Thursday, September 30, 2010

A moment to treasure

Today I picked up Elli at daycare and had roughly the worst time possible doing so.  When I arrived she refused to leave, she refused to use the toilet, she refused to pull up her pants, she refused to put on her shoes, and eventually I ended up tossing her over my shoulder in a fireman's carry and carting her out the door.  We went home 4 blocks that way with her writhing and screaming at the top of her lungs, wailing about how I was hurting her.  The looks I got from nearby pedestrians were very interesting as they tried to avoid eye contact with me while simultaneously checking us out to be sure if this was a kidnapping case, child abuse or just a tired parent hauling a misbehaving child.  Usually as we got closer they would tense up, hearing her screams of agony (she fakes agony pretty well, I must say) and then when they heard me say "If you won't walk then you have to be carted Elli, if you don't like this then just walk." they calmed right down and continued on their way.  I deliberately saved my offers of walking for when we were passing big groups of people to cut down on the chance that someone would decide to do something dumb like call the police.  While nothing I was doing was remotely illegal or immoral I don't particularly want an overzealous bureaucracy getting involved.

I am sure that reactions also really varied between parents and non parents.  People who recently have been through the situation of having a child simply refuse to walk and being forced to bodily haul them places seem to understand much better than those who have never felt that first hand.  I also find that the older someone is the less disturbed by such things they are, presumably due to changes in child rearing standards.  If you grew up with regular violence being considered good parenting and 'spare the rod and spoil the child' being a widely accepted truth I would expect you to be much less disturbed by a child being tossed over a shoulder, whereas there is a really substantial portion of the population in my generation who honestly thinks that any form of physical force is unacceptable.  To be sure, those that think that are largely speaking not parents because eventually a toddler will cure most people of such nonsense.

The funny thing is, despite the fact that lots of people would find my solution quite horrible, I feel like I was taking the challenging way out.  In generations past Elli would have found herself grabbed by the ear and towed along with as much twisting and yanking as was necessary to get her to move, or perhaps spanked or slapped right then and there to ensure obedience.  I wonder whether or not this 'lesser violence' that I employed was actually any better than the direct version that used to be the norm.  It certainly created a scene, it surely made both me and Elli very frustrated and angry and I still had to flagrantly violate her right to control her own body.  Would just grabbing her ear and dragging her along have been better?  Would a swift spanking have even worked?  These are the sorts of questions you end up pondering when getting pummeled about the shoulders by a freaked out child, walking along the street towards home.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Good Game-

What is it that makes a game good?  I just finished reading a blog post on that issue by Tobold that talks about his views on the subject which essentially boil down to whether or not a game is entertaining.  He goes on to talk about how if a game is entertaining it is going to have big sales numbers so from his perspective it is reasonable to say a game is good if people buy it a lot.  Of course sometimes numbers get really messed up by marketing or other misconceptions so raw purchases are often going to be entirely misleading, but he does rely on subscription numbers to be useful.  I figure that if you want to measure the popularity of a game you will get a fine metric by looking at how many people are willing to pay for it month after month.

Tobold, being a reasonable sort of person, suggests that his definition is by no means universal and that other people might use other definitions.  This sort of behaviour is very much uncharacteristic of people making posts on the internet which is why I like his writing a lot.  He has opinions but tries to couch things in terms of points of view instead of Good Vs. Evil, which means he ends up being right a lot but not nearly as compelling as some of the more strident agitators out there.  I don't agree with his definition exactly because I put a lot of stock in analysis and replayability that is not necessarily well reflected in subscription numbers.  If a game has a ton of people paying to play but isn't very interesting to think about I don't give it a lot of credit.  It might be a bit of a stretch but slot machines have a ton of people who consistently go back to them to pull the handle and see what lights up but they are a good example of a wretched game.  No decision making, no skill, virtually no interaction, but yet the shiny lights and lure of the big payout are enough to keep the customers coming back year after year.  A little more on topic there are lots of war games out there that continue to sell copies and make money, particularly the miniature oriented ones, and yet usually it is completely obvious what the best units and strategies are and no real analysis needs to be done.

I feel like there is some kind of compromise necessary.  There are games out there where the skill required is high, the depth of strategy and thought possible is tremendous and yet nobody actually wants to play them.  Le Havre is a great example of this in the board game field; it is a great game and I could spend months trying to figure out the best possible choice in a given situation and mathing out the optimal route to play and yet the game takes 3-5 hours to complete so it is very difficult to actually get people to sit down and play.  Titan is very similar in that it has incredible depth and requires a large chunk of a day to complete so only the most hardcore players actually get to see any of it.  Heck, even Diplomacy fits in that category; so many gamers love the idea of it and never actually play it.

Of course by this compromise definition incorporating both depth of play and popularity the games I play are tops.  Warcraft, Starcraft and CiV are all huge moneymakers, all are massively popular, and all have extreme depth in both strategy and in game decision making.  I suspect that if you look for the game that is the pinnacle of monetary success in its field you will usually find one that has all of those things working for it; it is hard to be top dog without appealing to both casual and hardcore gamers.

Monday, September 27, 2010


I was reading the newspaper today and found an article that greatly amused me - apparently yet another powerful Christian minister in the US has been found to be a closet homosexual despite being an outspoken advocate against homosexuality in general and same sex marriage in particular.  This particular specimen is accused of taking young men who needed advice and guidance on trips, giving them gifts and convincing or intimidating them into having sex with him.  No criminal charges are pending since the young men in question were above the legal age of consent but some lawsuits are now working their way through the system.  These sorts of things pop up regularly these days and because of the 'shocking' nature of the reversal they usually make headline news.  The question I find myself asking is "Is there some kind of real link between evangelical Christians and closet homosexuality, or is the media coverage of such things distorting our perspective to make us see that pattern?"

The trick of course is that actually answering that question is really hard.  Even if we tried to define how many high profile, male, anti gay, evangelical Christian leaders there are in the US it would be a tough thing to figure out, never mind to try to sort out the incredible media bias towards reporting this sort of thing.  Actually doing statistics seems like an incredible challenge, but how else can we determine whether or not these things are really linked?  Surely just from what the media reports we can conclude that being a high profile Christian who preaches a strong anti gay message is not sufficient to confirm that a person is straight, but is it enough to conclude that gay people in that sort of environment actually gravitate towards denouncing their true feelings for whatever reason?  I doubt science is going to avail us here, not so much because it could not help but because doing so would be really complicated and going about that business would be likely to stir up one hell of a hornet's nest.

I have some opinions that are not so much backed by research as by intuition.  I figure that growing up with the confusion and guilt that a gay person is likely to feel in a society that does not tolerate their true nature is going to lead to some very extreme responses.  People who are comfortable in their choices and whose beliefs neatly correspond with the status quo rarely get up on soapboxes and pontificate; they are more likely to just do their own thing.  It is that very confusion, uncertainty and fear that leads to drastic action, in this case to deny those very feelings, to suggest that since the feelings are bad and the person is good that the person must not have those feelings.  It isn't a good defence but it is an understandable one, and one that seems like it would lead people to lambast homosexuality from the pulpit and seek out homosexual encounters in secret.  It is sad that the solution people find to their own difficulties is to heap misery on others but that pattern is by no means unique to homosexual bashing or religion but rather is ubiquitous throughout humanity.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Cruddy AI

I have been playing a lot of Civilization V (or CiV as the internet prefers to call it) and for a lark I wandered around the internet looking for reviews of the game.  I have found a few small issues with the game mostly in the tooltip department but still feel like the overall experience is excellent.  However, I wanted to find out if others saw the same things I did.  The reviews I found suggest that the reviewers have a very tenuous grip on the realities of computing and programming and expect things that make absolutely no sense.  One guy in particular complained that he was managing his empire, just chilling out, and a huge force showed up on his border and smashed him and this was not fun.  Well gee, a game that you can lose by playing badly?  Who would have thunk it?  Try scouting, or diplomacy, or building your own damn army you tool!  Since when is "I am bad at this game and lost" a negative point about a game?  The reviews tended to focus on how good the overall game experience feels and how slick the new combat system is but came down hard on the AI, complaining that it did all kinds of terrible things and made the game not fun.  The part I found most amusing was that their complaints seemed to primarily revolve around the idea that the AI wasn't doing what they wanted it to do.

See, here is the thing:  When you are in a game with an enemy AI and it declares war on you, you have *no idea* why that happened.  Maybe it got paid off by another AI to attack, maybe your army was small, maybe its behaviour was simply programmed to be extremely aggressive, or maybe it noticed that you were in a winning position and figured the best/only way to prevent that was to attack.  The only thing the player knows is that the AI attacked and because that is usually bad for the player the player goes on the internet and complains that the AI is stupid.  Some people complained about 'irrational' behaviour like making a big attack and then when it fails, offering the player a huge bribe to secure a peace treaty.  Aside from the possibility of never attacking, this sounds like the best possible strategy to me.  Sometimes you attack and lose and are in a bad position and offering peace with no bribe is going to get you laughed at - when I am ticked off at an AI I will only accept a peace offer if it comes with a ton of stuff attached.  The other option is to just stand there and eat the counterattack and probably die, so bribery sounds pretty good!

People also seem to have completely bizarre ideas of how powerful an AI can be in this sort of game.  Some people seemed to think that we could just code up AIs so skilled that they would never need a handicap and could provide even the best possible human players a stiff challenge.  Hint:  Even though a computer can beat the world chess champion, chess is *much* simpler than CiV and we are running this on mediocre home computers and expect the computer's turn to take 1-3 seconds.  Even if we could code up an AI that would actually be as good as a expert human, which we cannot, it couldn't possibly run in reasonable time on the machines it needs to run on.  The fact is that just because an AI didn't do what you wanted or what you think it should from your very uninformed perspective doesn't mean it sucks, and making one as good as everyone seems to think it should be is completely impossible.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Just one more turn

As I said in my last post I have just recently acquired Civilization V.  For anyone who has played the previous versions of the game the phrase 'just one more turn' is probably something inscribed indelibly on your soul; that desperate need to just see what will happen one more step ahead is incredible.  Today I had a big breakfast, got a few small chores done and decided to play a little more on my Civ game from last night.  I figured I would go out and have a walk in the afternoon to avoid playing Civ too much, for I knew that just sitting around my place not playing it would be a challenge at best, impossible at worst.  I glanced at the clock after a few turns and figured it must be around 11, so I should probably consider what my plan was for lunch.  Of course it was 1:45 instead, but since my breakfast was large I figured lunch could still wait 1 more turn.  I checked the clock again just a few turns later and saw 4:30, which leaves me 15 minutes to figure out dinner, go shopping for the necessary ingredients and leave to get Elli from school.  That is a tight schedule so I finally shut down Civ and went to the kitchen to sort out dinner.  I discovered that I could make a good dinner with what I had and no shopping was necessary, and the first thing that went through my brain was

"well, I have 8 minutes now before I have to leave, I could go play one more turn of Civ!"

This is the point of madness, of no return.  Years ago I don't know that I could have resisted that siren's call and I would have been back at the computer trying to somehow play just 1 turn before going out and almost certainly failing.  This time though I was able to talk myself down from the ledge and accept that booting up the game to try to squeeze in just one more turn in the next 8 minutes was utterly insane and I should eat some damn food quickly before leaving.

The game is *really* good.  I don't know that it is particularly more addictive than the older games since I remember losing 8 hour stretches of my life back in highschool to Civ 1, but so much of Civ V is just so polished and correct where the older versions were not.  There are some marvelous new mechanics too, in particular the idea of city states.  Instead of just an empty world with 6 or so competing civilizations there are a large number of single cities that never attempt to expand but do play a big part in politics.  They ally with various groups, share military units, help improve your civilization or break it down and cause a ton of chaos.  Each one is relatively weak individually but as a group they cannot be ignored and that innovation leads to amazing new interactions.  They even give you quests to complete to get extra favour from them which is certainly unexpected and entirely awesome.

Civ V is very pretty and has lots of the cutscenes and all the jazzing up we have come to expect from a modern game but even if the graphics were exactly as good as Civ 1 from 20 years ago I am sure I would love it.  There are many game sequels released and usually they are just a retread of the original, often with better graphics and worse gameplay.  This is not the case here, as by any measure I can devise this Civ is the best yet, and that is a tall order indeed.

Birthday Conclusions

Awhile ago I wrote about my Birthday Conundrum.  I was somewhat torn about what to do when my parents and my parents in law both wanted to buy my birthday presents but had no clue what to get me.  I ended up giving a suggestion in one case and outright buying the item and sending a bill in the other case and although it didn't end up being much like a normal birthday I did end up very happy with the things I got.

I ended up downtown on Monday and since the subway was out of commission due to a fire I wandered into The Bay and acquired a watch.  I have needed a watch for something like 4 years now but always found a reason to ignore that and just keep on asking other people to check for me.  I think most folks would get sick of bothering other people at the park for the time but my deep down desire to not acquire extra stuff was more powerful than my embarrassment at not being able to find out the time by myself.  I even managed to find a watch that has the combination of good brand (Timex), good look (Purple!), all the functions I want and only 2 dollars over budget after the taxes.  It arrived 1 month and 3 days after my birthday but it was a very good present, exactly what I needed.  I think most people don't let a short trip to the store stop them from buying things they want for years on end but a 20 minute commute just seems like too damn much.

This is an entirely different beast.  If I had been buying a watch for myself I would have bought the one pictured above, so the fact that it was a present does not change the item.  In this case though I got Civilization V Special Edition, which is not something I would normally get for myself but was kind of cool regardless.  I spent a ridiculous amount of time playing Civilization 1 and all the reviews I had about this newest installment were thumbs up so purchasing it was no question, but the extras you get with the special edition were not my usual style.  That said, the figurines it came with were kind of neat and it has an artwork book and music DVD too.  Those aren't the sorts of things I would generally buy for myself yet I do like them, but I think that is a pretty good thing to get for your birthday.  In fact Civilization V was the reason I didn't get a post up yesterday, as it is just very slightly addictive.  My birthdays sure don't look like normal birthdays and I am not yet convinced that I am handling this in the best way possible but things sure did seem to work out all right.  I suppose I should put away my perfectionist streak and be happy that every day things are working out just fine.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Games on a budget

Today I was sucked into Plants vs. Zombies (PVZ).  This video gives you an idea of how it works.  Essentially you have a garden with 5 tracks on it and zombies continually attack along the 5 paths trying to kill you.  You plant various plants in the tracks to stop them.  You have a resource that limits your placements called Sun, and each different plant in your arsenal has a cooldown and a Sun cost.  For example, sunflowers produce more Sun, pea shooters shoot peas at the zombies, snow peas shoot peas that slow the zombies and cherry bombs explode to destroy all nearby zombies.  There seem to be all kinds of ways to build a garden that can defeat the various zombies, though I did not get very far into the game since I only played the free version that ends after 1 hour of playtime.  The gameplay is both very simple and extraordinarily addictive; despite having several other games to play and tons of things to do right now I just couldn't stop playing.

The graphics in PVZ are nothing special, the pixel counts are low and nothing looks remotely realistic.  However, it does have that special attribute that is far more important that graphical quality, which is of course art.  The pictures have very few pixels but it still looks great and very appealing regardless.  In that way it reminds me greatly of Diablo 2 which even today still has tremendous visuals - the flickering light of your torch illuminating the dungeon walls as skeletons slowly wander into the light towards you, the shadowy pulse from their necromantic master flying out of the darkness and gigantic demons spitting out hideous demon babies.  Neither of these games has anything to brag about in terms of polygon or pixel count and yet both simply look pretty and the pictures fit the theme of the game perfectly which is far more important than how advanced the graphics are.

After playing PVZ some I came up with some ideas for a 2 player version of it.  My idea is to have each player play both the zombies and the plants side simultaneously with each having different mechanics.  Each player would be attacking the other player's garden while trying to defend their own and the winner would be the one who gets a zombie through first.  A few things would be necessary - firstly, the power of the zombies would have to ramp up over time to the point that a garden defense must ultimately fail so that the game will definitely terminate.  Secondly the zombie attacks only really make sense if the zombies are at least somewhat random so I would have to find some way to implement a 'fog of war' effect so that each player cannot see much of the base he is attacking and must go in blindly some of the time.  I figure that the best way to handle zombies would be to simply have cooldowns on each kind of zombie that start off very high and drop eventually to nearly zero.  That way the early zombie attacks would be necessarily weak and eventually they would be unstoppable.  Obviously I couldn't simply port PVZ in its entirety as I would have to pay royalties for such a thing but I am confident I could design a functionally similar game that would be sufficiently different to be immune to lawsuits.  Maybe it is time to get to work building the skeleton of it and find out how much Snidely really wants to make a game!

Monday, September 20, 2010

A Good Feeling

These last 4 days I have been out in the wilderness in Killarney Provincial Park.  Wendy's work formed up a big group to do a 'bonding with the new people' camping trip and I ended up going along.  I came back with soreness in my arms, sleepiness in my eyes, cuts and bruises on my hands and feeling most excellent.  It makes me wonder how exactly we react to wounds, work and deprivation in general - what exactly are the parameters that make people stop cursing the inconveniences of life and simply roar with fury and push forward?

We canoed around a few lakes, not doing anything overly strenuous as several people on the trip were very new to camping and canoeing and some others not especially interested in pushing their physical limits, rather instead wanting to push their limits of alcohol and roasted sausage intake.  We slept in tents on the ground instead of comfortable beds, gave ourselves sore bodies and choked on smoke from the fire and called it wonderful (and it was!) and yet those experiences would be extreme inconveniences in other settings.  Certainly a big component must be a change of circumstances, as the old saying 'a change is as good as a rest' does have some real truth to it.  We exchange our old problems for new ones and somehow they become less for that transformation.  There must be more to it than that though, as even those used to camping find these experiences change their perceptions.

I suspect much of the rest of the difference is the perception of danger and the feeling of being closer to the edge of death.  Camping in a park with our names registered at the lodge and a panic button that dials the Coast Guard isn't really any significant risk but something buried deep in our psyches really feels the difference between having a restaurant 2 minutes away and being absolutely dependent on a single food bag and a flickering flame to provide needed nourishment.  We can fool ourselves with the idea that we are living closer to our roots, outwitting bears and worrying about shelter and food instead of esoteric philosophy or scientific discovery.  Clearly when we are eating vacuum sealed sausages, marshmallows and Mr. Christie prepackaged oatmeal we aren't really getting any closer to a real hunter/gatherer lifestyle but we can fool ourselves for just a while and convince our brains that these minor injuries are a necessary evil to keep the danger at bay.

My particular group may well have had yet another happiness benefit though, that is the camaraderie that develops among a disparate group that is forced to work together to secure basic things.  Several of the people along were very new to the group and the combination of forced time together around the campfire after dark and the challenges of accomplishing goals and making decisions as a unit without a clear leader definitely can create positive feelings within a group.  Perhaps these good feelings are based somewhat around those people whose company we find ourselves in.  When I am surrounded by people I like and respect certainly I will be happier, and if my companions decided they liked me they might even feel the same way.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

When to type out

In martial arts competitions people tap out by tapping a limb against the mat to indicate that they give up.  Usually they do this if they are hurt or are in a lock they aren't getting out of, and almost always when they do it they have 100% lost the match and are in danger of being badly hurt.  When playing Starcraft 2 things are very different because type out instead of tap out.  The situation is very analogous, but instead of tapping a limb against the mat you type "gg" (Good Game) and quit the match, and you do it when you are convinced you can't win.  I was playing some matches yesterday and found it intriguing to consider exactly how people choose when to give up.

One opponent I played against went for an early air attack, (Void Ray) clearly investing a lot of resources hoping I would have no answer to it.  I figured out his plan quickly just by seeing how his base was set up and smashed his first air assault easily, losing almost nothing.  He immediately typed out and left the game.  I wonder a lot about that since none of my forces were anywhere near his base and even if the troops I had built at that point could beat him he did have quite a while to live and could have made a decent go of getting back into it.  To be fair I figure my chances of winning at the point where he quit were easily higher than 90% but still, to quit when you have a solid base going and your opponent has not attacked at all seems strange to me.  As a counterexample I played a game a week ago or so where my opponent ended up trapped on an island base and everything else of his on the map was destroyed.  It was abundantly clear that I could take my time, mine out the entire map and go smash him whenever I felt like it but he absolutely refused to give up.  He kept on trying to drop a few guys back onto the main map and make some buildings and each time I walked over and crushed him.  I ended up having to chase all of the buildings he made all over the map as he desperately tried to live as long as possible even with literally zero hope of victory.

So why do some people type out as soon as anything goes wrong and some others stick it out to the very end?  I personally only type out once my army is destroyed and my opponent's army is smashing my base, when I truly know he can go make himself a sandwich and I still cannot come back to win.  Do people who leave right away tend to be those with short fuses and control issues, the sorts of people who rage when things go wrong in general?  I tend to figure that staying in the game longer and fighting it out would be correlated with patience and control, and I find that those who stick it out to the end tend to be enjoyable people to chat with as they aren't raging mad at whatever tactic it is that defeated them.  I wonder sometimes when I see professional match replays and one of the players quits when the game is far from done, at a point where I think they are at a disadvantage but I cannot see the necessity for quitting.  I would figure that professionals would stick it out to the end since the stakes are much higher, but that is not the case.  Perhaps their abilities are so much greater than mine that they know when their chance of victory has gone to nothing even if lesser players cannot tell.  I know that is true for chess or go where masters would stand up and say player X has won but two lesser players could sit down and have a very good match from that point; this could be true of Starcraft 2 as well.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Exit the economy

In the world of world of warcraft (WOWOW?) I am extremely wealthy.  The maximum amount of money a character can carry is 214,748 gold and over all of my characters I have over 440,000 gold.  Note that for most players 5,000 gold is a fairly large amount of money and takes quite a while to acquire, so I am filthy rich.  Not the richest out there by any stretch as there are WOW millionaires, but rich enough.  Many people make their money in WOW in a purely parasitic way, for example they buy items that are available for less than normal price and resell them, or they undercut other auctions by .0001 gold.  Neither of these things accomplishes anything except to shove money around and remove it from the economy via fees, so essentially this behaviour impoverishes the whole for the good of the one.  I made my fortune by making things.  More than anything I made gems and belts to create wealth, but of course in this case I play essentially a zero sum game - other people get stuff, I get their cash.  Note that making a fortune off other people's economic laziness or foolishness is a pretty mild crime, as these things go, but nonetheless some part of me is happy to be an artisan instead of a con artist.

Each time a WOW expansion arrives the economy of the game explodes as people rush to renew subscriptions, play like mad and work to collect all the new materials and gear suddenly made available.  This mad rush drives prices up to never before seen heights.  Correspondingly in the few weeks before that expansion arrives incredible deflation occurs as all the old items suddenly drop in value to nearly worthless.  Booms and busts of this level are rare events in real economies so it is a very interesting thing to look at to understand how crashes and bubbles occur.  In each case everyone knows that all the goods and items they are trading for 'normal' price are going to drop precipitously before the launch date of the expansion but nobody knows for sure exactly when the plunge will take place.  Interestingly it isn't limited to a particular sector of the economy at all, as when any one common good starts to plummet all of them immediately freefall and deflation of 50% or more will occur within a matter of 24 hours.  Everyone hears about the market crash and runs to sell their goods for whatever they can get before things drop even further just like in a real world market crash.  A great way to become incredibly wealthy is to take advantage of the crash and buy up items that have some use at rock bottom prices; even though they will be less useful afterwards the immense bubble effect will drag up every price with it.

The expansion is coming soon, most likely in the beginning of November.  Today I exited the economy, selling off everything I have that is likely to drop is price, preparing to step back from my constant construction for a few weeks until everything is fresh and new again.  I don't want to be caught unawares by the inevitable crash and I want to have as much money as possible for when the time comes.  You see, I want to get some server first *Feats of Strength* for my professions (Jewelcrafting and Alchemy) and the only way to assure those is to gather more materials than anyone else, or to have such an enormous pile of money that nobody can say no to selling to me.  I am fairly confident I am the richest person on my server, and I surely hope I am because otherwise the competition I intend to get in will squander my wealth most thoroughly.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Everything sucks

Recently I have been reading a few articles by Wolfshead about games in general and MMORPGs like WOW in particular and have been finding the relentless negativity quite offputting.  It is an interesting curiosity that people spend so much time bitching, complaining and kvetching about things they obviously love and also just how much attention such whining gets.  Wolfshead is widely read despite his constant harping on about how the games he loves to play are awful garbage and the companies that make them are terrible, even considering the fact that by the reasonable standard of "Do people like it" WOW in particular must be considered a fantastic game.  It is almost robotic the way that Wolfshead and many more of his ilk continue to talk of terrible games of yesteryear that they themselves choose not to play as if that were the last time games were any good.

This sort of behaviour isn't limited to a few WOW hating bloggers of course, but rather is true all over.  Even staying in the WOW universe for a moment it is shocking how many people continue to pay Blizzard a monthly subscription fee for the privilege of going on the official forums and whining about how awful WOW is and how Blizzard has ruined it.  Some of these people actually continue to play the game they profess to hate and many do not even play but yet continue to pay for the right to complain about it on the forums to no end.  Obviously this isn't limited to WOW, or even online games, for nothing is more common than talking to a sports enthusiast and hearing about how the players these days are whiny, over privileged babies, the refereeing is terrible, the league is going in the wrong direction and the tickets cost too much.  It must be noted that the people that make such complaints obviously love the league, the sport and the players or they would not spend so much of their time and energy keeping up to date and talking about them but yet so often the only thing you end up hearing is hate, especially directed at the status quo.

I wonder why it is that people get so hung up on how things used to be and end up so jaded on how things are.  It is demonstrably true that the human condition has drastically improved with time and yet people continue to be convinced that ancient pastoral farmers must have had it so great - imagine, no stress, no pollution, working outdoors, what could be better?  Yet despite this people continue to choose modern life over the much vaunted ancient agriculture - it must be the lack of disease, starvation, illiteracy, random violence and constant backbreaking labor.  I personally make a real effort to look around me and see the benefits to the ways things currently are instead of trying to romanticize the past.  Perhaps there is a risk of complacency in doing so but I think either way we risk enshrining foolish ideas as sacrosanct and accepting that most things are consistently getting better is closer to the truth.

Likely the main attraction of negativity is the attention.  People love to hear about conflict and disaster, just witness the slowdown of a highway any time something happens on the side of the road, so being a doomsayer is likely to make you popular.  Unfortunately it tends to make you wrong too, but there are surely plenty of folks willing to make that trade.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Future Shock

I read a post today that talked about Future Shock, both in the sense of people reacting to the rapid changes in society and referring to the book by the same name.  The basic idea is that people cannot react to the changes in the way we live and the technologies we use as quickly as changes take place and that results in feelings of sadness, depression, helplessness and fear.  The article blames this for the recent increases in fundamentalism and religious extremism around the world, suggesting that many or most of our current social problems can be attributed to Future Shock as people struggle to keep up with an ever shifting world.

I don't buy it.  There are a few reasons you might think that people would drastically change in a negative way but the two biggest ones would be information overload and forced changes in lifestyle and I don't think the arguments for either hold up.  The information out there to be learned certainly has increased as civilization has progressed so it seems certain that the total pool of things that could be understood by a person has shot up dramatically, particularly in recent decades.  However, I don't believe that a person who knows 1% of everything is going to feel significantly different from a person who knows .1% of everything.  Both have vast gulfs in their knowledge base and cannot hope to understand a significant fraction of human knowledge; neither is even capable of understanding the breadth of what it is they do not know.  Also, much of our minds is taken up not with knowledge that changes with technology but rather with social interaction.  We spend a tremendous chunk of our time, energy and processing power simply working with the people that surround us and trying to get ahead in a world where our only real competition is each other.  All of that complexity is not changed just because there are more of us since those extra billions are outside our sphere of influence anyway.

Lifestyles truly are different in modern civilization.  We have different skills, work at different sorts of jobs and our leisure time is not at all the same as in previous epochs.  Typing and hunting, math and gathering, writing and cooking are entirely different in appearance but I don't see any reason to think that our jobs and hobbies are actually more complicated than before.  Television is certainly no more challenging than any prehistoric hobby and the range of skills required to be an effective hunter is immense and would require years of training - different than an ER surgeon for sure but hardly so much less complicated that it matters.  There are certainly new things much more often now than there were in the past.  I cannot imagine a prehistoric person would integrate a new device into his life every few months, but of course the devices he did integrate would not come with instruction manuals or helpful graphics either.

We as a civilization have changed dramatically but I think that the average person just skims on the surface of those changes, learning only what they need to to get by and spending most of their time and energy trying to seduce, outwit, intimidate or bamboozle other humans.  We pick a small set of skills someone else values, learn them enough to do a job and then proceed to ignore all the innovations and changes required for those skills to matter.  A factory worker doesn't need to understand metallurgy, computers or chemistry, he just needs to hit a button and lift a thing and put it over there.  Even a scientist, though he only understands 1% of science instead of the 50% that was possible in centuries past, still understands a miniscule fraction of everything and works on his own pet projects just the same.  Civilization marches on bringing many changes with it but Future Shock isn't one of them.

Computers are bad

Well, it isn't so much that computers are bad as computer AIs are bad at games.  I have been mixing it up lately, playing some Starcraft 2 against humans and some against computers and I still find it shocking just how terrible the computers can be despite their superhuman ability to control everything at once.  As an example, there is an achievement to fight 4 Very Hard computers at once by yourself and win.  I normally test random ideas and strategies against 1 Very Hard computer so 4 at the same time would seem to be completely suicidal.  The problem is that although I can see a way to turtle up and defend my starting base I can't see how it would be possible to actually push out and capture enough extra bases and territory to defeat the computers.  I was considering this problem from the perspective of player vs. player combat though where players would actually look at the screen and draw obvious conclusions instead of just following a simple script.

The trick of course is figuring out where the AI has big holes in its strategies.  For example, computers are reasonable at finding and attacking extra bases I make around the map.  They see them with a scout and send their big army over to smash them.  To counter this I select a map with bases on islands and start new expansions on the islands instead of in normal places.  The computers figure out those bases are there but they aren't bright enough to build some flying units and go *smash* me, instead they just build more and more units in their ground army and continue to walk into my impregnable defenses at my main base.

The computers also never learn from past mistakes in a game and just stick to the plan.  The first time a person ran an absolutely enormous force into my siege tanks and get ground into hamburger they would decide to try something different next time - maybe use flying units, or maybe just sit outside my base with their completely monstrous army and wait for me to make the first move.  The computers can't make those strategy choices though - they get their big army together and their algorithm says attack, so another immense force gets to eat hot tungsten and die.  (Starcraft 2 tells me that siege tanks scatter tungsten around when their projectiles explode.  Why tungsten, I don't know.)

I figure the most interesting thing is how the strategies and decisions are shifted away from the battle and into the game creation.  I can't win against certain challenges on most maps - I spent a while figuring out exactly which map was best to allow me to beat these sorts of achievements.  I also had to figure out unit placement, unit mix and costing to sort out exactly how many bases the map would let me safely take so I could be sure to have enough money to actually be able to win at some point and not just survive.  Once I figured out the exact strategy I would employ and had a map that was ideal for exploiting the AIs weaknesses the actual play was very easy, which is precisely the opposite of a player vs. player match where the interesting stuff is all in responding to what the player does to respond to you.  I guess the real change though is that now that I have beaten 4 Very Hard AIs at once and 2 Insane!!!! AIs at once I can do it again any time I want to, but I know for damn sure just because I beat a player once that I can't do that again with regularity.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

A new beginning

I have been jonesing for some RPG action lately, and not of the WOW kind, I need to roll some dice and use a big ass battle grid with miniatures!  I initially started trying to recruit everybody I know who has ever played roleplaying games to play with me but I managed to get one person who can't commit to a schedule and one person who doesn't want to play with random others... this does not make a group.  Thanks to the massive and extremely sexy power of the internet I found a group of people right near me who are looking for players and the search only took 15 minutes.  Seriously, the internet.  Amazing.

Of course there might be some tricky bits involved because the group wants a GM to run the show and I have never GM'd the system we are going to use.  They also want to play a specific level range (11) and setting (Forgotten Realms), which is another issue because I have no interest in running a game set in a specific setting that the players are all familiar with but I am not!  I can just imagine the players cresting a hill and I say

"As you reach the summit you see a stinking mire filled with decaying trees and still pools.  This immense swamp stretches to the horizon with only small, occasional hummocks breaking up the monotony."

And they reply

"Ummm, no, over this hill is a gigantic city sitting in a desert.  See, the book says this is the city of Eralune, the domain of the red wizards."

"Well, the damn desert got flooded and turned into a swamp yesterday.  The city must have been vaporized by aliens.  Shut up!"

This is not the sort of exchange that makes a campaign good.  I can see how a campaign could be worked into a preset world but I think it would require a really good knowledge of the world on the part of the GM to make the transition work and my knowledge of the Forgotten Realms is bupkis.

It is funny how the prospective beginning of a campaign energizes my mind with ideas.  I am filled with lost civilizations, powerful artifacts and terrifying villains.  I have these constant bursts of inspiration that pop in and out of my brain hardly stopping to register.  I can have them start in a gigantic jungle.  No wait, a immense metropolis.  On a pillar that reaches the sky!  And the characters have to investigate the lower portions of the metropolis and find a powerful artifact that teleports them to an ancient ruin.  No wait, to a cave, which they can follow to the dungeon *below* the ancient ruin.  And the artifact is cursed.  No, that is too easy.  It has lots of other people who want it, yeah, that is better, though perhaps no less overused.  Oh, and I can have genies, and a order of paladins!

The question is not whether I have enough ideas, but rather whether I can stop myself imagining long enough to actually build something decent from all of them.  Discipline is the trick here, not inspiration.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Death Star Contractors

In the film Clerks there is a scene where the two main characters have a conversation about the morality of blowing up the Death Star in Star Wars.  They talk about how it was unethical to kill all the nonmilitary personnel on the Death Star, in particular the craftsmen who were working to complete it who were not doing anything inherently evil.  A random person wandering by disagrees with their point of view - he suggests that those people knew what they were building and who they were building it for and that doing so had risks that they accepted.  In essence he argued that by working for someone doing evil, even if you are doing very mundane tasks, you are doing evil and must accept the consequences.

This came up because Full Throttle was talking to me about setting up a business of questionable morality.  His business idea is very much like the dollar auctions I talked about a few posts back and has equal merit in that it is simply a way of siphoning money off from suckers.  He was wondering if I was interested in working for him part time in an administrative capacity - I wouldn't be doing anything directly to cause anyone harm but I would be supporting a business that is simply a parasite.  It is a tricky question.  This is an area where legality and morality diverge pretty severely because being a lawyer for a biker gang isn't likely to get you arrested but you are spending your life trying to make sure dangerous criminals evade justice.  On the other hand being a secretary for a company that does underhanded things like bribe officials or fix bids doesn't seem particularly evil even if you suspect the wrongdoing taking place.

Strangely I think that the method of payment would make a big impact on my feelings about this proposal.  If I was a stockholder working to make the company successful I wouldn't be at all interested in being involved in this sort of proposition.  However, if I was just paid hourly and simply doing a job I wouldn't feel nearly so bad about it.  How exactly I get my money for doing work perhaps shouldn't influence my moral impression of a job but somewhere in my mind it does; ownership implies greater involvement.

In general I think that anyone that has a really profound effect on an evil organization or who has a ownership stake in it is responsible for the things that organization does.  If your job is irreplaceable or you actually get to decide the way things will be you must take ownership of that and recognize that the actions of the organization reflect on you personally.  When you are entirely expendable and replaceable I think there is less onus on you to leave a company that does things that are wrong because your leaving will accomplish nothing; you will be replaced and never missed.  I don't think that frees you completely from responsibility, mind, but I can accept that disruption of your own life to cause negligible harm to an evil organization may not be warranted.  When you are just a cog in the machine you have a responsibility for the function of the machine, but only a small one.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

An Appropriate Discount

Here is the question:  How much should we discount future problems to create solutions for today?  For example, if we have an economic policy that can make us 10B dollars richer today but we have to pay back 11B dollars in 10 years, is that a good idea?  Economists generally assume that there is a discount rate we apply to future wealth and benefits that is multiplicative year after year.  For example, if we discount 6% per year then 1 dollar's worth of benefits in 5 years is only worth 73 cents of benefits right now.  This is especially critical when evaluating the costs of environmental policy years down the road as in order to talk about the net benefits or penalties of various schemes we need to understand how we weight various outcomes.  If we cost ourselves 1 dollar now but our descendants will save 2 dollars by not having to respond to issues later on, is that a good tradeoff?

It turns out this issue is really contentious.  In both The Rational Optimist and The Skeptical Environmentalist this issue was really brought to the fore because both authors felt that it was critical to assume that our descendants would be much, much richer than we are today.  For them paying 2 dollars to prevent a flood due to climate change is much less of a problem than it is for us to pay 1 dollar to use renewable energy sources today, so in that particular case we should just keep burning oil.  Obviously everyone agrees that it is sensible to make the easiest cuts first and that some cuts should be made, but people strenuously disagree on exactly how deep to cut into our economy today to benefit those will come later.  In the books Eaarth and Earth in the Balance the opposite view was held:  Those authors felt that we should weight our descendants' problems very highly and that discounting benefits and penalties in the future was unconscionable.  In fact this issue is often framed as a moral one with some people even claiming that a discount of zero is the only moral choice, valuing the lives of those many generations from now as equal to those alive today.

I think the idea of a zero discount is bonkers, in particular because the authors themselves don't live that way.  People care about those close to them and care much less about others they do not know; even those who are very generous do not spend the same time and money helping random strangers as they do their family and friends.  If people really behaved this way the rich wouldn't buy expensive cars or clothes - they would set up trust funds to distribute their money equally among their 1000 potential descendants 10 generations hence and live a middle class lifestyle.  People naturally apply their own future discounts and if that behaviour is immoral then I don't know if there exists a moral person.

The other major issue with zero future discounts is uncertainty.  We can be pretty confident that 1 dollar of benefit today is worth about 1 dollar.  We have a sketchy idea of how much it will be worth in 25 years and absolutely no clue about its worth in 50 years.  Think about someone from 1960 trying to work out the economic value of something in the world of the internet, cell phones, facebook and the collapse of communism. They would have no idea, and using valuations of concepts and even raw goods from that long ago is a joke.  Because of this we have to value the future less simply because we don't know whether what we are doing will matter at all.  Even barring the seemingly unstoppable increases in economic power that each new generation brings the lack of predictive power means we must strongly weight benefits today over seemingly equal benefits far down the road.

None of this means we should pour arsenic into the water just for fun but it does mean that we need to approach these issues cautiously and not idealistically.  Future discounts aren't just an economist's construction - they actually model human behaviour if the number is set correctly.  We need to accept that, set reasonable numbers and move on.

Monday, September 6, 2010

You suck Al Gore

Back in the year 2000 Al Gore was running against George Bush for president of the United States.  At the time I was very much for Gore and figured he would be a good president.  I wasn't completely informed as to US politics but everything Gore said seemed reasonable and I have always ended up being in favour of Democrats over Republicans.  We all know how it turned out of course, and along the way there was much cursing that Al Gore would have been much better.  I don't take that stance back now as I still think with Gore in charge there would be much less pollution, at least one less awful war and vastly more trust in the United States worldwide, but oh man has my opinion of the man plummeted.  You see, I just finished reading Earth in the Balance, Al Gore's book on environmentalism and climate change and he managed to offend and disappoint on so many levels.

I will lead off with some quotes:

"[The United States] will once again redeem its promise as the last best hope of humankind on earth."

"The American drive to correct injustice - from the abolition of slavery to the granting of women's suffrage - has constantly renewed our moral authority to lead."

"The United States has long been the natural leader of the global community of nations."

There are plenty of others of course, all mirroring the idea that the United States enjoys some kind of undeniable moral high ground and is looked up to by the world as the greatest among us.  Not only this, but he insists that the US Constitution is the basis of democracy worldwide; he stops just barely short of suggesting that every country was a depotism prior to US independence.

There is plenty in the book that focuses on climate change instead of grandstanding for his home country of course; unfortunately he provides precious little in the way of numbers and concrete data and plenty of rhetoric and hyperbole.  He is right of course that climate change is real and that the consequences are probably going to be very serious but it is hard to take anything he says seriously when it is so peppered with ridiculous statements.  In particular when Gore starts to theorize about the root causes of climate change he suggests it is all attributable to Plato and Descartes.  You see, their theories about the mind being separate from the world separated religion and science, which of course lead to the current state of environmental degradation.  To be sure, I don't see that at all, but apparently Al Gore does.  He also has this idea that scientists are coming around on the God issue because obviously something had to exist before the Big Bang, so clearly scientists who believe in the Big Bang are beginning to see how God must exist.  Al Gore seems to have forgotten that you don't convince people of scientific fact very well when you spend much of your time shouting about spirituality, mind/body dualism and how science needs to get back to God.

I think the world would have been a much better place if Al Gore had won that election in 2000.  I also think that he is quite the lunatic after reading this book and seeing his movie.  Al Gore, you are better than George W. Bush for president, but I sure wish we could have had someone else entirely.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

What a deal

Some time ago I talked about a ridiculous online scam trying to sell weight loss and muscle building drugs.  The basic premise was that you would follow a link from an online ad and see a page with a 'news coverage' type look talking about how great these new supplements were.  Just recently Full Throttle told me about a new internet scam that is even more hilarious (awful?) than that one though.  It masquerades as a bidding site like Ebay but instead is a lot more like unregulated online slot machines.

A classic example is  What you find when you go there is a fake newscast at the top of the page trying to convince you that this is a legitimate business, tons of pictures of lucky winners paying nearly nothing for products and flashing numbers on the screen telling you that auctions of items going for 5% of retail price are finishing *right now* and you must sign up right away and win them!  The site tries to build plausible deniability by claiming that they make their money by buying items from liquidations and warehouse closeouts and it literally is true that they sell all kinds of completely new merchandise for fractions of retail cost.  For example, they sold a Honda Civic for $1700 and change, a fact that they tout with tremendous zeal.  So if you can log on to this site and buy new stuff for fractions of the retail price, what's the catch?

The catch, it turns out, is that you pay for each bid.  The amount you pay varies based on which site you are donating at but 60 cents or a dollar is typical.  Also, you cannot choose what amount to bid as the site simply increments the dollar value of the bid by a few cents when you hit the bid button and extends the auction a little bit more.  The net result is that even though the site sells a Civic for $1700 they have charged their users over $50,000 for the right to make those bids and they walk away with a quick $36,000 profit on one car sale.  They even have extra bids tacked on to items they sell so you might be bidding on a package of 20 bids, which of course gets bids on more than 20 times by various people and nets the company money.  It seems like a business model that would be easy to find great testimonials for since regularly your customers hit the jackpot and manage to win an item while paying a tiny fraction of the real cost, but just like slot machines the masses of humanity lose money like crazy chasing a dream they will never realize.

A fun trick these sites try is they may let you spend the value of your bids on an auction towards the regular retail price of goods.  For example, you bid 10 times on an Ipod and lose.  Now you have a $6 credit towards an Ipod purchase and you can pay the retail price less $6 to buy it.  You see how great that is?  Last time I checked buying items at full retail price wasn't much of a consolation prize since you can always go to a store and get a big discount any time you like.  Another fun page is the one where SwipeAuctions tries to convince you that this isn't like online gambling at all.  You see, they get big deals and pass the savings on to you, their customers, no gambling here!

Unfortunately since they probably are on the up and up legally these sites will likely stick around.  The rules are all posted, the site is probably following them, and they are reaming foolish people for huge sums.  Just like the one armed bandits it is a tax on the foolish and gullible or those who simply crave that sense of danger and excitement and care not for the costs of getting it.  After hearing about this business model I just sat there in awe at their moxy, creativity and evil.  I suppose you could view it simply as entertainment - customers paying for the thrill - but just like payday loan outfits they end up simply siphoning money from the desperate and depositing it in the bank account of the sharks.

Thursday, September 2, 2010


I have known for some time that I have some lung issues.  When I get a chest cold it lasts and lasts and my coughs are really harsh compared to average people.  It is common that everyone else beats their cold in four days and I get stuck coughing for two weeks and I simply dismissed it as bad lungs since my father had similar issues throughout his life.  I considered myself to be in nearly perfect health less the lung issues and low physical fitness due to too much playing and blogging and too little running!  This week I went to the doctor as I have had a cough for over two weeks and we were worried it might be strep throat.  Instead she diagnosed me with asthma.  It is a very strange thing to go from a undiagnosed 'my body just doesn't work' situation to a named, known disease.  Somehow I can't consider myself to be in prime health anymore because I have this big disease psychically imprinted on me for now and forever.

Naming something has tremendous power.  It used to be that many kids were simply considered bad kids or poor learners but now they are labeled with ADHD or dyslexia and that change of label completely alters their lives and learning.  The change in label is so powerful I think because it changes the source of the issues and their potential resolution.  A bad kid is one with a moral fault - they could be different but they choose not to.  A kid with dyslexia is suffering from a negative influence from outside their sphere of control which can be dealt with and accounted for.  My circumstance is obviously somewhat different but it has similarities in that naming the problem changes it.  Instead of something inexplicable and unsolvable I suffer from something with defined parameters and known solutions.

Now I can approach the problem from an entirely new perspective.  I can get the doctor to prescribe me a puffer to help deal with coughing jags and I can read online to learn about the triggers for problems and other solutions people have come up with.  I do have the new situation of describing my condition as asthma and having all the baggage that goes with it though, which is challenging because my version of it is very mild and many people assume the worst when they hear the name of a disease.  I suppose I can call it 'mild asthma' generally speaking and people will understand fairly well, but that is one distinct downside to naming things specifically like this; communication is made much faster but unless the batch of things the listener associates with the word happen to match the characteristics the speaker wants to convey things may be simply made muddier instead of clearer.

One wonderful thing is that my doctor told me it was possible to go get tested for asthma but that she recommended against it.  Given the mildness of my symptoms she felt that there would be no useful treatment that would require an official test so she recommended not being tested.  I am extremely happy that my physician thinks about things that way - if we can't treat it, don't test for it.

I am away at the cottage for four days this weekend so only 4 posts this week.  Next post will go up on Sunday night.