Saturday, July 31, 2010

Hiatus no longer

It turns out that my vacation hiatus was very much devoid of posts instead of light on posts.  I felt like it wasn't worth trying to use the internet when loading up the main google search page took 4 minutes.

Dodgeball Champ and I talked a while over the holiday about revenge for discrimination in times past.  It was brought up by a series of posts that I was involved in on another blog Here where I argued about how a particular point about advocating for women was made.  The fundamental issue behind the arguments to my mind is the question of whether or not it is reasonable to get revenge for discrimination in the past as a way to remedy the situation.  In particular, is it ok to have very different standards for gender discrimination that hugely favour women because of past discrimination against them?  This argument applies equally well to other groups that have been disadvantaged - which pretty much means anyone who isn't a white male.

It should be noted that I absolutely support equality and I also support efforts to assist those who have disadvantages to have all the opportunities that someone like me (white english speaking male) has.  It does make me uncomfortable though that wearing a Gay Pride / Black Unity / Girl Power Tshirt is considered acceptable but a White Unity / Male Power / Straight Pride Tshirt would be the ultimate in bad taste and might well get me beat up.  Thing is, I know that in many places and times being gay, female or nonwhite was/is a tremendous disadvantage and those people had to obey the white straight men in charge and that situation was downright awful.  I want gender, sexual orientation, culture, heritage and many other things to be no barrier whatsoever for employment, social status, comfort, power and many other things.

The trick is that we want all these groups to have equal opportunity but we don't want to perpetuate a cycle of revenge.  It is possible to think that we should solve previous inequalities by simply punishing those who were ahead in the past until they are no longer advantaged.  I think that by doing that we end up making the divisions between the groups larger and more durable though because those who were ahead end up resenting and discrediting the people receiving the benefits.  If someone gets a job ahead of me or is given freedoms I am not I will resent them and resent the measures used to force equality.  That creates an incentive for people who are disadvantaged by the current rules to band together to attempt to circumvent those rules for their own benefit and to share their frustration with the current situation.

On the other hand I do think it is extremely valuable to provide extra support where it is needed and to recognize that that support may need to be focused around groups like I have outlined above.  It makes a lot of sense for us to focus on providing additional counselling, training and support for natives trying to enter the workforce for example because they have (on average) a lot of additional barriers to overcome.  It obviously makes sense to have women's shelters and not to have an equal number of men's shelters.  There are many things we can and should do to support disadvantaged groups.

Regardless of those I will continue to find it frustrating that people celebrate aspects of themselves that I cannot celebrate, even though I don't particularly *want* to celebrate them.  I am proud of my country in general and my city in particular because they are so accepting of differences and marginalized groups.  (Not to say we couldn't do better, but we do very well.)  I am *not* proud that any particular person is gay, I honestly don't care who they want to fall in love with or have sex with, but I am proud of their ability to do so happily and comfortably in my society.  I do think though that by setting different standards for behaviour based on race / gender / sexuality / etc. we end up supporting the divides between people instead of eliminating them.

ETA:  I have no desire at all to wear a White Power / Man Pride / Straight Unity shirt.  I just want my ability to wear one to be equivalent to the comparable ones.

Friday, July 23, 2010

The Hiatus

I am going on a vacation for the next week to the great white north.  My internet and time availability is very much in question so posts over the next week are going to vary between inconsistent and nonexistent.  I will be back in business at the start of August.

Wendy and I had a great conversation last night about banks and investing in particular.  She got her statement for her investments over the last few years and it told her that her return was 1.12% per annum.  Given the remarkable crash that occurred and the lack of a complete rebound that doesn't sound too bad but strangely the total value of her investments had actually dropped over that time.  She was initially really puzzled until I pointed out that the bank had been taking close to 2% of her total money every year in fees to maintain those investments and those fees were not noted on the statement anywhere.  She got pretty ticked off about this and I certainly can understand that; the fact that when the investments were made there was no mention of the size of the fees is pretty awful but the 'creative' bank reporting is a new high for them.

Thing is, percentages are comparisons.  The bank statements are obviously structured to present the percentage increase per annum against something and the bank wants you to think you are comparing it against that money sitting under your mattress.  Instead they are actually comparing your return against a person handing the bank 2% of their net worth every year *for no return whatsoever*.  As such the return looks like investing with them actually helped when compared to the Bank of Mattress when in fact it lost her money.

I wish these sorts of shenanigans were the exception and we could change banks to get away from it but that just isn't the case.  Investment firms/departments aren't selling investment advice since their people can't even beat the base market increases on average and they surely aren't selling a structure for building wealth.  What they sell is quite simply the illusion that you are doing good things with your money and they charge an incredible fortune for it.  The investment experts at the bank aren't able to beat the market and the investment advisers are salespeople paid to get you into an expensive fund.  Their priority is simply to do a survey with you and then regardless of the results to recommend a fund that has the bank taking the maximum percentage of your money they can get away with.  If you try to swap your money into a low cost fund the bank will give you huge amounts of resistance and warnings and red tape before finally succumbing.

The simple fact is that the investment side of banks is insanely profitable because all they do is take 2% of everyone's money every year.  Whether the funds go up or down is irrelevant to them so their focus is simply to trick you into ignoring the fees they charge and make it easy for you to buy expensive funds.  Given the modern requirement to build up wealth over your life the state of investing is a disaster for the average person and a windfall for the thieves *cough* banks.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Religion in Relationships

I have been reading a book lately called Parenting Beyond Belief.  It is a collection of essays, letters and columns by a variety of authors talking about raising children as an atheist/agnostic.  In it I found a story about dealing with differences in religious opinion within a marriage that really brought me back to a particular relationship I had in university.  The essays were from the perspective of an atheist who married a former Catholic.  Initially in their relationship the former Catholic was either against or indifferent to religion but eventually went back wholeheartedly to religion and they struggled to maintain their marriage and to raise their child but did prevail with much difficulty.

My religious relationship experience started out similar but ended up very differently.  Initially the girl involved seemed pretty indifferent to religion and gave me the impression of being some sort of agnostic or perhaps a believer in non religious spirituality.  I was an atheist then as now but back then I was much more sold on the side benefits of religion and felt it to be more of a mistaken curiosity than a menace.  I was also overconfident and felt sure that eventually I could bring her around to my point of view.  I was wrong.  Eventually through the course of 3 years her attitude swung around to being much more traditionally religious and eventually it became a major factor in our breakup.  We never attempted to convert or enforce values on each other but it was certainly clear from my perspective that religion was an insurmountable problem.

Certainly children figure very heavily in my doubts about having two very different religious views within a marriage.  It is entirely possible to be very laissez-faire religious and essentially do nothing different from an atheist when no children are involved and to have a fine relationship that ignores that topic for many people.  I am not those people mind you, as I would always challenge my partner to justify their beliefs when those beliefs are supporting groups that have committed and continue to commit terrible crimes.  However, when children are involved these issues immediately come to the fore because the child has to be told what to believe and people find it very hard to watch someone they care about be imprinted with beliefs they find abhorrent or even just incorrect.

My experience with Wendy is much different.  She had a religious upbringing and occasionally has moments of spirituality but they never stay for long.  Inevitably I end up talking with her about what exactly she believes and the precise reasons for it and eventually we come around to the fact that it is "a nice thing to think because it makes me happy but it isn't really true."  I have no problem with that - I have plenty of my own little mental tics that cause me to do strange and foolish things.  The crux of the issue for me is the ability to step back from a position, evaluate the reasons for it logically and objectively and then choose an action.  I might decide that walking over specific patterns of tiles on particular bits of my feet every time is fun but I don't try to insist that it is right, useful or important.

I got very lucky to end up in the situation I did I think.  It is easy to end up with a tiny person standing in front of you asking "Where do people go when they die?" and look at your partner and realize that answering that question is going to create tremendous friction no matter what the answer is.  I am not one to pander to "There are many paths to truth" or any other such nonsense that pretends that people can base their lives around destructive lies with no consequences and I suspect that I would end up divorced quickly had I ended up married to someone with strong religious views.  My answer to the above question is as follows:

When people die their bodies eventually break down into tiny pieces that end up being part of new plants, animals, buildings, air and everything we see around us.  A big part of who we are is in other people, in their feelings and memories of the things we did and how we lived.  We can change people's minds in positive ways and give them memories of us so that a big part of who we are goes on long after we die.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

3 is the loneliest number

Today I was doing some testing of various 3 player formats for FMB.  Because I am designing a free flowing wargame it is obviously true that 3 players will be a challenging format as traditionally 2 people simply gangpile one guy and kill him off before going to work on each other.  FMB has some things that tend to weaken that strategy because all units respawn at their controller's base after dying so actually wiping someone's army out isn't possible; you can push him back and take his Mines but you can't actually destroy him so alliances between 2 players cannot be as solid as in many wargames.  The other main thing that discourages gangpiling is the victory condition; cooperating with an opponent is simply foolish once the third player is behind in score so there is a real in game advantage to backstabbing your 'partner' early on.

The simplest rules version I came up with simply has all 3 players accumulating points as fast as they can and the first player to 30 points wins.  (The 2 and 4 player versions require 45 points to win.)  It has the advantage of being very intuitive and the strategies are easy to understand even for a new player.  If one player is particularly bad it shouldn't be a big problem because the other two players will naturally end up fighting each other more as the bad player falls behind in points.  I came up with a much more devious alternative though which was based on around the idea of attacking left.  In big group games of Magic this was regularly used to encourage action - the idea is that you sit in a circle and win by eliminating the opponent on your left.  In FMB I set it up so that the game ends when anyone hits 30 points but that the winner is the person whose left hand opponent has the *smallest* score.  This changes things drastically of course, mainly in the following ways:

1.  Alliances are impossible.  You cannot team up with an opponent to kill the other opponent because either you are hurting yourself by not attacking lefty or your righty is an idiot for attacking someone whose score he wants to maximize.  Everyone is forced to be on their own team.

2.  The game feels much less intuitive.  It feels very natural to defend your territory and attack anyone who is overpowering you and much less so to throw yourself at the throat of a random opponent.  Defending your own territory and preserving your army is of secondary importance which surely has a bizarre feel.  I imagine for new players this might be really hard to get used to.

3.  One poor player can really mess things up.  If a player plays very passively (badly) and simply defends themselves then the player to their left is nearly guaranteed to win.  Being able to constantly attack and not defend is an incredible advantage.  This does require a pretty determinedly stupid player though, as even if they send one fast unit to lefty's home area to put pressure on the game is probably going to work fine.

The question I am mulling is whether or not a loss in intuitive, straightforward play is worth a gain in 'theoretical game perfection' whatever that means.  From far away I really like the idea of attacking left and it certainly feels unique but the motivation of the wizard/general we are roleplaying seems strange indeed.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010


I find myself wondering how much the phrasing of a particular game effect changes the way people think about it.  In particular there are a few new mechanics in the Cataclysm expansion for WOW that are obviously set up to abuse the perception of a bonus instead of a penalty.  The new guild levelling system has a number of different bonuses you can get for your guild members including bonuses to getting gear with faster Honour and Hero Points as well as other percentage bonuses to gathering, mount speed, etc.

All of these things are phrased as a bonus, never as a penalty.  The idea of course is that we look at all the shiny new things we are going to get and rejoice instead of being frustrated at having to overcome a deficit but any really objective look at the system must conclude that Blizzard will balance around everyone having these bonuses maxed out and anyone not having them is at a disadvantage.  The initial stages will be full of people being excited by getting all these new things but I foresee that very quickly they will change from celebrated bonuses to mandatory requirements.

In particular this is going to be a real mess when starting a new guild.  It will be very difficult to convince anyone to join a guild where they gain gear 9% slower, receive less resources when the mine/herb/skin and even move slower.  That initial perception of 'bonus' is going to rapidly become 'required' and any new guild is going to have a hell of a hard time getting people in since they have to be that much better than an established guild.  There are some bonuses that won't have this effect like the mass resurrect that will be usable in instances but any numeric bonus that directly affects the player's income and gear acquisition is going to be seen as required and guilds without them are going to have a terrible time getting new players.  In my mind this is a very bad thing; players should be encouraged to join whichever guilds suit them socially rather than being very substantially rewarded for sticking with whoever has been around a long time.  It may also lead to people selling guilds that have levelled up to others because of the real value in the guild name now - this might actually prove a dramatic problem when people get hacked.

A similar thing occurred when I played a game of FMB this weekend against a new player.  He seemed to like the game overall but didn't like the fact that every space on the gameboard was either a neutral space or a space with movement penalties associated - no space actually gives bonuses to anything.  I wonder if I should try to incorporate some bonus effects on various spots on the board.  There are certainly many places in the game where I made the decision to phrase things as a bonus instead of a penalty because I find I get very strong negative feedback about effects that penalize opponents instead of providing a boost to the owner.  I don't want to pander to this entirely though since a few 'screw you' effects are fine but I certainly make the vast majority of abilities work to increase the caster instead of disadvantage the opponent.  It is a tricky balance to strike.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Bad Medicine

I just finished reading Worried Sick, a book about delivery of medical services in the United States.  The author's basic premise is that the following conditions must be true before a medical test is worth doing:

1.  The test is accurate.
2.  The result has meaningful predictive value.
3.  There is something meaningful to be done if the test is positive.

The amazing thing is that so many extremely common medical treatments, particularly expensive and dangerous treatments, have tests that simply fail these very simple rules.  I fully expected that all kinds of alternative medicine like homeopathy, naturopathy, aromatherapy, acupuncture and others would completely fail to measure up but I didn't anticipate how incredibly weak the reasons for more mainstream treatments like angioplasty, stents, prostate exams and mammography would be.  It seems to be largely true that doctors want to treat patients who come to them with problems even when the problems are insoluble and that the desire to do *something* overrules the desire to do the right thing.

The best two examples in my opinion are prostate cancer and angioplasties done for heart concerns.  Even if you can easily figure out if someone has prostate cancer you are faced with the problem that removing the prostate has an unimpressive rate of preventing death by prostate cancer and it causes huge numbers of problems including impotence and urinary leakage in many of those who undergo surgery.  The other problem is that prostate cancer usuall  takes a long time to kill people so many older patients who undergo treatment have no reason to think they will live long enough for prostate cancer to kill them.  Even trying to prevent heart attack by angioplasty is noted to cause cognitive problems (due to breaking up plaques that then cause mini strokes) and is wretched to useless at saving lives since so many people die during the operation itself.

I have real first hand experience with excessive medical testing from my work.  In a job I had last year I was working for a private clinic that got CEOs, VPs and the super rich to come in for massive batteries of tests each year.  They were tested far more often than makes any sense even if you assume that the treatments would be helpful... and in many cases it seems that isn't true.  I figured at the time that if rich people want to blow money being pandered to and tested excessively it wasn't any problem of mine since otherwise they would be buying status symbols with that cash but the fact that this was supported by doctors and was only unavailable to the public due to funding constraints is a sad state of affairs.

Just because a doctor can cut you open and make an effort to fix things inside you is no guarantee that doing so is a good idea.  Testing itself costs the patient in time, stress and life disruption and invasive surgery is much worse.  Although we might wish that modern medicine could solve all our health problems that is not the way things are.  We would all be much better off if our doctors could tell us that there is nothing they can do but wait and see and if we were willing to accept that as the best science has to offer.

Friday, July 16, 2010


I decided that since I am essentially giving up on the idea of fighting every single business who objects to me being barefoot I should find some sort of compromise solution.  Today I went out and bought myself a pair of Vibram Five Fingers shoes which you may remember from an earlier Barefoot post and you can see in the picture below.

They feel very strange initially as I have never had a sock or shoe that wraps each toe individually before.  The soles are extremely thin and flexible so I can actually feel cracks in the sidewalk and the edges of paving stones quite clearly which is great because that sensation of knowing the ground I walk on was one of the big selling points of going barefoot for me.  The shoes succeed dramatically in some ways:

-I can walk on rocks and hot pavement without discomfort.
-I can go into stores without fear of harassment.
-The shoes are very light if I want to carry them.
-The shoes give the same stride and exercise benefits of actually being barefoot.

They aren't as good as actually being barefoot in many ways though.

-I can't feel the breeze on my feet.
-My feet get hot and sweaty just like any other shoe which does not occur while barefoot.

The new shoes end up being not so much a replacement for being barefoot as a compromise.  They are pleasant to walk in and solve all of the issues being barefoot has but they aren't quite the same.  In some ways it feels ridiculous that I had to go out and solve my issues with a consumer product considering my aversion to buying things I don't strictly need.  I always prefer to use things until they break before getting something to replace them but these new shoes do fill some particular niches where my current sandals utterly fail so I suppose I should just accept it and move on.

Apparently lots of other people feel the same way I do.  There are only two stores in Toronto that carry these shoes and they are sold out within a few days of getting a shipment in while constantly fielding calls from people asking when more will arrive.  I suppose I should enjoy being in on a new 'fashion' wave before it becomes mainstream - that may well be a first for me.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

I have a minion

One of the defining features of a villain is their minions.  It is hardly appropriate for the first fight the heroes have to be with the final boss himself (unless he gets away, of course) so it is traditional for heroes to tangle with minions of the evil boss first.  Initially the minions are generally of the mindless, weak variety so that the heroes can plausibly gain experience and skill to defeat the more intelligent, dangerous minions and eventually the villain himself.  Yesterday I acquired my first minion, known variously as Gnome or Ziggyny.

I have been testing FMB as much as possible but in the past little while I have been heavily focused on the physical appearance and flow of the game and less on game balance.  Game balance is one of those bizarre things that has a correlation to the success of a game but the correlation isn't especially strong.  Diablo 2 for example was heinously unbalanced and yet was a smash success and War is spectacularly balanced while also being utter rubbish.  Due to this I know that having a balanced game is helpful but by far the most important thing about a game is that it is fun.  That is a tricky balance to strike since my mind so constantly focuses on the numbers behind the effects and not as much the fun factor.

The reason I say I have acquired a minion is that yesterday Ziggyny posted on his blog an analysis of some of the Artifacts in FMB.  He wrote up spreadsheets and built a simulator to iterate the effects of various Artifacts over many turns to develop a baseline for comparison.  The analysis he did was very useful and highlighted the fact that some of my Artifacts were simply out of line with others.  I ended up building my own spreadsheet today to do my own analysis and when I finally saw the numbers in front of me I was pretty shocked at how out of whack they were.  Now it should be noted that my 'way out of whack' is 'balanced on a razor's edge' in most games but my standards are irrationally high.  Based on this I went back and changed at least half of the Artifacts and Spells in the game.  Mostly things were easy to alter to fit my new designs but some of what I had in there had to be scrapped outright.

It feels strange to have someone working for me to forward my plans to take over the world.  I have had lots of people volunteer their expertise in financial or business matters when/if I reach the point of trying to actually sell this thing but only one has gone off on his own and worked on the game itself to a substantial extent.  Note that I am very grateful for the testing and suggestions I receive from all quarters but real minions go and build spreadsheets.  Unfortunately if a group of well meaning adventurers decide to end my evil plans I don't know that I can rely on Ziggyny to protect me though as he is rather small and uninterested in brawling.  Perhaps that will be a benefit as presumably if my enemies come to destroy me without levelling up by beating my minions I can defeat them handily.  I have work to do now:  My irrational overconfidence is already in place but the maniacal cackle needs some practice.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Don't shoot the messenger

Yesterday I posted about my experience at the grocery store where the manager ordered me out of the store on the basis that Provincial Law required shoes and shirts in grocery stores.  I was convinced that his statement was bogus so I went and did some searching to find out.  In particular I could see how some bizarre justification could be made for banning bare feet in a store that sells food but I can't fathom how a bare chest could be considered a legal issue.

I visited yesterday and got some information there on what the law actually says and contacted the person who runs the site to get more information.  The gentleman told me the story of when a similar thing happened to him and he ended up in a fight with the head office of a major grocery chain arguing his case.  They ended up telling him that even though there was no actual Regulation or Law requiring shoes that they could enforce any dress code they wanted, which is entirely true.  Since a lawyer working for a major company couldn't come up with an actual legal defence for their policy I am quite confident that there is none, although the fact that it is nearly impossible for a normal person to actually be sure is pretty ridiculous.

Today I went back to the store wearing shoes and found the guy I talked with yesterday.  I informed him that he was greatly in error and that no law existed to support his position.  I wasn't sure what to expect prior to this conversation since he could easily have denied it, gotten angry and thrown me out or any other number of different things that would have aroused my ire and started a good old fashioned showdown.  Instead he apologized profusely for his mistake and pointed out that regardless of the legal system's opinion his store put up a sign requiring shoes and is going to enforce it.  I asked him to justify that decision and he said that since he is managing a store in a gigantic chain that it simply isn't his decision to make and that he would not be going against corporate policy since it risked his job to do so.

The trouble is that he is exactly right.  Me arguing with him is totally pointless since he didn't make the rule and honestly seemed like he would rather ignore it if it was up to him.  I can't fault someone for putting their job above my right to go barefoot in their list of priorities.  I am caught in this position of wanting something very small that requires tremendous effort to acquire; if it was a single store and I could speak to the decision maker right away I expect I could get someplace but going through customer service of a giant corporation simply isn't feasible as there are many different stores and I might have to fight with every single one.

I think a lot of people in my position shoot the messenger.  They freak out at the stewardess when the airline screws up, they play horrible tricks on phone salespeople to sate their anger at the companies that arrange those calls and they yell at managers in big chains who do not tell them what they want to hear.  I don't think it makes the yeller feel better, I know it doesn't make the yellee feel better and it sure doesn't solve anything to attack the nearest proxy of an offending entity yet people do it all the time.  The real villain here is the public perception of being barefoot that is the root cause of all these rules and I can't forward that fight by getting tangled up with all kinds of legal messes and confrontations with uninterested, powerless employees.

I will probably end up taking shoes along with me to the stores I intend to visit just like I do to Elli's school.  Their rules are baseless and discriminatory but the cost of fighting them is simply too great so I will compromise my principles.  I think that this is a great example of why I love roleplaying and online fantasy worlds so much - I can be the sort of person who lives without compromise, doing what is right instead of what makes sense.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Obey the Law

Today I had a new experience with barefooting.  I went into two stores and in both of them I was told to never come back without shoes on because it is the law.  The tricky thing of course is that even though in both stores the people confronting me were sure it was the law they did not know what the law said exactly, what body issued the law, what the name of the law was or anything else about it.  This isn't surprising since I know that murder is against the law but I really don't know any of the things above about it either.  In both cases they were happy to have me make my purchases and leave and in both cases they were thoroughly uninterested in the health benefits of being barefoot and simply wanted me out of their stores asap.

The trick here is that I don't know how to be sure that something is or is not illegal.  It sounds ridiculous to say that since ignorance of the law is no excuse for breaking it but I honestly don't know how to determine this sort of thing aside from paying a lawyer to tell me.  I went online and did a ton of searches on Ontario laws at Here and could not find a single thing pertaining to my situation but how can I possibly make the determination for sure that the stores are in the wrong?  The store manager claimed that the government sent their "No shoes, no shirt, no service" sign but the sign didn't have any references to laws of any kind, just pictures of feet, rollerblades, dogs and a bare chest with slashes through them.  I assume that any regulation posted by the government would note the details of the regulation so it must be that the store makes up its own rules.

What I want to do is head down there and raise some hell with the manager at the store.  If he had simply admitted that his store had a rule that shoes were mandatory and that it made no real sense but his head office required it on the basis of liability I wouldn't have had an issue with it.  It would still be ridiculous and sad but stores can make their own rules about who goes in so I would respect it.  The part that is really infuriating is that he is so willing to give the mantle of government mandate to something that is simply an enforcement of social norms by way of liability claims.  Therein lies the other tricky part - the question of whether or not it is illegal to order people to do specific things citing law when that law does not in fact exist.  I really don't know what the punishment for making up laws is but I am very tempted to go down there and throw the words 'fraud' and 'discrimination' around and see what kind of response I get.

So here is your chance to help me dear reader:  I need to know for sure if there is any government law that mandates wearing shoes and a shirt in any kind of specific store or business in Toronto, Ontario.  I also need to know what the law is surrounding people making up laws and trying to enforce them on the public in lieu of just saying "Because I want you to".  I am going to be doing my own research in the meantime to try to sort this out but the sooner I can be sure of these things the sooner I can head back down there for a showdown and provide you with the story of the occasion.

Monday, July 12, 2010

It sucks to die

There has been quite a buzz in the WOW blog community lately about changes to the game coming in Cataclysm that are going to make it slightly less annoying to die.  These changes are minor, like adding a group resurrect spell that a guild can cast periodically or other similar conveniences.  The big thing that many people seem disgusted about is that death in WOW it isn't a big deal.

The complainers tend to focus on the fact that WOW isn't dangerous.  If you wander around in the world you can generally fight anything you find and usually several enemies at once without being in any danger of being killed.  Scouting, hiding and sneaking are patently unnecessary as everyone just runs to the next monster and blows it up without thought or care.  The complainers tend to be angry that the world isn't full of danger and wonder.  They seem to want to explore a world where every battle should be planned, enemies avoided unless necessary and players who misstep surely die.  They also want that death to have some kind of punitive penalty aside from simply time spent getting back from the graveyard.

These people seem to want to roleplay as Frodo Baggins.  They want to be important and make things happen but they want the world to be extremely dangerous and to be forced to rely on stealth to survive.  They are in the minority of course, because most people who play WOW and other online fantasy games want to roleplay as Aragorn.  The average person is very used to a world where getting into a fight is dangerous and foolish and being careful and crafty is the order of the day - it is called real life.  These average people want to feel like the sort of person that simply chops an orc in half if it gets in the way and goes in search of the real bad guy, someone with mystical powers and a story to be told.

In this I am in the same boat as the average person.  If I wanted to explore strange places I could do so without leaving real life, they exist all around me.  If I want to be careful and avoid confrontation I can do that here too.  The thing I can't do in the real world is be a hero.  I can't be better than the mass of dudes out there and smash them aside without fear.  I cannot forgo compromise for confrontation and have things go well in real life, but in a fantasy world I can be a paladin who has principles that cannot be denied and powers that must be reckoned with.

I don't need death to have a crushing penalty for me to avoid it since death itself costs me twofold:  First, in failure.  I hate to fail and I strive to the utmost to avoid it.  Secondly death costs me time.  Time is a resource I never have enough of and cannot buy so I certainly do my best to avoid losing time to being dead.  When I am Redcape and I walk across the world mauling those monsters who dare to oppose me I know that the Lich King awaits and that he is incredibly powerful.  There are dangers and dark beasts out there that I must fear, but I don't need to fear every random orc I come across to enjoy the World of Warcraft.

Friday, July 9, 2010

Better good than lucky

Imagine this scenario.  A company you have been dealing with for some time makes a terrible mistake and you make it known that you are unimpressed with them.  Following this, the company does its best to reverse the damage done.

What do you do?

The answer according to many people is flip the company the bird and never deal with them again.  The right answer is to do the opposite; this sort of behaviour is a strong indicator that this is *exactly* the sort of company you should be dealing with.  This of course is about Blizzard's RealID "Forum posts will be in your real name" fiasco of this past week.

Blizzard proposes that everyone will in future need to post with their real name.
Forums explode with complains and threats.
Blizzard retracts their plan and tells us it will not be happening.
Many players insist that they will never purchase Blizzard products again, others give public thanks.

I have worked in customer service/sales in several companies now and I can tell you from those experiences, as well as my experiences as a consumer, that companies screw up.  They *all* screw up, and if you deal with any company for long enough they will do something to wreck your day.  You cannot avoid things going badly at some point due to an evil/incompetent/stoned employee, computer glitches, bad luck, weather or whatever.  However, there are big differences between companies in how they handle these errors.  Some companies actually go out of their way to make sure that dissatisfied customers are compensated for any mistakes or change their policies based on customer feedback and others simply ignore the problem.

Awhile ago I flew with Porter airlines and they damaged my suitcase.  I didn't notice until I got home that it was fairly substantially dented though still usable.  I contacted them about it and they said that since I did not report it at the terminal for inspection they could only offer me 25 dollars off my next fare.  Considering the suitcase could not have been worth more than 50 dollars brand new I was quite pleased with that response and booked my next flight with them.

The opposite example is when I started a new job a few years ago at ICM Consulting.  The interviewer seemed thrilled with me and asked me to start the next day.  His boss was evidently displeased with the hiring decision and so decided to simply make my life miserable to force me to quit, which I did.  I will never deal with that company again and will advise anyone I meet to never deal with them and yet the whole situation could have been easily avoided if the boss had simply acknowledged that they made a hiring mistake and offered me a week's pay for a swift exit.  I wouldn't have been impressed, but I wouldn't have held a grudge.

In both cases the way a problem was handled reflected very well the attitude of the company towards errors. So next time a company (or a person!) makes an error that you don't like I suggest you pay more attention to their response to the error than the error itself.  Every company makes mistakes, but only some try to make things right again.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

My real name

Edit:  The situation that prompted this post has changed drastically and the plans that were suggested have been scrapped.  See This link.

There is a tremendous furor in progress on the WOW forums here.  Essentially what has occurred is that Blizzard has announced that everyone using the forums will have to post with their real first and last name when their new forums launch in the near future.  Note that in 48 hours they have accumulated a complaint thread 2000 pages long with 40,000 posts that are almost all negative.  Their plans seem to be focused around two major things:

1.  Clean up the place.  The forums right now are a haven for whining, flaming, cursing, bumping and grandstanding.  I occasionally look at them for a laugh but for any serious purpose I go to a secondary site with strict moderation.  Blizzard wants to make the forums useful and welcoming to new players and they feel that adding this degree of accountability will help that.

2.  Make a social network.  There is a drive in place to partner with Facebook and create a giant social network across all Blizzard games.  Certainly there is a lot of money available in marketing through social networks and there are even benefits for users, but many people don't want a social network, just a game.

People have all kinds of problems with this.  Many of them are concerned about someone in game finding their name, flying to their city and stabbing them.  They should be more concerned about slipping in bathtub or crossing the street.  Some are concerned that future dates will Google them and refuse to date them because they play video games.  Did you know that people you date might NOTICE that you are a gamer at some point?  There are others that feel that if their name appears on a forum their professional reputation will be permanently ruined.  Right, because if someone Googles a lawyer named Fernando Sanchez and notices that some guy named Fernando Sanchez posted on a game forum, obviously their lawyer is a basement dwelling lowlife.

Most the reasons that people give for hating this idea are garbage.  However, there are actually plenty of good reasons to think that forcing people to post with their real names is a bad plan.  First, some people signed up with their real name.  Others signed up as LOOOL NOOB, and any new player to WOW could (should?) sign up with either a nonsense name, a pseudonym, or simply John Smith.  This results in a distinct double standard that Blizzard cannot rectify; some people will be posting on their real name and others will be known as Giant Tool.  Another big issue is what Blizzard expects to do with the 10,000 distinct John Smiths on the forums.  They have said that linking a character to the profile is optional, so there is no way for the majority of players to distinguish between the various John Smiths, many of whom who will certainly refuse to link a character just to confuse people.

Of course another big strike against them is the simple fact that people hate it.  Angering many of your customers and convincing them to cancel subscriptions or not post on the forums is not good business. Even if the concerns they have are bogus there is plenty of argument for offering the service people want to pay for instead of the service you wish they wanted to pay for.  Blizzard had a glowing image in the gaming community until about two days ago and it is tarnishing at a tremendous rate, and whether that is fair or not does not change that.

I think that these changes will work to improve the level of discourse on the forums and reduce the pointless spam and trolling.  Things will get better and the official forums will improve.  However, I also think that there are much better solutions to the problem than what they are proposing.  Forcing everyone to use a single gamertag title for all posts and aggressively handing out permanent bans for bad forum behaviour will achieve all their forum cleanup goals quite easily without causing a ruckus and without any concerns about privacy, however overblown.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Chemicals are bad

A little while ago I encountered my first real snare to my barefoot project:  I was asked to wear shoes at Elli's school.  At the time I simply acquiesced and went along with their request, not being at all sure if it was a good idea to get into a fight with a school I intend to have my daughter at for many years yet.  Today I decided that it is was a good time to push back, just a little, and politely.  I will quote my letters exactly, but not theirs since I do not know how they would feel about that.  I will report the gist of what they said though.  My email:

Hi there.

It has been a couple weeks since I was taken aside and asked to always wear shoes while at Central Eglinton and given my experiences since then I am questioning that necessity.

I walk everywhere barefoot and have done so for 10 weeks now.  I walk through back alleys strewn with rocks and broken glass, I hike, I go on trips, I take public transportation and I walk on the black asphalt in the city during this heat wave with no issues and yet I am asked to wear shoes to walk on clean tile flooring.  I carry my shoes while walking barefoot to and from the school and wear them inside since it is far by the most comfortable way for me to obey.

I also went to speak to a foot doctor and found out that walking barefoot isn't simply something I enjoy - it is recommended for good foot, joint and leg health.  Most people don't do so due to social stigma, but there is every reason to think that what I am doing is better for my health than the alternative.

So my questions to you are as follows:

1.  Is there actually a rule on the books that requires shoes to be worn by all visitors to the school such as myself?  If so, what exactly is it?

2.  Again assuming such a rule is there, what is the justification for it?  

Their response was interesting.  There is in fact no rule on the books at all that prohibits bare feet.  However, the janitor uses chemicals to clean the floors and has been informed that it is 100% unacceptable for them to allow someone wearing bare feet on the premises.  The reason for this prohibition is that the cleaning chemicals used on the floor pose a risk to people touching them.  They claimed that it was an insurance issue which I sadly have no trouble believing.

So, to be clear:  We have a daycare, where children crawl on the floor, play on the floor and drop objects on the floor and then pick them up and put them in their mouths and this same daycare has a floor that is so dangerously high in chemicals that an adult cannot safely walk on it without foot protection.

I might suggest first that all the children who have spent 8 hours/day playing on that floor should first be quarantined in a hospital because by this point they must be nearly dead and probably are exhibiting a faint green glow.  The other possibility of course is that the children in the daycare are perfectly safe, and by extension the threat to me is zero.

While it might be convenient to blame the school I am fairly sure it would be entirely misplaced.  They have to have insurance and if insurance companies make up arbitrary rules it does not change the school's position at all;  The school must still have insurance and they will buy it with irrational clauses included.  Insurance companies will throw every possible clause in that they can get away with, and targetting any behaviour outside social norms is easy and safe because so few will object.  I honestly don't know whether or not the court system is really at fault here or not.  It seems possible that ridiculous lawsuits go through that force insurance companies to clamp down hard in every way they can to protect themselves, but it also seems plausible that insurance companies simply overstate their liability in order to wring more money from their customers and escape clauses from their contracts.  I just don't know, although I suppose it is almost certainly a mix of the two.  My rebuttal letter:

The idea that a chemical that is safe for a children's daycare floor is going to post even the remotest threat to me through the soles of my feet is obviously preposterous.

I am sorry that you are in the position of enforcing a sacrifice of personal freedom, especially at the cost of an attempt to improve health, to satisfy an irrational, illogical fear on the part of an faceless insurance adjuster.

Their final response made me very sad for the state of my country but happier with the people that I am dealing with in particular.  They reported that in fact many of the rules they are required to enforce 'seem preposterous' but yet they have no option but to enforce them.  Sad but true.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Microsoft is good

Over the past few weeks I have been plugging away at my FMB unit design.  There has been a lot of iteration on the design due to input from people around me and my own creativity but the greatest mover of design changes has been the program used to create the design.  For awhile I have been working with until I discovered the gradual but noticeable degradation of images I got while using it.  When I saved my work and then reloaded it I found distinct picture quality issues that actually got significantly worse with each save and reload.  It was so bad that I eventually gave up on and swapped over to Microsoft Office PowerPoint, which at first glance didn't seem like the ideal interface for creating art but in fact worked wonderfully.

Like a lot of geeks I have this idea in my mind that using free software instead of supporting the behemoth Microsoft's (insert Imperial March music here) software is a good thing.  After all, Microsoft has been guilty of economically evil behaviour in the past, should we not shun their products as punishment?  The problem of course is that I don't use software to make a statement so much as I use software to get things done and Office is simply *better*.  It is better because they have massive gobs of money to throw at development, but better nonetheless.  This same sort of effect was present when I swapped to Microsoft Excel from OpenOffice's spreadsheet builder.  The free to use version was okay at first, but after having experienced both I can say definitively that the evil empire makes much better office programs than the collective of unpaid geeks out there.

Now I have a spreadsheet build in Excel and a set of units built in PowerPoint.  It cost me a hundred bucks to buy the home version of Office but I can certainly vouch for the fact that it was worth the price, even for my limited use of it so far.  I have gone from a daring pilot flying a X-wing fighter in a trench on the Death Star to a white clad Stormtrooper standing at attention awaiting orders from the Emperor.  Perhaps I have betrayed my roots and fallen in line with big business, or perhaps I just use whatever it is that actually does the job.  Which it is depends on your point of view.

Below is the picture I created in PowerPoint.  Faster, prettier and easier.  Go Team Evil.

Monday, July 5, 2010

A worthy challenge

Corporate Plunderer (aka Snidely) set a challenge before me last night.  He is interested in developing a game for mobile devices that would satisfy a list of conditions:

Can be played concurrently but does not have to be
Variable number of players
Highly addictive

Obviously everybody is trying to be highly addictive, so that isn't anything new.  Variable number of players isn't too big a challenge for a game on a computer, that is more of an issue that physical games have to deal with.  The main problems as I see it are that allowing people to play a game without having specific time constraints is extremely difficult unless you want to make success and failure not really possible.

For example, there are many online games where you can build your farm, set up a city, or rule a small empire within a larger game world.  In most of these games failure is not an option - you can log in whenever and if you don't log in for awhile it is ok, you are exactly where you left off.  In those sorts of games if failure *is* an option then the game is often extremely random since you can be easily smashed by others who team up and strategy is relatively useless compared to luck and politics.

This sort of situation is much easier to deal with if you have time constraints - if a single turn goes by each calendar day for example, everyone can realistically log on and give orders for a few minutes each day.  It is also possible to arrange a game where you log on and are paired against an opponent immediately as is the case in many online games, but the market for directly confrontational games is often limited and you are faced with direct competition from real FPS and RTS games on consoles and real computers.  There is also the issue of having fairly serious intensity and dedication required for 1v1 matchups that a mobile platform is not especially well suited to - people often have only a little bit of time to play and may be interrupted.

I think it might be a good idea to consider a team PVE approach to this sort of problem and a great starting model would be WOW's random dungeon finder.  What you would need for this to work is some kind of persistent 'character' that can advance over time through winning games and a social platform where people can hit a button to group up with their friends or random others to play a game together.  It would also be possible to make the advantage from each game decay rapidly such that each game played after the first on a given day awarded half as many points as the game before so a casual player won't fall too far behind a hardcore player.

That is a fine bit of structure I think, the trick of course is designing a game that a few people can play together on small screens with limited controls and easily scalable difficulty.  That, of course, is no small task.

Saturday, July 3, 2010


During the G20 summit here in Toronto there were lots of protests.  I spent some time wandering the internet looking for the goals of the various groups involved in the protesting and found some really interesting stuff.  There were calls to violence, calls for a dismantling of the banking system, calls for the dismantling of our entire monetary system and calls for a new order of socialist rule over the entire planet.  There were certainly some people protesting for useful things too as many of those heading downtown were calling for various human rights and/or environmental protection.  The one really consistent thing running through these protests though was the idea that whether your hot button issue was idiotic or reasonable the best thing you could do was get to downtown Toronto to get your opinion heard.

Unfortunately that sort of rhetoric draws in those who have absolutely no idea of the issues.  There are all kinds of people out on the streets protesting who have absolutely no clue about the ideas involved but are simply following along.  If everyone on the streets had actually spent a full 2 hours split evenly between reading their group's ideas and a diametrically opposed group's ideas I would be much more inclined to support them - at least they know what it is they are protesting.  Just getting out there lends credence to everybody already there including those intent on violence, destruction and ridiculous agendas as well as any group you might happen to agree with.

I am not convinced that huge numbers of people protesting helps much of anything at all.  In particular I think that when a random person joins a massive crowd they contribute nothing towards the stated goal but rather simply put even more strain on the situation.  When you as an individual know that on a given day in a given place nothing much is happening you change the situation drastically by showing up and making noise.  You don't provide opportunities for violence or crime by doing so since you aren't a major event that people can use as an excuse to go wild and you don't provide a smokescreen by your numbers.  You will attract some attention, though not much, but your cause will be noticed and it won't be confused with others.

When you show up to a huge event where you know many people attending are intent on violence and destruction you run the risk of being collateral damage when other people do violent or stupid things whether those people are police or protesters.  It certainly feels better to be part of a crowd when making noise; it feels safer because there are others there doing the same thing.  It is easier to be whipped up into an emotional frenzy and do things you would otherwise not do even if those things are simply screaming and chanting in the streets.  I feel like going to an event like a giant protest of the G20 is much more enjoyable than a solo act but it is less effective at getting any particular message out and more likely to make the situation worse.

Friday, July 2, 2010

The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

I put together the pieces for FMB over the past couple days, gluing the paper printouts onto foam board to give them some thickness and strength.  Some of it worked out really well, some of it merely okay and some of it ... not so good.  First, the Good.  The basic board works great.  I had to do some chiselling and chipping and such after I cut it out with an Xactoknife, but now it both looks good and seems functional.  There are 2 pictures to the side that show the game set up and a side shot of the pieces so you can see the thickness.

All this chopping and pasting and such was the reason I failed to post on Wednesday.  I was terribly busy wearing my fingers to nubs on an Xactoknife and trying to poison myself with spray on glue.  The glue works wonderfully, by the way, but if you believe the bottle it will kill everyone who lives in my condo for the next 50 years.  So many warning labels!

The Bad:  This is the game pieces all separated out into plastic baggies as it traditional for these things.  The big pieces worked out well, but the little ones were tricky to cut right because of the thickness vs. the length and width.  They ended up kinda okay but a little bit uneven and not perfectly flat.  The colours also didn't print out correctly so the bits are too similar to the terrain.  The colours I can fix with a new printing, the warping is much harder.  Getting a picture of them that really showed this was tricky though, so you have to take my word on it.

The Ugly:  I don't know why Blogger turns this picture sideways.  I can't seem to make it do otherwise though.  The issue here is that
it is hard to tell at a glance which units are which.  The units with the triangles at the top are ranged units but to know which units are fast or strong you have to be able to make out the numbers.  It turns out this is pretty annoying to do and the units don't work at all as smoothly as I had hoped.  I need to fix this so I came up with some ideas.  My plan is to print out units with symbols on them instead of numbers:  -> for a fast unit, the same triangle for ranged that you see here, and either a sword or a clawed hand for a strong unit.  I have put a random jpeg I was doodling away on below so you can see what I was working on.

Your mission is to look at the two sets of units at the bottom and tell me which looks better, the ones with the clawed hand, or the ones with the sword.  If you have other potentially better ideas feel free to comment also.

Edit:  My latest set of unit pictures is below.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Danger Danger

Recently Blizzard released a new feature on WOW which will exist across all new Blizzard games that are released - RealID.  This is a feature that allows players to link up their accounts so that they can see and talk to their friends across all Blizzard games.  It requires knowing the other person's real email address to link up and displays their real name to both their friends and the friends of their friends.  I think this is a great service to add in since it allows me to easily keep track of my friends who are on other servers or playing other games.  I can chat with people within WOW itself without having to disrupt my play.  Of course, the internet is not convinced that RealID is a good thing.

As soon as this feature went live people began going on about how scary it was for them to be connected to their real name.  The standard scenario goes something like this:  I cause InternetThug in game a lot of grief.  They find out who my friends are and who their friends are.  By asking a friend of a friend using trickery, bribery or whatever they find out what my real name is.  Then InternetThug hunts me down in real life and kills me for griefing him in the game.

It makes me wonder how stupid the people making these sorts of complaints really are.  Firstly, if you don't like the service, don't use it.  Secondly, a first and last name and the knowledge that you live somewhere in the world *is not useful*.  Finding a single person in the whole of the world by those two names is nigh impossible even for an organization with the resources of a government, let alone a some random dude in the midst of a nerd rage.  Thirdly, if this was a real risk you would see internet celebrities that make controversial statements being regularly murdered and we would know about it!  You could take me as an example since just by perusing my blog you can find my name and photos that almost perfectly pinpoint my home.  I say things and have opinions and yet the idea that I am in any danger is ludicrous.  Of course I am a tiny fish in a big ocean... you could consider dooce who is something like 4 orders of magnitude more widely read than I am and has plenty of opinions to share and who has not yet been killed.

It simply boggles me that people are so ignorant of what will actually kill them and so aware of the things that should simply be ignored.  Your chance of being kidnapped or randomly murdered is so close to zero it is incredible - people murder their spouses, lovers, opposing gang members and longtime rivals but murders of people that hardly know each other are nearly nonexistent.  When they do happen they make the news of course, but to worry about them is an exercise is foolishness.  Worry about the high fructose corn syrup in pop, worry about drunk drivers, worry about not exercising enough.  Consider that you are more likely to die on a long trip from driving to and from the airport than you are on the plane.

Shocking scenarios with no probability attached are and always have been a huge problem for people.  We aren't too bad at understanding the difference between a 50% probability and a 20% probability but we are unbelievably wretched at the difference between 1% and .00001% and this sort of alarmism reflects that rather cleanly.