Friday, April 30, 2010


The New Testament is read, and the Old Testament is partly gone.  I stopped reading after Job and have now resolved to pick up the tome again and finish the Old Testament.  At the moment I am working through Psalms and it feels like reading People magazine when one is used to The Economist.  Psalms is all short sound bytes, quick prayers to God to smash the enemies of the author and cast all those the author deems unworthy into death.

It is a much quicker read both due to the nature of the writing and the formatting of the text.  Instead of complex and twisted tales and instructions it is simply page after page of begging for mercy and desperate wishes for the destruction of others.  Interestingly the Psalms also often refer to the current generation being wicked and falling from grace, which is of course something that will strike a chord in every single generation that hears it from 4000 years ago to the modern day.  It is either true that every succeeding generation is more and more depraved, violent and self centered than the generation before it or every generation is willfully blind to the fact that people don't change all that much.

It is a bit of a struggle sometimes to continue reading.  I end up thinking that I have read the big stories, I have experienced the whole New Testament, is there really anything to be gained in hundreds of pages of songs praising God and asking for his intercession?  I suppose that I don't know the answer; it is not clear to me whether or not this additional reading will actually have any useful revelations contained within it.  There may be some pride at stake in that it isn't particularly special to say "I read *most* of the Bible" since that clearly implies skipping the parts I don't like or just reading what I already agreed with.  It is far more impactful to say that I have read the entire thing, every bit, even the boring parts I don't like much.  Given that at least in part this reading project is about being able to effectively argue about the Bible with those that thump it this point is probably a significant one.  If for all my interest in religious thought I am unwilling to read the Bible it seems like a stretch to expect other people to do so even if they claim to use it as an authority for all moral decisions.

It will be a relief when this is done.  Plowing through all this just for the ability to say I did so is certainly a chore.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

The Night Shift

Last night very late I ended up wandering through the streets of Toronto for a little while.  It was a bit of a winter wonderland moment where I really felt the juxtaposition of a busy city with the silence and darkness of the middle of the night.

I was only travelling a short distance and knew my route perfectly well.  All I had to do is walk along a main street, turn right 4 blocks later and arrive at my destination.  Instead the wonder of the night took me and I decided to cut through back alleys and take shortcuts to get to my target.

I ended up wandering through a construction area and came up short at a 8 foot chain link fence.  I am no wilting flower to be stopped by a simple fence so instead of simply turning around and walking the extra distance to a main street I went over the top.  I was wearing the ever so stylish 'socks with sandals' which as I understand it is ideal climbing equipment.  The climb was unremarkable though not at all quick and I ended up at my destination significantly slower than if I had just taken the most obvious route.

There is something about the silence and aloneness of the night that affects me.  It brings me back to my time in university where I stayed up all night all the time and only ever enjoyed saw 6 o'clock AM by being awake late rather than early.  The feel of nighttime from the cool air to the utter silence of the slumbering buildings around me somehow takes me right back to those earlier days.  I will refrain from calling them the good old days since that would require too much application of rose coloured glasses but certainly they had some enduring charm.

I expect that everyone is affected by the lack of observation that night brings.  People do things under the cover of darkness that they would never do during the day and that feeling of freedom and anonymity certainly affected me last night.  Some part of me longs to feel that every day, to find room to wander the empty, dark streets at 2 in the morning every night to savour the sensation of a sleeping world.  The more rational part of my brain tells me that being fuzzy headed every day of my life is not worth the questionable thrill of regular outings during the dark hours.

I suppose nocturnal rangings will have to remain a occasional guilty pleasure for me, something that harkens back to wandering home just as the sun is coming up and yoinking furniture off lawns that has been put out for the trash.  Not that I need furniture that others have discarded these days, but the thrill of finding that someone had put out a perfectly good chair for the trash and I was the first to find it is one I will treasure.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

A question of murder

Imagine a scenario if you will:  You witness a good friend or relative of yours kill someone.  You know this was not something that would be classified under self defence or defence of another person so they are guilty of a serious crime.  What do you do?  In movies and stories the answer is usually to defend your friend to the last.  "Friends help you move.  Best friends help you move bodies."  People in tales are regularly portrayed as heroes when they stick by their friends no matter what, even when their friends are doing horrible things.

I was talking to The Philosopher yesterday and his take on the matter was very different.  Specifically he would call the police immediately, even if the person in question was his best friend, brother, parent or child.  The difference was that if he was very close to the person he would contact them and advise them that they should hire a good lawyer.  I found this a very interesting philosophy particularly because it is so far away from the what we usually see in tales.

At first glance I can understand sticking by your friends.  The bonds we establish over years are not so easy to sever and perhaps we owe it to those who are close to us to always assume there is some extenuating circumstance or reason for their actions.  I enjoy the belief that the people I am close to would do nearly anything for me if I needed it and that I would do the same but it is questionable whether or not that belief is factual.  I do have commitments and promises binding my behaviour and I will not break those unless the most dire need presents itself.  I have a wife and daughter and I have made commitments to take care of them; getting involved in moving bodies or covering up a murder would substantially jeopardize my ability to keep those promises.  My weights and considerations would be different if I were single as any risks I assume are primarily my own.

Wendy pointed out another interesting point on this topic too.  When you are friends with someone you are friends with who you think they are.  We all reserve the right to renounce friendship with someone should they become someone else and it is reasonable to think that most of us include "Will not kill other people except in self defence" as part of what our friends are.  If a friend kills someone without a valid excuse under the law they have done something many of us would consider grounds for severing the relationship so we should act as we would if we saw any random person commit murder.

In the end I think we imagine ourselves willing to help our friends even when they have done awful things because in those imaginings they have not changed.  They are still the people we love even though a terrible event has occurred.  In real life however people who kill people deliberately have crossed a terrible line and probably are not who we thought they were.  When those events occur we know that our original estimation of the person was flawed and we must act accordingly.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Scaling down

Heavy WOW geekery incoming.

Today Blizzard announced their plans for Cataclysm raiding.  Specifically there will be a single raid lockout for a dungeon and you will have to choose 10 or 25 man setting for your lockout.  Also the loot across the two settings will be of the same quality, though 25 man loot will be slightly quicker to acquire on a per person basis.

Of course, the internet exploded.  A mere 9 hours after the announcement came out the thread Blizzard created is at 166 pages and counting.  I tried to read the thread earlier today and noticed that even though I was skimming through some bad posts and ignoring some truly bad ones I wasn't even keeping up with the flow - the thread was growing faster than I could read.  Of course like much on the internet the posts were 40% 'This will kill WOW and Blizzard is a bunch of baby eating brigands', 40% 'I LOVE BLIZZARD' and 20% reasonable discussion.

The main objection to this change is of course that 'It will kill 25 man raiding'.  It certainly won't *kill* it, but it will knock it down, stomp on its knees a few times and give it a good backhand slap.  I don't think anyone can debate the fact that removing the prestige and "I'm the best because my gear has the biggest numbers" from 25 man raiding will get a ton of people out of it, but those espousing this point of view on the interwebs failed dramatically to prove that this is in fact a bad thing.

Everyone agrees that 25 mans are largely staffed by people who are there because of the quality of the rewards and that the bureaucracy involved is a huge downside.  A small subset of the population actually loves the 25 man format and wants to continue doing it but they are dwarfed by the population of people who are there for the rewards.  My prediction of what will happen when this change is implemented is this:  Groups of people who really do want to be in a large guild with 25 players will stay there, as will a majority of the extremely hardcore players.  The vast majority of people who runs 25 man content will stop doing so and will do 10 mans instead.

People really enjoy playing with smaller groups when the rewards are the same.  It isn't feasible to make extremely hard content for 5 man groups due to composition issues so 10 mans are the sweet spot where 'as small as possible' meets 'big enough to make real challenges'.  Providing more avenues for people to do what they like while still getting the rewards they want is both smart business and good game design.

You may enjoy the epic feeling of 25 man raiding, and I hope you have fun with that.  I personally have something like 10-12 real life friends who really like playing WOW and are good so my path is clear.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Team Bad

Last week I got thoroughly addicted to Fables again.  This is a comic book series aimed at adults that chronicles the lives of a group of characters from fairy tales that live in modern day Earth.  Imagine if you will the Big Bad Wolf magically transformed into a human acting as the sheriff.  Consider too that he is in love with Snow White, the deputy mayor.  Prince Charming is an irresistible ladies man and thorough cad who married and then was divorced by all 3 of Snow White, Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty for his infidelities.

At the moment there are 18 books in the series and it seems destined to be one of those bits of fiction that I will fall into every year or two.  Around that timeframe Wendy or myself remembers that we haven't gotten the latest in the series and when the new books arrive it is mandatory that we reread the entire set even if it means that no work gets done for two days.  This desperate and temporary necessity reminds me of both George R. R. Martin's Song of Ice and Fire series and Robert Jordan's Wheel of Time.  Both are sweeping fantasy epics written over a huge span of years that forced me to submerge myself in them each time a new entry arrived.  Of course the major difference between these 3 series is that Song of Ice and Fire and Fables are wonderful and the Wheel of Time has three good books and then 9 instruments of torture.

The other really key thing that is different between the 3 series is the idea that there is a Team Bad.  In Wheel of Time Team Bad is really a thing.  The evil people are evil by definition and work for evil ends.  No one can argue that they deserve forgiveness and they are beyond redemption.  They work as a unit towards ends that cannot reasonably be explained simply by greed, foolishness or madness but rather are stitched together by being part of a Team.  In both Song and Fables there is no Team Bad.  There are people that do evil things and people that make ruthless, destructive and selfish decisions but they remain people and are not simply cogs in the machine.

That idea of a world populated by complex people who cannot easily be set into two opposing teams has tremendous appeal to me.  I want people to change teams not by magic or dramatic defection but rather by context.  Is Jaime Lannister really evil?  Is Prince Charming?  Both are certainly the bad guy in some of the stories, heroes in others.  The appeal of these two characters is that they are the same people throughout but they aren't locked into one side or another of some cataclysmic battle between Light and Dark.  Rather they are powerful, complex, passionate people doing what they think is the right thing to do in the situation they are in.

Some authors can write a story about a group of people, some really evil, some really good, most somewhere in between and capture the madness and chaos that occurs in the real world and the way it shapes the character's lives.  Those authors are a rare treasure and if you have not yet sampled Fables or Song then I suggest you do.  If you have not yet sampled Wheel of Time... then read the first three books, say to yourself "Rand beats up the bad guy and they all live happily ever after" and consider yourself lucky.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Burn her!

Last week I wrote about Ender's Game and got a very interesting reply.  Snidely commented about how Ender's Game is written by one Orson Scott Card who is in his words a "gigantic raging asshole".  I took a little look around at some of the things Card has said and ended up not liking Card very much afterwards.  The main thing that really stuck out was the desperate attempts he makes to paint homosexuality as some kind of disease brought on by heinous acts.

"Card described homosexuality as an acquired characteristic linked to abuse or molestation in childhood"

Back when I was young and felt like Ender's Game was one of the best things in the world I really liked Card.  That of course was based on absolutely nothing aside from the fact that he wrote Ender's Game but nonetheless I was a big fan.  Now I have to face the fact that an author I thought I really liked holds views I find abhorrent.  It is a difficult thing when someone who you know has a real, deep understanding of the way you think also holds views you cannot condone.  It makes you think, "What is it that causes that?  Could I think that way if things were slightly different?  Could I have been that person?"

Of course Card and many other people encounter this situation regularly.  They see otherwise perfectly nice, normal people wanting to have relationships with someone of the same gender as themselves.  They have to deal with the fact that that *anyone* could be gay, and that they themselves are only a random switch of a gene away from homosexuality.  The way they respond to this in many cases is to demonize the person involved.  Rather than admit that homosexuals are just people who are slightly different they imagine twisted situations that could have turned someone 'normal' into something they find so repulsive.

This isn't limited to homosexuality by any means.  It is an extremely common response to a person who is similar yet different.  Instead of acknowledging that people simply have differences we have a strong tendency to demonize others, portraying them as twisted, evil, and wholly wrong.  For many of us it is far easier to swallow that other people are abominations than that they were raised differently, have .01% different genes or watched different advertising.

You can see this behaviour most clearly when religions exhort their members to destroy people of other religions, when people act like bigots towards other genders, races or sexual orientations (among other things) or even in the witch trials of earlier ages.  It is simpler and easier to denounce someone as fully evil and twisted and stop thinking than it is to accept differences and work out mutually satisfactory compromises because it does not involve saying,

"I might be wrong"

That right there is the key.  When you refuse to admit any possibility of error then anyone in opposition must be some kind of twisted deviant.  When you consider the possibility that you may be in error you are free to be open to all the degrees of grey that exist in the world; the older I get the more I see that few things indeed are black and white and shades of grey are everywhere.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010


Finally, the New Testament is done, read in full.  This is not much of an accomplishment compared to the Old Testament mind you, but it still feels good to have that part of the project complete.

The last section of the New Testament, Revelation, is a combination of hilarious and intriguing.  It is the story of a vision/prophecy/revelation given to John that describes the way the world will end.  Unlike the rest of the New Testament it feels very much like an oldschool mythology lesson with incredible monsters and worldshaking events showing up on every page.  The first thing that happens is John sees seven golden lampstands surrounding some sort of being with eyes of fire, feet of burnished bronze and hair and skin of pure white.

"In his right hand he held seven stars and from his mouth came a sharp, two-edged sword and his face was like the sun shining with full force."

This monstrous thing then proceeds to narrate a series of letters John is to write to a variety of churches;  I would expect this to be tricky given the sword coming out of his mouth.  These letters contain specific information about the churches and individuals involved with them.  Why exactly an incredible man or beast like this would need John to send letters instead of just sending the information directly is unclear.

Then John is taken up to heaven to see how the world will end and his tale goes truly out of this world.  He meets a lamb with seven eyes and seven horns, the council of 24 elders that sit around God's throne constantly chanting God's praises and the host of angels heaven sends to crush its enemies.  He watches angels smash the earth, turn rivers and oceans to blood and burn the fields.  He is informed that specifically 144,000 people divided equally among the 12 tribes of Israel will be saved from the end of the world and that every other person will be destroyed.  When the carnage is complete God resurrects a few specific people and then throws the devil in a pit to be chained for 1000 years.

Of course, after the 1000 years the devil gets back out again.  When he does so he battles with Jesus and the angels and is destroyed and cast into the pit of flames, whereafter God resurrects the rest of the 144,000 people who have been patiently waiting, dead, for this 1000 years.

Regularly it is emphasized that this is all coming very soon.  Not only does John wish the second coming of Jesus to arrive as soon as possible, he assures us that in fact it is not far off.  This makes a lot of sense when you consider that in the earlier parts of the New Testament Jesus guarantees that he will return within one generation of his death such that not all his Disciples have perished.

I find all this hilarious because people take it seriously.  They profess to think that John really knew that the third angel specifically would destroy 1/3 of the sun, 1/3 of the moon and 1/3 of the stars.  In fact there are some fairly powerful people in the US government (there may be some elsewhere too, but I don't know of them) that recently suggested that there was no reason for the government to worry about how things would be a generation from now because the second coming of Jesus was obviously going to happen very shortly.  It was supposed to happen with a lifetime, it has been imminent for 20 centuries now according to believers, and yet somehow the world endures.

The idea that someone believes in a greater force in the universe that positively affects people's lives isn't outrageous.  It is mistaken, but it is easy to understand how that sort of thinking comes about.  The idea that someone really really believes in a literal interpretation of the Bible including the bonkers parts like Revelation is something I can hardly fathom.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

The Confusing Testament

I am almost done reading the New Testament and have only Revelation left.  The major sections of the New Testament are:  1. 'Firsthand' accounts of Jesus' life  2.  Letters written by apostles and prophets  3.  Revelation. The first group of writings are the ones most often quoted I would expect as they contain all the basic Jesus stories and his sayings and parables.  The second group is less famous because it does not have the story element and I expect it is mostly used to support whatever ideas any given person happens to believe.

There are two things you will find in the Letters primarily.  Firstly you find random blathering using the words love, God, sin, Jesus and punishment interspersed without pattern.  The various prophets rant on about Jesus, their ministries and the nature of holiness and most of the statements they make are either tautologies or make absolutely no sense.  In an amusing twist I recognize the pattern of speech distinctly from my sales experience;  there is a specific way of speaking which uses a lot of emotionally charged words and positive references while not giving any detailed information.  The prophets and apostles seem very interested in convincing the reader to believe (*cough* open their wallets) but are clearly unwilling to provide evidence or firm answers, just like a salesperson would be if he doesn't actually know anything about the product he is pitching.

As one who knows, I will tell you that the mark of a really amazing salesperson is the ability to make a great presentation on something they know virtually nothing about on the spot.  Repeating a canned pitch requires very little aside from a minimal amount of memory work and a smile but managing to find things to say that aren't made up and yet sound wonderfully complimentary on an unfamiliar topic is the sign of a master.  The Letters section of the New Testament is written by some *very* successful salesmen.

The second thing that is found in Letters is clear instructions.  This comprises about 5% of the total text but the same instructions appear over and over making it abundantly clear what policies the New Testament supports.  Primarily these are:

1.  Slaves must obey their masters.  Even if the slave is righteous and the master is not God wants slaves to obey their masters happily and without complaint.
2.  Women must be subservient to men.  They must be silent in church and must only ask their husbands privately if they have questions.
3.  Sex outside the bounds of marriage is evil.
4.  Murder, slander, lying, stealing and idolatry are wrong.
5.  Money is evil and desiring money or power on earth makes it nearly impossible to get into heaven.

The first in that list is incredibly disturbing.  The Catholic church supported slavery longer than nearly every nation on earth because the Bible so clearly comes down in favour of it.  The second is obviously there because all the religious figures were men and they lived in a male dominated society.  Might as well put it in religious code that women have to do what we say... The third and fourth are actually pretty good rulesets, particularly considering the state of medicine at the time.  As for the fifth, the dislike of riches is extremely bizarre when contrasted with the fact that owning *people* is completely ok by the Bible.  Owning objects = bad.  Owning people = good.

These letters are full of truly bizarre statements and riddled with contradictions.  On one hand we are supposed to obey all worldly authorities because God put them in positions of power and on the other hand we should ignore all of the antichrists and others who would lead us astray.  Clearly this is exactly what you would expect if you got a dozen different people over several centuries to write down their ideas on holiness, righteousness and good living and mashed them all together.  Unfortunately it serves very well to support pretty much any sort of philosophy you care to name if you quote it properly.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Predictably random

I have been mulling over some basic mechanics in FMB trying to figure out if the ways in which I am generating random results are optimal.  The randomness in the game until today was of 3 varieties:

1.  Dice roll.  Just like most classic wargames each player would roll a six sided die (d6) to resolve attacks.  This has the advantages of being quick and easy but the disadvantage that one person can fairly easily miss several key rolls over the course of the game and lose despite outplaying their opponent.

2.  Drawing spells and artifacts.  This is a simple draw from a deck of cards with many possible results.  Unlike the d6 I can actually balance each draw so players have the chance to use any draw to their advantage.

3.  Going first or second.  In many games going first is just flat out better.  I hate that system so I arranged a bidding system where players can try to figure out the value of playing first and bid accordingly.

I talked about this in an earlier post where I was trying to decide between two game systems.  I concluded that I like having random 'rolling' in the game but I have recently concluded that the amount of randomness was just a little too high for my tastes.

Awhile ago I saw a similar sort of debate surrounding the board game Settlers of Catan.  The dice rolling in that game really made it pretty random once everyone was playing reasonably and the difference between 'good play' and 'consummate professional' was extremely small.  The solution was to create a deck of 36 cards that simulates rolling 2 dice (2d6) to dramatically decrease but not eliminate the luck factor.  I have been plugging away at this idea for FMB to see if it could be used effectively.

Today I set it up so to resolve an attack you draw from a deck of 6 cards.  The cards are marked -2, -1, 0, +1, +2, +3 which corresponds to a d6 with a slightly different and more intuitive resolution system.  As soon as you draw the last card you reshuffle the deck.  This creates some interesting situations where you know what the result of your next attack will be when the deck is almost depleted and can work around that.  It adds an additional level of complexity to the game for advanced players but newer players can still basically ignore it and play the game quite reasonably.

This also allows all kinds of other interesting mechanics.  I have cards that remove the +3 from your opponent's deck, cards that remove the -2 from your own deck and cards that let you look at the top few cards of your deck.

The downside of course is that now you have to shuffle a small deck of cards fairly regularly.  I think that tradeoff is worth it though.  It may well be worth me having the cards and rules support both versions of the game - dice rolling as part of the base game and the card stack as part of the advanced game.

Someday I hope to be actually done iterating on my design.  I still have plenty of perfectionist left in me though and the game isn't *quite* to Beautiful Game status yet.  Soon!

Thursday, April 15, 2010

We don't wipe

This is a WOW post, but I expect all the non WOW people will be able to understand it.

Two days ago I joined a raid to kill the weekly quest boss Sartharion.  Now with the expansion as old as it is this is about the most trivial thing you can imagine, in fact this 'raid boss' has been soloed by one very determined player.  As such taking a 10 man raid to beat Sartharion on easymode is quite the trivial task.  I ended up joining a group that wanted to do the hardmode version instead.  I figured I would join them just for some added challenge.

We wiped.  Then we wiped again.  And again.  And then we tried again... and wiped.  Then 5 of the people who were part of the group running the show all left.  Then the raidleader says to the remaining people:  "Sorry guys, my guild doesn't normally wipe.  I will get them back and we will just do easymode."  I get to wondering at this and check out his guild and the people in it.  He is right that his guild doesn't wipe much since they don't do anything that could pose even the most pathetic challenge.  They are a group of people who simply do all the most trivial repetitive tasks over and over making sure to avoid anything that might require skill or practice.

Here is the thing:  Wiping is great.  I rarely have so much fun playing a game as when pulling a new boss for the first time to find out what heinous sorts of things he will do to kill us all.  That sense of progress, of getting a phase down that previously was a mess and slowly pushing deeper and deeper into a challenging encounter is wonderful.  Something deep inside me just roars with rage and fury when we die; screaming to the rooftops that next time it will not be me facedown on the floor but rather my enemy.  There is a tremendous sense of satisfaction in defeating something that you have failed for long hours at and I can hardly imagine wanting to play a game without that.

The thing about victory is that the reward is proportional to the risk, effort and suffering required to achieve it.  I don't get a ton of satisfaction from beating up hamsters, nor is a fake Olympic gold medal of any value.  I don't mind investing some time into fairly trivial tasks to prepare for a challenging one, and you need to feel that way to enjoy WOW.  That said, when the entirety of your play time is doing things that are trivial and pose no risk of losing so that you can become more powerful and do more things that are trivial I don't understand the appeal.

When you can't possibly lose then you also cannot win.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010


Today Blizzard put out the class preview for the paladin for the upcoming expansion Cataclysm.  As you may or may not recall I play a paladin - It might be more appropriate to say that in many ways I am a paladin.  I find it very interesting for the normal reasons that people find these things interesting:  Knowing how my hobby will play in the coming year, knowing what cool things I will get to do and hoping to be able to accomplish wondrous and legendary tasks.  I also find this preview fascinating because I get to contrast the changes that many smart, creative game developers come up with for problems with the solutions I create myself.  It is endlessly entertaining to make predictions and outline issues and then see if others see as clearly as I do.  It is just too much hubris to think that they have to live up to me rather than the other way around?  I think I will call it confidence instead.  ;)

Crusader Strike available at low levels - check
Separating Protection's AOE vs. single target rotation - check
Holy Shock baseline - check
New heal for holy paladins to increase kit size - check
New true AOE heal for paladins - check
Ret paladin defensive nerfs for pvp reasons - check
Ret rotation mechanic complication - check
Blessing consolidation - check

Flat out % nerf to Bacon of Light - failure

Now this one is interesting because here Blizzard has lots of funny ideas that won't work.  They need to take the number 100 in the code and make it 30 or so.  They know there is a problem but they have not yet properly parsed the various ways the implementation can be repaired.

Seal of Command moved deep into Ret (away from prot!) - failure
Total overhaul of mana regen including Divine Plea, BoSanc and JotW - failure
Nerfing/removal of Ret passive AOE - failure

All of these could still be happening but were not announced.  Will have to wait and see the talent trees to find out if my soothsaying is right.

Thing is, unlike most of the forum crowd, I give Blizzard a lot of credit.  They have a great team building the game and are always improving.  I am very excited to hop on the beta and do my best to break their mechanics over my knee.

If anyone reading this gets a beta key from Blizzard and isn't especially interested in using it... I can think of someone who wants to get on the beta servers and build a gigantic spreadsheet with the information gathered there.  Just saying.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Mad cheats

I just read an article the other day about the Iditarod and particularly about Lance Mackey, the man who won it this year.  The article talked a lot about this disadvantages Lance had including an amputated finger, poor circulation in his extremities and removed salivary glands due to an illness long ago.  The Iditarod is a 1000 mile dogsled race across the wilderness of Alaska in the winter of course so the medical disadvantages listed above are of extreme importance.
The most interesting part of the story to me was the big part that performance enhancing drugs played in it.  Lance has a prescription for medical marijuana and uses it for pain relief.  This situation has run him afoul of the people who organize the Iditarod because marijuana is for some bizarre reason considering a 'performance enhancing' drug in their books.

Just to be clear for anyone who doesn't know much about what exactly marijuana enhances, I will give you a briefing:

1.  The ability to flop on a couch.

2.  The ability to utter phrases like "Dude.  That is a great idea.  We gotta remember that.  Why do I always forget these great ideas later?"

3.  The ability to get the munchies.  This is often combined with 2.  "I totally need to get some more nachos."

4.  The ability to follow up 1, 2 and 3 with falling asleep on said couch.

Note all competitive advantages this would give someone on a grueling, dangerous race across a frozen winter landscape.  Any fool can see how useful it would be to have the munchies, make poor decisions, be lazy and fall asleep early on such a venture.

The idea that marijuana needs to be an illegal substance is laughable.  You can get just as high on gasoline, glue or week old orange juice and all of those are drastically worse for you than marijuana.  Anyone of age can drink alcohol if they want to and nobody is foolish enough to consider it a boost to athletic performance.  What amazes me is how the myth that marijuana is dangerous looks in juxtaposition to the fact that marijuana use is so widespread!  This isn't some closet habit of a tiny minority and yet the truths surrounding it are so obscured by the 'war on drugs' propaganda that people really have no idea what it entails.  What the war on drugs needs is to ignore relatively harmless habits like marijuana and focus on drugs that are real threats.  Legalize it, tax it, sell it in 7-11 stores and move on.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Historical footnotes

The New Testament has a lot of interesting material.  At the moment I am reading Corinthians 1 and 2 and the things Paul, the author of those sections, comes up with are remarkable.  Some examples follow:

Does not nature itself teach you that if a man wears long hair, it is degrading to him, but if a woman has long hair, it is her glory?  Corinthians 11:14

I absolutely love the idea that everyone can tell by looking around at nature that a woman should have long hair.  Where does this information come from?  Praying mantises?  The whispering of wind through a ash grove?  The sight of a sunset over the crashing surf at the ocean?  It amazes me that people take quotes from the Bible and tout them as truth when this sort of ridiculous thing is also present.

As in all the churches of the saints, women should be silent in the churches.  For they are not permitted to speak, but should be subordinate, as the law also says.  If there is anything they desire to know, let them ask their husbands at home.  For it is shameful for a woman to speak in church.  Corinthians 14:34

And here again we have shameful bigotry portrayed as righteousness.  Women are not allowed to speak in a holy place but must rather rely on whatever answers their husbands provide and moreover they are "subordinate as the law also says".  There can be no doubt that support of the Bible as the literal word of God is intrinsically wrapped up in gender discrimination and repression of women.  It is sad that so many claim to support equality and yet also support the Bible due to being unaware that such contradictions exist.

Another thing I find worthy of comment is the interest Paul takes in issues so obviously wrapped up in ancient historical custom.  He writes at length about the best way for a believer to deal with potentially eating something that has been placed as a sacrifice at an idol - it must have been a big issue for Christians at the time.  He ends up advocating eating whatever is served even if you think it may have been offered as a sacrifice to an idol but refusing to eat it if it that fact is pointed out to you by someone else.

I certainly think it is fascinating to read about the concerns of ancient peoples and to understand the ethical dilemmas of their day.  If a history book was talking about religious custom and the problems that surrounded people eating food that was offered to an idol when they didn't necessarily know it had been offered to an idol I would be absolutely entranced.  What an insight into their lives and the issues they wrestled with!  The survival of such information from that age is a wonderful thing for it allows to us to see so far back and gain some inkling of the conditions of the time.  The unfortunate part is that this historical footnote is portrayed not as a way to gain greater understanding of an outdated custom but rather as timeless, immutable truth.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Ender's Philosophy

In the book Ender's Game the hero Ender has a very particular philosophy regarding warfare.  Essentially it boils down to avoiding fighting when at all possible and when avoiding it is not possible you fight with incredible violence and only stop when your opponent is destroyed.  In the book Ender tries his best to avoid conflicts with others when he can but when he is finally forced into physical conflict with other boys he goes far and beyond the normal 'rules of warfare' that young boys typically follow.  He strikes without warning, kicks people in the groin and stomps on their faces while they are down.  He justifies it by saying that he does not want to win one battle, but rather all the battles.  When his enemies know that finally provoking him to anger is going to force them to face down a raging berserker they stay away.

I find this particularly interesting because my father believes (or did believe when I was young, anyhow) in the same philosophy.  I distinctly recall being told that there are two rules for fighting:

1.  Don't fight.

2.  If you absolutely have to disobey rule 1, then you fight to win.

Specifically he explained that if someone absolutely forces you to fight them you do whatever it takes.  Ignore convention, ignore honour, the only thing that matters is that you win.

I think that in the schoolyard these strategies are effective.  Nothing is as terrifying as someone who is utterly devoted to destroying you.  When you know that someone will stop when you are knocked down it is easy to justify fighting them - how bad can it be?  When your opponent will keep on attacking until they are dragged off your bloody, smashed body you surely do not want to provoke them in the first place, even if you are confident of winning.

I question the way in which Ender's Game portrays this philosophy as being applicable to all aspects of life though.  Fear of brutal punishment is a tactic used as a deterrent to crime and yet it isn't especially successful in that regard.  Capital punishment is a completely useless deterrent to murder because the difference between a life in prison and death is simply insignificant to people's decisions - once they decide to kill the punishment is simply not a factor.

I think the difference is that in any situation where good communication and arbitration is available using extreme violence as a strategy is ineffective - people who decide to ignore those structures and do terrible things are no longer concerned with the outcomes.  In adult life extreme reactions simply aren't useful or profitable.  In a playground or when battling an alien enemy however those messages do still serve a useful purpose - they communicate our desires and our commitment in ways that cannot be mistaken.

Friday, April 9, 2010

Nomination Abomination

I was just reading on the bbc website (An excellent place to get world news with minimal bias, by the way) about President Obama nominating a new judge for the US supreme court.  I do find it both sad and hilarious that the newspaper article itself was talking about how this nomination would not change the liberal/conservative split of the supreme court because Obama would obviously nominate a liberal judge.

How is it that we fool ourselves into thinking that this is a good way to set up one of the most powerful institutions in the nation?  No one is even pretending that the decisions made by the supreme court aren't completely predictable if the issue at hand is one that liberals and conservatives disagree on.  The fact that many of the interpretations of law and pressing legal decisions made in the US are decided simply by the timing of the retirement of supreme court judges is very sad indeed.  If the judges retire during a Republican administration you will see religion and right wing values reflected in law and if they do not you will see secular and left wing leanings instead.

To be sure Canada isn't immune to this.  Our Senate is still created by appointment by the party in power and as such is very much limited to people who support one of the two major parties who have ever formed the government in Canada.  People who actively support smaller opposition parties are not going to be found there and if a particular party enjoys a significant chunk of time in power the Senate will be at their beck and call for years afterwards.

Thankfully in Canada the liberal/conservative split is less focused on religion than it is south of the border.  Granted there is a distinct tendency for conservative and christian to go together but the conservative party is careful to keep that on the downlow because their support base would disintegrate if they came out and began to really preach - separation of church and state is bigger here than in the US.  While I am sure that many conservatives including much of the leadership would be happy to make religion a basis for law and policy they can't get away with it here without justifying it in areligious terms at least.

I don't know that I have a better solution ready for either nation however.  The supreme court in the US is so powerful and so many people are so invested in its decisions that whoever makes the decision about who is in and who is out is going to be politically motivated.  The Senate in Canada could be voted on, but then it seems likely that the Senate will simply rubber stamp whatever Parliament decides and change colour when Parliament does.  How do you set up a system of decision making in a two party system without the people involved being hopelessly mired in the party line and party disputes?

Thursday, April 8, 2010


I have been scrolling back through some of my posts over the last while and found some interesting trends.  One of the things that has been coming up over and over is the tendency for people to consider some others as part of their group and some not and to justify treating those not in their 'tribe' very badly.

For example, in This Old Post I talked about an old friend of mine and his feelings on the poor in the USA.  Certainly not everyone in the USA feels like the poor are just lazy and stupid but the idea that the poor are a group that should be marginalized is a widespread one.  Middle and upper class people often find it comforting to demonize the poor because it allows them to treat the poor terribly and justify it under the flag of 'they wouldn't be poor if they weren't lazy'.

Of course this isn't unique to the rich because the poor like to do the same thing.  Take Aladdin, Robin Hood or many other heroes in stories who rely on thievery to get ahead.  These stories are designed to show the poor as being good people and the rich as evil to justify amoral behaviour against them.  These heroes steal, injure, destroy and cause mayhem all in the name of sticking it to those in power.

The same effects appear again when we consider patriotism.  People again take it upon themselves to set a group of people different from themselves aside and justify treating them badly based on that division.  They also make gross generalizations about those living in other countries and take it for granted that those people deserve less because of these made up moral failings.

Note that I don't suggest that we all subscribe to a philosophy of treating *all* people the same.  I am going to place a much higher priority on my wife's well being than anyone else's.  However, the reason these agreements are so useful is that I can actually deliver much greater value to my wife than I can to someone else for the same effort.  I know what she needs, I am able to offer comfort and assistance more easily and effectively than anyone else and we both know that we are helping each other.  I can't effectively help a random person in the same way because I don't know their situation or history and don't have an intimate connection.  Friends helping each other out is very useful because we can all police our unstated mutual assistance agreements and make sure no one is being put out and no one is taking more than their fair share.  I cannot have such a benefit with random individuals I do not know so there is no benefit in me assisting one over the other.

Helping those we know preferentially dramatically increases our ability to deliver happiness for the effort involved.  Dividing everyone into groups based on arbitrary criteria and helping those in our group at the expense of other groups is not.  Helping Iolo Longstaff move is good because I can be more useful to him than to a random person.  Helping a white/Canadian/male over someone else just creates divisions and unhappiness.  Though I have no solution for the fact that our brains naturally divide people into 'my tribe' and 'not my tribe' we can and should push beyond those tendencies to create a better society for all.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010


Today is the day that Blizzard starts revealing the new information about classes in the upcoming WOW expansion Cataclysm.  As is traditional for these things they communicate to the masses by posting their information on their forums and then nearly instantly it is transmitted to fansites across the interwebs and forum pandemonium ensues.  The excitement and intensity of the reactions and feelings almost reaches through the monitor to the reader.  Of course just as in politics, religion or anything else there is no consensus among the masses on what is right and what is wrong and the only constant is the utter certainty of the speaker.

There is an overwhelming noise of unnamed people screaming about how everything is awful and everything is great, so much so that we are tempted to forget that we know nearly nothing about what is coming.  For example:

Fel Flame (level 81): Quick-hitting spell dealing Shadowfire damage. This is similar to the mage ability Frostfire Bolt, in that the lower of the two resistances (in this case shadow and fire) on your target will be used for calculating its damage. Additionally, Fel Flame refreshes the duration of Immolate and Unstable Affliction. Our goal for Fel Flame is to provide a spell that's good for mobility and for use by Destruction and Demonology specs. Also, did we mention it uses green fire? Yep. Instant cast.

After reading this little blurb we have virtually no useful information about this spell and yet people go crazy posting about it.  We don't know its range, damage, or any other requirements there might be for casting it.  Without these pieces of information we literally have no reason whatever to approve or disapprove of this game change and yet the forums are aflame with speculation, recrimination, fear and exultation.

I suppose WOW players are really no different than anyone else in the same situation.  Imagine if the NHL and every hockey rink in the world announced that they were changing the rules of hockey and the information would not be released until a particular date.  All the hockey fans would be just as crazy as the WOW fanatics on the day that all the new changes were announced because they change everything from the professional leagues that people love to watch to the pickup groups played on weekend afternoons.

We all have tremendous emotional investiture in our hobbies and the knowledge that someone out there is going to be changing them without our approval is very exciting, particularly paired with the idea that those people read forums and you might get them to do what you want if you post in all caps.  Without that emotional investment the fun of the activity would be greatly diminished but too many people allow that excitement to overwhelm them and let out the poop hurling primate we normally try to keep caged up within ourselves. 

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

The hero?

Yesterday I watched Aladdin with my daughter Elli.  I was taken aback by the behaviour of the hero since he acted like a villain for much of the movie.

First he steals some food.  Aladdin is not crippled, old, or incapable - he is marvelously athletic, smart, charismatic and handsome.  We should note here that he isn't stealing from some outrageously wealthy sultan or merchant prince but rather from food vendors at the market.  This isn't Robin Hood-like redistribution of wealth but rather straight up robbery.

Then Aladdin leads the city guards on a chase about the town he lives in.  He smashes carts, ruins merchandise, spills food, wrecks clothing, knocks down scaffolds, injures people and causes utter mayhem.  After he finally evades the guards he does end up giving the bread away to some poor children, furnishing him with some kind of plausible deniability after his rampage.

Throughout the rest of the movie Aladdin is rude to his friends, lies constantly to princess Jasmine, goes back on his word to the genie, is hopelessly selfish in his outlook and ignores those who try to give him good advice.

So why do we cheer for Aladdin when he acts much like a villain instead of a hero?  The city guards are twisted, hateful monsters, zealous in their lust for blood and happy to commit murder when asked.  The vendors Aladdin steals from are huge, hulking brutes with a penchant for violence and of course all of Aladdin's foils are hideous.  We might feel like Aladdin is doing things that are wrong, but is it truly wrong to steal from people who are ugly?  (Hint:  Yes)  We cheer for Aladdin at the end when he is battling Jafar simply because Jafar is far worse.  He is happy to murder, mind control and ruin people on a whim and is clearly more dangerous to the world than Aladdin.  Perhaps Jafar's morals are no less, but he is intelligent, patient, hardworking and dedicated and as such he is more of a threat.

Of course the core of the Aladdin story is the love at first sight between princess Jasmine and Aladdin.  In typical movie-logic we can safely cheer for Aladdin because he has found true love - never mind that it is clearly just lust spurred on by the princess' legendary beauty.  No one else in the movie seems to love anybody and the idea that people who are truly in love are always the good guys is firmly entrenched in lore.

The end of the movie is quite pathetic when viewed through a more objective lens.  Aladdin and Jafar duke it out in the palace to see who is going to rule the city and who will not.  Both are scoundrels, thieves and liars;  both abuse magic artifacts to gain what they want.  Which one is good and which is evil is decided by which one is handsome, young and foolish and which is ugly, old and rational.

Saturday, April 3, 2010

You can't go home again

Back to the Lounge:  Part 9 took place yesterday.  This is the yearly event that I started that gets a large number of my friends and acquaintances from my University of Waterloo days to reconvene one day each year on Easter Friday.

This year was successful as always - 35 or so people showed up to play games, chat, reminisce and even network a bit.  It was a bit strange for me though as the feeling this year was different from all previous events.  Always before the Lounge still had a feeling of home about it, a sense of belonging, like it shared a place with my current residence in my mind.  Each year that feeling had ebbed away slowly and this year it felt like it was gone.

When I first arrived at university I was riding on high hopes that the predictions of some guidance counsellors and books would hold true and that I would find a community of those like myself.  I had friends in high school but there really was a lack of people that saw the world the same way I did, people that could see inside me and make me more than I was before.  The first while in university was a whirlwind of wonders, a cavalcade of new experiences and it changed me greatly to know that this place and this group of people existed.  That sense of belonging, of community and of a vibrant future was all attached in my mind to The Comfy Lounge.

The change in the Lounge from a place of wonder to simply a place was gradual and smooth, caused by the slow accumulation of years.  It makes me wonder that such a powerful association with such an incredible time of my life is now vanished and yet I am happy that these revelations I have experienced are no longer so powerfully tied to a simple object.  I have moved on, seen more things, and found that although the Lounge was the place that so much of my life really started it is not required for those things to continue.

I suppose freeing my mind from the associations it had built up over the years is some sort of victory and that I should be happy to no longer require that place to support my memes.  Nonetheless there is some small feeling of loss in my mind, probably due to the lack of a crutch, a useful tool for my mind to conjure up strength and optimism.  Such is the price of growing old and gaining wisdom it would seem:  I must give up my childhood things.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

More Bible musings

I have been reading John and Acts in the New Testament.  I continue to find things in the Bible that just boggle me and convince me that the majority of the people who suggest that they follow it have simply never read it.

God seems to have a very strange attitude towards people who do not do what he wants and his punishments range from nonexistent to maniacally punitive.  For example in Acts there are a few different situations where people do things that the apostles of Jesus do not approve of. 

Firstly there is a man who sells a piece of property he owns and gives most but not all of the money from that sale to the apostles to be distributed among the poor.  That man is struck dead on the spot and then when his wife comes to see what has happened to him she is struck dead also.  His crime was in not giving the apostles *all* of the money but keeping some back.

The next case is one where a group of Jews throw stones at one of the apostles and take him out of town to murder him.  Thinking he is dead they abandon him there but the by the power of God he gets up, is healed and walks away.  Nothing whatsoever is done to these Jews.  Their punishment for attempted murder is nothing.

The other thing that amazes me is the obvious fact that these passages are written with no knowledge of the real world.  Constantly people are referred to as having demons in them and Jesus or his apostles cast out the shrieking demons.  These are certainly referring to people with mental illnesses and yet to accept the Bible at face value we need to believe that people with mental illnesses have demons within them that can only be cured by application of sufficient faith in God.  Also, since God obviously has control over demons and everything else, why exactly was he so interested in tormenting people for thousands of years with demons inside their bodies?  Why create demons at all?  Why does no one with faith cure diseases instantly anymore?

I really had expected more of a kind, generous, feel good all over sort of theme from the New Testament.  Though there certainly are a lot of passages about how faith and good deeds will save you there are just as many about injustice, evil and suffering at the behest of God.  I don't know whether to feel sad or vindicated that the Bible has so little redeeming value.

This TED video is absolutely marvelous.  Regardless of which religion (or not) you subscribe to these thoughts are powerful and worth considering.