Monday, May 31, 2010

First Impressions

I have been spending a little time these past few days looking up pro terran strategies for Starcraft 2.  I have only been tinkering around in the beta a little but I found some really strange contradictions between my play experience and the strategies the best players use.

I have been successful building a lot of tanks.  Tanks are expensive and clunky but they are absolutely devastating when set up to defend a spot against a ground army.  My strategy was usually to build a few cheap guys to defend and then stack up tanks and vikings (anti ground and anti air respectively) and carefully smash my opponent's expansions.  Eventually they would be forced to make a big attack into my massed tanks at my base and would concede after being thoroughly stomped.

Every time I watch a pro player playing though they make marines and marauders.  These are cheap units that are flexible on attack or defense and can be made very early on.  I couldn't figure out why all the top players were using this type of strategy while I had always found it extremely weak, especially when my teammates used it and we lost.

After examining the situation a bit I finally figured it out.  I spent most of my playtime doing random 2s.  This means that I am playing with a random (often very bad) partner against other pairs that play together regularly and talk to each other in voice chat to improve their coordination.  Using a normal sort of strategy where I build cheap, quick guys to rush them is simply not feasible because my partner will not support me.  If I attack they hang back and wait for me to get smashed because I am fighting two people at once, and if I defend they attack by themselves and they get smashed.  I am sure this behaviour is explained by incompetence rather than malice but it is endlessly frustrating.

When I build tanks and vikings instead I can win because I don't necessarily need a partner.  My units are so strong on defence that even if my partner is playing badly I can hold off two enemies at once and keep my team alive and eventually my opponents run out of money to build attackers and concede.  This situation is not at all true in high level play.  If I was on a good team with good communication I could build marines and marauders and get aggressive because I know I have a partner who will support me, I don't need to set up a situation where I can nearly beat two people at once.

This really goes to show how important first impressions are.  If I had played solo games or with a good partner early on I would have seen an entirely different game and had different impressions about how units worked.  My take on all the units in the game is coloured by my early impressions of 'How good is that thing against massed tanks and vikings?' rather than 'How good is that thing against a normal army?'.  This sort of experience makes it really easy to see how people get so worked up on the forums about game balance; when you only see one side of the game it is shockingly hard to wrap your mind around the fact that your perception of the game is fundamentally lacking.

Sunday, May 30, 2010

Turn up the heat

Today in Toronto the temperature was a little over 30 C as measured in the shade on my balcony and I was walking a fair distance on sidewalks and asphalt streets in the direct sun in bare feet.  Not gonna lie, at times it got fairly uncomfortable.  In the past week it has been as high as 34 C on my balcony and I still managed to continue the barefoot project but that day was ... a little sketchy.  I want to push my limits a bit and toughen up but having to dash from shaded doorway to shaded doorway isn't much fun.

One of the big issues I am having with going barefoot everywhere is that merchants so often have an issue with it.  My bare feet are certainly not a health hazard and I am not the sort of person to sue if I injure my bare feet in someone's store due to my own incompetence but nonetheless the people running those stores don't know that.  I want to go barefoot everywhere though and doing so will require confrontations with people at some point so I need to figure out what I am going to say.

"Sorry sir, I will leave."

"I will just buy what I have and go."
Possible, but wouldn't go well the second time.

"I am getting back to nature man.  Why are you oppressing me with your capitalist, conformist social norms?  Be free dude!"
I doubt I could actually say this without busting up laughing, so probably out.

"Ooooga Boooga.  Boooooga!"  
Might well get people to leave me alone, but might also get the cops called.

"Parlez-vous francais?"
Risky since I don't actually speak any other languages well enough to fake not being a native English speaker.  Should have paid more attention in French classes.

"My doctor is very concerned about repetitive impact disorder in the tissues in my knees and I was ordered to stop wearing shoes so as to correct my stride issues causing the disorder.  Sorry, I have to go barefoot for medical reasons."
This is a strange combination of lies and truth - exactly what you would expect from a salesman.  Going barefoot actually does have benefits for your stride and your joints but my current state of leg health is perfectly fine.  Maybe if I actually do research into some kind of plausible health concern that would actually benefit from barefoot walking this would be more solid.

Thing is, I don't feel bad about obfuscating the truth in this.  My bare feet are no threat at all to anyone and if I can supply people with a plausible reason to ignore their own rules no harm will come of it.  Lying is certainly not my preferred method but when it is employed simply to make the lives of everyone involved easier I don't have any moral quandaries with it.  My bare feet are ok and I just have to make everyone believe me even if they believe for the wrong reasons since mostly they won't listen to the right reasons.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

The Beast is slain

The Bible is done, read in full.  The last chunk was much like the previous couple Bible posts I have made - heavy on diatribes against the evils of Israel and the punishments it will receive and light on plot.  It continues the trend of God planning to smash Israel, restore Israel, then smash every other nation for the temerity of obeying God's will in smashing Israel.  There were two standout exceptions though, which were the stories of Jonah (and the whale) and Daniel (and the pit of lions).  In particular I found these interesting because I have another telling of these tales in my house and I could compare the two sources.  In the Bible and Bible Stories the stories of Jonah aren't remarkably different, but the Daniel story leaves out some critical details.

You see, in Bible Stories Daniel is saved from the lions by God and the story ends there.  However, in the Bible the king, shocked by Daniel's survival, throws his governors who plotted against Daniel, their wives and all their children in the lion's den where they are promptly devoured.  The point of the story in Bible Stories is clearly that God saves people's lives, while the point in the Bible is that God saves the lives of Jews that he has a particular interest in and everybody else can die for all he cares, including young children who are entirely bystanders.

These irregularities are not confined to Daniel.  In the story of Noah and the Ark Bible Stories fails to mention the fact that God sent the flood at all!  It is told that God saved Noah and his family and the animals from the flood but the fact that God decided to destroy the entire world for it's crimes and only Noah + co survived is ignored.  I find it incredibly disturbing that a widely distributed book marketed as a way to teach children about the Bible doesn't teach them about the Bible as it is written at all, but rather teaches them what sounds most palatable in today's moral climate.  How does a religious person accept a deliberate, obvious editing of the Bible's original intent and message in a gambit to increase recruitment?

One thing that Bible Stories gets right is the rampant racism of the Bible, but it does it in a hilarious way.  In the Bible the entire thing is racist towards non-Jews.  There is no pretense made at anything else, God is there for the Jews and although he has a tendency towards cursing, diseasing and killing them he proclaims them as the chosen people.  In Bible Stories though a different kind of racism comes to the fore.  If you look carefully you will note that Baby Jesus is white.  Not light skinned for a person in the middle east light, but straight up lily white with blond hair.  This holds true throughout - the more important you are to God the lighter your skin and hair are and the most evil people in the book are dark, dark, dark.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

The mad Prophet

60 pages to go in the Bible now.  I have just read Ezekiel, and it is one of the most bizarre parts of the Bible thus far.  It continues the trend of the second half of the Old Testament being about how awful, evil and unholy Israel is and how brutally God is going to ream everyone because of it.  This is the first section where it is completely dedicated to recording the prophecies directly transmitted to a person without any third person storytelling.

The word of the Lord came to me, "Mortal...."

It has a bizarre beginning with Ezekiel meeting some four winged angels with 4 hands, 4 wings with 4 faces - human, lion, ox and eagle.  He then goes on to have many visions and messages from God over a number of years.  There isn't anything resembling a story or plot as each few paragraphs the topic changes completely.  A good summary of the way the book goes:

God is angry at the iniquity of the Israelites.
God will smash Israel, sending his servant Nebuchadnezzar the king of Babylon to destroy Jerusalem.
Babylon is evil and God is going to destroy it and render it uninhabited for all time.
Nebuchadnezzar, God's servant, is going to go smash the city of Tyre.
Nebuchadnezzar did not get enough booty from Tyre to satisfy him so God made him powerful so he could go destroy Egypt and get his loot from there.
God destroys Egypt.  After doing so, God puts Egypt back together again, but smaller this time.
God is angry at the iniquity of the Israelites again (still?) and will smash them to pieces.
God loves the Israelites and is going to bring the remnants of their civilization back to the promised land he just recently booted them out of.
God is going to destroy all the nations that are not Israel for the crime of destroying Israel.

There is also an extended whore metaphor where Israel is repeatedly portrayed as a whore who first lived in Egypt and then prostituted herself to everyone in the world.  It is clear that whoring is the absolute worst thing that Israel could have done because God does not like his women/civilizations to look elsewhere for their relationships.  The book concludes with a multipage listing of the exact dimensions and layout of a tremendous palace/temple/city that God wants created for him when he gives Israel back to the Jews.  4500 cubits for this wall, 3 cubits thick for that wall, the nave to be 20 cubits wide and such goes on and on.

Endless cycles of violence at God's command and the constant repetition of "God will smash your civilization and then you will know that he is THE LORD." make me sad.  Is this really the best Christianity can do for a deity?

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Escape from Earth

I read an article in the newspaper the other day that amused me greatly.  The idea of the article was simple:  Our planet is dying, and the space program must be maintained as a lifeline to abandon Earth for some other home should things get worse.  The author was lamenting the space program in the US being grounded over budgetary concerns and used the 'escape from Earth' idea as an argument.

I think that author and people that agree with that sentiment need a serious reality check.  Star Trek is not real, and fantasy books that talk about the rapid colonization of space as a way to relieve population pressure on Earth are ludicrous.  We have an awful lot of space on Earth to put people that is completely unused and yet is dramatically easier to colonize than anything beyond our atmosphere - say the north or south poles, or the middle of a lifeless sand desert.  Imagine the difficulties of setting up a colony on the South Pole.  Crushing cold, nighttime that lasts 3 months and total lack of soil for growing things are just a few issues you would encounter, and even if the South Pole was a few million kilometers away instead of a few thousand it is almost inconceivably more hospitable than *anything* else in our solar system.

Many moons or planets in our solar system that are in the 'most likely to be colonizable' category regularly have temperature swings of hundreds of degrees (Mars), impossibly crushing pressure on the surface (Jupiter, Saturn) or simply sit consistently at a few hundred degrees above (Mercury, Venus) or below (Ganymede, Io) maximum human tolerance.  Even if the surface of any planet or moon in our solar system was immediately available for colonization there is no chance that anyone would ever go there - every single place would have a lethal atmosphere, produce no food and/or be utterly uninhabitable due to temperature.

Imagine if the absolute worst were to happen and a tactical nuclear weapon were to be detonated over the 1000 most populous cities in the world and the temperature of the earth's surface went up 10 degrees due to global warming.  This new planet would be not very well suited to us compared to what we have now, and yet the idea that we would choose a different planet as our home is a joke.

We have precisely one planet to live on.  While the space program probably does have many benefits (whether they outweigh the costs I have no idea) an escape hatch should things go badly on Earth is not one of them.  We must make do with what we have as there will not be a second chance.

Monday, May 24, 2010


The question I am mulling over today is this:  Are some people particularly likely to be hypocritical about a given topic or are hypocrisies somewhat randomly spread around?  Is there some kind of personality that is very likely to hold conflicting viewpoints and not notice or be bothered by doing so?

It was brought on by a conversation that I had over the weekend with Good Old Days who was going on about the ills of our modern society.  In particular she was upset that there were planned demonstrations that were going to be a nuisance for the upcoming G20 summit.  Her solution for the demonstrations was for the government to figure out who planned to demonstrate and take them up to the northern parts of Canada for the duration of the event.  She also blamed demonstrations (among other things) on 'imports' aka immigrants.

I was completely floored by this.  For one, Good Old Days is only second generation Canadian, her parents were immigrants and she clearly thinks they had pretty much everything figured out correctly.  I don't think that this is simple racism because I have not observed that in my other interactions with her; I think it is that she simply thinks of immigrants as all terrible and subversive and her parents as fantastic with no recognition of the contradiction.

Good Old Days' attitudes towards government are traditional Conservative.  The government should stay out of people's affairs, not tax them and not interfere.  However, she also wants them to track people's histories, political affiliations and other characteristics and preemptively arrest those who might do something embarrassing or annoying like protesting and cart them thousands of kilometers away.  The idea that the government would record things about her or take her away without any crime or cause is anathema of course.

What causes people to have the sort of mindset that allows these contradictions?  I suggest that religion is the prime candidate -  it should come as no shock that Good Old Days is a Christian and has been so for her whole life.  Generally organized religions push the idea of Faith As A Virtue, which is specifically that belief in something that is logically unsupportable and even self contradictory is a good thing.  It encourages people to believe what someone else in a position of authority says in the face of all evidence or reasoning and praises the ability to maintain that dedication through any circumstance or revelation.  I have no statistics to back my claim but being trained through childhood to accept statements at face value without any critical thinking seems certain to cause a person to be susceptible to holding hypocritical viewpoints.

There may well be other factors that contribute.  Certainly old age could be correlated since the older we get the more challenging it is to learn new things and change our minds.  I do think that the age correlation is weak just from considering the selection of people that I know; even that may be tainted by the fact that hardcore religion is on the wane in Canada so older people are more likely to have been exposed to it.  Most likely education would be a factor since the more one learns about a topic the harder it becomes to ignore incompatible viewpoints.  Perhaps exposure to different cultures and lifestyles would even be helpful in reducing hypocrisy since the more you hold your own habits and norms up to scrutiny the more challenging it becomes to assume that your beliefs are infallible.

Friday, May 21, 2010

God is angry with Israel - again

I am now through Jeremiah in the Bible.  Jeremiah is a prophet, hearing the words of God directly and sending them on to the people.  Like Isaiah he is heartily focused on the evil the nations of Judah and Israel have done in worshipping things that are not God and how brutally God is going to crush them for their iniquity.  I must say that some of the most incredible things I have found in the Bible are found here - particularly painting God as a penis, someone who will rape mankind, and God enforcing cannibalism.

God sends Jeremiah to get a loincloth and wear it.  Then he orders Jeremiah to bury the loincloth near the river and many days later he orders Jeremiah to go and recover it.  Jeremiah notes that now the loincloth is good for nothing, and God agrees that this is the lesson.

"For as the loincloth clings to one's loins, so I made the whole house of Israel and the whole house of Judah cling to me, says the Lord"  Jeremiah 13:11

The lesson, apparently, is that God is a penis, the two nations of Jews are a loincloth, and God will ruin those nations just as Jeremiah ruined the loincloth by burying it for many days.  The imagery is certainly eye catching, but it is hard to deny how utterly bizarre and inexplicable this choice of metaphors is.

The second incredible example in this section is:

"And if you say in your heart, "Why have these things come upon me?" it is for the greatness of your iniquity that your skirts are lifted up, and you are violated."  Jeremiah 13:22

Note here God isn't talking about women in particular, but referring to the rape of an entire society as God smashes it.  I certainly didn't expect 'God will rape your civilization' as an idea the Bible would support.

"And I will make them eat the flesh of their sons and the flesh of their daughters, and all shall eat the flesh of their neighbours in the siege, and in the distress with which their enemies and those who seek their life afflict them."  Jeremiah 19:9

Now God is controlling people's minds to force them to commit cannibalism when their city is besieged; when the enemies summoned by God surround the Jews and leave them with no hope.  Wow.

The theme of 'Worship God or he will destroy you' started in Genesis and continues on.  The first sections of the Old Testament sprinkle that around on top of stories and legends but the last few hundred pages seem to be filled with nothing else - it would seem that they ran out of new things to say and so filled a huge chunk of space with endless threats.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Sore Feet

I walked for an hour and a half this morning around the city in bare feet and I can really feel the effects.  My soles are a bit sore from abrasion and pebbles and such and my muscles in my legs are reacting to the new walking style.  It feels really good though, very reminiscent of a training montage.   Montage!  I am going to get tougher and stronger and hopefully as time goes by it will become a lot more comfortable.  I am still getting a lot of strange looks as I walk and I assume that will continue.

I had a very amusing interaction with an elderly lady on the street yesterday.  I held open a door for her and she saw my bare feet and gave me a dirty look and then said,  "I heard on the radio that if you wouldn't lick something with your tongue than you shouldn't be willing to walk there with bare feet, it is bad for you."


Has that person on the radio ever been to a beach?  I don't regularly indulge in beach-sand-lickery, but the joy of submerging my toes in sand at the beach is simply sublime and I am confident I am not alone in either of these feelings!  Setting aside that example for a moment I must wonder what this sort of instruction is meant to accomplish.  Is the idea to make sure everyone wears shoes all the time for propriety reasons?  I have no interest in licking my bed linens, should I wear shoes to bed too?

I have found some people who think my little project is great and even one person who asked for regular updates, which was very nice coming directly after 'bare skin paranoia' elderly lady.  I wonder if there is some attribute of people that would be strongly correlated with acceptance of someone doing something slightly strange like this.  Perhaps age, urban/rural dwelling, political affiliation or something else would be useful in predicting this sort of reaction.  My instinct (thoroughly unscientific, by the way) says that politically left, young, middle to lower class people would be the most accepting of this sort of thing on average but it is only a guess.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Hubris, Breasts and Madness

Well, I have plowed through Ecclesiastes, The Song of Solomon and Isaiah.  144 more pages to go to complete the Bible project.  These three sections of the Bible are not at all similar to one another, but I did find some interesting things there.

Ecclesiastes basically focuses around the king of Israel giving us strange, meandering insight into his philosophy, history and his visions.  It starts off with an absolutely marvelous quote:

"I said to myself, "I have acquired great wisdom, surpassing all who were over Jerusalem before me; and my mind has had great experience of wisdom and knowledge.""

So the author first sets out to assure us that he is wise beyond all others and then sets out to talk about how wisdom is futile and life is essentially pointless, advocating that we all seek temporary pleasures such as food, conversation, etc.  The fact that this is entirely in contradiction to virtually all other instructions in the Bible is undeniable but given that the author has assured us of his unparalleled wisdom, who are we to doubt?

The Song of Solomon is basically a love song or series of love songs.  It has little of real interest to me aside from the continued compliments directed at women's breasts.  I find that intriguing because if that sort of thing were common and acceptable in the culture of the time it would be starkly different from today.  Imagine this:

Wow, you have such beautiful eyes.   <-Likely to get a good reaction
Your breasts are like two fawns, twins of a gazelle.  <-As likely to get you slapped as smiled at

Yet this is by modern standards, and by the standards of the Bible it would seem that compliments on a woman's navel, thighs or breasts in a love song are no problem.  Nothing wrong here, just interesting.

Isaiah is more of the classic Old Testament violence.  It isn't a history though, but rather frothing, desperate exhortations to people to do as the author commands or God will get mad and kick their asses.  A typical exchange goes like this:

The people of Israel ignore God's commandments and statutes.  God commands the Assyrians to attack and the Israelites are killed by the sword, their little ones are dashed to death in front of them and their wives are ravished.  Next the Assyrians express the idea that they are the ones who did these things.  God becomes angry with them because they were just the sword that he wielded so he causes the Israelites to rise up and massacre the Assyrians, dash their little ones to pieces in front of them and ravish their wives.

Once the Assyrians attack, destroying 12 fortified cities.  The Israelite king begs for help so God promises to send the Assyrians home.  Instead though he just kills 185,000 of them overnight.

Unlike in previous sections where at least stories were being told and things seemed remotely organized Isaiah is just a mess.  The organization is nonexistent, the themes wildly fluctuating and it is constantly self contradictory.  It is obviously the writings of a fanatical madman which have been badly preserved, mistranslated and revised over a few thousand years.  If you want material for a fire and brimstone sermon Isaiah is wonderful, but other than that it is really just a waste of time.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Bonus Points are bad

I have been playing some Starcraft 2 on the Beta and have found a new mechanic that I really do not like - Bonus Points.  The way that the ranked matches in SC2 are set up is similar to a chess ranking - each player has a number and you are generally matched against players close to your own number.  Your point gains or losses from a match are changed based on relative ranking so that facing a higher ranked player is not a disadvantage from a points perspective.

The way Bonus Points work is that when you start you get a number of bonus points on your account and they slowly accumulate as time passes.  When you win a match you get your normal number of points and that gain is increased by up to double by taking points from your bonus pool.  So if I have 20 bonus points sitting around and win a match giving me 12 points my ranking goes up 24 and my bonus pool drops to 8.  The number of bonus points that you gain over time seems like enough to make a very big difference if you play 3 games a day and very small if you play 15 games a day.  This allows people who don't play often to more easily achieve higher ranks in the game but unfortunately it has some really poor side effects.

Here is the issue with Bonus Points:  They artificially inflate the score of players who don't play often above their skill level.  For example, I play every couple days for a few games.  This means that even though I only win 1/3 of my games I still end up staying at the same point total, so even if my skill level implies that I should be ranked 1100 instead I am stuck at 1300 and play constantly against people who play a lot and are better than me.  I still win sometimes but the fun of the game is significantly lessened when I can't possibly break a 50% win rate no matter how well I play.  Even if I were to magically become hugely more skilled I will be trapped at a low win rate forever unless I can substantially up my playtime.

I doubt that either side of this equation particularly enjoys it.  The people who play constantly get easy wins against casual players but cannot get ahead in points acquisition and the casual players lose all the time.  The best way to have a ranked ladder where people play against those of similar ranking is to have ranking be proportional to skill rather than have ranking be inversely proportional to the amount of time spent playing.  The ideal way to rack up ranking under this system is not to play a ton and be awesome but rather to play unranked matches constantly to practice and only play ranked matches when you have a full bonus pool waiting to double your gains.

I hope very much that this mechanic does not make it to the live game.  While I do recognize the value in learning from being defeated by strong opponents a big part of the fun in a competitive game is winning.  Setting up people who only play occasionally to be forever losing to better players at the same ranking isn't fun and isn't a good way to keep those casual players playing the game.  I want to play against others who are about the same skill level as myself regardless of how many hours per week we each play.

Monday, May 17, 2010

The heat of the moment

I have been mulling over people's perceptions of the decisions of others when made in intense situations.  I think we as a species are pretty bad at figuring out what we are going to do in an emotionally intense situation and we are equally bad or even worse at evaluating others.  Examples come from both the utter failure of some traditional economic theories in real life as well as my experience in games.

Consider the idea of man as a rational economic unit.  In theory each person makes buying decisions that maximize their own overall happiness and can accurately determine what will most improve their lives.  In reality this is a complete farce.  People buy houses that are simply too expensive for them to support and spend the next 25 years 'house poor' desperately trying to make payments and being incredibly pinched for money - and when something goes wrong they default.  People buy sugary drinks at Starbucks instead of drinking water from a fountain and then pay a ton of money to gyms to work off the calories and then avoid going there.  These are not rational decisions that maximize overall happiness and they are *not* made only by dumb people.  Incredibly smart people completely fail these tests of rationality and deferred gratification.

Similarly I have seen examples of people in games that make decisions that are obviously incredibly dumb while remaining entirely understandable from within that person's frame of reference.  A classic example from WOW is the Gunship battle.  Both the Horde and the Alliance are attacking Icecrown Citadel to defeat the Lich King.  It is clear to everyone that the Lich King is really, really bad and the greatest threat and yet when the two groups arrive there they immediately start fighting each other.  Many people have commented that it is ridiculous that the Horde and Alliance would fight each other - their real enemy awaits! - and yet it makes complete sense.  How many of the soldiers on each ship have watched comrades die under the blades of the other side?  The Horde even stitches together pieces of the corpses of the dead from the Alliance and makes hideous undead abominations out of them.

How would a real person react?  How would a group of modern people react if they had weapons in hand and a group that desecrated their dead and transformed the rotting flesh into monsters was right nearby, sitting in weapons range?  Sure, there might be good reasons to not attack but realistically someone is going to lose control and shoot and once one person does the whole situation explodes.  These groups have every reason for irrational hatred towards one another and to expect them to react in a game theoretical 'maximize my chance to win' way is not rational.  People do crazy things when they fall in love with a house, see a sugary drink, or have a gun on hand when necromancers come wandering by.  They don't make the best decisions but it is not unexpected, unrealistic or surprising.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Too Easy

More and more on forums lately I have been seeing complaints that WOW is too easy and that anyone with a pulse can do everything.  I would tend to suggest the opposite.

For example, it is certainly true that anyone with mediocre skill and minimal investment can go into the final instance of the expansion and kill a bunch of the bosses.  Beating ICC does not require you to be excellent, and this is true of most of the other dungeons too.  With overpowered badge gear that is available now you can steamroll everything with only minimal instruction.  While that is the case I think it is rather silly to assume that since you can zone in to challenging dungeons and beat some guys up that the whole game is trivial.  Consider Alone in the Darkness, an achievement that 1.5% of the people in raiding guilds have acquired.  Even though that achievement was possible to win with Ulduar gear and we are now getting gear with 50% more stats on it hardly anyone can beat that fight.  Even Firefighter, which is notably much more gear dependent and easier to accomplish has only been beaten by 6.2% of the raiding population.  If the game is so easy and trivial, why are so few people able to accomplish these goals?

I think the big factor here is how much exclusivity there is for hardcore players and how easy it is for them to display it to others.  Back when Naxxramas was the endgame in classic WOW the models for the gear were unique and mediocre guilds never even zoned in.  Anyone who was clearing Naxxramas stood out in a crowd and could brag about how many encounters they had beaten that 98% of the population had never seen.  This is drastically more exclusive than being able to beat a harder version of the same boss for loot that looks the same but has a different colour palette.

It is all linked together.  If Blizzard makes some of the game extremely difficult to enter and succeed in then many of their customers complain that they are paying for content they can't see.  If Blizzard then lets those people in the most hardcore people complain that the game is too easy since their skill and time do not give them sufficient bragging rights and feelings of exclusivity.  Everyone wants to be exclusive and special, and it is a very tricky balancing act to allow people access who are not especially good while still providing some feeling of reward for those who excel.  It is my feeling at the moment that most of the game is very accessible and this is a good thing. There are specific portions of the game that only the best players can see and the cosmetic 'bragging' rewards are well done for those that complete those objectives.

While a few people find it tremendously fun to have big sections of the game all to themselves and to lord it over the peons of the world I think that desire is one that needs to be firmly ignored.  WOW has plenty of bloody hard challenges and bad players killing 4 bosses in ICC on easymode does not change that.

Thursday, May 13, 2010


In the Hat came by my place today and gave me a huge amount of music.  He has a tremendous (80+ gig) collection that he carries around with him on a portable drive and I got him to recommend some things to me and then pillaged his collection like a loot crazed buccaneer.  Of course buccaneer might not be the appropriate term here... perhaps pirate is the most apt.

Wendy and I had some very heated discussions about music piracy over the past few years.  She often found stories on the internet about some huge record company that was suing a grandmother for enormous amounts of cash because her grandkid downloaded a few songs on her computer complete with heartbreaking personal details.  I usually responded that if people knowingly break the law in order to secure a luxury then I have very little interest in rescuing them from their plight.  Certainly the grandmother in question may be absolutely innocent but stories on the internet are neither unbiased nor representative.  People who break the law to secure themselves basic rights or necessities need protection or assistance not lawsuits or jail time but music is no such necessity.

To be sure, DRM has been a complete boondoggle by and large and I won't buy anything knowingly if it is DRM protected.  Companies that think that they can charge extremely high prices for DRM protected music while supporting constant legal battles against small scale pirates are foolish.  There are many very lucrative business models in music distribution that do not rely on going after people who download music from illegal sites but just because a company has a business model you do not like is *not* an excuse to break the law.  If you really want to protest the way a company does business then write letters, picket their office, buy from the competition or refuse to use the product at all.  Downloading music illegally isn't a protest.

My main gripe here is with the righteous pirates.  I must fight the evil corporations, and I do this by downloading music for free and listening to it!  When it is impossible to distinguish the actions of a conscientious protester from a heartless opportunist aside from the rhetoric I put little stock in the protest.  Of course, I download music illegally and for free.  I do buy videos and music from time to time as I have no problem supporting artists whose work I enjoy but I am quite willing to copy music from a friend without going out and hunting down the artist in question to give them their just reward.  I am often greatly concerned with ethics in everyday actions and I cannot find a convincing reason to condemn free exchange of music but I do find myself irritated with naked opportunism disguised as righteous indignation.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Solomon's instructions

At the moment I am working my way through Proverbs in the Bible.  I must say that King Solomon sure got himself a sweet deal - not only does he have 700 wives but he also has a huge chunk of the Bible where he gets to tell people exactly how to live to make his life even better.  Get this quote:

"Let your fountain be blessed, and rejoice in the wife of your youth, a lovely deer, a graceful doe.  Maybe her breasts satisfy you at all times; may you be intoxicated always by her love."  Proverbs 5:18-19

I am glad Solomon wants my wife's breasts to satisfy me at all times, that sounds wonderful.  I was completely floored by that comment when I read it since when I started this Bible project I was really expecting more Victorian style prudery and instead I find extreme fascination with menstruation, foreskins and mammary satisfaction.  This comes from a section where Solomon basically repeats over and over again the evils of the adulteress.  According to him women lie in wait to trap the unwary man with their smiles and their words and those who succumb are ruined utterly.

I can see why Solomon would be so concerned about other people's adultery with married women.  When you have 700 wives you can only expect that those wives are going to desperately crave some attention from someone other than Solomon - it must have been a real battle for him to keep them all from straying.  Of course he could have helped his people by not marrying *seven hundred* women and practically enforcing abstinence on them but Solomon isn't one for foregoing his own pleasures it would seem.

Solomon is also eager to tell us to forgo riches and to give to the poor.  He seems willing to surround himself in utter decadence but wants to be sure he is alone in that - other people should live lives of austerity, fear, obedience and righteousness.  This all hammers home an important lesson about the world in which the writers of the Bible lived.  Powerful men were closer to God, exempt from many of his rules and often immune to direct punishment.  Religion and secular authority were completely entwined to the extent that God himself routinely displays great leniency to men in positions of authority while directing arbitrary violence to the peasants for the smallest crimes.

When I started the section called Proverbs I expected lists of suggestions for living, religious or otherwise.  What I found is a powerful king with untold wealth and hundreds of wives telling everyone never to covet or touch his stuff because God will punish them if they do.

It's good to be the King.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Psalms reloaded

I finished off Psalms in the Bible.  I am now 2/3 of the way through the Old Testament, just 200 pages to go.  I must say that it is hard to make significant progress in my Bible reading while the Starcraft 2 beta is available to me - I am weak and blowing stuff up is just so much more appealing than self improvement.

Psalms is actually pretty funny to summarize.  It basically has a few simple things repeated over and over:

-God is kind and gentle to all.
-God crushes the evil people.

-God raises up the good people and gives them everything they want.
-I am good and righteous but God is crushing me.  Please stop crushing me God.

-I am surrounded by enemies who are angry at me because I love God so much.  Please crush them.
-I am surrounded by enemies who are angry at me because I am so wonderful.  Please crush them.

-Wow I love God, God is so great to everyone!
-God crushes people who aren't Jews so well.  Go God, crush those non Jews.

The prayers are utterly focused on either begging God to maul one's enemies or on telling God what a fantastic fellow he is.  The thing that is most appalling however is that this is a big chunk of the Bible devoted entirely to grovelling.  Begging, supplicating, whatever term you choose it is people going on at length about how great God is, how worthless they are compared to him and how wonderful it would be if he would go smash the evil people.  This God is incompatible with the God of Genesis - he isn't all powerful or all knowing, he has competitors, he desperately cares if people compliment him or not and he is extremely interested in the petty vengeances of his followers.  A loving, all powerful Creator this God is not, in fact he seems entirely like a savage, random, invisible, megalomaniacal human male.

Monday, May 10, 2010


I have been continuing my 'wandering around barefoot' project.  I have been finding some strange things though that I didn't expect.  People by and large seem to expect that the world is chock full of broken glass, puke, dog poop and other gross and dangerous objects that are just waiting to attack but I have found that in fact the sidewalk itself that is the challenge.  In particular walking barefoot on hard surfaces is really different than walking in shoes even when the surface is perfectly flat and clean.

When walking in shoes people tend to place their heel down first.  This is perfectly comfortable when wearing shoes with padding underneath your heel and good weight distribution and not so at all while barefoot.  Strangely my feet tend to react on their own to this situation and simply land toes first.  It does feel very different to walk this way and I can really feel muscles in my calves that normally do not speak up after just a short walk.  I also find myself inclined to speed up and jog along as it is more comfortable than just walking.

As I understand it shoes are actually to blame for shin splints and other knee ailments that affect humans these days.  Walking with the feet landing heel first causes impact issues that don't appear until in the short term but long term are a real problem and walking barefoot necessitates a style of movement that does not create these same issues.

In addition to long term leg health I also anticipate having huge calves!  Whether this is actually any sort of benefit is left as an exercise for the reader.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

A memory long lost

Gnome did me a great favour yesterday - he sent me a beta key to Starcraft 2.  All hail Gnome!

I logged on late last night when the download finished and started up a game.  I got thrown into a newbie game with a few other people and my partner was utterly useless while my opponents were not and I lost quickly.  My mind kept me up late grinding away the the circumstances, going over the battle and what had gone wrong.  How could I be better?  What must I do next time?  I had that familiar feeling of loss and depression that comes from a pvp defeat followed by the burning determination to crush my enemies when next I get the chance.

I remember this feeling from the past.  I recall furious clicking, the rush of a perfectly executed assault and the way the world just melts away.  In particular I still remember specific games, the exact gambits I used, the units at play and the way the battles unfolded in the original Starcraft.  For many people that would be surprising since they would not expect to be able to recall specific video game battles 8-10 years later, particularly among the 4 thousand or so battles I participated in.

I remember starting a game and after 30 minutes or so of play some friends came over to my house including Hobo.  15 minutes later he looked at my screen and saw that my partner's base had just been smashed and I was facing two skilled opponents.  He said to me, "Just give up dude, you can't win."  I don't know whether he intended that statement to utterly cement my determination to beat this terrible situation or not but I do know that my immediate response was an internal "NEVER!"

I expect I will recall the details of the game for decades to come.  For those who know about such things it involved 300 spider mines and a daring 'empty overlords into the enemy base' maneuver and 60 minutes after Hobo's declaration of my inevitable defeat my enemies were smoking ruins.  That thrill, that feeling of utter joy that I experienced in that and other games is incredible.  It is not so much that my opponents were defeated but rather that I played at a level that must be close to perfection.  That sense of total absorption in a fiendishly difficult contest is something I long for.

Back when I first heard that Starcraft 2 was coming out I said that when it launched I would either need to give up my job, my wife or sleep on that day.  These days I have a daughter to fit in too... this could get ugly.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Worries about planes crashing

Consider for a moment what the average person does when they get off a plane.  They get their luggage, call for a ride or go to a bathroom that doesn't require contortionist training to use.  One very important thing they also do is call others to report that they have arrived safely.  It is important to note that people do not call others to report that they have successfully completed their commute home from work safely.  To compare the safety records of regular flights and car crashes from US data:

Chance of dying in a million plane flights:  .25
Chance of dying in a million days of normal car usage:  .33

So even if you fly every single day you are significantly more likely to die in a car crash than in a plane crash and *massively* more likely to be injured since car crashes often injure people - planes not so much.  It is more reasonable for people to want you to call them each evening to assure them you have not died in a car that day than it is for them to worry about your plane getting there safely.  Or is it?

Humans have a fear of the unknown and we tend to overestimate the risks of unusual behaviour drastically.  This could be considered irrational but really is a good heuristic.  We cannot take the time to do a full analysis of everything we do each day so we must make snap decisions.  Any time we face a decision with a big unknown we *should* guess high at the risk level.  The cost of guessing low is potentially catastrophic while the cost of guessing high is known and small.  Just as it is rational for all of us to buy insurance despite the cost of running insurance companies it is rational for us to worry more about risk in unfamiliar situations - it increases our expected lifetime at a cost we can afford to pay.

Given these things it isn't irrational to call people when you arrive from your plane trip.  Logically they do not need to be worried but their brains cannot avoid using their built in heuristic of fear in response to unfamiliar risk.  I am a pretty rational person and have some significant amount of self control but flying still makes me a bit nervous.  I doubt most people would even notice my reaction but I feel distinctly better when on the ground.  Rationally I know that driving across the city is more dangerous than a plane flight but I do not have perfect control over my responses to these things and my fear instinct kicks in while aloft.

Certainly you could argue that people should suppress their built in reactions when faced with concrete data that assures them that their gut instincts are wrong.  Like most things about human learning though changing your reactions requires time and familiarity and not dictated facts.  Fact is that an average day brings more risk of car crash death than a plane ride does of a plane crash death but until we all start flying as much as we drive we are going to continue to worry about plane crashes over car wrecks.  Correct it is not, but it is both unavoidable and entirely logical.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Rational valuation

Recently I have read a couple of economics books that made me think about how humans value things in new ways.  The first is Predictably Irrational and the second is The Logic of Life.  They both addressed the old idea in economics that man is some kind of superbly rational economic machine who makes ideal choices.  In The Logic of Life he is referred to as homo economicus who has the greed of an Enron executive, the intellect of Mr. Spock and the emotional intelligence of an armchair and who would strangle his grandmother for a dollar as long as it cost him less than a dollar's worth of time.  Obviously the old economic ideas of a perfectly rational person are an incredibly poor model of how people actually behave.  That said, these books present some very different ideas about how people think - in particular the way in which people overvalue what they have and undervalue what others have.

In Predictably Irrational the author shows us a study where people stood in line to get tickets to the big game and were awarded the chance to buy them randomly.  After the fact they were asked to place a value on the ticket and those who had one claimed they would need to be offered about 2000 dollars to sell it while those who didn't get one claimed they would pay only 200 dollars to acquire one.  This seems like a case of irrational behaviour since the division of the tickets was random - there is no reason to think those who got one would have valued it more prior to acquiring it.

The counterpoint in The Logic of Life is that this phenomenon is found primarily in areas where people have no expertise.  In these experiments people were found to value what they had too highly when they were novices in the area but when experts were tested similarly they behaved extremely rationally, valuing things as if they placed no additional value on things they already owned.

Both these behaviours seem absolutely bang on if you think about how human minds developed.  Most of our evolution has not occurred in a large, efficient marketplace like in theoretical economic models.  Far more common has been the situation of two people trading things whose value is not well defined.  In that case it is extremely rational to overvalue what you own when you are relatively uninformed because most likely people trying to trade with you are simply hoping to profit from your ignorance.  When the person being tested feels that they have a very good understanding of the values involved in a transaction however they are far more likely to trade away what they have because they have some confidence that they are the ones benefiting from experience - they think the other guy is the rube.

Normally I find the author of Predictably Irrational very accurate but in this case I side against him - overvaluing what you own is a very rational response to an unpredictable world full of smiling salespeople and sly con men.  You can only begin to trade in a 'rational' fashion once you are sure who the sucker is and that it isn't you.

Monday, May 3, 2010

Becoming a hobbit

Back in the first days of university I decided to go barefoot.  The buildings I frequented had no issue with this so I ended up going without shoes for a couple months straight and the experience was an interesting one.  Because at the time I was a hardened northerner I went barefoot until November and was finally convinced to put on footwear because walking around the snow piles was annoying and walking through them wasn't pleasant either. I got some very interesting reactions to this though and it made me think a lot about how people approach new situations.

For example, several people expressed horror at how stinky everything would be due to my bare feet.  It often took me awhile to convince them that feet are no more inherently stinky than elbows, ears, or any other 'low sweat' portion of our anatomy and that in fact socks and shoes are the *cause* of stinky feet, not the cure.  It was also regularly suggested that I would step on glass or a discarded needle or something similar and cause myself great injury.  When asked how often they had stepped on a shard of glass or a needle point with their shoes on no one could actually recall an incident where that occurred, but nonetheless there were many who felt my behaviour was dangerous despite my perfect accident record.

I fully expected people to react with surprise to something like this.  That is how people are - we react more to strange things than we do to dangerous things.  The thing that really surprised me though was how entrenched people's views were.  Despite the fact that no one could come up with a single reason why bare feet was a bad idea (aside from specific businesses requiring shoes ... for no reason) many people were still against the idea.  Of course at the time I was having a lot of fun with the strange reactions and enjoying tearing down shocked, irrational reactions with irrefutable logic.

I decided yesterday that I should make an effort this summer to get back to my barefoot roots.  The audience is quite different this time of course because I am not dealing with freewheeling university freshmen but adults with responsibilities and jobs.  I wonder what people are thinking - I see them glance at me strangely but few ask questions aside from the toddlers at my daughter's daycare who all innocently ask what I am doing.  I suspect I will enjoy my little experiment for a month or so and then end up being forced to quit due to the city streets in summer being rather uncomfortably hot on unprotected toes.

I am excited about challenging people's assumptions and pushing them to think rationally instead of just reacting by rote, but not enough so that I am willing to put up with burnt soles and detours to avoid black surfaces.  I don't think I would make it in the Shire.

Saturday, May 1, 2010


Last night Elli (3 years old) was refusing to go to sleep.  It was her first time having a friend sleep over and getting the two girls to actually lie down and stop wandering out, turning the lights on, giggling, etc. was proving to be a challenge.  I had finally shut off the lights and got them lying down and was under the impression they were going to go to sleep when Elli wandered into my bedroom and started looking at my computer.  We had the following conversation:

Sky:  Elli, go to sleep.  It is very late and you need your rest.

Elli:  I have to wash my hands.

Sky:  No you don't, turn around and get back to your bedroom.

Elli:  No, my hands are dirty, I need to wash them.  (Licks her hand) See, my hand has germs!  I have to wash my hand!

Sky:  No you don't. (Picks up Elli and carts her to her room) Go to bed and stay there, your hands are fine.

Elli:  No no no I need to wash my hands they are dirty and have GERMS!

Sky:  (Closes the door and holds it) Go to sleep, now.

Elli:  My hands have germs!  I licked them!  (Furious licking sounds come through the door)  I need to wash my hands!  (Sound of spitting comes through the door) I spit on my hands, they are dirty and have germs I need to wash them! (More spitting sounds and shrieking)

Sky:  (shaking with laughter and trying desperately not to howl out loud)

It amazes me what kids pick up on and what they completely miss.  She understands that washing her hands is important and that licking things spreads germs and yet has no clue that I am not going to accept this as another excuse to get out of her room.  In her life at daycare she obviously faces down teachers who insist that germs are a good reason to wash hands so in her mind all you have to do is insist on germs and you get your way.

It is fascinating sometimes to watch how certain specific concepts get through to her clearly like the idea of germs and yet the idea that she can't fool me with these transparent plots (and spitting on herself, no less) escapes her.  She needs a lot more life experience to really be able to understand that I want her to go to bed and her gambits are obvious and yet she knows more about transmission of diseases than physicians did not so very long ago.  The mixture of scientific training and total cluelessness about human interaction is alternately charming and infuriating.