leap.

I think this ties into philosophies in interesting ways.  The iconically American philosophy I talked about earlier is based on the assumption that those with money are more worthy of it.  It justifies the pursuit of money and the desire to see those without money suffer because your financial success is directly tied to your personal worthiness and virtues.  I also can't help but think about how the Bible treats this issue - those with wealth and power are definitely treated preferentially by God, and the Bible and God's edicts and decisions are clearly motivated by the desire to regulate wealth and channel it to specific people.  In both cases relative wealth is very tightly wrapped up in morality, justifying actions that do not help the group but merely enhance one's own position within the group as moral because those with more money are better people.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

A Happy Life

People often wish for happiness for themselves or others.  I was thinking about that the other day and was intrigued by this idea that people want happiness for themselves and you would be hard pressed in fact to find someone who actively desires misery aside from those with mental disorders.  That said, by and large we actually like people best when they have experienced misery and hardship.  When you meet someone who has had a wonderful life, easy times all around and never had anything go wrong the natural reaction is a combination of distaste and envy.  In fact one of the surest ways to get people to dislike you is to talk about how perfect your life is and how you have never suffered while you want to get people to like you a very easy way is to talk about the things in your life that have gone wrong.

It is easy to see why this is all true.  We empathize with suffering.  Some part of us is happy that the scars we bear from our most wretched moments are not unique and that others have seen only darkness before them too. Seeing someone who has not suffered incites us against the cruel randomness of the world and causes us to be angry that somehow we have been wronged.

My darkest times came during university.  After my first 2 years I came to the realization that I didn't care about the degree at all.  Some people find validation and inspiration in a degree but I do not.  It is remarkably difficult to work for years towards something that is useful for getting a job but which you do not value at all personally and it certainly took a toll on my marks.  Eventually the university told me that I was no longer welcome to study there.  I remember that day, walking aimlessly along the roads of the university, crying and feeling like I just fallen down a pit.  I had failed, wasted my time, mine and my parents money and shot my prospects to hell all for the lack of a minimal amount of work.  I walked dazed and confused, seeing nothing of my route.

Thankfully the university allows people who have fallen hard to go back and take one more term to try to prove they have changed.  I went back, worked, and my average the next term was up 30%.  They decided that this constituted a real improvement and I ended up getting a degree and getting out of there.  This experience was one of the most valuable in my life and has shaped me ever since.

I was thinking about what I want for Elli in her life and though I certainly want her to experience happiness I certainly want her to understand and be able to empathize with suffering.  The only way to understand another person's suffering is to suffer yourself, so I suppose what I want for her is to suffer misfortune and trials but not too much.  I hope in her life that she can experience hardships, be pushed beyond her limits and become stronger and more empathic for having those experiences.  I hope she spends the majority of her life pursuing and realizing her dreams but I do hope she has those hard times etched into her memory to provide the contrast that makes the good times so sweet.

I won't sit around and wish for my daughter to suffer, nor likely end up wishing people a miserable Christmas.  (But it will be great, misery builds character!  See?)  That said, I will continue to wonder about wishing people happiness.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Danger: Resource Conversion Ahead

Designing games right is hard.

I have been spending a huge amount of time lately working on FMB.  Every day when my chores are done (*cough*... certainly not in lieu of doing chores or anything) I sit down at the game board and play games against myself.  Back and forth the plasticine armies go, killing, stealing and conquering.  I learn a lot from these games and have managed to refine FMB in a lot of ways, slowly polishing and tinkering to make it perfect.  There are two things that are making my testing difficult though:

1.  Taking Sides:  When I am testing the red army vs. the green army I just can't force myself to be perfectly dispassionate.  I always end up rooting for one army or the other internally and I know that must affect my play.  For example, I was testing to see if an army with a large number of bad units would be better than an army composed of a small number of powerful units.  For no good reason aside from a hatred of zergling rushes I know I want the team of good units to win, but I need to test this situation without bias to make sure my current costing structure makes sense.

This is something that has always been true for me.  When I play games against myself I get myself into the mental state of supporting one side or the other and that side wins far more often than not.  Usually there is no blatant favourtism but it is hard to come up with devious plans for both sides of a conflict and not somehow favour one over the other.  Particularly when I know what cards both teams hold playing without bias seems like a bit of a stretch.  I wonder if others do the same thing?  Most likely they don't spend enough time playing games against themselves to know.

2.  Resource conversion is both appealing and dangerous.  I have designed many artifacts in the game and some abilities are easy to evaluate and some are not.  The most tricky certainly are ones that allow the player to give up some resources to get other resources because they generally require a very fine understanding of relative resource valuations based on game state to balance.

Example-Lucky Clover:  You get +1 on all your die rolls.

This one is easy to figure out.

Example-Demonic Altar:  Each turn you must kill one of your units.  That unit can be redeployed next turn at normal cost.  You gain + 1 Gold, + 1 Relic, + 1 Spell.

This one is complicated to figure out, and its value varies wildly based on game state.

I was testing green army (few powerful units) vs. red army (many cheap units) and green army totally smashed.  Fine I thought, good units win.  No problem.  Then I played again and red army mulched green army.  What is going on?  Turns out that in both cases the winning army got Demonic Altar as its first artifact and cruised to victory.  I guess Demonic Altar needs a serious nerf.  It is very tricky to play games against myself and actually isolate all the variables I need to make sure that I am testing the variable I want to test.  In scientific research it is of extreme importance to hold all variables but the variable being tested constant, and doing so here is monumentally difficult.  Because my games involve dice rolling and card drawing in order to test properly I will need a hundred trials and a ton of statistics to make properly scientific decisions.  Good thing I like playing games.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Clash of the Titans

I had a long conversation Friday night with an old friend of mine.  In fact, that conversation was the reason I didn't get a blog post created, though it did give me material for this one.  This old friend Warrior lives in the US.  He and I spent a long time discussing politics and philosophy, particularly as it relates to taxation and wealth distribution and I ended up being really blown away by his beliefs.  I shouldn't have been since he is actually not too outrageous in light of American politics, but from a Canadian perspective he is a right wing extremist.

Warrior's views included things like tying votes to taxation and removing many government programs.  Specifically he felt like anyone on welfare shouldn't get a vote and further that all government paid welfare and health plans should be removed along with most social programs.  He justification was that if poor people suddenly didn't receive their welfare payments or get free health insurance they would go out and get jobs and become productive and take care of themselves.  I responded by telling him that a world where the poor have no government support is a world of crime and conflict; people who can't get jobs and are starving are prone to doing very dangerous and violent things.  His response was to suggest that more police and harsher criminal penalties would solve that problem and get people working by fear and force.  By and large his intent here seemed to be getting justice, that is the justice of successful people being rich and safe and unsuccessful people being destitute.

There is something appealing about that justice.  When I was younger I definitely fell into that camp, figuring that if people were going to make bad decisions and end up in dire straits they could just deal with it.  The trouble with that theory is not so much that it lacks appeal to some people but mostly that it just doesn't work.  Harsher criminal penalties for severe crimes have minimal effect and paying police to control the poor instead of just paying the poor doesn't help anything.  Regardless of whether or not you believe that this 'monetary justice' is moral or right there just isn't a practical argument for it that holds up.  Universal health care drastically lowers the cost of delivering health care and improves the lot of people as a whole.  Supporting people who are in temporary distress leads to people staying within the legal system and eventually getting back to work by and large; the number of people who actually are dedicated leeches is extremely small, most want to work.

Distribution of wealth to ensure health care and basic needs for all citizens doesn't cost money compared to the alternative since the end costs of denying those services is the same or higher than the cost of supplying them.  It doesn't feel much like justice though, and I suppose different people put different values on those things.  I personally am fine staying at the same level of service and allowing those who are less fortunate to benefit.  Some people would prefer that those who makes mistakes or are in bad circumstances suffer for it even if it benefits no one else.  When it comes to justice vs. altruism I will always pick altruism, and I find the idea of a society that does not share that value set quite unappealing.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Collateral damage

I have been reading Job in the Bible lately.  This section is very differently written than the rest of the Bible so far because it is primarily a dialogue between several people discussing faith in God.  The story in short is that Job is a devout follower of God who is very prosperous and has many children.  God and Satan are talking and God talks about how great Job is.  Satan challenges God and says that Job's faith would be broken if his good fortune were taken away.  God disagrees and tells Satan to do whatever he wants to Job aside from kill him to prove his point.  Satan then proceeds to kill Job's children, massacre his servants, steal his property and destroy his livestock.  Job is despondent and has a long dialogue with several of his friends about the nature of faith and how he can keep believing through all this tragedy.  Eventually he does keep the faith and God gives him many more children and doubles his worldly possessions compared to what he had before to make up for it.

Aside from being a ridiculous bit of fantasy this story is very disturbing.  In particular I find it powerful that Job is the only one focused on.  God apparently is completely fine with Job's children and servants being murdered as part of this test and is only concerned that Job himself is not killed.  The story is written as if Job having a bunch more children at the end completely makes up for all the ones that died at the beginning and that it is fine for God to take possessions away from other people to make sure Job gets doubled up.  It is apparently key that God reimburse Job himself for the suffering he has gone through, but it is not important to deal with the others that had to die or suffer for this test to be completed.

The normal interpretation of this story as I understand it is that it is important to keep the faith and that God rewards those who continue to worship even through hardship.  My interpretation of this story goes more along the lines of "God only cares about you if you are male and the eldest member of a rich family."  That theme of only being concerned about the rich and powerful is not unique to this story.  Throughout the Old Testament God pays much attention to the actions of those in positions of power and is almost totally dismissive of the rights and lives or those who are not.  When a king commits a sin it is normal for God to slaughter tens of thousands of Israelites in retribution while sparing the king himself any sort of direct repercussion.

It reminds me much of fairy tales.  In fairy tales we hear about the princes and princesses, kings and queens.  Whole kingdoms become despondent at the thought of the suffering of a ruler and yet the disasters that befall the common people are largely ignored.  Thankfully our society does not turn to Cinderella or Beowulf for guidance and use their stories as a excuse for amoral behaviour.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

A Catholic nation

I heard something on the radio this morning that really raised my ire.  The Catholic school board in Toronto has expelled two students because their parents were lesbians.  Their statement on the matter essentially said that they feel it is necessary to remove people from their school board who do not conform to the church's ideals of behaviour.  Specifically in this case they only condone sex when it is within a marriage and heterosexual in nature.  I was completely boggled by the fact that the Catholic school board was actually pretending that this was the ruleset they used:  How many times have children been removed from schools because their parents had sex with someone with whom they were not married?

This news had a strange effect on me.  On one hand it just enraged me that we have publicly funded schools in my city that base their policies on religion dogma, but on the other hand me getting worked up about that isn't going to change anything.  It is widely accepted that having a Catholic school board but no other school boards for any other religion is against much of what Canada stands for.  All religions are treated equally in this country in theory, but in practice one religion in particular is treated differently when it comes to education.

The problems with the Catholic school board are several:  First, that Catholic schools are publicly funded.  There are schools out there for other religions but they are private institutions.  I certainly don't like the idea of religious indoctrination in any form but having one particular group be supported by the government is wretched indeed.  Secondly the Catholic ideals are supported in ways that can only be explained by homophobia.  Respect of one's parents is far more centrally enshrined in the Bible and yet people who are rude to their parents are not expelled.  The Bible has many other rules laid down that are not enforced, such as a total lack of work on the Sabbath or cleansing rituals after menstruation. This is not a set of rules derived from the Bible at all, but rather simply desperate need to control how and when people use their genitals.

Catholic school boards in Canada should go.  Certainly the alternative of providing special school boards for every single religion in the country is often raised, but it is both completely infeasible and even less palatable.  Public services that the government supplies to everyone should not be based on religion and especially should not discriminate based on the lifestyle of people who aren't even directly involved.  Getting rid of them will be a exceedingly difficult task however since no politician is willing to take on the task of actually removing the Catholic from the school board.  Anyone who did this would risk the wrath of churches and Catholic voters and risks getting little in return.  It is a sad state of affairs indeed.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

The ethics of being a superhero

First, definitions:  For this purpose I mean a real superhero.  Batman doesn't count, since he is merely a human with outrageous skill at fighting and stealth backed up by money and technology.  Superman is a superhero, or the Flash, or Iron Man.  These sorts of people are nearly invulnerable to a normal human and can do outrageous things that no person could aspire to.  They are also hardly even human, or not human at all in the can of Superman.

So if you suddenly became one of these superheroes, what would you do?  For example, a superhero can stop a  mugging in an alley or fight terrorists without any moral quandaries. We would all pretty much agree these are moral necessities.  However, a superhero could also fly into a country being run by a brutal dictator and assassinate him.  A superhero could smash all the weapons of mass destruction in the world into scrap.  A superhero could step into a longstanding conflict (think Serbs and Croats not so long ago) and massacre everyone involved in the fighting, forcing a bloody end to the conflict.  Would these actions be moral?

These waters get very muddy.  There is the issue that when an outside agency steps in to take control of a bad situation they often end up making things worse.  Even if we could assassinate Kim Jong-Il (a clear example of a brutal, megalomaniacal dictator) it isn't remotely clear that doing so would make anything better.  Surely someone else would step in to take over and there is no real reason to think that would improve the lot of those who live in North Korea.  North Korea, among many other countries, could stand some fixing but the fixing it needs is democracy, education and freedom and those things are achieved by nations, not heroes.

The other really crucial consideration is that people don't deal well with intervention by a greater power.  It is well documented that when a person wins a huge amount of money from a lottery they usually don't benefit much in the long run.  The first little while is a mad rush to quit jobs, buy houses and go to extravagant restaurants and after a while the money is blown and the winner must go unhappily back to their old lifestyle.  Contrast that to the effect of someone working very hard over time and accumulating a lot of money by dint of effort, skill and moxie.  In those cases there tends to be substantial longterm satisfaction derived from that success.  As they grow to maturity children learn to take responsibility for themselves and their future.  People as a group are much like this; to grow up and begin making good decisions as a nation requires responsibility and an invincible watcher denies this.

In the end being a superhero might end up being more torture than joy.  Your powers would make you capable of doing so much and yet by your very nature you would often cause more damage than you cure.  I think very few people, thrust into the hotseat of being a superhero, could resist the temptation to use and abuse their powers.  If there is a superhero out there somewhere hiding their powers from the world at large, I salute their wisdom and discipline.  Humanity can become greater than it is but that growth requires responsibility, the existence of which depends on the lack of superheroes.

Monday, March 8, 2010


For most of the winter mittens have been an issue at my house.  Elli was generally against wearing mittens and would insist that her hands would be fine without.  Since we can't actually keep mittens on her if she simply refuses to cooperate we ended up going outside without mittens on a number of occasions with fairly poor results.

Sometimes Elli would put her hands in her pockets.  Sometimes she would ride on my shoulders and just shove her hands into the back of my neck.  Sometimes she just let her hands sit wherever.  The end result in every case was her breaking down into tears because her hands were so cold.  Of course we brought mittens with us, but then we were trying to put somewhat cold mittens on freezing little girl hands and they weren't actually helping very quickly.  This lead to much screaming, thrashing and cursing.  I try not to curse too much in front of her, but when she had an on the floor shrieking, writhing tantrum just 10 minutes ago refusing to put on mittens and now is having a fit because her hands are cold.... I do sometimes use that opportunity to teach her new words and phrases she might otherwise have to wait a few years to learn.

Today was a wonderfully warm day.  It started out about 6 C when we left the house this morning and got up to 15 C by the end of the day.  I finally got out my leather jacket instead of my big winter parka and went walking in the sun for a bit and then came home and threw open the balcony doors for hours.  That first day of spring is amazing.  Despite the fact that I will consider 15 C cool later on the in the summer today felt like I was basking in front of a fire.  That newfound freedom from dressing up rituals and separating myself from my environment is always a wondrous thing.

I went to daycare to pick up Elli at the end of the day.  People were walking around in just shirtsleeves with no jacket at all and there was a palpable (I used the word palpable!  Have you *ever* used that in conversation?) sense of optimism and happiness around the people I saw on the street.  I met Elli's teacher at the gate and she told me that Elli had some issues with clothes today.  She explained that today Elli refused to go outside *without* full winter gear on and I walked onto the playground to see my daughter dressed in a winter coat, boots, and the mittens and touque that she had absolutely refused to be without.  In fact she was so insistent on wearing the touque that right now she is asleep in her bed with that same hat still on her head.

So should I be frustrated that I fought all winter with her about mittens and now I have to have a different fight with her about mittens?  Perhaps I should be grateful that the lessons have finally sunk in and Elli has decided to wear mittens and winter hat all day, every day.  Argh.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

The Beautiful Game

Or in this case, the game that is fun but ugly as hell.  I am working on that last one though.

For the last 8 years I have been working on a game called FMB  (Fantasy Monster Beatdown).  See Previous Post for more on this topic.  It started out as a project to make a wargame that was simple to learn and quick to resolve.  I began doing this because every wargame I have played ended up taking immense amounts of time and having an incredibly steep learning curve and I felt that it should be possible to make a quick to learn, quick to play, fun wargame.  For 7 years I largely failed.  The game I built was simply not a good game for various reasons.  I regularly hit on mechanics that worked beautifully and some of the game was excellent, but always the cohesiveness was not there.

I think I have finally made it into something that works.  I have some amount of confidence in this because Wendy, who normally takes only minimal interest in learning new board games, actually got very much into it when I finally got her to test it with me.  I have played the game against myself a number of times and it felt like a ton of fun.  The trick is that wargames have complicated pieces.  I need units to move around the battlefield and lots of game components and they need to show a lot of information in a small area.  This isn't too challenging when you have a factory and a designer, but it can be pretty hard when you have low latent artistic talent.  However, here is what I have created so far:

The pieces are made of plasticine with matchsticks for handles.  The beads on the matchsticks tell you how strong the unit is and whether it is a ranged or melee unit.  The flags on the top represent a fast unit, while those without flags are slow.  I also built spells, rules cards and such and made them by printing them out and sliding the paper into my old Magic card protectors.  Production grade it is not, but it seems to work well. I figure I will test the game some more against unwitting friends and see how it pans out.  Once I get it working reasonably I will probably post the rules and such online for anyone else who wants to take a look.

I am getting really excited... almost giddy sometimes.  This version finally feels like a game I could be proud of producing, something that I could point to and say "I did that.  Check that $%?.& out!"  I never really began to consider how I would take the game to others (and potentially make money) until this point, despite encouragement to do so from several sources.  I was always waiting until the game began to feel beautiful to me.  This is, of course, beautiful in the mathematical sense, not the visual sense.  It isn't *quite* beautiful yet, but it is certainly pretty, and feels like it has almost grown into its beauty.  It is go time.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Cottage weekend

This weekend Wendy and Elli are heading up to the cottage owned by my inlaws.  I am going to stay in town and have a bachelor weekend which I am confident I will very much enjoy.  I go to the cottage occasionally but I don't seem to have the mindset that most cottagers do that makes it so compelling for them to make the commute on a regular basis.

As I understand it the desperate need to have a cottage is not particularly common around the world but rather something particularly seen in my area.  There are enormous swathes of land far away from the city that are filled up with cottages for the wealthy to go visit on weekends, so much so that the absolute worst traffic you can experience in Toronto is the traffic leaving the city for cottages on Friday afternoon.  I just don't get it.  Sure, the cottage has the perk that you can go swimming in the lake, but I can go swimming in the community pool nearby my home if I like (I almost never do) and the water is much cleaner there.

Many people want to 'get away from it all' but when I am at cottage on a 15 meter wide chunk of land located on a lake that is absolutely choked with other cottages I don't feel back to nature particularly.  The lake is constantly buzzing with boats and cars drive by the cottage very regularly.  It feels very strange to me to go to the effort of packing and driving for several hours, often in wretchedly bad traffic, to go to a building whose primary features include lack of convenience and connectivity.  Surely I am not alone in getting ghost limb pain when I am forced to be without my internet connection for 2 days straight?

Perhaps it is due to my upbringing.  I grew up at the end of a dead end dirt road a long ways from anyplace.  I could walk to the river in the back woods, go see the ruins of the old farmhouse in the field across the way or go skating on the pond in the field and never see a single person.  That experience growing up may have jaded me against the 'back to nature' angle of a cottage on a heavily populated lake since it feels far more like just a different city street to me than anything else.  I know what being in a real set of natural surroundings feels like so to me a cottage is really more like a city block without forums to peruse or idiots to correct.

Let me not forget that I am cheap:  Every time I look at the cost of the commute and the building itself it makes me shake my head.  You can have a mansion on a beautiful piece of natural property in Thunder Bay for less than a cottage in a shoulder to shoulder development near Toronto.  Location, location, location I suppose.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Street party

My particular chunk of the world went nuts on Sunday night just after the Olympic gold medal men's hockey game ended.  Canada is a country truly, deeply infatuated with hockey and our team won the gold medal in overtime against the United States.  That gets a big -shrug, whatever- from me, but the people of Toronto by and large went completely bonkers.

I live right near one of the major intersections of the city, Yonge and Eglinton.  Shortly after the game ended a group of people ran out into the middle of the intersection and started blocking traffic.  They were shrieking, waving flags and having a bit of a mosh pit in the middle of the intersection.  As time went on more and more people joined them and the corners of the sidewalks began to spill out into the street.  Eventually the intersection was more or less full and traffic was completely borked.  Cars were slowly pushing their way through the crowd as people literally hurled themselves in front of vehicles to try to stop or slow their progress.  I ended up calling the police to try to make sure someone got in there to keep an eye on things.  Certainly the police had no hope of actually stopping the party but at least they needed to get in there and make sure no one got run over.  Eventually they blocked off the streets so that the party could continue without the risk of cars hitting anyone.

A picture of the same insanity downtown:  (I didn't get a picture of my intersection unfortunately, but it was the same)

My intersection:

I read a little news coverage of this and the portrayal disappointed me.  In particular the news reports calling it the 'Defining moment of a generation' made my shrivel up a little inside.  The thing right at my intersection that really bugged me is this:  There is a large, empty plaza directly beside the intersection; you can see it clearly in the picture above.  If the celebrants had wanted a place to party where they would not interfere with others they could have moved 20 meters over there and had a giant mosh pit flag waving to-do and no one else would have minded or been inconvenienced.  They chose as a group to run into the intersection and deliberately block vehicles trying to get through instead.

The attitude that anyone who isn't involved in my chosen activity needs to be forcibly delayed or inconvenienced to enforce the importance of my activity is certainly unethical and selfish.  I am sad to think that not only are there huge numbers of people who think that it is necessary or beneficial to junk up everyone else's life as part of their celebration but also that these attitudes are supported by both the media and the government.  People want others to take part in their celebrations as it is a justification of their own actions.  That desire is not the problem, but the assumption that it is morally acceptable to give others grief when there is absolutely no cost to yourself to avoid doing so is regrettable.

Wanting to have a huge party after watching a hockey game?  Fine.

Deciding to be a jerk to anyone not taking part in your party?  Unethical.

Feeling like this is the most important thing to happen during your generation?  Pathetic.

Monday, March 1, 2010

We're number 11!

Like being number 1, only worse.

People might figure I was talking about the Olympics, but they would be wrong.  I am talking about beating the Lich King.  Last night my guild finally downed him after 3 weeks of bashing and it feels great.  According to GuildOx we are 11th in the world for 10 man Strict guilds.

10 man Strict (hereafter just 10 man) is an interesting ranking.  It is sort of like being in the Discus in the Olympics. Nobody doubts that the best Discus athletes in the world are excellent at what they do, yet being the best or near the best in the sport isn't remotely as prestigious as the 100 meter dash.  It is certainly easier for any specific group of 10 players to rank up higher in 10 man than 25 because there is so much less competition, and yet at the higher levels the quality of play required is the same.

It is fantastic that there is some recognition for the style of play I have chosen.  Initially when OGT was forming up for this expansion we had difficulties recruiting players because everyone wanted to be in a 25 man guild.  This eventually resolved itself because the content got harder and people recognized that being in a very good 10 man guild was better than a scrubby 25 man guild.  The fact that online sites like GuildOx started tracking achievements for those guilds that stuck to 10 man raiding only really changed our style though.  Instead of running a few 25 mans here and there for gear we stuck to 10 mans only.  I like this a lot more because I don't feel obligated to run with buffoons to gear up and I can stick to running with my guild alone.  Perhaps I shouldn't allow the fact that a random internet site ranks people to organize my play experience so much, but it certainly does.

This was certainly a fitting end to the boss of Wrath of the Lich King.  The fight was hard, required good gear and mandated proper execution.  Blizzard, you get a Fonzie like double thumbs up.