Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Christmas Lights

Today on our way home from school Elli noticed the gigantic Christmas tree in front of the mall near my place.  It is on a 3 meter pedestal and is about 6 meters tall itself, fully bedecked with lights and shiny metallic balls.  She was absolutely insistent that we go see it so after dinner we wandered over to the mall to look at the thing.  I am far past the stage where huge fake Christmas trees have any impact but she was thrilled to just stand in the rain staring at it.  We wandered into the mall and the trend continued; she noticed the 'pine boughs' and lights strung above us and said,

"Daddy, look at that, isn't it beautiful?"

I was more thinking "Chintzy", but I am a bit of a curmudgeon sometimes.  She was taken again by the fake holly strung along posts outside the grocery store and the chocolate bars shaped like Santa Claus sitting in boxes awaiting a parent and a whining child.  It is a strange transition to go from the awe and wonder at all things Christmas to grumbling about how stores start Christmas too early these days and being disappointed by the fakeness of it all.  Surely when I was younger I was as easy to impress with holiday decorations as she is now but I am so far from that place by this point I cannot see it.

I asked her what her favourite part of Christmas is and she answered "The Presents!".  No shocker, but I fished a little for a more heartwarming response and asked her if she thought that presents were more important or if it was more important that we were going to visit her Nana and Papa and Uncle Matt at Christmas instead.  She thought long and hard about that one and decided that presents were still her favourite thing and visits just didn't make number one.  I tried to have a wonderful, heartwarming quote for my parents but I failed... perhaps I needed to sell the trip a little harder.

My plan is still to go with "The Santa Claus Game" as my technique for dealing with the jolly old myth and I wonder if she remembers that from when I talked about it last year.  She is very interested in Santa's presents but doesn't seem particularly concerned with his characteristics or rules so I haven't really had a spot where I need to explain the realities of life to her.  I probably should do that sometime soon though so we are clear - I don't want it to be a "crushing of dreams" moment but rather just a "just so we are all clear on this" moment but riding that line is tricky.

My post today is a bit meandering and I missed yesterday entirely.  You can blame the voluminous quantities of snot exiting my body and perhaps the hacking cough.  Either that or lazy, take your pick.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Knights should be slower

It is fun to see the reactions I get when I make changes to CiV through mods.  For example, I was working today on changing Knights because at the moment they are a fairly weak unit.  There is an upgrade path that goes

Horseman (Strength 11, Speed 4) to Knights (Strength 18, Speed 3)

Strangely, the corresponding melee units look like

Swordsman (Strength 11, Speed 2) to Longswordsman (Strength 18, Speed 2)

You are going to have to trust me on the fact that Horseman and Swordsman units are pretty well balanced against each other.  Knights and Longswordsman units should also be balanced against one another... but they aren't, because Knights are only Speed 3.  If Knights were Speed 4, things would be fine.  I think what happened here is the people who made the game thought along the lines of "Well, Knights have heavy armor, so obviously they are slower than a Horseman.  Better make them Speed 3."  I encountered this same line of reasoning when I proposed changing Knights to Speed 4 to make them actually usable - people responded that Knights wear heavy armor and so should be slower.  Why nobody thought that randomly making Knights worse would ever present any difficulties in strategy is puzzling.

This idea that we can usefully model the amount of speed a unit might sacrifice to wear heavier armor is a pretty silly one.  We are talking about a combat model where an archer walks up to within bow distance of a city but does not shoot right away and it is entirely possible for a horseman to ride from another city, along the adjoining roads, up to the archer and stomp the archer into oblivion before the archer can even fire.  This Speed rating is a concept used to suggest that mounted units can cover more ground and close distance more rapidly than units that have to walk but it does not significantly model reality any more than that.  The other issue of course is that we are playing a game, and if Knights suck because we are trying to make them 'realistic' then we aren't being realistic at all; Knights were powerful and dominant military units for a very long time!

What we need to accomplish is to maintain immersion, not pretend we are modelling reality.  Immersion is broken by many things, one of which is gross game imbalance, but there are many others.  If Knights were slower than Longswordsmen then we would also find immersion to be broken as there isn't much of a way in which Knights weren't faster than people that had to walk.  What we need to find is places where we can reflect real life characteristics of things in game terms that people understand.  Knights are on horses, make them faster than people who have to walk.  Knights need to have 4 Speed to be good, so give them 4 Speed, which is faster than people who have to walk, so we are all good.  Of course you can never please anyone, which is amply demonstrated by the endless forum discussions about how long exactly it should take a modern destroyer to defeat a renaissance caravel and how the game does not accurately represent that conflict.

Thursday, November 25, 2010


I have been doing more modding in CiV and I have found a big blockade to being successful is being a little too enthusiastic.  I have this tremendous drive to make the game perfect so I carefully change every single number to match my vision.  Unfortunately for perfection I am attempting to make this set of changes in a way that other people will be happy and willing to use and which should be easy for them to understand.  It is therefore important that I not just make the numbers right but that I do it in a way that is minimally invasive.  It is vaguely like medicine I suppose in that there are certain things that need to happen but my goal is to change as few numbers as possible in order to get there, whereas a doctor needs to fix the patient's problem but also wants to be sure to do as little as possible while still achieving that end.  Don't do major surgery unless the patient absolutely needs it!

I actually didn't realize this myself, but in fact had to be reminded by another modder.  Thalassicus is a very well known modder who has created a whole suite of mods for CiV.  I took Thal's mods and ran with them, changing things and adding things all over the place.  I went through the list of buildings and changed nearly every cost, even making tiny tweaks such as making Temples cost 110 instead of 120 to build.  I was convinced that 110 was a better number, but Thal pointed out that it would be a lot better from the point of view of the users to just change a few small things, like the production available to build buildings, which achieves the same thing but leaves as much of the original game intact as possible.  This way the users can use their knowledge of the game effectively and won't have to relearn as much and presenting the changes in a compact form becomes much easier.  In this sort of thing presentation is important, as is ease of changing rulesets, so I need to step back a bit and find not just the changes that have to happen but also the best way to make them happen.

This turned out to be really good advice.  I managed to slice the size of many of my changes in half by simply increasing one number instead of decreasing many of them.  It isn't easy to figure out what exactly I should do in many cases because the game is so wide open - I can add new things in, change things that exist and even alter the fundamental rules.  I also have to keep in mind that these changes I make should be good for the game both for experts who play on the hardest difficulties and new folks who only have a few games under their belts but want to try something different.  Appealing to both slices of humanity can be tricky as often the pros want the game to be absurdly difficult and immune to cheesy solutions while the casual players often want things to look pretty and have good immersion and are less concerned about intricate balance questions.

I am having an absolute blast doing this though, not least because every time I come up with a new set of ideas the first thing I have to do is play a game of CiV and see just how they shake out!  Trying to break my own game is tremendous fun.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Medicine over the phone

Ontario has a service called Telehealth.  The idea behind this service is to have nurses available by phone 24/7 to give people advice on whether or not they should go to emergency, the doctor's office or do nothing at all about various health concerns they may have.  That idea sounds wonderful in theory because it should keep a lot of people who aren't actually very sick out of emergency rooms and reduce the workload of other health professionals.  In practice there seem to be real issues with the way the service is provided and there are a lot of frustrations with trying to use it.  I have called telehealth several times in the past couple years and every time has been very frustrating with the number of questions asked that are repetitive, contradictory or outrageous.  The last time I called them was this past Friday night and it was really the worst of the worst.

"So how long has Elli had this sore stomach?"
"Has she had this issue for more than 2 hours?"
"Is this something that just started, or has it been going for some time?"

You would figure that after I give a very comprehensive answer to the first question the other two would be unnecessary, but regardless the nurse asked them anyway.  After asking dozens of other questions she started reading me the advice blurb her script recommended and halfway through she stopped, realizing that she was reading the blurb for people who had just gotten the pain recently.  She then reasked a few more questions and began to read the blurb that actually matched the answers I had given in the first place.  It was also very frustrating because I gave her information like "The pain is very moderate, comes and goes, and Elli is mostly normal but complains sometimes." and then she would follow up with "Is Elli curled up in a ball in agony unable to move?"  No, she isn't, which should be obvious from the statement I just finished making!

During a previous call the questions actually got kind of funny as I described that Elli had a cut near her eye from a fall.  The nurse then asked me a series of questions like "Is her eye punctured?"  "Is internal fluid leaking out of the eye through a wound?"  I can imagine the existence of some kind of idiot who thought that a punctured eye might not warrant going straight to 911 !!! but I had clearly and completely described the wound in question and noted that no actual eye damage had occurred.

The nurses that answer these calls seem to have some notable tendencies towards incompetence but that is almost certainly not the whole story.  Surely they are legally bound to ask all kinds of ridiculous questions to avoid liability even when the questions make no sense.  They can't just let me describe the situation but must ask predetermined questions one after the other to make sure that they don't leave themselves open to litigation.  Certainly asking a lot of questions in this sort of situation is good but asking questions you already have answers to just to have that answer recorded in the appropriate spot is wasteful and annoying.  These calls tended to take a good 40 minutes to complete even though realistically the nurse could have gotten all the information they needed to give me advice in 5 minutes.  That wouldn't be much of a concern except that I did have to wait on hold a long time to get a nurse (bad if there is an actual emergency) and if this system was more efficient it would free up nurses for other duties.  I find it endlessly frustrating to have my time and the time of a medical professional dedicated to avoiding pointless litigation.

Monday, November 22, 2010

The World Will Shatter

Tomorrow the World of Warcraft will shatter.  Deathwing will rise up out of the ground causing incredible carnage and destruction and reshaping the very landscape.  This is an incredibly ambitious project by Blizzard, to release a brand new version of the entire old world at the same time as a new expansion offering all kinds of new content.  It certainly made the expansion take an incredible amount of time, far longer than people really felt was reasonable, and shortly we will get to see if all of the waiting was for a good reason or not.  Watching the behaviour of the players on the night before the cataclysm is very interesting indeed - so many are desperately running around trying to complete all the things that will vanish forever tomorrow.

There were people feverishly trying to recruit players to go and attempt extremely difficult achievements that are going away tomorrow.  I would normally advise against trying to do very hard things in very little time, but trying to do them with random people who have no idea what they are doing makes the proposition even worse.  Somehow even though these achievements have been around for 20 months the fact that they are going away is enough of a push to try any desperate action to complete them even though there was no particular incentive to do so last week.  Champion of Ulduar is a rough thing to do with a group of guildies who are experienced raiders and know the fights - getting trade chat puggers to try it is a bit of a joke.

Several factions are going away tonight when the servers go down and there of course were people desperately hawking reputation materials knowing that tomorrow they will be worth absolutely zero but tonight they might be worth a fortune.  It sounds a little like tickets to The Big Game where the seller hopes there is some guy truly desperate for it right now but if no sale is made then tomorrow those tickets are worth less than nothing.  There is an escalating game of chicken going on with those who really want to finish off a faction grind fighting those who have hoarded these items for no good reason and everyone knowing that the entire thing vanishes in but a few hours.

The world will be fresh and made anew and those who are nutty completionists like myself await the new quests and zones with baited breath.  I cannot wait to rip around the old world doing all the quests there are even though their rewards and difficulty are both utterly trivial.  It is that need to see it all, do it all and have every person in the world run out of tasks for me that consumes me.  Those like me are also preparing for that mad rush to be the very first person to get the new Loremaster title and achievement.  I cannot say exactly why I pursue these things so intensely - there is no real challenge aside from the time sink but nonetheless I must go and do it all.  Maybe it is just that need to know that the great hero Redcape has solved all the world's problems, rescued the damsels in distress and slain every villain there ever was.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Making Allowances

I have been part of a grand experiment these past few days.  Elli's 4th birthday was on the 14th and she got several gifts of money and a gift certificate as presents and for the first time we felt she was old enough to reasonably choose what to spend her windfall on.  We told her that she could spend that birthday money on whatever she wished and then did our best to help her to understand how much money she had and what her choices were.  The easiest thing was the gift certificate as we simply went to Indigo and I told her she could buy whatever she wanted as long as it wasn't more than what the card had on it.  We got to the kid's section and she walked over to the closest bookshelf and picked a book right at her eye level.  A discerning, savvy shopper she is not, but she insisted that this book was the exact thing she wanted to spend her money on.  Her certificate was for $25 and the book was $8 so I told her she could buy 3 things like that at the store.  The look of delight on her face that she could afford even more things was incredible.  We wandered around some more and she found another book and a Hello Kitty stuffed toy and decided that these 3 things were what she wanted.  They added up to $30 so I informed her that she could get them but only if she also used up the 5 dollar bill she got for her birthday too.  After careful consideration she put one book back and announced that she wanted to save the rest of her certificate and buy just 2 things instead.

I, for one, was very surprised.  Surprised twice, actually, because the totally random book she chose turned out to be a really great set of stories at what seemed like a really low price.  Lucky, I suppose.

I didn't expect a 4 year old to make that decision.  A tantrum, deciding to buy all 3 things or desperate negotiation were all things I was prepared for but calm, rational economic decision making was quite unexpected.  She doesn't even understand what 25 is yet, so clearly she can't have much comprehension of how much she is spending or what she has left, and yet she still latched onto the idea of getting some things now and saving her money to come back again later.  Ability to delay gratification:  YES!  I know that being able to delay gratification as a child is one of the greatest indicators of happiness in later life because that combination of emotional awareness and discipline is valuable in nearly every endeavour.  This makes me very happy indeed, perhaps even more so because it is so much like how I was as a child.  I saved my money up and was very picky about spending it; I even hoarded my Hallowe'en candy, eating one piece a day so that it would last until the night before the next Hallowe'en.

Based on that success we decided to give Elli an allowance of 1 dollar a week.  She can count up to about 18 or so but addition beyond 2+2 is really beyond her yet so I really don't know that she has any idea at all how much money she has.  Regardless she is delighted to have money at all and had a blast counting and recounting her vast wealth this evening.  I took her out today on a walk and we wandered through HMV on the way back; she desperately wanted a video there and was extremely pleased that she had enough money in her piggy bank to pay for it.  We may be starting a bit early on teaching her about money and letting her spend her own on things but it is fascinating to watch someone so small with so little idea of mathematics try to come to terms with what she has to give up to get what she wants.  It is a really engaging little psychology experiment.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Make it perfect

I have begun my foray into modding CiV.  So far I have only been messaging with a guy who has built a bunch of great CiV mods, giving him information and analysis but it is clear that soon I will want to do more and get into the code myself.  It has a strange attraction, even more so than building my own games in some ways.  I think this is because when I build my own games they aren't going to get substantial distribution and they aren't going to look polished, the only thing I can really grant them is good gameplay.  When I take a big name game like CiV though I can rebuild it from the bottom up using all of their graphics, sounds, animations and the like but make the mechanics my own.  Of course no mod is going to have the kind of distribution the base game does but there definitely exists the possibility of getting a large number of people to use something I have built and get that thrill of widely distributing my creation.

It is remarkable how wrong some of the numbers are and how extreme I have to be in changing them to make things work.  Example:

Factory - costs 300 to build, 3 gold per turn maintenance.  Gives 50% more production.
Nuclear Plant - costs 600 to build, 3 gold per turn maintenance.  Gives 25% more production.


So the Nuclear Plant is half as good for double the cost?  And to boot it comes from a much later tech so instead of it being around for 100 turns it will be around for 30 turns.  I redid the stats to be:

Nuclear Plant - costs 400 to build, 3 gold per turn maintenance.  Gives 100% more production.

I cut the cost by 33% and multiplied the effect by 4 and it is still just okay, worth building if the game will go awhile but not excessive.  When I actually sat down and began to crunch the numbers for some of the mechanics in the game I was really shocked at how off they were.  All of the terrible buildings were ones that I never felt it was worth it to make, and yet after looking at them again I calculate that they are often literally 20% as effective as other similar buildings.  It is clear that not only did no one actually try building the things in game but they didn't even have a guy write down the numbers and look at them for 5 minutes to see if anything looked off.  The game isn't supposed to be perfectly balanced as it also strives for some vague sense of historical accuracy, but historically people did build nuclear plants, windmills and forges and it wasn't a colossally stupid decision to do so!  If there is enough reason to include something in the game there is enough reason to make it reasonable to use that thing.

So much work to do, so many numbers to fix.  I must make them all perfect!

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

A balance between games and real life

There exists for gamers an incredible challenge - to find a balance between the irrational lust for more of the game and the necessity to preserve some semblance of a normal life.  Of course many gamers sink deep into the pit and come out only when compelled by physical necessity and some folks never touch the things in the first place; there is a continuum of different styles.  The struggle for people like myself who desire to communicate about their gaming passions is that speaking in a language that a non gamer can understand makes it extremely difficult to keep the interest of gamers because they find the conversation too simple and tired.  When instead we try to communicate in a language that gamers really understand and at a level that they find comfortable any non gamer simply has no idea what is going on - we might as well be speaking Greek.  I am not at all sure I actually achieve any sort of useful balance in my blog, as even though I try to make the gaming posts accessible many people find them incomprehensible and I am sure I could write better content for gamers if I gave up on accessibility entirely.

I must therefore give mad props where mad props are due, which in this case is to The Guild and Felicia Day in particular.  The Guild is a web based show that chronicles the lives of a group of extremely hardcore gamers.  They are ridiculous caricatures of gamer stereotypes, thoroughly understandable to those outside the gaming world and yet very sympathetic to gamers who have seen people just like that.  The Guild has the nigh impossible task I just outlined above, that is to make a show that somehow is appealing to the people who actually game as seriously as the characters in the show while still being accessible to the rest of the world.  They succeed at this quite dramatically, much more so than I do.  Somehow they manage to sneak in all kinds of awesome gaming references and yet make sure that someone who is not a World of Warcraft player could easily get the show as a whole.  The key parts are the characters, their loves, challenges and neuroses, and those translate very well across the gap between the gamers and the normal folk.  Certainly those who are hardcore gamers will find even more to laugh at but the appeal is very broad.  It also probably doesn't hurt that the lead character Felicia Day, who is also the writer and producer, is a beautiful redhead who is a longtime game geek and who writes awesome online shows, comics and books.  It is hard to imagine a more desirable girl for the legions of geeks out there.

The Guild has 4 seasons of shows online Here

And two awesome music videos Here and Here.

Watch them.  They are wonderful, and if you aren't the sort of person who knows these archetypes personally you must understand that they are exaggerations - but only very, very slight ones.  If you are the sort of person who knows about online gaming then expect to have hours and hours of your life vanish before you can drag yourself away from your screen again.

PS:  The actor who played Wesley Crusher on Star Trek:  The Next Generation plays one of the 'bad guys' in the show.  He is bloody awesome, much to my surprise.

PPS:  Wow, watch this if you are a gamer.


Yesterday I went and downloaded a new set of mods for CiV.  Essentially these are player created changes to the game that hope to improve it or simply change it for interests sake.  The thing I found most interesting about these mods as I looked through the documentation is how much better they made the game and how much better the documentation was than the published product.  The first is somewhat understandable as it is really quite difficult to playtest a game as expertly as a huge community of fanatics will do.  A company simply isn't likely to pay a dozen people of immense skill and resourcefulness to play for 8 hours a day for a month to figure out what changes need to be made to improve game play.  They certainly have beta testers that try to perform this task but the sheer amount of time required is incredible.  So while I do understand that it is very hard for a company to produce a product that is up to the standards of the internet 'elite' I am pretty shocked at how much better the documentation was from the modders compared to the base game.

The official Civilopedia (Encyclopedia of the game, essentially) is extremely uninformative.  It has all kinds of spots where it says "Increases damage against mounted units" or somesuch without any *numbers*.  Sure, I like that pikemen do more damage against mounted, but whether that number is 3, 100% or (2+health remaining^3)/500 matters!  There are also lots of instances of things being left out or flat out wrong in the official documentation.  In the documentation for the mods things are complete and explicit.  It is well organized for ease of reading and contains all the relevant information, even including rationales for specific changes.  That a large company doesn't understand the ins and outs of games as well as a horde of geeks is understandable, even expected.  That that same company is worse at providing simple documentation on their game is embarrassing.  You have writers on staff!  You have people who are being paid to create documents, why oh why can't you provide documents as good as the random dude who is fixing your game in his spare time?

On a slightly different topic I notice a huge difference between the online communities of CiV and other games I have played.  In most games the forum crowd whine to the company about how their favourite class/spell/technique needs to be made better and tries to convince everyone that they are weak and need help.  CiV isn't that way at all, which I assume is because the game has different difficulty settings and mods.  You can simply decide to win the game any time you want by dialing the difficulty down or modding the game so that you cannot lose.  Given that people seem to spend more time yelling about how their favourite technique/unit/build is overpowered and the company needs to make it worse so they can feel good about doing other things!  It is a complete reversal where the players hope the company will nerf their thing instead of buff it, largely because they aren't playing with a fixed set of rules.  That ability to just win anytime you want seems to relieve the player of the urge to make themselves more powerful and imbues them with the urge to make the game more fun for themselves instead.

Monday, November 15, 2010


Last night Wendy and I were talking about my trading of Magic cards back in the day.  I spent a lot of time swapping cards with other people to try to improve my collection and I am sure I ended up profiting at least $1000 off of doing so, possibly as high as $2000.  I got quite good at trading back then and Wendy was wondering why I don't try to leverage that sort of skill in real life for real money.  It got me to thinking about what sort of endeavour Magic card trading is and wondering if there is any equivalent that could be worth serious money.

The basic things that trading Magic cards has that makes it unique:

1.  Differentiation of product.  There are huge numbers of different cards and they usually cannot replace one another.  This means that anyone wanting to be involved in trading needs a huge number of different products to satisfy all possible trade partners and needs to have a very good knowledge of the relative value of all those products.

2.  Time and person sensitive value.  Cards change in value dramatically from person to person and time to time. If a player needs a Morphling for their deck for the tournament they *need* it right now and they won't need it at all 24 hours from now.  Also cards shoot up and down in value based on what other cards come out, tournament structure and what other players are playing so a canny trader must anticipate changes in value over time and be able to understand and capitalize on people's temporary desperation for a particular product.

3.  There is always another vendor, and that vendor sucks.  Card stores have huge stocks and players can always get what they want but their prices are high.  A trader will often have no competition at all at a balanced price point but there is a definite ceiling established by the card stores.  Thus the trader has to make sure that they make a profit on each transaction but also make sure they don't try for too much or they lose it entirely.

When trading the thing you need to maximize is the number of people you can trade with.  It is critical that you be able to service as many needs as possible so that you can constantly make trades that improve your position. The best way to start (once you have the knowledge required to value cards effectively) is to establish a large collection of relatively cheap cards that are in reasonable demand.  This is the most cost effective way to generate many trade opportunities.  Once the low cost cards are covered you need to work your way up to more expensive and rare cards so that you can cover people that happen to want those and are willing to pay a lot for them.  The eventual goal is to establish a collection containing every card so that no matter what someone wants you can give it to them at a price that works for you.

So, is there any sort of career that works along these lines?  Initially we came up with art and antique dealers as somewhat comparable since they must know the costs of many different items that can have rapidly fluctuating prices over different times, areas and customers.  Both of those need to have access to large collections of items because their customers' demands are often very hard to predict and being able to satisfy every bizarre desire means dramatically more business.  I suppose you could do this sort of thing with any sort of collectible market if the market size is large enough - hunting through estate sales, yard sales, EBay, Craigslist and other sources of odd items could yield really great finds to someone connected with customers. The trick I think is coming up with a large enough customer base to support a full time vendor.  There are plenty of strange collectible items out there and plenty of collectors but you need a huge number of collectors with a lot of money for there to be enough profit to support dedicated traders.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Time is money

Today we had a birthday party for Elli.  We invited 4 of her friends to our place to eat cupcakes and play and greeted them with fairy wings, party hats, magic wands and shiny necklaces so they could all dress up fancy.  It was a whirlwind of little girls in cute costumes running around in circles on a sugar high; just what you might expect of a 4 year old's birthday.  One parent decided to stay around for the party and Wendy and I had a long chat with him about all kinds of things.  It turns out we have some striking things in common with him and some equally striking differences.  He graduated from the same university we did, was an atheist interested in physics, history and religion and had very similar ideas and struggles with his children.  These things were all very similar, but the amazing difference was that he had so little time.

Wendy reads a good 3-4 books a week and generally wants and gets at least 2 hours a day of book time if not more.  I am at home and have 6 hours a day of leisure time most of the time.  The parent we were talking to was telling us how glad he was that his daughter was taking lessons on weekends because it allowed him a rare luxury:  He could read for 2 full hours, once a week.  He told us this and made it clear that without those scheduled lessons that 2 hours a week would evaporate into 0 hours a week, which was a challenge because he loves to read and has many, many books on his 'must read' list.  It always shocks me when I look at those numbers and I wonder how it is possible to be that way.  Wendy and I still had a fair bit of leisure time when I was working; certainly not like we have now but the idea of being glad that a particular scheduling problem allowed a full 2 hours a week is pretty much beyond our grasp.  That sort of life just isn't something I could deal with if there were any option to get out.  Not that I fault people who choose it, mind you, I just would not make that choice.

I do wonder if he even views it as a choice.  It is entirely possible to live on drastically less money than most middle class people have but the sorts of sacrifices that are part of that are likely to be simply unacceptable to most; they would not choose to live on the cheap as we do even if it would lead to many more hours of leisure time.  Presumably we all simply get used to how we live and everyone else's lifestyle is measured entirely in that light.  Everyone wants more time regardless of whether or not they have 6 hours a day or 6 minutes a day and no matter how much we have we could find a use for just a little more.  I assume there is some correlation between leisure time and happiness but the question I ponder is how much happiness is based on what we see around us, what we established as a benchmark as children, or some objective standard.

I feel like I have made mostly the right choices for my own happiness and that of my family.  I suspect most people are in the same boat, figuring they are doing the right thing but wishing they could have it all.

Thursday, November 11, 2010


Today is Remembrance Day in Canada.  We wear poppies and schools take time to enforce a minute of silence at 11:00 to think about the soldiers that have died in the wars Canada has fought, in particular WW1 and WW2.  I find it a very emotional thing to contemplate going off to war; the very idea of being in a situation where there is such great need that I would be prepared to die halfway around the world is staggering.  The world I live in is so far from that mindset that it is difficult for me to imagine how I would feel if I truly had to face up to the choice of going to fight far away to protect my home.  I certainly could join the military now if I wanted to do that sort of thing but the idea that Canada is in even the slightest danger is laughable so I cannot really understand that fundamental choice to stay or go since my contribution is entirely unneeded.  I cannot think that I am protecting those close to me, or even my country in general, but rather fighting for people I do not know and probably never will know.

During the mobilization for WW1 there was much more optimism and fanfare; people simply assumed the war would be over quickly and with minimal casualties.  War then was really treated much more like a noble pursuit, something where honor, courage and righteousness were paramount.  WW2 was different because it was obvious the fight would be long and brutal and people still remembered the incredible destruction and carnage that marked WW1 combat like nothing before it.  However, it was also much clearer that WW2 was not a simple European disagreement but rather a desperate conflict to stop a dictator with real ambitions of world conquest.  What must it feel like to be at home knowing that someone out there must go and die to stop a relentless foe from slowing placing all things beneath his boot?  I cannot fathom such a choice, to look around me and know that I could avoid going, I could stay home and live, or go and suffer, and perhaps die.  I suppose people must simply forget and ignore what could happen and fill themselves with hope and patriotism.

I wonder what the future of Remembrance Day is.  We are approaching the point where very few of the people involved in the world wars are still alive and children today would often have no one in their lives with memories of what it was like to make the decision to fight in such a war.  Some part of me thinks it must be like I imagine being a hero in a fantasy story to be:  Setting aside personal danger to follow a dream of a better world.  Of course real people don't get the comforts of super powers or central casting in a plot and must either fool themselves or accept that they are as likely to die as anyone else and that they stand a good chance of losing regardless.  It is grand to say that you will lay down your life to save the world but less so to know that you may die and your side may still lose.  The courage to fight without that knowledge of certain victory and with the acknowledgement of tremendous danger is something I hope I never have to find within myself.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Do people care about religion?

It looks like this week is going to be a heavy religious themed week.  In particular I wanted to talk a little more about a comment that Sthenno made on my post yesterday, specifically

Most people tend to believe the same things their families do on most issues - particularly those issues that they never have cause to put a lot of thought into. We could regard the trend of sharing your parents' religion as evidence that most people just don't actually care that much about religion, so it's never worth their time thinking about it.

I think this is a very telling observation.  Many people obviously care a great deal about religion in that they have strong feelings about other people based on whether or not their religions are the same.  However, just because someone cares very much whether or not someone else is part of their religion has basically nothing to do with the details of the religion.  If you consider the incredible violence that has taken place in the world between religions with only very slightly different ideas it becomes clear that religious disagreements are clearly about the us vs. them mentality and not at all about the difference in details.  If the details were really the issue then one would assume that everyone within a religion must have a tremendous grasp of the ins and outs of their beliefs and the exact differences with other groups but surely this is not the case - most people involved in religious conflict just know that they other side is wrong and they are right.  You might also expect that if conflict were in some way due to the differences in beliefs that the conflict would be greater with greater differences in belief but that is not at all the case - Buddhists have a much greater difference of belief with Christians than the various Christian sects do with one another but yet the Buddhist/Christian violence isn't greater than the violence between various Christian sects.

Another powerful note is that religious people very often pay absolutely no attention to the supposedly infallible and divinely inspired holy documents their religion reveres.  Reading the whole Bible isn't something rare just amongst atheists, it is rare amongst everyone, including those who theoretically think it is the source of all morality and a direct translation of God's will.  I know that if I really thought that a book contained the literal word of the creator of the universe and contained within it the instructions for living according to that creator I would have the entire thing memorized and yet many/most religious people who claim to believe that exact thing have skimmed a few pages here and there.

Clearly people feel very strongly about religion but only in the sense that it defines 'us vs. them.'  Certainly if people were really interested in the details they would learn about them (they don't, by and large) and if the details were important to their acceptance of a religion there would be a smaller percentage of people who take up the religion of their parents/region/culture.  So most people just take up a religion because it is what surrounds them, ignore the details and use it as a definition of tribal allegiance.  There are people out there who choose a religion based on the specifics of the religion instead of simple proximity but those are very much in the minority.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Recruiting Early

In my post on Sunday I talked about my difficulties with the idea of getting Elli baptized.  One crucial part of the equation didn't make it into the post, which is strange because it is such a big part of why I dislike the idea.  That crucial part is the issue I have with religions recruiting children and indoctrinating them when they are too young to question what they are being told.  In The God Delusion Richard Dawkins talks a lot about how children are often referred to as "Jewish children" or "Christian children" or "Muslim children" but that we have an obligation to not profess children to be part of a religion since they cannot reasonably choose for themselves.  He wants us all to call them "children of Christian parents" instead, and although Dawkins is confrontational and nitpicky as usual he has a very strong point.  We don't let children do many things because they simply don't have the capacity to make those choices reasonably yet and barring historical trends religion would certainly fit in that group.  In the past children have traditionally been raised to be a part of their religion from a very early age to ensure that they do not break from it; it is much easier for an authority figure to imprint an idea indelibly into a child's mind than an adult's so religions naturally aim their recruitment at young ones.

The truth of the matter is that if children are raised without indoctrination and are taught about many different religions and that teaching is expressed as "these people believe this" rather than "this is truth, do not listen to anyone who says otherwise" they end up mostly as agnostics or atheists.  Any religion claiming some great access to truth must contend with the issue that hardly anybody believes that truth unless they have it drilled into them when they are very young.  Since clearly a lot of religions actively want recruits they take the easiest path to getting them even if it only works because of the fragility of their chosen targets.  Admittedly many believers are encouraged to believe that anyone who they don't convert is going to suffer eternally so they have the excuse that they are only trying to help.  If you have the choice of indoctrination of a child or eternal damnation of the person it is reasonable to think that indoctrination is a morally acceptable choice but the very idea of eternal damnation is so ludicrous I can't imagine a lot of people actually sit down and think that way.

I am not going to convince most religious people with these ideas I expect.  Religions do have their hardcore members but most people involved in them think along the lines of "Well, baptism is just a little ceremony, everyone goes through it.  What possible harm could their be in sprinkling water and saying a few words?"  I would tend to argue back that if the ceremony isn't powerful and significant then removing it entirely should be no problem but I doubt that is going to win anyone over.  Just like we don't let children vote and we don't let them drink and we don't let them have sex we shouldn't let them choose a religion.  If an adult wishes to believe things that aren't true then they are in good company - pretty much everybody has ideas, religious or otherwise, they hold dear that are ludicrous.  Giving people the best possible opportunity to learn and develop wisdom before they set themselves on a treacherous path is of critical importance and I think we need to apply that to religion just the same as we do to other important choices that children are not ready to make.

Monday, November 8, 2010


Today I really got back into coding in a big way.  The iron grip of CiV has loosened some and I am now beginning to really hammer out my Retribution Paladin spreadsheet for the upcoming expansion.  Going back to coding after a long vacation really reminds me of some of the incredible highs and lows that it brings; it triggers memories of long, late night programming sessions in the labs at university.

The trick always seems to be the details.  I have the structure down no problem and I know exactly what logical path the code needs to follow.  My math and logic skills have not degraded since last I worked on my spreadsheet but my knowledge of the programming language has become weak and doddering.  This is not helped at all by the fact that VBA has so many issues with the documentation and with bugs in the code running it.  For example, I wanted to round up a random number to an integer.  I look in the documentation and see the ROUNDUP function which should do exactly what I need it to do.  Instead it crashes my program every time I try to run it with a devilishly vague error message.  I go through the documentation over and over, I go online and check the documentation there and try to redo and bugproof my code and utterly fail; ROUNDUP simply does not work.  It turns out that I can just use the INT function instead and get the results I need but the fact that in a widely distributed Microsoft program a basic built in function crashes the program is wretched.  Not that I can blame all my troubles on VBA and Microsoft!  I keep forgetting to declare variables properly and VBA is happy to create and delete them on a whim, wreaking havoc with my program.  I fail to initialize a few of my many, many variables and that causes all kinds of bizarre behaviour.

Strangely coding ends up being much like an addictive video game in that I lose time while doing it.  I sat down early in the morning to do just a little work and ended up noticing that I was hungry hours and hours later.  I kept thinking that I had lots of time to do the chores of the day but I ended up doing very little because huge chunks of my day just kept vanishing as I struggled against the machine and against my own incompetence.  I love the feeling of a program that hums along, doing precisely what I intended.  I love finally finding that stubborn bug and crushing it and watching the numbers flow just the way they should.  That high of success is very reminiscent of a video game high I think, just as the drudgery of bug hunting is like the drudgery of killing more monsters to level up.

The most amusing part of all this is that I grumble about my code and Wendy comes over to try to help.  She is good at coding and a fresh perspective really does help catch bugs a lot of the time but I have a tremendous independent, proud streak that wants to do it all myself.  I don't want help, I don't want someone to wander along and crush the bug I have been hunting... then I still get the annoying part but without the sense of triumph at the end!  Of course, I do want help because I want my program to work in the end and I want the bugs squashed, even if I don't get to do all the squashing myself.  I am not going to order her away because she is really helpful, but a voice in the back somewhere is shouting

"NO!  Don't accept help, you can do it yourself.  If you let someone else fix the problem you LOSE!"

Sunday, November 7, 2010

A dunk in the river, metaphorically speaking

Tonight my mother in law inquired about getting Elli baptized. This has come up in the past but always indirectly and I never have had a real talk with my inlaws about my feelings on the issue. My gut reaction is a resounding "HELL NO" but I don't want this to be something that causes a lot of friction; even if I don't agree with the religious beliefs of my relatives there isn't a compelling reason to make my life difficult by being belligerent about it. Our conversation tonight was intriguing to me because it highlighted the drastic differences in approach that myself and my mother in law take towards making these sorts of decisions.

She has a Master's in Biochemistry so she has no lack of exposure to scientific thought. In fact she talked about the difficulties she had while going through school when it was obvious that the scientific facts she was studying wholly contradicted the religious beliefs she was raised to accept. She was never able to reconcile those two and instead of sitting down and really trying to hammer out what her worldview really entailed she mostly just accepted that she had two mutually incompatible belief sets and continued to hold both of them anyway. She wants to get Elli baptized because that is how things were done for her and how she raised her children but I think she hasn't really sat down and thought about all the things that baptism entails.

For one, baptism is a ceremonial washing away of original sin. I think original sin is one of the most revolting concepts in Christianity so I certainly dislike taking part in a ritual focused around it. It is also a ceremony signifying acceptance into the church and a promise on the part of the parents (or the adult being baptized, if they are old enough to decide for themselves) that the person in question will be part of the church and raised to follow church beliefs. The church in question is Anglican so it isn't the most hardcore of churches but it still goes entirely against my beliefs. I don't want original sin washed off my daughter since acknowledging it as a real thing is unacceptable to me and we certainly aren't going to raise her in the church so there isn't really anything left of the ceremony aside from habit.

The trick is communicating my dislike of this ceremony while respecting their desires. When it comes to these things only two people get votes but Elli's grandparents are a big part of her life and I want them to be able to have some say in how their part of her life goes.  In this I have to be very careful because of the warring sides of me that have very different sorts of things to say.  Sometimes I want to just yell "WE ARE ATHEISTS, WHY AREN'T YOU?!?" and sometimes I want to just give in and let them do whatever they please as long as I don't have to fight about it.  It takes a lot of patience and caution to walk that line of maintaining politeness while insisting that our atheist notions be paramount, just as their theist notions were paramount when raising their children.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

I am weak

Wendy and I have been purging our stuff these past few weeks.  We emptied out the closets and got rid of old tools, baby gear, books and knickknacks.  Wendy got rid of several times as much stuff as I did, which is reasonable since she owns several times as much stuff as I do.  *cough* books *cough*  A part of my purging was getting rid of old game materials.  I managed my old character sheets and maps from roleplaying games without much fuss but with much nostalgia; as I tossed them out I saw names of my old characters and began to remember.

Oooh, Amon.  I remember him, back from that bad campaign at Tall Steve's.

Ah, Noc!  Man, I played that guy for years and through 4 different gaming systems.  So many memories.  In particular "Totally regular sword I could buy at the store."

Man, crazy ninja girl from Sthenno's Invention! campaign.  I will never forget AOE knockback/instant kill given to a boss just so he could kill a player, with the player's consent!

Despite the flood of memories from good times past I ditched my useless gaming stuff.  I kept the books of course in case I need them later but the rest was just clutter chock full of memories.

The real challenge came when I got to my Magic cards.  The first part of it was easy since I just picked out all the cards I could sell for reasonable money and wandered down to the store.  While it was hard to watch some of my darlings go for only a dime I faced up to it and got my cash.  The difficult part was getting rid of the rest, especially when so many of them have such great memories and would be so well loved by somebody, if not me.  I ended up keeping one boxful of cards for a draft set and throwing the rest in the recycling downstairs... and then going back later in the day and retrieving them because I realized I still know people who play Magic and tossing them out is much worse than giving them away.  Over the next couple days I found out that I really don't know anyone who actually wants my cards (unless maybe someone reading this does and I am unaware of it!) but they are still on my shelf and remain untossed.

The truth of the matter is that although I can reconcile myself to selling my cards for real money I find it incredibly hard to just send them off for nothing.  I spent so long building up my collection through winning tournaments, playing in drafts and trading that it feels wretched to simply toss it aside even though I know that getting back into Magic heavily is not something I am going to do.  I don't need these cards and I probably won't even use them again but they are so full of the aura of well rewarded effort that parting with them simply to be parting with them is hard.  A big part of me wants to be very zen and set aside the things I own because they also own me and a seemingly bigger part just wants to keep them around so that I can thumb through them and walk down memory lane now and again.  The ghosts of competitions long past and decks now disassembled are wonderful and can be so easily accessed just by flipping through my cards.

I do want to get rid of my cards to make space but I have not yet summoned the strength needed to make it happen.  Perhaps tomorrow I will be able to steel myself for the task at hand.  Then again, perhaps not.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

The treadmill

I talked in my last post a little about how we spend huge amounts of our money competing with one another.  Certainly this is most evident in the city where the competition for space is tremendous and people end up spending literally 50% of their take home pay on mortgages that are made up of 80% location, 20% building.  It is considered normal around here to throw 40% of your money at competition for housing location and nothing else.  Of course the money spent to compete with others doesn't stop there at all as people in the city spend more for food, parking and other goods and services simply because there isn't enough space for everyone and this is the system that forces poorer people to live far away.

Another place we flagrantly spend our resources just to get ahead of each other is clothing.  How much of our clothing budget is actually spent on practical necessities and how much is spent on getting more, brighter, newer or more trendy clothes to outdo our rivals?  I know I personally wear jeans and tshirts that are usually 5 years old or so but I am not the norm - most people have huge amounts of clothing that is expensive or impractical or both just because they feel they need to keep up with everyone else's expenditures.  Cars, jewellery, technology and furniture are the same in that the lion's share of the money is only there because someone else needs to be impressed or placated with the expense.  We aren't trying to impress people with our possessions directly of course as they are simply a way to show how powerful we are by displaying how much money we can afford to blow on things we simply don't need.

People clearly base their ideas of what they will buy on what they see around them and not some internal sense of the proper value of an item.  It is well established in every kind of sales that in order to sell an item to the average person you must convince them that the item is much better than what some other people buy and simultaneously much cheaper than what yet another segment of the population buys.  If you show people 2 items priced at $40 and $100 you will sell a lot of $40 items.  If you present them with a $40 item, and $100 item and a slightly better $200 item they will buy the $100 item almost exclusively because the price suddenly looks like a bargain compared to the $200 item and they don't want to appear cheap by going for the lowest price.  That money is being spent on competition; pushing ourselves to buy what everyone else does rather than simply noticing that the $40 item is sufficient for our needs and getting that instead.  If you want to sell something that is pretty expensive compared to the prices people are used to you always plant an even more outrageous item right beside it to give the impression that the price you want to sell at is normal.

The question I find myself asking is "How much of our money is actually spent on the raw resources and services we want and how much is thrown away simply to outcompete each other?"  Obviously answering that question is incredibly complex because even defining the terms properly is challenging and the data required to do a thorough analysis would be immense.  I expect that for people living where I do the answer is going to be something like 85% or higher of expenses are purely competitive.  The price to actually create and ship all the goods we need is shockingly low compared to the cost of all the things we tend to acquire.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010


A few years ago I had the best deal in the world; I got my phone and internet from Bell for $40 a month including everything.  Whenever the topic would come up I would tell people about my deal and they would insist that phone + internet was around $80 from everyone and that there was no way I could be paying $40.  I had no idea why exactly I got this deal but I figured I would just sit on it for as long as possible and never call Bell for any reason.  After 3 years or so they called me up and in a very roundabout, political way told me that from now on I was going to have to actually pay for the services I received from them and that my new monthly bill would be roughly $80 instead of $40.  Strangely my reaction to this was to just smile and say "fair enough."  :)  Gradually that bill went up but I generally just wrote it off to long distance bills or inflation or figured it wasn't enough to pay attention to.  This month I got a bill for $130 for a basic phone and internet plan and decided it was time to go crack some heads.

I went online to Rogers' site and got a quote of $64 for phone + internet.  I know there will be unlisted charges and taxes so I figure $90 is probably where I would end up with Rogers and I called up Bell to get them to either get the price to that neighborhood or cancel my subscription.  The first time I called the automatic answering service talks to me for 4 minutes and then disconnects me for no reason.  The second time I called I got sent to a French speaking guy in Quebec who promised in bad English to transfer me to the appropriate person.  He sent me to another French speaking guy in Quebec who promised to transfer me to the appropriate person and then proceeded to disconnect the call.

So just to be clear, the phone company drops calls *to themselves* and sends calls to the wrong province when I gave them my area code so they could serve me better!

The third call got me through to exactly the right person however and after listening to what Rogers was offering he came back with an offer of much better phone and internet services than I am currently getting at a price of $95 including everything.  I have no desire to swap providers so I say yes and he sets it up.  So just to be clear, I doubled my download speed, multiplied my max downloads by 4 times, upgraded my 120 evening/weekend minutes to 500 anytime minutes and got bonus phone services and my bill dropped by $35 a month.  This should not surprise me as I spent a lot of time negotiating crazy discounts at a company that ostensibly has set prices but sometimes the magnitude of what you can get by threatening to cancel still surprises me.  I wonder if I could get an even better price if I went back and negotiated a little more...

This made me think back to a conversation I had awhile ago with Momma's Boy.  He was simply disgusted at the unfairness of negotiation and took it as an article of faith that variable pricing and haggling was unethical.  The idea that people would pay different prices for things or that he would have to look around was anathema; he insisted that stores should simply sell things for a reasonable price that everyone agreed was fair and everything would be fine.  Some part of me wants to roll on the floor laughing at the naivete of such a viewpoint but he is really just the extreme edge of a commonly held misconception.  There is no such thing as 'fair value' or the 'right price' for an item.  Things are worth what you are willing to pay for them and there is no reason why persistence, moxie, charisma and haggling skill should be less valuable in determining the amount of stuff you get than your job salary.  (Obviously persistence, moxie and charisma often have a big say in your salary too!)  Momma's Boy would probably lose his lunch at hearing this story.  While that is not exactly a pretty image I think I will have to go tell him anyway.

Monday, November 1, 2010

When it is ready

Blizzard has a mantra for release times for games.  "We will ship it when it is ready."  They develop games fairly slowly and release dates regularly get pushed back a year or two but when they do finally ship a product it is generally well tested and free of major bugs.  Obviously they don't have a perfect product but it is very widely acknowledged that their final products are extremely polished compared to nearly everybody else.  Their trick is two things:  First, everyone has a tremendous expectation of their products so shipping something that isn't quite done and patching it up later would be a colossal disaster from a public relations standpoint so they have a huge incentive to never do that.  Secondly they are the big name and have the cash and clout to push back release dates if they feel they need to, which most other game companies do not have.  Many companies have to ship products that they know aren't done properly and they desperately patch them in the following months to get things right because they are pressured financially or ordered by the companies that own them to ship on a particular date to make the numbers look good.

The easiest examples are Starcraft 2 by Blizzard and CiV by 2K.  SC2 was very polished when it shipped, was free of major bugs and the balance of the game was excellent.  It was widely agreed that the product was extremely well done and it was well received, barring the usual internet hatred of everything.  There have been very small balance tweaks and bug patches in the interim but I would be very happy with playing the game just as it shipped.  CiV was not this way at all; there were large numbers of really substantial bugs and the game balance is off in a lot of startling ways.  The game crashed semi regularly and often games had to be entirely abandoned because they would always crash on a particular date.  The AI was extremely easy to defeat and had lots of glaring problems with its behaviour.  The game was still a ton of fun of course but it was clear to everyone that the game was rushed to meet a ship date instead of shipped when it was done.  It is certainly frustrating to be a gamer buying a much anticipated game that looks amazing and then come to understand that it will be necessary to wait a couple months for all the patches to get things really working properly.  Having played a few games that had some very serious bugs at ship (*cough* Temple of Elemental Evil *cough*) that were never ever patched I can certainly appreciate the company continuing to push out fixes to make things better.

I must give credit where it is due though, CiV has been substantially fixed in the past month.  The AI has been drastically improved in numerous ways, so much so that I think playing on difficulty 6 at launch date was about the same difficulty as 4 or 5 now.  Many critical bugs have been squashed and things are looking much better, though there remains some number rebalancing to do.  I do wonder why the high ups that run game companies so often push out products that simply aren't ready.  There are good reasons why I will buy any Blizzard game as soon as it comes out and the primary one is simply that they are always *finished*.  Pushing out a game early and getting some cash in the current quarter is fine and all but you lose out on lots of sales due to negative reviews and you lose out on customer retention when the game doesn't live up to the hype and promises.  It seems like there are a lot of people out there who make the final decisions about games who refuse to take a long term view of things and it costs them a lot of money to do so.