Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Spoilers vs. the storytelling art

I'm sure there are some people who genuinely love spoilers for their favorite TV shows, but it's my pet theory that a lot of the people who say they do, and think they do, only feel that way because they don't realize what they're missing.

Spoilers are an instant-gratification for the impatient. The story makes you want to know what's going to happen and spoilers are a cheap solution. But that suspense is part of what you were watching the show for in the first place! It's not something to be solved, any more than you should solve a rollercoaster's scariness by making it flat.

Making a TV show, movie, play, etc. is a very complicated art. There are hundreds of tiny decisions that go into every moment. A delicate balance of subtle, almost subliminal factors, ranging from the intricacies of facial expressions of a good actor to the precise timing of camera movements to the details of color in a costume, cumulatively (and holistically) have an impact on the mind of the observer. The producer isn't just tossing plot revelations at you; he's not even only telling you a story. He's crafting, from a thousand tiny brushstrokes, an experience.

Start tinkering with any part of that experience and you may end up diminishing the enjoyment you get from it, possibly even in ways you wouldn't consciously notice. For instance, watch it on a TV whose color calibration is way off, and you might miss subtle cues or have some aspects of the psychological impact of the scene diminished or removed, which can throw the whole balance. You may well come away thinking not "that seemed good but I didn't appreciate it as much as I could", but rather, thinking "that sucked! Why did other people say so much good stuff about it?"

It's my considered opinion that a lot of people are eroding their enjoyment of TV shows by embracing spoilers, without even necessarily realizing it. Inevitably they end up complaining about how the show has really gone downhill, and maybe it has, but I bet some of the time, it's at least in part because they've been changing how they watch the show.

Let the storytellers practice their art. That's what they're (hopefully) good at. They chose when that plot twist would be revealed for good reasons, to maximize its impact on you, to crank up suspense, to build up a payoff, to improve your enjoyment of the show. They went to school for this, they got picked out of a large number of contenders based on their talent, they spend all day every day thinking about how it can best be done. Let's do them the honor of trusting them to do their craft. Or at least have the decency not to bitch at them about how badly they do it, if we aren't even going to let them do it their way.

Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Jonesing for roleplaying

It's not a conspiracy, it just feels like one.

Of the last ten weekly roleplaying game sessions, we've managed to play on three. Between the holidays, illnesses, visiting girlfriends, and other causes, spread out over the entire group, we've flat-out cancelled seven out of ten. Next week is already pre-emptively cancelled due to the Stupid Bowl. And with another third of our group recently succumbed to the WoW zombie cult, my hopes for this turning around are dwindling.

When we do play, out of a seven-hour block of time, we usually get 3-4, tops. It takes minimum 2 hours, more often 3, for us to get through late arrivals, eating lunch, watching unnecessary TV, and assorted socializing. We often end an hour early too.

Where MUDs used to be a source for a cheap substitute, my terrible luck with them has rendered them unhelpful. I'm only playing one right now and that one is not really there for roleplaying. (And what little roleplaying I can get out of there is currently stymied by the eternal impossibility of getting a bunch of people to show up at the same time to do something.)

My efforts to set up an experimental conventional roleplaying game in SecondLife, as a means to fit roleplaying in when time and distance don't permit the old "gather in a room" approach, have completely come up dry. I could only get five people to even start on being interested, and I have not found a time that can get three of them, let alone all five. It's pulling teeth to even get anyone to say something as simple as "Saturdays are good but Sundays bad for me". I'm pretty near to giving up the ghost on it.

O roleplaying, why hast thou forsaken me?

Monday, January 29, 2007

Taking another stab at caravanning

I guess I wasn't too surprised when my almost departure from Harshlands did not lead to any renewed interest amongst the administrators in putting in the few hours of work necessary to make caravanning a possibility, and thus make my character playable again.

At some level I guess I was hoping they might say, "oops, I guess he wasn't bluffing" (since so often people "quit" MUDs "forever" on a regular basis) or even "oops, I guess more people were affected by him than we thought". Maybe I hoped they'd say "hey, some of these criticisms have some substance to them." I was even hoping they'd say "hey, the way we sometimes react to criticism by shutting down instead of addressing it needs to change". Most of all I hoped that they'd take my claim that they could have caravanning at a "good enough" stage in a few hours and just do it already, if only to set the stage for the improvements that'd make it better (and which I as a coder might facilitate).

Instead I think they mostly concluded, "good riddance, one less problem to worry about".

Independently, however, I had brought to my attention by another player a fan-written, but very professionally done, exhaustive, and complete, book on Mercantyling, a supplement I long thought was needed since there's very little about mercantyling in the existing materials. In addition to a plethora of other subjects, it covers the economics of mercantyling in detail, providing a step-by-step system to cover buying, selling, capacity, and profit, along with overhead costs, financial risks, and material risks.

I've posted a detailed analysis of this system's implications on the Harshlands forums. In addition to the wagon capacity being restored to earlier estimates, it corroborates a few things I had previously claimed should be the case: that profit margins should have a high enough average to justify all the investment and risk, and that profits should be very variable. It also helps calibrate precisely where those profits should be.

What I now hope most of all is that this, in addition to reminding them about the caravanning issue, convinces them that their fears that a level of profit sufficient to cover operating costs and justify the risk will not be game-imbalancing, inappropriate, or recommended solely based on selfishness, are unfounded. And maybe then they'll finally be willing to do those few hours of work necessary, no longer limited by the fear that this will break the game the minute some less-scrupulous mercantyler comes along.

I wonder if I'm being just as rosey-eyed as I was a few paragraphs ago?

Thursday, January 25, 2007

If you could peer through time

Suppose it wasn't possible to travel through time, but you could instead pick a point in spacetime to observe and even record. Full sensory input as if you were there, but no chance to interact or affect. Where and when would you go?

This question got chatted idly about last night at Trivia (we won, by the way) and it soon became obvious the answers fitted neatly into two categories. First, we have the Tourism options: watch the signing of the Declaration of Independence, see an early Jimi Hendrix concert, witness the Battle of Thermopylae, get a look at the primordial form of the solar system.

Then there's the Mysteries, all those nagging things that we'll never know the true answer about. To make things interesting let's say you have to be able to specify a precise time and place; this means you can't find out whether the Beale cipher or Money Pit on Oak Island are hoaxes. Let's also say it has to be on Earth. What mysteries do you want to solve for once and for all?

The first two it seems everyone comes up with are the Resurrection of Jesus Christ, and the grassy knoll in Dallas 1963. Close behind is Jack the Ripper. After that we fall off into ones that are easy to think of, but that really, when I stop to think about them, I can't say I care that much. Where is Jimmy Hoffa? It was important then, but how much does it matter now? Amelia Earhart? The Lindberg baby? D.B. Cooper? Maybe Roswell would be worth looking at. How about the Princess Anastasia? What did Mozart really die of?

I'm mildly curious about all these things, but I have this sense that there's much bigger questions needing answers, things that somehow I can't bring to mind. Maybe that's just because the "you have to know the time" limitation I imposed on myself rules out a lot of good ones (like "what made the dinosaurs go extinct?"), but even with that, I feel like there's good ones just lurking outside my thoughts.

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Earliest memories

The most irksome thing about childhood amnesia is that I can't even tell which is my earliest memory, or when it is, or whether any of the contenders are real memories or just memories of people telling me about things that happened.

The earliest memory I can clearly fix at a point in time happened just before my fifth birthday. (I read that the average age for a first memory is about 3½, as long as you talk to other people and confirm that the memory is real. If you just go on when people claim is their first memory, that's usually a year or so earlier. It's like how 80% of people consider themselves to be better-than-average drivers.) This memory is of when I was being babysat while my mother was in the hospital giving birth to my sister, which puts it in May 1972. I remember my babysitter taking me for a walk down the block, and stopping at the corner by the street sign to talk about what was going on.

I have a few flashes of images that may predate that, including one striking one of a horseshoe crab turned upside down on the beach. But there's one in particular which is striking in its clarity of detail but which I can't place in time, or even confirm if it's real. This is one of those situations where it might be nice if I hadn't been disowned by my mother, because maybe she could confirm it.

In this memory I am with my parents and we're visiting somewhere in an oldish building, maybe an apartment building. We're leaving and it's late. The stairwell we're going down to leave is one of those ones where the stairs go a half-flight from the building's hall to a landing against the wall, then turns to go another half-flight to the next level, and so on in a huge rectangular spiral, like the ones you see in any high school in the world. You can lean over the railing and look all the way down to the basement down that narrow column between the flights. And that's what I'm doing in the memory.

Apparently, to keep me entertained during this visit, I have been given a small collection of toys, I think some kind of building block toys, which were in a rectangular Tupperware container of a particular faint jelly-like green color which, thankfully, is no longer being made. The lid was milky white, not the same green. And while peering over the railing, I managed to drop this container and it fell to the basement, spilling its contents.

I was naturally very upset and insisted that we get the toys back. My father was reluctant, because it was the end of a long day and he was tired, and it was quite a few flights down, more than he would have otherwise had to go. My mother insisted it was worth retrieving them, with the ease that comes of not being the one who'll have to do the job.

I wish I had some way to confirm if this was even real, and if so, when it happened. I'd like to know where this place was and why we were there. Above all I'd like to know how old I was at the time.

Thursday, January 18, 2007

Going back on metformin

My hemoglobin A1c is up to 7.9 -- which is no surprise. I know I've been out of control for a long while. There are a number of reasons, including my knee making exercising non-sustainable, major slippage on our carb control (which I find hard to keep up alone), higher stress levels, and not testing reliably enough.

Getting started again, as I've written before, is very problematic. I'll get myself a head of steam to start again and I'll pick a day and say "starting on that day I'm back to doing everything I should", and I do, and then a day comes when I'm too busy or too tired or I have a cold or something, and it'll be easier to blow it off and break my streak because... I've already stopped before and started again, so what's the big deal about stopping and starting again? The date of starting was arbitrary, after all. And of course I know how stupid and self-defeating that is, but it still happens.

So here's the new plan, step by step.
  1. I'm going back onto metformin. This is a very easy drug to go on, as its only side effect is that some people have gas and diarrhea for a few weeks while they acclimate to it. I already went through that once, so I might not have to go through it again, but even if I do, no big deal. Metformin doesn't do bad things to your body even if taken forever -- in fact, it's been proven to help with heart conditions unrelated to diabetes so it's taken by people who aren't diabetic. I always figured, when I went off it, that I'd be back on it someday (and that one day I'd probably be on insulin, too, unless medical science advances quick enough), so it's no big deal to be back on it. The idea here is that, if my control is so bad, it's hard to get encouraged because the little things I do barely make a dent in how bad my numbers are. Metformin can give me a kickstart so my control gets going again without me having to do everything all at once on the first day.

  2. Then I start testing and recording my glucose every day and before and after most meals. I'm just recording, not judging. I have to be very careful not to look at each reading as a condemnation, not wincing at them.

  3. Next I start recording carbs on every meal. Again, trying not to judge myself too much, just trying to record things. Eventually this is meant to get me to be more conscious of it and get out of the habit of splurging so often that it's not splurging anymore. (Key element in this is avoiding all the tasty, cheap high-carb snacky things we buy at Big Lots, which is hard for me when everyone else around me is having them.) But not to be so discouraged immediately that I react by stopping the recording.

  4. Then I start very slowly at exercising. I avoid the treadmill since the knee pain thing was a complete showstopper. Instead, I'm trying out using a stationary bike at work. If it works out as it has in past tests, giving me the exercise without straining my knee to the point of pain, and (more importantly, and not yet tested adequately) it brings my glucose down appropriately (in combination with metformin and diet changes), I will buy one for home. (And someday a non-stationary bike too, for summer! Yay!)

  5. Then the diet changes work their way in, little by little, not all at once. There are already some systemic changes in terms of using substitutions I'm still doing from before -- low carb bread and pasta, for instance. A few other things I've cut out already -- the reduced, but still too high, carb apple juice, for instance. The big challenge here will be the overabundant plethora of inexpensive carby snacks and sweets. The substitutes for these are all things that take a lot of effort and time to make, and in some cases, skills I lack. If you could buy Splenda-sweetened panna cotta and cheescake at the supermarket, I'd be golden, but you can't, you have to make it yourself. Not that it's hard, but when you're in the middle of something and just want to snack, a trip to the pantry is one thing, stopping what you're doing to cook is another.

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Not even penny-wise

"We have to do something about this photocopier." (or printer, or computer, or fax machine, etc.)
"Oh? What's wrong?"
"It's old and out of date. It keeps breaking down and it's getting harder and harder to get support and parts for it. Supplies like toner also cost more than they used to as they get harder to find. Compared to the cost of a modern, more efficient, fully supported one, we're spending more to maintain this for a year than it'd cost to replace it, especially after you add in man-hours spent dealing with it."
"We'd better replace it, then. Order us a new one."

"Here's that new copier we ordered. What do we do with the old one?"
"Seems a shame to throw it away."
"How about if we put it in Cathy's office so she doesn't have to walk ten steps every time she wants to make unnecessary and wasteful copies?"
"Good idea."
That's when I got out the axe, your honor. I move that the case be dismissed on the grounds of justifiable homicide.

I already had my cold for the year!

It's not fair, having to have a whole second cold in the same winter and it's not even February yet. This one started with two days of headache and has progressed into that miserable endless coughing stage already. I wonder if I picked it up at my blood draw last week at the hospital.

I can't really take any time off from work, which is doubly annoying since I'm right at my leave caps on both annual and sick leave. But there are specific things to be done each day that need me here -- a doctor's appointment today, shopping tomorrow, and yesterday, recovery from a whole bunch of major system changes in our network.

Of course I have to admit one reason I'm reluctant to stay home is because my crappy Internet connection at home is so limiting in what I can do. So many things get saved up until my time at work when I have the speed to do them. I even consider spending off time at the office just to tap into that network. If I had a good Internet connection at home I would be more inclined to use my leave time. Isn't that sad?

Saturday, January 06, 2007

Player-driven events in MUDs -- a different approach

Not sure why I have been thinking of how I'd run a MUD so much lately, though my repeated failures at being content with MUDs must have something to do with it. In addition to my thoughts about how combat might work and some thoughts on a setting, I've been thinking about the question of player-driven plots.

Those of us used to pencil-and-paper roleplaying games take for granted the idea that player actions drive the story almost completely. In MUDs, the tiniest crumb of player-driven plot, which even the most railroaded face-to-face RPG would have hundreds of, is taken as a wondrous new innovation and accomplishment. It's partially because of the limitations of coding. A MUD by its nature is more asynchronous -- admins and players log on and off at varying times, which is one of its strengths, you can always go play when you want -- which means things have to be built and coded ahead of time. There's a lot less room for improvisation when the admin can't just say "sure, that might work" without having to stop everything and go recode something or build a bunch of new objects whose need wasn't anticipated. The admins can't spend the time to build things that might not be needed that much because of limited time and resources. And it's even more non-viable to have an event able to adapt to unexpected player actions if it has to keep happening when the admins aren't around!

Ultimately it's a question of resources. Imagine a MUD like Lusternia which has a very active set of admins, builders, and coders, who churn out new stuff at an unprecedented rate. Yet the players complain because events are handed down from on high, rather than bubbling up from player actions, and are essentially linear, with only one possible outcome. As well they should; you don't get a feeling that you can impact the world you're in if it's impossible to do so.

Now imagine if they came down one day and said, "From now on, you will get only about 1/4 as many events, and everything else will slow down too -- new areas, new skillsets, bug fixes, etc. But in exchange for that, we will have player-driven events every month." Would people be happy or not? Hard to say -- people are always willing to say "we need more of X" but have a remarkable capability to ignore that the only way to get it is to have less of Y and Z.

So imagine how this might work in a new MUD where this went in from day one. I imagine a monthly sweepstakes; anyone in the game could buy a single ticket per month for a very low cost (say 5 credits). Once a month, 10 people would "win" the lottery. The prize would be 50 credits plus a chance to submit an idea for an event, in the form of a writeup of no more than one page. Admins would review these ideas and choose the best one, considering implementation difficulties, the event's "neutrality" (events that take the form of "my city has an idea for how to beat up the other cities" would be less likely to win), how well it'd fit into the overall story, etc. The selected proposal would then be developed, possibly with the player who proposed it taking an active hand in helping make it happen, both by roleplaying the stuff related to it in-game, and maybe even by doing some of the building if that's possible (though I think that part wouldn't likely work -- getting someone else to write room descs is often more work than doing it yourself, for instance; not everyone has the talent). The winner would also get another credit prize, say 200 credits, plus get to see the event play out -- probably going in directions even he didn't anticipate!

And these events might well lead to changes in the world around them. In fact, after the initial setup, the events might be the primary method of introducing change into the world; admins wouldn't even make their own events except in the rare case where they needed to do so for some kind of coding or balance reasons.

Naturally I see all kinds of problems that could crop up with this, so consider it brainstorming. I think a lot of those problems might be addressable, at least assuming that the MUD was otherwise able to succeed so you'd have enough players and admins to do it. But I like the idea in broad strokes. Wonder if it could be made to work.

Friday, January 05, 2007

I guess that's why they call it the blues

When I first heard the title of this well-known Elton John song, I thought, that's an interesting question. Why do they call it the blues?

I was very disappointed to learn that, though the song keeps saying "I guess that's why they call it the blues," it never makes even the tinest attempt to answer the question. There's never even anything to be an antecedent for "that". Worse yet, no one else even seems to notice.

Then I chuckle at myself for being such a geek.

But... why do they call it the blues, anyway? Wikipedia says this:
The phrase the blues is a reference to having a fit of the blue devils, meaning 'down' spirits, depression and sadness. An early reference to "the blues" can be found in George Colman's farce Blue devils, a farce in one act (1798).
But that doesn't answer the question either. Why are the devils blue and not, say, yellow? For every image I can summon up in which blue is melancholy (a dark sunset, for instance) there's another where it's positively uplifting (a bright blue sky). The psychology of color is a fascinating subject I'd like to go into at more length one day.

Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Google as a knowledge multiplier

There is certainly a skill to finding pertinent information on the Internet, and it's something you can practice at, learn how to do better, improve at with practice. But there's a big factor often overlooked.

Someone who already knows some about a subject will always be better at researching that subject than someone who knows almost nothing about it. This is even true when the latter is better generally at searching than the former.

That's because knowing a little bit about a subject provides you with search terms, as well as enough understanding of the subject matter to quickly identify which of the search hits will be relevant and informative. The first 10% of knowledge in any field will make the biggest impact on search efficacy.

I might be reading too much into it, but isn't it interesting that this could be seen as encouraging a revival of the generalist, the "Renaissance man", a pattern of learning that went out a hundred years ago? Okay, so it's just Google, right? But computer-enhanced human intellect is not going to go away -- it'll become more pervasive. It may well turn out to again be a good idea to have a baseline knowledge in everything even if you have to also have a specialized knowledge in one thing, just to take advantage of that multiplier effect.