Saturday, December 30, 2006

Designing a MUD combat system

Unrelated to the events in Harshlands I've been blogging about, I've been thinking about what I would do if I were designing a combat system for a MUD from the ground up, without having to worry about anything but making it cool and fun and interesting. While I like in theory how in Harshlands 95% of combat success comes from your character's skill, not yours, I also don't like how that makes combat an event to watch, not a game to play. What I'd end up with would look more like the Iron Realms model but with these major differences:
  1. Complexity in structure, not quantity. Lusternia has hundreds of afflictions, attacks, defenses, skills, and other moving parts. The number of things you need to do before you can stand a chance in a real fight is impossibly dauntingly large, and discourages people from joining in. I would have about 1/6 as many "moving parts", but I would design them to encourage more combos and synergies, including ones that a single person, not just a team, could use. It's be more like Legos: a vast array of possibilities from a modest handful of building blocks.

  2. Encourage systems. I would publish trigger texts and make them regular. I'd have very few skills that masked or faked afflictions, and those would be high-power, high-cost skills, rarely used. Curing would be difficult not through obscurity but through synergies of attacks and manuevers, making it a tactical game.

  3. Explicit, limited teaming. I would not discourage team combat, but I would make sure size of team wasn't the trumping factor by putting limiting mechanisms on teams. Lots of skills would be designed to work within a team and synergize with others in a team, but a team would be something you'd explicitly create and join, and be limited in size to about five. I'd put mechanisms in place to make it hard and dangerous for a team to help another team, to prevent people forming "meta-teams". Might also give smaller teams a boost to help make up for the number differences.

  4. Much, much slower. This is the big one. Everything would happen about 1/10th as fast. Everything. It would be possible to follow the spam without tricky techniques. You'd be able to use strategy and tactics during a fight. You'd even be able to talk with each other during a fight, and that'd mean leadership, cooperation, and team structure would become far more important. It wouldn't be a competition between tactics worked out ahead of time and coded into a system; it'd be a competition between the tactical wizardry of the players involved.
Can't help but wonder if anyone but me would like that. IRE's success comes from selling to a wide variety of people -- they're in it for the money. Would something like this, like many of my ideas, appeal to too narrow a market?

Thursday, December 28, 2006

Not-quite-quitting Harshlands

Earlier today I reached a decision about Harshlands. Rather than quitting, which I've been on the verge of doing, I've decided to take an indefinite break.

It's become clear to me that Harshlands ranges from a source of frustration, to a simple source of boredom. The only reason I have found to log in is in hopes of running into someone who might further some bit of business, but with my business agonizingly on hold, even this is no longer compelling.

As I wrote previously, it's become clear that the failure of caravanning is entirely crippling, simply because everything else either has already failed, or depends on caravanning, for my current character. It's a pity that a single element of the game should have turned out to be such a linchpin; no one should have nothing to look forward to but their trade. But that's what it's come down to for me. For a variety of reasons, most (but not all) the fault of the admins making choices I consider ill-conceived, a lot of things have had the fun drained out of them. A lot of others depend on how much is made possible by silver.

So here's what I'm going to do. Right now, I'm less than a day from having a caravan trip to Azadmere either happen or fail to happen -- far more likely the latter. If it happens, I see it through -- no great hardship since, once we're there and I do the trade, it's a week with nothing to do until time to head back. While I'm gone, one of the employees of the Silver Plough tends my crops. Once I get back, that's when my break starts. If it doesn't happen, my break starts right away, though it's diminished at first since I have to tend my own crops.

Once the break starts, I only log in:
  • to tend my crops as necessary; thanks to the stupid farming craft timers, that could take a while, logging on for a minute every hour for a while
  • once every couple of weeks I might check in on my cart
  • by appointment -- if I'm contacted by OOC means to log in for some RP or business purpose
And apart from that, I'm gone. No more logging into Harshlands. (My IC excuse is that Reb is staying home with his wife, turning inward to reevaluate his plans in life, and hoping the Gentle Lady will finally give them a child.)

Forever? Maybe. Or at least until caravanning is viable. Guess we'll have to see if that ever happens.

That means I'm also stopping (sort of already have stopped) doing coding for Harshlands. I'll keep reading the forums, until or unless that turns out to become no fun.

I find myself tremendously looking forward to it. I can't wait just to announce it on the forums, so it'll be real, a done thing, not just a plan. I kind of hope my caravanning trip doesn't go off after all. (If by some miracle it does, I'll probably still announce my break, once the wagons are in Azadmere.)

Wednesday, December 27, 2006

The fluttering heartbeat of caravanning

As I noted in the comments, after a turn for the worse in Harshlands, I had a talk with the admins which (just barely) appeased me enough to keep me walking out. Today I got another token gesture: it's now possible to buy object-type (not mobile-type) dogs for use as props, though still not for breeding without admin intervention. I'm not availing myself of it, partly because the idea of dogs just makes me ill after how it was treated in the past, and partly because Reb's money situation is now so tight he can't spend any money on frivolities.

How's that? He's an active Master of what is supposed to be, according to canon, the most wealthy and influential guild in all the Isle.

So goes the theory. But the nerfing of caravanning in Harshlands continues on apace; it is already far, far less profitable than, say, woodworking or hideworking, and looks very likely to be made even less so.

It's hard to explain how and why to people without making their eyes glaze over, if they're not already familiar with business concepts like capital investment, operating funds, profit margins, cost of storage, etc. And most of the time when I try to explain this, people don't even remember the most basic of all costs, cost of goods sold. I have literally been stopped at selling things because of how big gross revenue looked!

The key economic factors that everyone always forgets are:
  1. Mercantylers add relatively little value, since they don't produce anything. Thus, their gross profit margins -- the ratio of gross revenue to cost of goods -- are far, far lower than in other trades. If a woodcrafter spends 100p on materials, the resulting goods will sell for 250p or so. If a mercantyler spends 100p on goods, the resulting sales will gross maybe 130p.

  2. Mercantylers have much higher overhead costs. In fact, in Harshlands most trades have no overhead costs until master level, and few after. They pay no taxes, no transportation costs, no permit fees, and only pay rent after becoming a master. All they do is drop their completed goods in a particular place and they sell at full price. Mercantylers, on the other hand, pay out handsomely for guards (the lion's share of the costs -- no pun intended), tolls, food and other supplies, wagon repair, and now we'll also be forced to pay for teamsters and hawking permits. These eat away quickly at revenue, and since most of them are fixed regardless of the quantity of cargo, they force a minimum size on a trip to make a profit at all. (Which is why having my wagons stuck at 1/8 the size that I was originally told they'd be completely ruined so many of my plans... one of many times that changing the rules on me midstream has forced me to yet again reinvent my business to try to make it work.)

  3. Mercantylers have probably the single highest startup costs. Only jewelers can hope to compare. As in real life, you need to have money to make money -- and you expect to get a higher yield when you do start with money, or else why bother to go into this level of investment?

  4. Mercantylers also require a higher level of operating capital -- that is, liquidity of assets -- to operate. People expect a wide selection of goods of a variety of types from a mercantyler, so it's always tempting to load up your stock. But you have to have a lot of free coin on hand, too. To handle the considerable up-front costs of each venture -- buying cargo, paying guards whether it sells or not, etc. To be able to take advantage of chances to buy when they come. To be able to absorb setbacks like not being able to sell your cargo. For instance, Reb's second trip last season earned him about 1400p on the sale of grains, and then tied up almost 2200p in furs that, if they sold, would have made him another 625p profit; but since they didn't sell, as the caravan market in Tashal remains non-functional, the trip on the whole actually drained 800p from Reb's coffers. He has 2200p worth of furs as assets, but these are all but worthless since they do not sell (not even to vNPCs, since they always go for the 1p-and-less bin).

  5. Mercantylers face a much higher risk than most trades. Both financially (the real risk of goods not selling as expected, which has bitten Reb time and time again) and physically (the risk of coming away from a venture wounded, maimed, or dead). High risk is like high investment capital requirements: the only reason people engage in it is for the chance of much higher rewards.
Of course, the factor that should, and did in real life, make caravanning profitable, even rich-making, in spite of all these, is quantity. The bigger your load, the smaller those fixed overhead costs become by proportion, and the more you can squeeze out of a razor-thin margin. And that in turn makes the need for huge startup costs and operating capital only bigger.

Despite all this, it seems like the admins look at the possible gross revenue from a single trip and panic and that's the end of the analysis. "160 bushels of wheat at 22.5p each means 3600p... we can't let someone earn 3600p! Especially if they can come back and do it again!" Except of course that the profit on that trip is only about 1000p, and you can't do it again for another year. If by some miracle I could make three two-leg trips a year, without ever having a cargo fail to sell and without ever being robbed by bandits, my net profit would be at best 6000p... which an active journeyman woodcrafter can make with zero risk, zero capital investment, and very little need for operating capital, in the same amount of time.

And that's just how things are today. Almost every variable that led to the 6000p possible annual income, is currently being considered for reduction.

In fact, right now, the admins are discouraging me from practicing my trade at all "until the work behind it is complete so it is setup properly". Admittedly, it's not even been a week since the last time we talked about this, and that week included Christmas. But it's been three months since I got my caravanner license. It's been six months since I was eligible to get my caravanner's license. It's been 14 months since I announced my intention to become a caravanner. When should I start counting from? Particularly when all the plans right now seem to be limited to ways to nerf caravanning farther.

The fact is, caravanning could be functional right now, according to the plans I posted last week on the forums, if someone finally made about three decisions, and then someone spent a few hours, maybe one day, on building. There are refinements that would take longer, but it'd be functional with just that. The same few hours of work I've been asking for for months.

I find myself feeling like I have to be on the defensive because the need for large profits on this or that trip to provide operating capital for the following trips comes off as rampant greed. Now, I've played Reb as having slightly absorbed some of the "ethic" of his guild; he's flippantly casual about sums of money that would have made him faint when he was apprentice, and he hasn't hesitated to spoil his wife with fine jewelry. But at the same time he's still the humblest member of his guild; all he's bought himself is a fine sword (which has probably saved his life already; he sees it as operating equipment, a business expense) and two suits of moderately nice clothes (but linens, not silk and lace and frippery). I still find myself thinking other people think I am money-hungry -- like I'm treating the size of my coffer as a score and I want to get high score -- and explaining the economics of caravanning does little to diminish that opinion, since no one ever listens long enough to become convinced. All I want is enough to make it work and keep working -- not my fault that that happens to be a very large number! That's the nature of the trade.

All this is, quite ironically and amusingly, entirely moot. Since even if caravanning were implemented and feasible and profitable enough to justify its costs, it's not currently possible in Tashal for a rather stupid reason: lack of guards.

The mercenary company in Tashal recently lost two people. Just two. But since one of them was the only one with high enough rank to order around the NPC members, all those NPCs are now also unusable. There's no IC explanation for why those NPCs cannot be used on missions anymore. By all rights one of them should be the new captain, in fact. As a result, the entire company consists of only two usable members.

Hire NPCs, you say. Good idea. Only trouble is, where canon says you can hire a guard for about 40p round trip (and even the Harshlands price list still says so), it now costs about 3000p to hire one. That's because you have to prepay for 10 years service, and you have to supply all the required equipment. Remember what I said about startup costs and operating capital? For me to get enough NPC guards to make a trip to Azadmere viable would cost all my profits from the next 18 trips. If I suddenly came into a huge pile of money, I couldn't earn back the investment for, at a minimum, six years. How could I even hope to ever raise that much -- particularly if the only means to raise it requires that I already have it? (Can't even go into debt to do it; maximum amount of debt I could go into isn't even enough to buy a single guard, even though I'm a member of the guild that makes the loans.)

At this point, with almost half this year's trading season gone, I'm reduced to begging every passerby who can hold a sword if they will let me overpay them to go to Azadmere, and almost everyone can't because they're all apprenticed to someone, or employed by someone. Even the Crimson Leopards, which includes the Royal Foresters, can only front at best three people.

As of this writing, if every single person who said they might come comes, we will just barely have enough to make the trip. If even a single person doesn't log on at the appointed time, we're screwed. I haven't even gotten a cost out of the Leopards, nor do I have a clear idea of whether I'll have to pay just the hawking permit, just the bulk markdown, or both, so it's possible that even if it does go off I will only break even.

But can I complain? No. If I talk about this, most of the time people just don't believe me. Without knowing about caravanning or even basic concepts of business, without any insight into the history of how caravanning has been changed in Harshlands, they just look at the large numbers and they're blinded by them. They're sure I'm just being a negative-nancy, defeatist, that I don't really want to find a solution. They start proposing ill-informed, half-baked solutions, and I shoot them down one after the other, and they get discouraged and blame me for it. Understandable, but it's not my fault! If there were an answer that obvious I would have found it. They get the impression that I'm not even trying, when what's happened is actually that I've been trying for a long, long time, and as unhappy as I am, I'm still trying from long before they tried and until long after they'll give up.

I don't mean to suggest that caravanning is the only reason for Reb to exist, for me to log in. But almost all the other reasons either depend on it, or are dormant for other reasons.
  • The Silver Plough, Reb's charitable organization, has nothing particular to do; we're brainstorming tinyplots we can set up and run ourselves, but we can't find any that won't require at least admin permission, which I'm loath even to ask for, and any good ones would require admin support, which I can't even vaguely hope for.
  • Besides, the only reason the Plough is not defunct from lack of coin is that I have not junked as much coin, food, and clothing as I ought to have by now, plus a few big donations; but caravanning's large revenue was the entire raison d'etre for the Silver Plough, so if that is dried up, the Plough is doomed, eventually.
  • Reb's marriage and family life are entirely off-camera since his wife hardly ever logs in.
  • His farm has had all the fun drained out of it by an exceedingly poorly thought out change to farming crafts; the only reason I planted this year is because the revenue from farm goods (enhanced by my ability to sell them at wholesale) is what's keeping me financially afloat, but I resent every time it takes me 10 game minutes to plant a single carrot seed.
  • Hanging out in Tashal in hopes of roleplay, when farming doesn't make it impractical, rarely leads to anything these days: there are rarely more than a few people around at any time, since so many people have been splintering the player base into other locations, so we now have 5-6 pockets of 2-3 people unable to get anything started, where we used to have 2-3 pockets of 5-6 people engaged in somewhat vibrant roleplay.
  • Plus a lot of complaining about people being AFK means people now log in, check if anyone's there, and log off if they're not, and when everyone does that, there are never people there.
What it all adds up to is simple: no reason to log in. Right now the only reason I'm logged in is the very, very remote chance that some cluster of able men-at-arms will suddenly show up and want to be hired on, so I can make this trip to Azadmere happen. Even though I know that will likely be a source for more frustration when I prove unable to sell the wheat, or some other caravanning-nerf ruins my plans mid-stream. I have to try -- that's how I got this far -- but by the same token, I've endured through enough reason to give up a dozen times already, buoyed up by the promise that I would finally, at least, arrive, and get to spend my time doing the things I wanted to do from the start -- the adventure of caravanning afield, the development of character when at home. Each time that arrival becomes again delayed indefinitely, it's that much harder to believe it'll ever come. Right now, I don't really believe it at all. Haven't for a while. I'm just going on sheer pigheadedness now. And pigheadedness is an affliction that doesn't last.

A new look for my blog

I used the new Blogger features for customizing your blog's layout (without coding HTML, like I'd done before). This unfortunately narrowed the main text column again.

I hate HTML layout that puts all the text into a narrow column, leaving most of your screen wasted. If I wanted a narrow column, I'd resize my window. Why do so many sites do this? I know it makes some HTML coding easier, but that's like saying it'd make it easier to write applications if you code your program to force all other programs to quit when it runs. But on the web we tolerate it.

Anyhow, this template uses the width that you, the viewer, chose. I'll have to get used to the links stuff being on the left, though. I didn't like the original color scheme associated with this template, but fortunately I was able to revise it.

Saturday, December 23, 2006

The best rock album of all time

How's that for a pretentious title?

I'm not talking about the album with the best song on it, or the album with my favorite song, or the album with the most good songs, or the album that sold best, or the one that's most significant in the history of rock, or anything like that. I'm talking the album that is best at being an album, period.

Obviously I'm not qualified to really put the "of all time" bit on there because there's plenty of albums I've never heard. There's whole swathes of rock albums I'm not familiar with. There's a period of about six years I barely heard anything new, and then all the time since those six years, I've been still fairly out of touch.

But hey, this is my blog, so who cares about that? I'm going to post my answer and let everyone else post theirs in the comments.

And the winner is:

Meat Loaf - Bat Out Of Hell

The individual songs are each strong, without a single one that feels like filler or doesn't live up to the standard of the album. They fit together with one another, with a good sense of pacing and balance, allowing each track to lead into the next. As an album as a whole, I find this to be essentially without flaw. It's that rare creation where a large number of strong talents came together, but the result didn't feel like a hodgepodge, but like a single cohesive creative vision. Listening to this album, I cannot think of a single thing I could imagine changing that would make it stronger as an album, not even the tiniest of changes. And that's what makes it win: every other contender has some tiny thing I can imagine could have been done better.

Of course there are runners-up that are very, very close. Ask me on another day and I might choose a different winner, they're that close. Here are some:

Pink Floyd - Dark Side Of The Moon

Probably the first choice to leap to most people's minds, and for very good reason. Holds together as an album even better than Bat does, providing an experience that is second to none. The only reason I am not picking it first is because I think that some of the songs don't stand as strongly on their own as each other, giving the album a sort of unevenness. It's a very slight unevenness, mind you, but it's enough in this cut-throat competition.

Led Zeppelin IV

Every song is a gem, and this album contains a few of the best hard rock songs ever written. And they hold together pretty well, too. But they don't hold together perfectly; there's some uneven pacing.


Never was there a better example of the freshman band that blew all its best work on their first album. Almost every song could have carried an entire album, and some of the instrumental work is spectacular. The pacing is good too. In the end, though, it's just a bit too shallow to win.

Fleetwood Mac - Rumours

An inevitable inclusion if only because of its hit-generating, chart-lurking staying power. The breadth of the music on this album is remarkable, and almost every song feels solid, but it also feels a bit of a mismatched hodgepodge. While that has its virtues, it's not what I was going for with this ranking.

Beatles - Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band

I'm including this mostly so I won't get lynched. I don't deny for a minute that this is a seminal piece of work, a breathtaking breakthrough. But I really don't think it belongs on this list. Maybe it made all the other things on this list possible, and it was certainly the winner at its time, but it was soon surpassed as an album -- personally I think Abbey Road is the best Beatles scorer in this competition, in fact.

U2 - The Joshua Tree

I've come back to add this one to the list while wondering why I didn't add it before. When the album first came out, I didn't like it that much, but after I came back to it later, it really wore well and became my favorite U2 album by far. The last song is a little weak, though.

Now I'm looking forward to being told how wrong I am. I am sure my #1 choice will not be agreed to by many! Plus I'm sure there are a lot of albums that I've never heard that will be nominated. Have at me!

Friday, December 22, 2006

A turn for the worse

Gradually over the last few months my discontent with Harshlands has been waxing and waning, but generally increasing. During the last few weeks I've been nearing a turning point. My character has a caravan trip he's been trying to make happen and I'd pretty well decided when it was done (one way or the other) I'd be deciding whether it was the last.

One of the reasons I put off the end was that something my character's been planning for almost five game years had finally come to fruition and involved a lot of other characters. That feels something like an obligation -- those players got involved, and I don't know if the whole thing will hold together without my character. I'd try to pass it off so it wouldn't wither, but things like this often wither anyway once the creating force leaves. That's happened with similar things in other MUDs.

But I was increasingly finding myself wondering, why bother to log in today? And having no better reason than habit. About all I've been doing the last week or so is trapping rabbits once an hour to build up my stock of rabbit meat... something I've done literally a thousand times before, and which completely lacks any pleasure. Even bashing mindlessly in Lusternia is more fun somehow, if only because of the pace. Otherwise, all I could do is wait for the few other players I needed or wanted to see, most of whom rarely log on.

What else did I hope for? Adventure? The only real adventure possible for a character like mine is caravanning, but after almost a year and a half of working towards becoming a caravanner, the admins had still not even decided how caravanning should work, let alone put it into place. All my last round of trying to get them to decide had accomplished was to make them change some of the rules midstream on me -- for instance, my wagons suddenly held about 1/8 as much as I'd originally been told, and the main cargo I'd built my plans around (and built up a hefty stock of) was suddenly not worth enough to make any profit on. From the bare skeleton of a caravanning system with only one workable trade, instead of getting a fleshed-out system with multiple trading options, all I got was a big step backwards to where caravanning was impossible again. After 5-6 game years of struggling through unpleasant things in hopes of finally being able to be a caravanner, instead of finally getting the payoff of all that work, all I was getting was more unpleasant struggle, but I did manage to tentatively eke out a means to make it just-barely-work. Again. At least until the rules got changed against me again.

But the continued failure to address caravanning, and the tendency for my suggestions and ideas to go unanswered about how to do it (along with my offers to code whatever was needed for it), was only a small part of my discontent. I kept telling myself, I love the setting, I like the codebase, and I like most of the players. But the way the game is set up, you simply can't participate very much without admin cooperation; too many things depend on it. And every time the admins got involved, I felt like I was being spit on. Most of the time I was ignored. Not even a "we're thinking about it", just nothing. I was usually denied the simplest requests for the worst reasons, and then often found that someone else had gotten the thing I was denied without any problem, with no real reason for the difference.

One of the worst examples was dogs. My character has a skill to breed dogs, but nowhere in the trade city of Tashal, or the highly agricultural nation of Kaldor, or the adjoining kingdom of Azadmere, or in the freetown of Trobridge, or the nearby city of Heras, was there a single dog to buy. Not one. I pursued IC and OOC methods many times over the course of two game years and could not get a dog for, literally, love nor money. Never was I given a reason why; it was just as if dogs were incredibly scarce, which makes no sense. Eventually, after travelling hundreds of leagues, I was able to buy one single dog. This dog very soon after died due to a combination of stupid code limitations, and a single misplaced keypress; and of course, there would not be another dog available (though by this time I was so sick of the subject I didn't even want one anymore).

I forced the issue at a player/staff meeting, at which point I was told that we can't have dogs because we might use them as combat machines -- which is patently absurd, both because mob dogs are barely strong enough to beat a duck, and because the dogs used in breeding aren't even mobs anyway, just objects, and besides which, plenty of people walk around with a retinue of NPC guards and none of them has ever tried to take over the world. Personally, I've had an NPC I can control for more than 3 game years and I have never once used him to do anything more twinkish than helping me carry grains he would then sell. Once. Yet I still didn't have the trust to be entrusted with a mob dog that can barely kill a duck. And I wasn't even asking for one; I wanted an object dog to breed, for the purely-RP-motivation of wanting one to guard my caravan (even though due to the way travel works, you never really need guarding while you sleep on the road, since you never do) and one to guard my wife at home while on the road (even though she's never logged on so there's nothing to guard).

Recently I found out that another player, who the admins like, created a new character and within the first few days he had dogs for breeding. Just like that. He asked and they gave them to him.

This is just one example; dozens of others could be listed, equally absurd, equally making me feel like I was being pissed on. Like I had to fight for even the most simple of things and always, even when I got them, feeling nauseated for having to go through pointless mind games to get them. Most of these times I came away feeling that if someone else had asked, they'd've just gotten it, no problem.

So with things like this piling up and my mood growing more and more sour about Harshlands, my wife decided to try a gambit to getting things fixed. She contacted the guy who used to be head admin when we started, to ask if maybe he could shed some light on the problems with the new head admins, or even help with it. He flat out admitted to some of the problems: that the admins has long had a habit of not answering harder questions and just letting them fall through the cracks (how hard would it be to get some kind of issue tracking system put into place?), and that the admins very often tended to fall into a habit of treating everyone like a twink because they'd been burned by a few twinks, even when someone had proven themselves repeatedly not to be one. But he offered little that would help directly, apart from his willingness to chat with the current head admin.

This leads us to today. We ended up having a very productive conversation about the considerations in making caravanning work and what would need to be done. Why we didn't have this conversation years ago I don't know, but it was nice to talk through and some good ideas came out of it. And then the subject changed all at once, and became very painful, ugly, and angering.

See, my character has been working towards being a caravanner, and carvanners are part of the mercantyler's guild, but because there were no PC caravanners, he had to put in his 4-5 years of apprenticeship and journeymanship as a peddler. Caravanning is (or at least was) a trade with a high profit potential, and correspondingly, a very high startup cost -- 5000p for the license alone, and another 5000p for wagons and cargo for your first trip and other costs. Just like in any world, you need big money to make big money. Trouble is, for various reasons, some of them codebase limitations, peddling is a desperately poor profession. Hardly anyone else ever made it through, because you make so little coin, that it's hard to get by, let alone flourish so well as to be able to make up those incredibly high startup costs. I put in an incredibly huge number of gameplay hours doing desperately tedious and unfun things to scrape out every penny, no doubt giving a lot of people and possibly the admins the impression I was actually money-hungry, when I was really being an overambitious skinflint just as a means of bridging the gap between peddler income and caravanner startup costs. I endured it all in hopes of getting to the payoff -- to be a caravanner finally and not have to do that kind of unfun struggle.

When my journeyman time ended, the admins just let things sit there. They had no caravanning system yet (despite more than a RL year of warning I was going to come to this point one day) so they just ignored my comments about my mastership coming up, and my inquiries. I was sitting on 8800p, the cumulative earnings of 4 game years of scrimping and working 2-3 jobs, which I kept in the form of silver so it would be liquid enough to pay my license fee when the admins finally gave me the goahead -- I kept thinking that was any day now, for months. To keep that huge amount of coin safe, I kept it double-locked in the most public place on the entire island of Harn, a spot constantly patrolled by guards as well as what the roomdesc describes as a crushingly busy crowd even in the middle of the night. Even the most sneaky thief would be unable to take the time it takes to pick two locks in the middle of this huge crowd, and if they could, how could they carry off a jingling pile of more than 8000 coins through the crowd entirely unseen?

So one day there was a scare involving undead in the city. A couple of game days later, my coins were still there just fine. A few days after that, they were all gone. Every penny.

I cried foul. There was no way, and I still see no way save magic or divine intervention, that someone could carry off that theft realistically. But codebase limitations mean it's actually remarkably easy to pull off... if you don't mind twinking. Ignoring room descriptions, pretending NPCs are insensate, etc. The game is always full of twinks who'd do that; half the coding things I'm asked to do are geared towards stopping twinking.

My concerns were dismissed. The admins mostly just trivialized them rather than answering them. The first answers were that it must have been done during the undead scare, which wasn't possible; and that I'd been asked to pay protection money to avoid this and ignored it, which I hadn't. Hearing the first two answers for why this theft was just fine and not twinking and having them both be factually wrong did not do much to bolster my confidence that the admins were evaluating this fair; the casually dismissive, accusatory, and downright insulting and rude way they worded these responses was extremely offensive and angering. Later answers suggested things like that the square isn't always full, which contradicts other things I've been told; that I should have kept my money in the form of certificates, which I could have, if I hadn't been being kept on the hook by the admins waiting for my mastership for months; and finally, one of the admins admitted that they fudge in favor of the thieves because of a number of codebase limitations that make life hard for them (similar to the ones that made it hard for me to earn those coins in the first place). All of these things were both insulting and hurtful to me, and entrenched my sense that I was being treated unfairly.

I responded in anger and hurt, and at one point, my answer included the word "bullshit". I apologized the next day for the tone, but I did not, and still do not, retract my two concerns. First, that they treated my concerns in an insulting, dismissive, and rude way; and second, that I remain unconvinced that the theft was really fair.

I also planned to retire the character. There was no way I could go through another 4 game years trying to earn that coin back the painfully hard way. Even if I wanted to start over from scratch, my situation had changed; it was no longer possible to earn it the same way, nor could I count on a few strokes of good luck that had gotten me that far in the first place. The admins laughed off this agony and insisted, not in so many words, that I was being childish and I should just take my lumps, further adding to the insulting tone. At no point did they apologize for any of these bits of rudeness, nor did I expect them to.

Instead, I pursued the matter by IC means and I soon found that, while the admins swore up and down that the theft was fair, the thieves themselves had their doubts. They went to great lengths to find an IC way to reverse it as far as possible, and in the end, they gave me back almost 6000p in exchange for nothing at all besides a public statement that I should have paid the protection money (which my character would have said anyway). They bent over backwards to undo the mistake the admins insisted was not a mistake... again, further undermining any confidence I had that the admins hadn't made a big mistake.

Making 10,000p by starting with 50p is impossible in a way that making 10,000p using 6000p just isn't, and I was able to get through a few more months of incredible, unpleasant struggle and recover from this still awful, but no longer crippling, blow. And I put the whole thing behind me. After a few weeks, I didn't even think about it anymore. Eventually I even got my mastership and my wagons and did two caravan trips, though more than a half game-year late.

So today I got asked, after that fruitful conversation about coding caravanning, if I had ever thought more about that and considered apologizing for it. I was truly stunned, and the conversation went from bad to worse. Essentially, I got told that at least one of the admins was still upset about that, four RL months later, and essentially refused to be involved in any petition or issue involving me as a result, for fear I might say something like "bullshit" again.

That I apologized was completely ignored -- apparently my apology means nothing, so long as I still am not convinced that the theft wasn't unfair. They seem to be completely unable to separate the two concerns: whether the theft was fair or not, and whether the way they answered me was rude and insulting. So four months later, they take the entirely unprofessional tack of simply ignoring me because I said a bad word -- as if it's more important whether the word can be used on primetime TV than what the words mean, as if it doesn't matter how rude you are as long as you don't swear while doing it.

More importantly, the fact that I had gotten as much insulting, trivializing, rudeness as I gave out, and then some, was not only denied but not even comprehended. There's a sense that both of the two head admins still don't see that anything was even there to apologize for. Such deep denial that it completely prevents any possibility of resolution.

On the whole, the conversation made me angry, gave me a pounding headache, and reopened a long-scabbed-over wound that made me almost sick to my stomach. And clearly, there's nothing I can do about this. The problem I worried I had with the admins treating me like crap was true: they are, and I can't stop it. I can't do a thing about it.

I'd already been inches from quitting for weeks now. Several times during this conversation I was already clicking to post my departure on the forums, and moved the mouse to close the chat window, and then stayed my hand. When you're angry and hurt and suffering a pounding headache, that's no time to make major decisions. It's been a few hours, and the hurt is fading, and the anger finding its way to the background, but the conviction to leave is still there.

My decision is to give it a few days in case the admins go over the discussion and have some kind of change of heart. Maybe go back and look at the emails and chat logs from that time, and conclude that yes, they were rude and insulting, and an apology is owed. Maybe talk between each other about this and reconsider if the apology I gave maybe means something, and it's time to put the grudge aside. Maybe review the two years of interactions with me, most of which have been entirely sensible, and decide to finally forgive one understandable moment of anger and frustration. Maybe rethink whether I contribute something to the game that's worth preserving. Maybe take that first step to where I stand and look at things from my perspective and see that it's not that ridiculous to doubt that there might not have been a mistake made -- or realize that thinking one mistake got made is not some irreconcilable gap in trust, that they can learn to live with me thinking they made one mistake.

I am not too hopeful about any of this. In a few days, I expect to start trying to find ways to wrap things up. The scale of this possibility is daunting, so many things still to work out, but I don't see how I can keep going like this, knowing that the problems I've had and the fun-draining threats have no hope of being resolved. There's a time to say goodbye already.

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Moved to the new Blogger

If anything odd happens with my blog in the next few days, that's probably why.

In theory, the RSS feed should now start having comments included. Not sure if I have to do something different to enable those, though.

Monday, December 11, 2006

Keep Christ in Christmas and out of Yule!

It's that time of year when the inevitable "Keep Christ In Christmas" signs start popping up, so it's about time I stated my whole-hearted agreement.

Keep Christ in Christmas, so you can get him out of Yule.

It's important to remember, when celebrating Christ's birthday, that that's what you're celebrating, not some other holiday, some pagan or commercial or secular holiday. So I encourage you to remember that come spring, since that's when Jesus was born. Go check your Bible, the signs are there. For example, even in Bethlehem shepherds aren't watching their sheep by night in winter, only during lambing time in spring.

Celebrating Christmas in December was proposed first in the fourth century AD as a means of trying to overshadow the many pagan festivals of the time. Nearly every culture has had a festival right around the winter solstice (usually December 21, and most commonly called Yule in modern American culture), across the whole world.

Little wonder that Christmas is infused with pagan elements (the lighted tree, the Yule log, mistletoe, etc.) and secular elements (snowmen, giving gifts, feasting). They were there first!

But it's hugely ironic, in a satisfying way, to watch the Christians whining about other things invading the space of their holiday and displacing it, since the entire reason their holiday even happens is because it, very intentionally, invaded the space of existing holidays to displace them. Can't stand the heat, boys, stay out of the kitchen.

Monday, December 04, 2006

Moving to a cell phone

Primarily as a cost-cutting measure, we have eliminated our land line phone and gotten a second cell phone. In spite of an egregious $5/month charge from DISH Network for not having our DVR hooked to a working phone line (which the DVR never uses, since we never buy PPV movies), this still will save us a bit more than $10/month, plus a number of other advantages.
  • My wife handles calls for us most of the time, because I hate talking on the phone. Since the cell phone has been our primary number through several moves, that means any time I carry it, I risk having to be the one to deal with calls, often about subjects I'm not keeping up on. Now there's no reason for me to ever carry that cell phone.
  • When we're both away from home, but not together, I'll still have access to a phone in case of need. This doesn't happen often but when it does, it's a big deal.
  • I can use a Bluetooth headset, which I love, as it leaves my hands free and lets me walk around and continue doing things.
  • The cell phone has lots of features I didn't have on the land line, some of which I may even use (like connecting to my Palm's address book via Bluetooth).
  • Text messaging is nice, plus it means my computers at work can page me via SMS when something's wrong.
  • When DISH Network finally releases the update that allows that stupid $5 charge to go away, the monthly savings will be up to $15.
Just to be fair, there are downsides.
  • In case of some catastrophe in which someone else is at our house without either of us there and that person has no cell phone, they can still call 911 right now, but Verizon won't guarantee that that'll stay.
  • It might be harder to get DSL in the remote chance Verizon ever gets around to offering it in our area.
  • If I had to dial in with my laptop, I would be unable to do so via modem.

Monday, November 27, 2006

Artificial means of athletic enhancement

Preface: The use of steroids as a booster for athletes is dangerous. It is harmful to their health and has unwanted side effects far out of proportion from their "benefits" to mankind. Steroids have legitimate medical uses, but this isn't one. But that's not what this post is about.

Allowing athletes to artificially enhance themselves to become better performers seems to many like a cut-and-dried question, but it's not. Enhancements can be arranged in a spectrum, and where the "dividing line" is along that spectrum varies over time and by situation.

The kind of intensive training, starting from a very young age, that is common to athletes in some sports today, would have been seen only a few generations ago as being absurd, a way to "ruin the game" by artificially inflating performance levels. Most sports now have equipment being used which far exceeds what was available decades ago. Trainers now use computer analysis of motions of athletes to achieve tiny, but in some cases crucial, improvements in performance. Athletes manipulate their biochemistry and metabolism to a very precise level, using frequent blood tests and other indicators, through the use of techniques ranging from diet adjustment to time spent in hyperbaric chambers.

We are long and far away from the point where the plot of most sports movies (where a regular guy with a little talent and a lot of gumption can make the difference in the big game) is more than an exceedingly unlikely fantasy. The use of steriods doesn't really change that. It's just another step.

That doesn't mean there shouldn't be a line. As things change the game has to adapt to the changes, and during the period before each adaptation, those changes will need to be "over the line". When someone has a prosthetic eye that can track the movement of a 90mph baseball precisely enough to hit it every time, or a cybernetic arm that hits them out of the park on every hit, those will be "over the line" until the game can adapt to that. If tomorrow someone developed a steroid-like performance enhancement drug that didn't have unwanted health and other side effects, sports would have to adapt to that, too, and until they did, it might well be best for it to remain forbidden.

But eventually, these things will simply become a new baseline, just like high-performance teflon suits changed the baseline in swimming, and someday, genetically engineered higher-efficiency alveoli will change it again. Human capabilities change; human pursuits must follow.

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

A three-minute religious experience

A brief note here to highlight a song that is, for me, the single most profoundly religious experience I can name. The best way to experience it is to hear the song but if for some reason you can't listen to MP3s, you could also read the poem. Every time I hear this song, without fail, it makes me tear up. It is a profoundly beautiful expression of the wonder that lives in the world when we accept it for what it is, and a testament to the idea that one who becomes agnostic with open eyes and a sense of wonder is the most spiritual of all.

"The profoundest act of worship is to try to understand."

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Using SecondLife for abandoned roleplay

One of the ideas I was toying with -- and this is at a very basic brainstorming level, nowhere near intention, let alone plan -- was reviving some long-abandoned work on developing culture of a feline race. This originally was something I got into in Lusternia, which provided us with a sapient, bipedal feline race with some unique characteristics but without a well-developed culture. It just begged to be rounded out, and I and others set out to do so. This soon transformed from an enjoyable creative act to a source of endless frustration, thanks to the problems with the problems with Lusternia, and was abandoned.

The idea came to me in the context of SecondLife when people in the Elf Circle asked me about joining. This SecondLife group was described as a haven for dragons, elves, pegasi, etc. Humans, even those with a fantasy theme, were notably absent (though I was later given to think a few are allowed in the circle). The idea of adjusting my appearance to be elfen or dragon didn't appeal, and as I pondered other options (without any real sense that I wanted to be in, or not be in, the Elf Circle -- it was just the first opportunity I'd had to be welcome somewhere, which is itself worth note to someone as uncharismatic as me) the only thing that came to me was the aslaran race.

Well, brainstorming I had the idea of maybe making an enclave of people wanting to recreate this race and the work on culture we'd been doing; and the freedom SecondLife offers to build your own appearance and the objects around you made that even seem feasible (albeit awfully expensive). So just as something to pass the time, I set out looking for feline body skins.

Right from the start this was discouraging. The few people I talked to about this only could think of a few things I might mean: anime-style catgirls and kitsune, shops that offer giant cat jungle gyms to climb on, and everywhere I turned, "furries". The skins I saw either were humans with a few cat elements (interesting, but completely not what I had intended), or domesticated cats (stylized or not) on two feet, or anime-style things vaguely related to lions or tigers, but conveying exactly zero sense of being a fierce predator.

It's not so much the lack of an appropriate costume that was discouraging. I could feasibly find a better one (towards bedtime a fairly good source was found, not fully explored yet) or make my own. The discouraging thing was that there was no way to explain to people what I was looking for without them leaping into one of these very wrong impressions (catgirl, neko, anime, and/or furries). If I did go ahead somehow, I would be hard-pressed to find people interested, and harder-pressed to be clear that this isn't meant to be some wish-fulfillment fantasy or kinky sex den, but an exploration of and development of a culture of a race: a way of answering, what might a race be like that derived from felines rather than primates? Naturally, kinky sex could be part of that, as could wish-fulfillment fantasies, but only in context, and secondary to the overall intent. But simply setting the tone and purpose would be an endless uphill battle, and I'd doubt I could find people to participate.

I'll keep poking around -- it's a very big world, so maybe there are people who would be more interested in and understanding of this idea, and willing to participate, somewhere I haven't been -- partially because it's something to do. But it's not the only avenue I'm considering for things to use SecondLife for.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006


Many times before, the idea of a three-dimensional virtual world populated by avatars and virtual objects, shared over the Internet, has inspired software engineers to give it a good try. The technology hasn't been up to it, though. Computers couldn't handle the rendering of a dynamic three-dimensional world fast enough to make movements feel natural; human interface devices didn't offer enough options with sufficient transparency; and most importantly, bandwidth was inadequate to the huge amount of data required. It often seemed technology was ready because games seemed to offer a similarly interactive three-dimensional world; but games generally can get away with huge optimizations in that regards, because they know what will be displayed ahead of time. A truly general-purpose 3D environment is much more challenging to achieve. Thus, each previous attempt teased us with the possibility, then failed because ultimately there was nothing to do there.

SecondLife is promising to finally be the one that takes off. Why is it looking to succeed where others failed? A few interesting ideas make it stand out: the dynamic economy inside the world, more powerful backing behind it, and a heavily user-centric design ensuring that most of the content is created by the users. But the real key is that the technology is finally ready for enough people. Broadband, 3D video cards, faster processors, and more memory make it viable to actually fly over a dynamically rendered 3D environment with fluid movements.

It's not without its share of glitches, and it's very demanding of CPU and bandwidth, but you can do it right now, and for free. (Of course they hope you'll subscribe to get more Lindens, the currency within SecondLife.) And it's very cool. People have built some amazing things in there. The world is breathtakingly huge. If you started exploring it right now even cursorily, you would probably never finish, because more is being built all the time -- not faster than you can explore it yet, but probably soon, soon enough that the head start they have on you would cover the difference.

For all that, though, when I get there, I find myself asking myself, what next? It's probable that there are activities going on out there I'd be interested in -- in a world this size, with this many users, and given that almost anything you can imagine could be implemented with enough object creation and scripting time, almost anything's probably there somewhere. The world is so big, though, it's hard to find anything you might be interested in. Instead, most people fall into socializing as the main activity.

Nothing wrong with that. But it doesn't help me much. I'm already too socially awkward. Being in a slick shiny avatar in a sweeping virtual space doesn't change that; put me in an area with someone I don't know and I have no idea how to start a conversation, unless the area already provides me with some structure. Mostly I wander around just exploring, and my few attempts to interact with someone are generally non-starters.

Clearly what I need to do is find groups interested in activities I'm interested in, and then branch out from there. Assuming that what I want to do is socialize, but is that all? Using SecondLife as a glorified chat room seems so unambitious. But when I think about other things, they all get me into the same conundrum that I have a hard time expressing.

As an inveterate roleplayer, I can't help consider the possibility of treating this like a MUSH. Doubly so as I wander around an elven community populated by an assortment of dragons, miniature blue Shetland pony-pegasi, fae with pixie rainbow butterfly wings, and stately elves toting swords and magic wands, for instance. But to what extent is that roleplaying?

I'm fairly sure the woman I spoke to today is not, in real life, a miniature blue Shetland pony-pegasus. But that doesn't mean she's roleplaying. She might be (and indeed, from what she said, is) just playing herself, as she would be if she could take other shapes -- as she can, in SecondLife. That's fundamentally different from playing a different person, with a different past, personality, motivations, etc. I'm not sure which I want to do, and I'm not entirely sure which other people are doing. In a place this large, there isn't even an answer to that; it's grown too fast for it to have a culture or "netiquette" about things like that yet.

It seems like the answer is turning out to be that people play at varying points along that spectrum depending on where they are, who they're with, what they're doing. Sometimes they're playing themselves in a fancy new body and clothes, and sometimes they're dressed up playing someone entirely different. Those who can afford it can have different costumes and even different bodies for different roles, all wrapped around the same name.

So many possibilities. I just have to figure out what I want to do.

Saturday, November 11, 2006

Did you get my message?

Every time someone asks me this question I am amused and annoyed at the same time.

There are a few special cases in which this isn't a blindingly stupid question. Like if you've only just recently met this person and have never gotten a message from them. Or if you've been in so much contact with them that every message is followed up with a conversation.

But in the general case, how can there be any real answer? I can say "I got the last message I got. Did you send one after that one?" Which is also no help, except maybe to point out the absurdity: how can I know about a message unless I got it?

The right question of course is "Did you get my message about the meeting minutes?" Or whatever; enough to identify which message. Then you can just answer.

Makes me want to make stickers that say "If this has fallen off this letter, notify your local post office immediately" and stick them to envelopes. Or leave some around not stuck to anything.

Thursday, November 09, 2006

Pick up your signs!

One of the things I daydream about doing if I were elected Supreme Tyrant is putting a law into place that forces political campaigns to clean up their signs promptly.

Perhaps after five days had passed since the election, people could turn in abandoned signs for $1, and the campaign that placed the sign would then be fined $1.50 and 1 vote.

Now we just need a way to make sure people can't forge signs of their opponent's campaigns, or steal them to turn in late. Or maybe we should encourage them to steal each other's signs. That'd mean fewer signs to look at.

Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Do not over-read this post

Cooking directions are full of these helpful statements. "Do not overbake", for instance. Well, duh. Is there anything you are supposed to overbake? If there were, that wouldn't be overbaking. Cooking shows are even worse; you can hardly go an episode of any show, even the good ones, without being told something about how you shouldn't put too much, or not enough, of something into the recipe. That's what "too much" and "not enough" means already; tell us how much to put! Why don't they go the next step and say "When preparing this recipe, be sure not to do anything wrong."

Now, if you tell me how to tell how much is too much, that's another story. But even then, after you define "too much", you don't still need to add, "and too much is too much". It should go without saying.

So should I.

Sunday, October 29, 2006

Quantum physics and determinism

(If you're reading from the top down, skip down to the first of this three-part series and read them in chronological order instead. It'll work a lot better that way.)

Much has been made of the assertion, widely agreed upon by quantum physicists, that determinism as a scientific principle is dead. How's that?

Physics has been getting farther and farther from what makes intuitive sense for a century now. This is not a criticism -- the real world has no obligation to resemble, on the microscopic or macroscopic scales, the everyday world our brains are hardwired to work in and be comfortable with. Relativity gave us such mind-blowing concepts as time dilation and an absolute speed limit, flying in the face of intuition. Quantum mechanics makes relativity look positively tame.

If even Richard Feynman, one of the most gifted minds in history at relating such esoteric things as quantum mechanics to the lay mind, can't make things like the observer effect and the uncertainty principle seem comprehensible, I sure don't stand much of a chance. Any attempt to simplify invariably produces such an abbreviation that it leads people to jump to spurious conclusions based not on the actual science but rather in the gaps in the analogies. So I'm reluctant to even try to explain the relationship of quantum mechanics to determinism. But I can't really proceed without doing so; so read this knowing it's a poor summary at best.

The uncertainty principle says, in a sense, that information is itself an object in the physical world, that can be conserved, that has an effect. Nearly everyone's heard of the famous paradox of Schroedinger's Cat, in which information changes the world by collapsing a waveform, and many have heard of the problem of Wigner's Friend which furthers this question by asking what, precisely, constitutes an observer. The uncertainty principle, which could be likened to a conversation principle for information, is less well popularized, and just as infuriating.

It says basically that there are pairs of pieces of information which cannot simultaneously be known about a particle. You cannot, for instance, know both a particle's position and its momentum at the same time; the more precisely you know one, the less you know the other.

This tends to make people think it's an engineering problem, the same way people liken the light barrier to the sound barrier and assume someone's just got to come up with a better spaceship design or a more powerful engine to break it. But it's not an engineering problem. It's a fundamental limitation that is part of the very fabric of the universe, and one which has been proven in a large number of mind-numbingly-weird experiments. The universe simply does not allow you to know one of these pieces of information more precisely without making it so you know the other one less precisely, and this precision is a mathematically defined constant (called Planck's constant).

What this means is that, at the atomic scale, particles are effectively not in one place. A particle isn't a glob of stuff somewhere. A particle is better understood as an effect on the world around it, and that effect has only a statistically distributed probability of being seen in various places. This is called the "waveform" of a particle; it says, in a sense, the particle has a 5% chance of being here (or rather, its effect being felt here), a 15% chance of being there, and so on. Certain observations "collapse the waveform" -- force it to reduce itself to a single point with a 100% probability -- but these observations in turn make the particle's momentum become a more broadly-defined, and finally undefined, waveform. The broader one is, the narrower the other becomes.

That means that on an atomic scale, determinism is not strictly observed. You cannot know the positions and momentums of the particles, so you cannot predict their future states. The best you can do is provide a statistical estimate of the likelihoods of the particles being in various places doing various things. Einstein famously refused to accept this and essentially wasted the second half of his career trying to disprove it; while his efforts were very fruitful in leading other scientists to make important discoveries, and he himself was a key part in the development of some important principles of quantum mechanics (much to his ire), one can't help wonder what he might have accomplished if he hadn't railed so hard against it. (Though the famous quote attributed to him, "God does not play dice with the universe", is a paraphrase; the actual quote is, "I, at any rate, am convinced that He does not throw dice", to which Neils Bohr replied, "Einstein, don't tell God what to do".)

On an everyday scale (the scale of grains of sand, ball bearings, and boulders) this lack of determinism almost disappears. Technically speaking, there is still a statistical variability in the position of a grain of sand, or even a planet, because of the uncertainty principle. However, as the randomness in each of the billions of subatomic particles involved tends to balance with the others, the effective precision of our knowledge of the position of an entire grain of sand is so high that the uncertainty can be all but ignored. But it is still there. Technically speaking, even if you knew the precise position, momentum, energy state, etc. of every star in the universe, you could not predict their future states with perfect precision, only with a statistically enormous probability of correctness.

So technically determinism is dead. Most laypersons who hear about this feel confident that scientists will eventually discover some "hidden variables" that will allow it to be revived, though the more one studies quantum mechanics, the less likely one is to still consider that possible, so it's probably just one of those spurious conclusions I discussed earlier; but it does remain possible, as the history of science is full of surprises.

But does the death of determinism undo any of the changes to the human condition that determinism originated? I say no, and not for the usual reasons (quantum effects are vanishingly small on the macroscopic level), but for a far more fundamental reason. It's true that we can't say with precision where a particle will be, but it's also true that statistically the positions of particles will obey well-defined laws in aggregate. The key point about determinism that made it change everything is that the world behaves as it does because of its own rules, not the whims of unpredictable spirits and gods, and thus an understanding of those rules would allow mankind to foresee and change its future. The position of a particle might not be possible to measure, know, and predict to arbitrary accuracy, but that doesn't change that its behavior in aggregate is governed by knowable and usable rules; it just means those rules include a statistical element, but statistics itself is a science.

One can still know the world. One can still shape the world. There is no going back to the time of spirits. Free will cannot be so readily surrendered.

Thursday, October 26, 2006

I will choose free will

Much has been made about the philosophical implications of determinism. Generally it is seen as opposed to free will, but this, to my mind, is a mistaken dichotomy.

Consider this situation. A man has been arrested after being caught brutally torturing and murdering people. Further analysis reveals that a serious chemical imbalance in his brain has caused him to be delusional and violent. Maybe it's even possible to treat the chemical imbalance, and thus reform him. Another man is arrested for similar crimes, but no physical cause is detected, and thus, no cure is offered other than long social retraining with a low chance of success.

Most people would be inclined to forgive the first person by saying that his actions are "not his fault". The moving about of chunks of blame is very important to people in a situation like this. But the latter person should not be forgiven, since it's his own choices, and people should take responsibility for their own choices.

Ultimately, though, anyone who is moderately well-educated about things like psychology, the body-mind connection, and the history of our understanding of neurochemistry, has to realize that odds are very good that the second person also has something physical going on which we simply don't know how to diagnose and treat yet. A hundred years ago, these two men would have seemed identical as villains; and a hundred years from now they may again seem identical as victims. But today, they seem as different as night and day.

The principle of determinism takes this conundrum much farther. The idea is that a full knowledge of and understanding of the state of all matter and energy in the universe would, given sufficient time to compute, allow the prediction of all future events, since those events are determined by physical interactions of matter and energy, not by whimsical transcendant spirits. (The fact that it would take a few thousand universes to store the information to describe our one universe is immaterial. The point is that in principle it could be predicted and therefore is determined. The only randomness left is that we don't know what will happen, but what will happen is still determined by what is.)

So if everything you're going to do depends on physical characteristics, ranging from the state of a wave of light passing through space near you, to the chemistry you got from your parents, to the intricate and unseeable clockwork of electrical forces in your brain, then does that mean you are not responsible for any of your actions? Everything is determined ahead of time. We are only playing out a script written in the first moments of the universe. So who cares if you take that last donut? You were always going to.

But this doesn't make sense to me. If you did something bad just now, it doesn't matter if you did it because of something that happened earlier. Causes are not exclusive. Every cause in turn has a cause, but that does not take away the significance of the proximate cause. (This fallacy, the assumption that one cause obviates another, is one of the bigger ones in spurious logic.)

If you accept that it makes sense to judge people and their actions at all, then it seems clear that you can do so equally well in the case of both murderers. Both murderers did the things they did, because they were, at the time, the kind of people who did those sorts of things. There are reasons why they were those kinds of people, but that doesn't change that they were.

So what's really different? In one case, we can change what kind of person he is. That change does not change the past; it does not change what he did, or the fact that he was the person who could do those things. It doesn't obviate him of responsibility for his past. But it does change who he is now; and therefore, it changes how we feel about him. We can certainly deplore who he used to be and accept who he is now, if we're emotionally strong enough to accept the change (and if the change really is as good as I'm presuming). In the other case we can't make that change happen.

But in all these cases we can still judge someone based on who they are and what they do at any point in time, and the particular causes for why they are and do those things don't really enter into the judgment. It's no better or worse to be a killer for one reason than another, as long as in both cases, you're a killer.

Furthermore, and perhaps ironically, while nowadays people are inclined to imagine determinism and free will are opposed, a more historical viewpoint will reveal that the realization of determinism was actually a liberating concept. Before determinism took sway, people tended to imagine that the world around them, from the small to the large, was controlled in large part by the whims of gods and spirits who could not be understood, and only sometimes even appeased. In a real sense one's fate was out of one's hands. Determinism tells me that I can come to understand the actual causes of events, measure them, and manipulate them, without them depending on a whim completely outside my sphere of influence or even understanding. Determinism means my actions have a large part in determining my future.

Nowadays people look at determinism and can only look backwards and fret about the implication that determinism causes your actions, but it's just as important to look forward and see how determinism allows your actions to cause your future, too. It's a sword that cuts both ways. If you are a brilliant mathematician, do you say it means nothing because your father had a particular allele, or because a teacher you had in fourth grade motivated you? No, you can still be proud to be the person who is the accumulation of all those causes, who is thereby a brilliant mathematician. Determinism does not take away anything from your pride, your responsibility, your celebrations, your remorse, your accomplishments, your mistakes. They're still yours. In fact, determinism is what makes them yours.

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Randomness and determinism

I think this is the first part of a three-part set of posts, but we'll see if I feel like writing the other parts.

If I pick up a die and roll it, the result is random. What does that mean? Essentially, it means unpredictable. But what if I allowed you to measure every single physical constant involved in the die throw beforehand? Every attribute of the die, air, and table, down to the positions and movements of atoms, and their energy levels and perturbations. Every detail of the velocity and trajectory of my throw. Every iota of the energy levels in the air, from heat, light, etc. All to an arbitrarily high degree of precision. Couldn't you then predict the die roll?

Most educated people today essentially take for granted that the answer is "yes", but it wasn't always so. That realization, the core concept of determinism, is the defining, core concept behind the birth of science. And it changed the world more than almost any other idea. That things that happened, happened because of physical things that could be known, understood, even manipulated, rather than at the whim of unknowable spirits, gods, and ghosts. That the only limit on how much you could know and affect the world around you was in you (how much time, intelligence, and resources you could bring to bear in a lifetime), not in the universe itself. Before this, science was a tentative poking to see if we could maybe figure out a few things; after it, science could encompass the whole of creation.

Sunday, October 22, 2006

Power outage

An unseasonable, nasty story hit us Friday night and made a lot of ruckus. First, we started losing the Internet to rainouts Friday afternoon. About dusk, as the rain and wind turned to snow, a tree fell down in the front yard, which means I need to get out there with the chainsaw and cut it up. It didn't hit the house, though. By then, wet snow clinging to the satellite dish had taken the Internet connection out to stay.

About 3:30am the power went out. After a while the UPSes beeping woke me up, but I didn't bother to get up and do anything about it. It was still out when I got up around 7:30.

With some things I needed to do on the Internet later in the day, and the house cold, and the toilets unusable without power to the water pump, we decided to spend the day at my office with high-speed Internet. It was enjoyably novel to wear slippers around my office.

Back home, we had power and the Internet again, and all's back to normal. But that tree's still waiting for me to cut it.

Friday, October 20, 2006

Another nail in rhetoric's coffin

The disappointing discussion resulting from my posting about my criteria for recognizing good roleplaying on the RPGnet Open Forum got me thinking again about the sad state of rhetoric. It's not that most people make bad arguments. Most people don't even know what an argument is; they think if you say something true after something, that you've refuted it. Even sometimes if what they say isn't at all true.

One "argument" I saw a lot was this: "Your experiences aren't universal." I didn't decide to engage in a point-by-point rebuttal for the same reason you don't answer "Have you stopped beating your wife?" with either "yes" or "no", but I couldn't help wonder how one could go about it. After all, if "having universal experiences" was actually a prerequisite to make observations, generalize from them, or post criteria, it'd be an awfully thin field. No one has universal experiences, but thanks to the fact that we can generalize and perform induction, and thanks to the fact that rules like this don't have to be 100.0000% accurate to be useful, that's really not relevant.

But there have been times when a statement like that was relevant, indirectly, to something, and that's probably what confuses the people who said it. Consider if someone had posted something like this: "Your criteria have a flaw in them: you haven't accounted for ABC or DEF, perhaps because your experiences aren't broad enough to have encountered them before." Now that would be a rebuttal. But saying "your experiences aren't universal" is only a very minor part of that, and more importantly, a secondary part. The bit that says "you have this flaw" is the responsive part; the other stuff is connected, not to the original post, but to that bit, and thus relevant only indirectly. They speak about the flaw, not the criteria.

People who don't have the foggiest notion how to reason and form an argument, just mimic the sounds of other things they saw that were called argumentation, without having any idea what they're actually doing. It's like trying to fix a car by adjusting valves that are the same color as the ones someone else once adjusted to fix a dishwasher.

Monday, October 16, 2006

Superficial profundity

I was thinking about writing up something in a blog post about how so many things considered profound in popular culture are really not profound at all -- they're merely obfuscated, as if people who are used to assuming that something they cannot understand must be profound, simply write things which cannot be understood, and assume they must be profound. But then I remembered Nietzsche already said that so much better. Most quotably thus:

"Mystical explanations are considered deep. The truth is that they are not even superficial."

I am writing this from work, or else I'd grab my copy of The Gay Science in order to quote a few more passages on the subject, of a little more length and clarity. But this quote really does say it. They're not even superficial, because they're not even explanations.

A truly profound statement can withstand scrutiny and examination -- in fact, it demands such, it blossoms from it. A superficial, trite nothing-in-fancy-dress, like you are likely to hear uttered by characters on the "very special episodes" of mainstream TV shows, or see on bumper-stickers, will not withstand scrutiny; it will turn out to mean nothing, or nothing worth saying. Scrutiny and analysis is not a means to puncture the truth and let the air out; it's a means to separate the truth from the shallow obfuscation that masquerades as insight.

Thursday, October 12, 2006

Brynna status update

Today our cat Brynna is in for dental surgery, extracting a rotten tooth. She turns 16 next month so she's pretty old for this, but it's still not a high-risk operation.

We also discussed a thyroidectomy, but that's higher-risk, and also very high cost, and brings with it the likelihood of increasing her kidney dysfunction. Its primary purpose would be to avoid having to give her pills; it's hard to medicate a cat since you can't catch them regularly enough when it's several times a day, and particularly one like Brynna who doesn't eat reliably, even if you sneak something into her food.

Instead, however, we're going to be getting her a cream that we apply twice daily in her ear (should be a lot easier than a pill!) that'll give her the thyroid suppression transdermally. This will provide a more steady flow of the drug for better regulation, should last longer for less times of high blood pressure, and avoid the stomach upset effects that the orally administered pills cause.

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Good roleplaying looks like this

To some extent it's subjective what constitutes good roleplaying, particularly as you get into the distinction between really good and supremely good. However, I think when it comes to the distinction between good roleplaying and not-so-good (or even bad), that can be defined clearly enough.

  1. Your character's behavior always corresponds to what that kind of person would do in that kind of situation in that kind of world. Always.

  2. You can play a character who is not merely a simple variant on yourself, or a simple wish-fulfillment version of yourself, without violating rule #1.

  3. What you do doesn't just conform to the world, setting, theme, and tone, it also helps build it up and establish it.

  4. Your actions are always done in a considerate way that enhances, or at least does not detract from, the enjoyment of the other participants, always. You manage to do that without conflicting with rule #1.
I think that pretty much covers it. If you do all of these things all the time you are probably a good roleplayer.

Amusingly, in my 25 years roleplaying, without exception, every time I've met someone who believed themselves to the best roleplayer they knew, one who would "show the rest of you how it's done", they were invariably bad roleplayers who regularly violated at least one of these rules. The best roleplayers have always been people who considered themselves about equal with most of their peers at roleplaying.

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

What's so bad about small dogs?

Dogs of all sizes have their charms, don't get me wrong. But it seems there's some strange cultural stigma about small ones which annoys me.

Large dogs are stereotyped as being drooly and dumb but always good-natured and friendly. Small dogs are stereotyped as being yappy and uptight and annoying, and are called "little rat dogs". Neither stereotype is particularly accurate.

Any purebred is likely to be uptight, regardless of size, compared to mutts which tend to be laid back and friendly by comparison. There are of course exceptions, but the rule of thumb works. Size, however, doesn't enter into it. One of the most uptight breeds of dog is the greyhound, because of how it's been bred for racing, and they're by no means small. Other large breeds known for being at least as uptight as any poodle include pit bulls and collies. Of course individual dogs of any breed, even purebred, might be laid back... but that applies just as well to poodles or cockers as larger breeds. Still, small dogs get all the bad rap without being any more likely to have the problem.

And mutt small dogs are just as drooly and just as friendly and good-natured as big dogs, except they can do it on your lap (without crushing you and your sofa). Plus they're a lot less likely to knock someone over in their enthusiasm to be friendly and hurt someone. But these traits are overlooked. Instead, little dogs are dismissed as "little rat dogs" summarily, and so unfairly.

People who appreciate smaller dogs are rarely prejudicial against the big dogs, but not vice versa. It's not fair. More power to cuddly, friendly little pooches everywhere!

Thursday, October 05, 2006

The Four Foods Theory

Consider the veracity of the following assertion:

Any good food goes with at least one of the following: chocolate, cheese, garlic, onions.

Note that the converse is not asserted, so beware of the excluded middle.

Logically, one can conclude that if this is true for a set of ingredients S, it will also be true for any set S' where S is a subset of S'. For instance, if it is true for "chocolate, cheese, garlic, onions" then it's also true for "chocolate, cheese, garlic, onions, spaghetti sauce". So the challenge is not to find a set which makes a true assertion; it's to find the smallest possible set that does so.

Clearly we can't eliminate chocolate or cheese since it's trivial to find examples of "good food" which do not go with any of the others. However, garlic and onions have a lot of overlap. I think at some point I had come up with one good food that goes with onions but not garlic, and one that goes with garlic but not onions, which requires the set to contain both; however, I can't think of one right now.

The trickier question is whether this set really is broad enough to work. Some people might claim that lobster proves butter must be added; however, lobster is not good food. (And even if it were, garlic goes with it.) Corn on the cob might be a better argument for butter needing to be added to the list, however.

Please don't make me say I'm just kidding, please...

Wednesday, October 04, 2006


I haven't gotten a cold serious enough to stay home for, in about two years, if I remember right. This one came on very abruptly. Friday afternoon I had a slight cough as we drove up to Burlington to our anniversary dinner, and my back was more achey than I expected. My throat stayed dry and scratchy all evening, and by the time I got home I was blowing my nose and coughing. By Saturday morning, it was a full-on cold, and stayed that way bad enough to stay home Monday and Tuesday.

So far it's all been that sniffly, occasionally sneezy, too-wet stage which is not really that bad; just kind of tired, and the feeling that your head is bigger on the inside than on the outside. But I'm just starting to come into the dry cough stage, which I really really hate. I'm not as tired, so I can go to work, get things done, and that's good -- I'm not good at sitting around doing nothing. But that cough just gets so tiring and painful so quickly, and then it starts robbing me of my sleep, and then it just stretches on and on and on. I would take two more weeks of sniffling to avoid that, no question.

Friday, September 29, 2006

Is there a name for this kind of person?

This person is always smiling and saying superficially pleasant things, but there's a profound undercurrent of malice and spite just millimeters below the surface. Every single thing she says can be taken by a bystander as innocent, or at most, just a joke. She always retains plausible deniability against any complaint about her attitude or behavior, because each individual element of her constant, comprehensive, exhaustive campaign of malice is, taken by itself, so trivial and petty as to make the complainer look like a fool making mountains out of molehills. Yet collectively, if someone sticks around long enough to see it and makes even the slightest effort to pay attention, they accumulate into a vicious stream of self-centered belittlement and ridicule that speaks of a profound darkness of the soul.

Every word is sweet and soft, a perfumed silken caress, with a slender pointed dagger behind it. She cuts so cleanly you almost can't feel it at first. By the time you realize you're bleeding, she's flouncing away, and no one else would believe it, either.

She has a bevy of other ways to deflect criticism. One of her favorites is to put on airs of indignance at being judged. This one is especially popular if the objection is not to her, or her actions, but just their appropriateness to a particular situation. You're really trying to oppress her. Any criticism of anything she does or says is never actually what it says it is; it's simply a symptom of your personal, and irrational, dislike of her. She never actually answers any comment, criticism, or accusation. Never. She may respond, she will certainly speak afterwards, but she will never actually answer.

All of this should be of little import, because it seems like such an obvious ploy, such an obvious strategy. And such an easily recognizable pattern to anyone who looks for it for the tiniest amount of time. It oozes, after all, from everything she says. She thinks she's very very clever to have invented it; she's positively smug, smirking all the time. You want to laugh at her for being so proud of inventing something so obvious and so recognizable.

But... somehow, almost everyone doesn't recognize it. Doesn't realize it. Falls prey to it, over and over. So much so, that anyone who does recognize it and tries to say something gets not only ignored but marginalized. They get seen as the troublemaker for complaining about such petty matters, in the eyes of all the people who fall for it.

I wish there were a nice simple name you could use for this kind of person. Something along the lines of "passive-aggressive" or "anal-retentive", something that sums up the whole pattern of behavior and thus makes it more readily recognizable. But if there is one, I don't know what it is. But most of all I wish more people would learn to recognize this pattern. It's depressing that such a simple and obvious tactic works so darned well.

Thursday, September 28, 2006

A public service announcement

Apparently, there's some confusion on this point, so, as a public service, I'm here to settle the matter.

The toilet paper goes on so it goes over the top.

You may now go back about your lives knowing that this question need never confuse anyone again. I'm glad we got that settled.

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

OOC reference or just a word?

I was asked about the appropriateness of using the word "hell" in a literary work within a world like Lusternia which doesn't have a place called Hell. It's an interesting question and hard to answer briefly.

It's clear that a reference to, say, Microsoft, or Beowulf, or biochemistry, does not belong in a work written and set in Lusternia (the same could be said for most fantasy worlds). In the same vein, a reference to Hell, the uppercase one, is inappropriate. (Of course, you could have a fantasy world that has a Hell in its mythology or as an actual place people visit, but Lusternia doesn't happen to have one; the nearest thing is the plane of Nil.)

However, the word "hell" has become genericized by use, and now has senses which do not allude to that particular bit of our culture. The only connection between the word hell in the phrase "I had a hell of a time" and the Christian concept of Hell is a very indirect connection, one rooted in etymology. (Most idioms started as metaphors or similes, but eventually through repeated use came to mean directly what they had formerly meant only by indirection through that metaphor or simile. Thus, the original metaphor is nothing more than an etymology.)

But in the case of "hell" the etymology is fairly evident. Perhaps it's evident enough to jolt the reader out of any immersion in the fantasy world that she had been able to achieve, and if so, that's enough of a reason to avoid it right there. The question is whether it has been genericized enough that one can read it and get the generic meaning in mind without even a flicker of the etymological original meaning.

Personally, I'd avoid it because while most people would not get the "wrong" meaning and be jolted out, a few people might. However, if it was really the best word to fit the spot and nothing else would do, I might go ahead and use it anyway.

One might say as a matter of principle to never use a word like that. But ultimately, almost every word turns out to be a "word like that" once you dig into its etymology far enough. The difference is that the original meaning is obscure enough that you either don't know it, or only think of it if you make a conscious effort to do so.

And when you get right down to it, every word of English has unshakeable origins in one or another language that never existed in Lusternia; we assume that Lusternians are actually speaking their own language, and it's being translated for us. (Because it's an impossibly ridiculous coincidence to expect that they have a language that actually happens to have the same words in it as English.) So ultimately, even "Hell" might be assumed to be a translation of something that is appropriate in Lusternia.