Monday, February 28, 2011

Scott Pilgrim vs. the World

Reviews of this movie were highly mixed, and given that so much of the video game culture it riffs on is stuff with which I am not very familiar, I wasn't sure if I'd like it. I was afraid I might feel on the outside of a lot of inside jokes. And I bet that there were some -- just reading the trivia on IMDb suggested a couple of allusions I missed. And I was afraid the stylistic elements would just make me feel old. Plus there's the comic books (and I'm sure everyone who read them groaned about how wrong the movie is -- and is currently groaning at me for calling them "comic books").

There were a few bits that felt clunky or off, but by and large, I found it delightful and funny. The movie pulls no punches at all at establishing its goofy style, and I suppose for some it could be off-putting. It might even have been for me if it had caught me in a different mood. But as long as you feel well-disposed to just going with it, it absolutely works.

After it was done, thinking back on it, I realized that it's analogous to a musical. In a musical, the story is going along and suddenly the characters break into song, or dance, or other production numbers; and no one, generally, seems to notice this; it's just part of how the world works. In this movie, instead of breaking into song, the story suddenly breaks into surreal video-game-inspired sequences, often (but not exclusively) fights. And everyone just goes with it; it's just the kind of thing that happens.

There's a lot more in the story than I expected from the trailers. There are characters wending their way through and I'm not really sure until the end where they're going to end up going. There are times I felt like I needed to make a chart to keep track of all the relationships between the various characters in a single scene (all sitting in one room staring at one another). But not in a bad way; I thought the film might be tidily linear given the premise (seven evil exes, in a sequence like a video game building to a Big Boss), but it's actually quite twisty and has a lot more room for characters to develop and go into directions that aren't immediately predictable.

And it ranges from funny to hilarious, as well as managing at times to be touching. Not that it's deep and involves serious acting and themes; it's mostly a light sugary confection. But it's not as much as you'd expect.

I was also surprised at seeing Michael Cera doing so many action sequences. Admittedly they were highly artificial in their choreography, but even so, they were quite physical, and I didn't know he did that sort of thing. I was a little disappointed that at no point did Kim (the disaffected red-headed drummer) get to even punch anyone. I think that would have been great. But most of the characters that should have gotten a moment like that, did get one.

All in all it was just a load of fun and wasn't at all disappointing. Maybe there were a few bits I didn't get but I never felt like I wasn't getting enough of it to be amused. I recommend the movie to anyone who feels like running with it. Don't question the surreal elements, just let them sweep you along.

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Should all RPGs have character advancement?

We all remember how fun it was to "go up a level" but sometimes it feels like every roleplaying game since (except, of course, those oriented towards one-shots and short adventures) has to have a character advancement scheme even when it doesn't make sense.

Has James Bond ever gone up a level? Sure, you can point to ways that he's gained something along the way, but usually, it's more like he's bought off weaknesses or gained advantages, like favors he is owed, or rank and prestige. Have his skills really changed notably? (Disregard how they've evolved with the duration of the time they've been making books and movies -- yes, the original Bond didn't know how to hack computers and the latest incarnations do, but that's changing times, not Bond gaining levels.)

Has Jack Bauer ever gone up a level? If anything, he seems a little more worn out each "day". And since I'm exploring the "J.B."s, how about Jason Bourne? He's bought off weaknesses, but is he a better fighter or spy than he used to be, other than that?

Even outside the modern suspense/action genres, there's not nearly as much of this as you'd think. There's a lot of trading off advantages and disadvantages, but generally, the skills a character starts with are the ones they always have. Does Indiana Jones get gradually better at two-fisted action?

Counterexamples can certainly be pointed out. Consider the Lord of the Rings series -- who in that doesn't go up a level by the end! Well, I'll tell you. More than you'd think. Legolas and Gimli don't really get better at anything by the end, apart from buying off their prejudice weaknesses, for instance. They get more prone to bragging (particularly in the movies) but that's about it.

What about Aragorn? At the start he's a reclusive ranger with a self confidence problem; at the end, he has reunited the tribes of men under his rule. But did he really gain any skills? He certainly bought off that self confidence issue weakness, but even at the start, he had all the swordsman skill, the tracking skill, the lore skill, etc. that he has at the end. His only apparent area of improvement is leadership, but it's arguable that this all amounts to buying off that weakness, letting him use the leadership skill he already had. After all, though we never see it in the books, really, he was a leader amongst the Rangers even before the books start.

Gandalf, surely, you protest. Well, sure, when he came back as Gandalf the White, he clearly went up a level. But I think this is a much bigger change than going up a level. It was a profound transformation. In RPG terms, Gandalf always made more sense as an NPC, but doubly so after he became Gandalf the White (in much the same way River Tam makes a lot more sense as an NPC).

Okay, what about the hobbits? Yes, I concede, they definitely gained levels. And this is where you're most likely to see the level-gaining phenomenon, over and over: when the character starts as a "zero-level", a non-adventurer, and becomes an adventurer during the course of the story. Over and over we see this in all adventure fiction. Usually, when a character starts as an everyman at the start of a story and ends up a respected adventurer, if there are sequels, they fall flat, and we like to forget about them. But usually, when they do work, the character who gained a level in the first story does not gain any more levels in subsequent stories.

Maybe the best counterexample I can think of is Ripley, but even there, she's mostly going through the same arc as Pippin. One can argue about when she makes the transition from zero-level everyman to first-level adventurer, but clearly by the end of the second movie, with her charging into danger with a BFG or working her mecha in "hand"-to-hand combat with a xenomorph, she's an adventurer. Does she really ever gain a level after that? (Perhaps she would have, if the subsequent movies had sucked less.)

I think roleplaying games, particularly those with a cinematic turn, should not be so hidebound on the ideas "you start as a fairly weak grunt" and "you gain levels from there". There's nothing wrong with those ideas, but there's nothing wrong with setting them aside in the many cases where they really don't work. If there must be an advancement system, perhaps it should focus more on things like gaining favors owed, contacts earned, and weaknesses overcome.

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Jackie Brown

My return to watching movies on my "ought to watch" list marks the last of the Tarantino movies. (I know there's also Kill Bill and Grindhouse and maybe others, but this is the last one on my list.)

The best thing the movie had going for it, to me, was suspense. Most of the movie is the playing out of one big scheme in which various people are playing each other, but for the entire movie, you really can't tell what everyone's game is. Every time you are fairly sure you can see what the plan is, it turns out that that doesn't quite add up, and maybe there's more; or something contradicts it. When you think they actually pulled something off, it turns out they don't take the money and run, but there's more to the plan. It kept me interested and eager to see the next scene, but in the end, it felt like it didn't add up to that much. The climax felt anticlimactic.

Another element of suspense was simply who's going to turn out to be important to the movie? Who's going to get killed off? In this, I had the advantage of not knowing who was on the posters; I also didn't recognize Bridget Fonda so I wasn't sure if her character would be minor. From the first appearances of some of the characters I was wondering who was getting killed off -- and I was wrong as often as I was right.

The story is in a lot of ways the most linear and straightforward of Tarantino's movies (at least the ones I saw). This shouldn't be taken as either praise or disparagement: it suits the story, since it doesn't need any other technique to build its suspense. There's enough just from never knowing quite what anyone else is actually planning.

In all, I have to say I didn't like it as much as Inglorious Basterds. However, I'm harder pressed to rank which ones I think are better-made movies. Though I wasn't that fond of it, I think Reservoir Dogs would probably have to win as the best-made of his movies I've seen, but it's a close thing; there are more than a few things in Reservoir Dogs that are a bit clumsy, and the movie on the whole is a bit uneven, but when it's being brilliant, it's being really brilliant. Jackie Brown is more consistent and there's very little in it that makes me think 'that could have been done better,' but it also fails to be as jolting or original, and in the end, it just doesn't rise up quite as far.

Jackie Brown also felt slow at times. When I stop and think about it, most of Tarantino's movies are kind of slow, at least if you count "how many things happen in the course of the movie" (with Inglorious Basterds a notable exception), but in Reservoir Dogs -- and even in Pulp Fiction, my least favorite -- it doesn't seem slow, it never feels like it's dragging. But there were a few times in Jackie Brown where a long quiet scene went past the point of "setting a mood" and into "hey, do we really need all this?" I don't mean he could be cutting them into frenetic Michael Bay flickerfests, but it's possible to go too far the other way.

I wouldn't say it was fun. "Fun" doesn't feel like what Tarantino is going for (though again Inglorious Basterds is often the exception). But it was definitely engaging. In all, I didn't mind it, but I probably won't feel I need to see it again.

Friday, February 25, 2011

Dirty Harry

The failure of my Archos pretty much put on hold my program of watching movies that I felt I should see, because everyone assumed I would have, or because they'd become part of popular culture. That's all right, I was just about ready for a break anyway. I'll probably go back to it soon. However, even during the break, I did squeeze one movie in, Dirty Harry, just because it happened to get recorded on the DVR instead of downloaded, and Siobhan also wanted to watch it for the same reason.

This is a movie that's hard to gauge because it's hard to put myself into the time when it came out. How much of what seemed kind of obvious or predictable is only so because this movie helped shape our expectations of cop movies, helped define the genre? I don't really know. It seems like a lot of those things must be from even earlier, but I can't really say for sure, because I'm not that familiar with the cop genre.

I can say that I didn't find it that engaging. A lot of it felt scattered, particularly at the beginning, where it seemed like the story kept veering off into unrelated things that didn't end up adding much. Even later, the twists in the Scorpio case started to feel stacked on and disjointed. I can't easily put my finger on why; when I describe it to myself it sounds like lots of other good movies where the exigencies of the situation cause a series of twists and turns, with the two sides each having to deal with what the other one did. Consider the entire final reel of Raiders Of The Lost Ark, in which the ark changes hands over and over and over. If you stop to think about it, it starts to feel piled on, but the movie absolutely works. Doesn't a lot of the cat-and-mouse of Harry and Scorpio in the final reel have a similar, though not as extreme, tone? And yet it doesn't feel like anything more than too much, for no good reason, to me.

Admittedly, Harry pulls off the badass cop pretty well with his signature line. I've seen that line quoted (and misquoted) many times, but I had no idea that the scene I always see quoted is only one of two times the line comes up in the movie. It turns out a lot more powerful in the movie, where the first time is just setting up the second, than in the quote-out-of-context scene I always see (which is the first one). I suppose the reason I watched this turns out to be the opportunity to realize that. Now I better understand, and can better recognize, allusions and references.

But I can't really say that I enjoyed the movie. It was hard at times to keep focused on it. I wonder if I would have felt differently if I'd seen it at the time it came out.

Thursday, February 24, 2011


Last week I took a class at Panurgy on Sharepoint Server, because we've started using it at work, and I've done a bit of development on it and found it interesting and enjoyable. Unfortunately, when I signed up for this class back in October, it would have been just what I needed, but then it got rescheduled, then cancelled, then rescheduled. By the time I got to it, the material it covered is all stuff I had already had to figure out on my own, the slow way, by trial and error. I learned a few things in the class, but mostly, I was breezing through it, and in a lot of cases teaching things to the other student (there was only one) and even to the teacher. I'm signing up for a full-week class next week that should cover a lot more of what I want (alongside a lot of things I probably can't use, at least not on the server at work, since I am not an actual administrator of that server).

The hardest point for learning Sharepoint for me is getting the answer to the question "What is Sharepoint? What does it do?" to crystallize. The answers to this question are usually mired in lots of very broad, very vague ideas, that must mean a lot to people who already know about this stuff, but not as much to me. For instance, Wikipedia's article about it starts (as of this writing), "Microsoft SharePoint is a family of software products developed by Microsoft for collaboration, file sharing and web publishing." For me, that's not very helpful, because when I first started with Sharepoint, it didn't tell me how it was different from, say, a server with FTP and Apache on it. At the other extreme, I would get mired in too much detail about specific things like workflows, document versioning, or the laundry list of functions you can add to a site (wiki, blog, forum, calendar, etc.). It felt like a big grab bag of everything, but with no particular purpose, and I kept thinking, "Why would I want to use it?" After all, if I wanted a wiki, or a blog, or a calendar, I have lots of easier ways to get those things.

The project that made me actually start using Sharepoint was a help desk system. We were pushed by an auditor's recommendation to setting up for my section a system that tracked the status of all the requests made of us, and since we had to do that, I wanted to make it useful for us too, by serving as a record we could turn to when trying to solve a problem to see what had already been done in the past. We've always had a big shortfall in our uniformity of documenting these things, and our ability to cover for one another. It turns out Sharepoint has a help desk system available right out of the box, and the statewide IT people have a Sharepoint server already up, so we just had to buy a few client licenses -- which we can use for any Sharepoint application, not just this one -- and we've already got a help desk, with trouble ticket tracking and history, a FAQ, and a knowledge base.

And it really is a pretty good help desk, but we found the need for a number of customizations. Fortunately, most of these were quite easy -- or would have been, if I'd been able to take this class a few months ago. Finding them was quite tricky with no help, since there was no documentation at all about the actual help desk template, and precious little about Sharepoint (and most of that bogged down in details of how to configure the server itself, or limited to how to use the predefined calendars and wikis and stuff). But once I learned the basics of navigation and how to make customizations, most of them were incredibly easy. Need to add a new field to a list? It's just a few clicks, and then no need to go back and edit reports or views or queries to accomodate it, that's already done for you. Making new lists is pretty much just as easy. Even customizing the layout of pages themselves is quite simple, though some of the things you add are a bit more complex.

I was able to get the site to a usable state and we've been using it within my section for more than a month, and as of this writing, we're just starting to let users get into it to enter and view their own requests. It's working pretty well so far, and we're starting to build up a knowledge base that is consolidating our scattered notes about how to do things better than we've ever managed before.

Even so I'm running into limits in my ability to make it do things that seem like they should be simple. For instance, every service request is associated with one or more devices. The idea is, we want to be able to see the history of past requests associated with a device, so when a new one comes up, we can tell what has been done in the past, or identify repeated problems. But it's proven surprisingly difficult to do this efficiently. I could easily make a view to do it, but then I'd need hundreds of views, one for each device (and user, and agency). We can do a search on the text, but it occurs in too many places. I think this is probably solvable and I have some ideas, after the class, for ways to solve it, but this is where I'm reaching the limits of my knowledge.

And it'll be far more so when we start talking about using Sharepoint for other projects. And it would be even more so yet if I ever wanted to use Sharepoint in any other capacity than at my present job (for instance, one job I applied for last year, I didn't get, perhaps in part due to a shortage of Sharepoint knowledge). Sharepoint seems like one possible place where I can update my tech skills because I can actually put what I learn to use, and that is the only way I am able to retain it. So I'm excited at the prospect of taking that next class and finally getting to really learn more.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

My ambitions as an RPG creator

In my last post I alluded a bit to the idea of using my reincarnation time travel campaign idea, combined with the improved version of RTC I've been batting around in my head, as a publication that might finally earn some notice. What do I mean by notice?

I don't imagine that anything I ever write could ever make a big splash on the world or get much recognition. I don't even mean that I won't ever be the next Gary Gygax, or Steve Jackson, or even the next Steffan O'Sullivan. Nothing I produce aspires to that kind of success even remotely. The only reason I'm even considering that I might someday sell something I wrote is that, paradoxically, things that people sell tend to get a wider audience than things that are given away free.

What I really want is for something I produce to get a little bit of response from the world. I don't expect a lot. It would be nice if someone in the indie game scene had heard of one of my games, and maybe even said something nice about it. It would be nice if I could run a game at a convention and have people show up. It would be nice if, when I posted questions or ideas about my games, or offered my own thoughts on other people's games, I wasn't pretty much always ignored. I'd like to be a part of the indie game circle. It would be even nicer if there was something positive in some of it, too.

I suppose in the end all of that is silly. The "market", even for indie games, is very small and still oversaturated. I could be spending a lot more time on this than I do, if I really wanted it to succeed (that's a chicken-and-egg problem though). And I generally won't bend as far as I should to making things that other people will like instead of just what I'd like. So it's almost entirely my own fault that everything I throw out into the world falls there in total silence.

Still it makes me feel like, this might be my chance to break into the field, the one time I have an idea that's unusual enough, original enough, and yet still something that might get noticed. I guess that's why it pains me that I don't think I can actually make it happen.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Should I write a non-generic RPG?

One problem with finding a name for the new version of RTC is that it being a generic game makes it hard to name it.

Another concern I have with writing it is that, I'm doing this only partially to have a better version of RTC out there, but just as much for its use in the reincarnation time travel game that we're hoping to start. That will involve a few extra rules specific to how it's applied to that campaign, which means the clumsiness of having one rules document and another supplement with the exceptions. The obvious solution to that, since I have the source for the game, is to make a second copy that has those exceptions woven right into the document, so I can hand people one set of rules that are all they need, no need to have to cross-reference a rule and its exception.

All this leads me to the idea that maybe what I should be doing is not writing another version of a generic game in the first place. When I look at what is getting some notice in the world of amateur roleplaying games (and professional, for that matter), generic games are out. Maybe what I should do, to finally get a tiny bit of notice (or at least to finally have a chance to get a tiny bit of notice), is to take the two ideas -- the system, and this setting -- and put them together into one document that's written as if they were conceived together. Then the rules amendments will be integral.

Even professional games like the Serenity roleplaying game these days are often done this way: a core "generic" system that the company uses for all their stuff gets customized for each game, and then presented as if it were a new system for that game. The person who buys the game doesn't even need to know that the system isn't entirely unique for it, and doesn't have to juggle basic rules and special cases.

The trouble I have here, though, is that I have three competing visions of the game. First, there's what would be most interesting to me. Second, there's what might be intriguing enough to get some notice (I'll write more about that tomorrow). And third, there's what my group might like, what we'll actually end up running. If I try to write the game either of the first two ways, it'll end up feeling like I'm forcing my group to play something based on what I want, not what they want. But if I write it the third way, then it feels like I'm giving up my idea, and the chance that my idea could finally be something someone else finds worth noticing. And that's not even assuming that the first two versions wouldn't be irreconcilable.

So in the end, while I worry that writing the one unified game approach would finally be my chance to make a mark, as well as a solution to the name conundrum, I think I can't go ahead with it.

Monday, February 21, 2011

A name for RTC's next version

My rules-light roleplaying game RTC, which was based on my played-in-real-time game RealTime, needs a better name. RTC is a corny little initialism that reflects the game's origin: RTC is the core of RealTime's rules, hence, Real Time Core, hence RTC.

However, thinking about how to adapt it in hopes it can be the right game system for my reincarnation time travel game has led me to a few changes in the system that I think will improve it, make it more generally applicable. It'll be just a tiny bit less light, but still very simple and quick. In essence, it's version 2, but I think it might be best to call it a new start. I will add into the rules a few other things that RTC needed, strip out a few rules that never really worked that well, and since I'm breaking free from the arbitrary limit of "fits on a single page" I can also clarify and expand it. (It'll still fit on two or three sheets of paper.)

I'd like to give this a new name and promote it (to the extent anyone can promote a freeware roleplaying game), but I can't think of a good name. The problem is that it's a very simple and entirely generic game, so there's not much I can say about it that might lead to a catchy but appropriate name. It's a problem all generic games have; the game itself is, by design, bland, so it can fit with anything else you want to use it with, and thus the only good names are either dull acronyms or initialisms, or still something bland like "Unisystem". Or they're something that has nothing to do with the game, which might be the best way to go, but still feels corny.

When I try to think of a "hook" from the game's design to build a name off of, the only things that jump out at me are that the game has several eights in the design (there are eight main skills which run from one to eight); and that the skills are all verbs, to emphasize that the game focuses on action. The latter doesn't seem very promising; I haven't come up with any name ideas that build on it that aren't awful and corny. The former led me to the idea "Octave" but there's a few problems with that: it seems like the game will have to involve music, and people might mix it up with octaNe. (If that name weren't taken, in fact, it might be a good one.) No luck so far thinking of any other names that derive from the number eight.

I actually had a dream about asking people to help me come up with a name, a few nights ago. (Actually, I wasn't addressing people per se, just a formless miasma which didn't answer in any way.) In the dream, I came up with a name I liked, Indigo. On waking, I think of the name and my first reaction is, cool, I like the sound of that; it feels fresh and active. The second is, but it has nothing to do with the game, and is therefore corny. Even so, it still is better than Octave, or anything else I've come up with, except one thing. Apparently, someone else already got it.

I posted on Facebook asking for ideas and got a few interesting suggestions. Photon is nice: it emphasizes it being light and fast and universal. The only problem I see is that people have too many associations with it. In particular I think people will imagine it's suited for science fiction or high tech only. Another suggestion, Spectrum, is only unsuitable because my other roleplaying game, which is a very hefty rules-rich "crunch" system, is named Prism. And in addition to seeming like I'm obsessive about rainbows (I am, but I don't want to seem like it!) it might make it seem like the games are related, which they so aren't. It might even get them mixed up (at least amongst the 4.3 people in the world who've heard of them).

Without a good name, I feel stuck. I don't even know if I want to try to publish or release this (more about that in the next few blog posts) but if I did I would need a name and I don't have a good one. It's hard to brainstorm about names. I don't have any ideas where to start!

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Sleepwalk With Me

I certainly didn't expect to have to think about spoilers when reviewing a comedy book by a stand-up comedian, but it turns out that I have to assure you that the only spoiler in this post is the fact that I have to say this at all, and therefore, that there's things to be spoiled.

If you've watched Mike Birbiglia's comedy acts, you may expect this book to share a lot in common with them. There's only a few actual jokes that you've heard before in his acts that made it into the book, like about Mike's wheelhouse of skills (English muffin pizzas, and not jumping out of trees), part of how his brother gets the nickname Joey Bag Of Donuts, his parents having a porn virus, and a few more. But the vast majority of the book is material that wasn't familiar at least to me, having seen most of his specials.

The biggest commonality is just the tone Mike takes, the kind of humor, and the fact that it's very personal. He cranks up the personalness, in fact, which might seem surprising: his act is mostly him telling stories of his own life, so how could it be more personal? Two ways. First, the stories he's telling in the book are more personal things, and more so as the book progresses. In a way, this is an autobiography; it's a big coming-out about things in his life that he's never told us before. And second, the tone is much more intimate; he's making confession about things that were difficult, even painful or scary, for him.

You might think from that that it's going to be a bummer, but it's really, really not. At no point does he waver from being funny. It's not like how a comedy writer sometimes completely shifts gears to be emotional (like Dave Barry's extremely rare departures into writing about family tragedies). Not that that would be bad, but that's not what Mike does. There's no point where the emotional impact is opposed to, or competing with, the humor. They're entwined.

The book was a quick read, and some of that is because it's kind of light, but some is just because it's surprisingly engaging. You expect a stand-up comedian's book to be something you can dip into and back out of, so it was surprising to find myself gripped with suspense towards the end, eager to see what was coming.

Overall, as you'd expect for a book, the sheer density of laughs-per-minute is lower than a stand-up act. That's unavoidable, and Mike wisely doesn't try to avoid it. The result feels unaffected, uncontrived: it's Mike telling you about his life and being funny all the time doing it just because his thoughts are always funny even when they're also serious. It's really impressive when you think of the craftsmanship especially because while you're reading it you won't be thinking of the craftsmanship; you'll feel like even Mike wasn't thinking about it, either.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Living with kidney stones

As I wrote yesterday, the nephrologists seem no closer now than they were last autumn to guessing what I can do to avoid kidney stones, apart from not eating anything, and drinking one water tower of distilled water per day. Some of their remedies seem drastic in terms of their impact on my quality of life, but they're very casual about them, because everyone they see -- or at least every fat person -- probably already has hypertension, high cholesterol, diabetes, and leprosy (okay, maybe not that last one) anyway, so they should all be going on draconian diets for other reasons already. Why not throw in one more reason to avoid everything?

When I asked for the referral last year, I had no idea it would be six months and still not even feeling like we've started on it, nor that the possible solutions would be so grand and drastic. Ultimately, I feel like we're coming to a point where I have to ask a question the doctors all assume isn't even on the table: do I want to treat this at all?

If they'd said "we can prevent kidney stones, but it'll take a costly, invasive, risky surgery," they would take for granted that I'd be trying to decide, is it worth it? Maybe I should just live with it. The same for lots of other treatments for lots of conditions, particularly conditions that have virtually no risk or only intermittent or minor effects (like, for instance, toenail fungus, which doesn't really do anything to you, and the treatments for which can cause liver failure -- that's a no-brainer).

But as long as all they're saying is "make drastic changes in your diet" then the question seems to go off the table. Of course I'd want to give up everything so I can avoid a kidney stone. It's just a matter of which everythings they need to put on the list.

Well, that's not how I feel about it. Sure, those few hours in the hospital were awful. The second one was either the most intense pain I've ever felt, or the second-most (there was this one time I fell off my bike and... you probably don't want to hear the rest of this sentence, you'll be wincing for hours). But one night like that every few years is chump-change compared to the kind of medical issues I used to have to face, with things like diabetes, where you're not talking about discomfort, you're talking about disability and death. And kidney stones have a very, very tiny risk of ever being anything more than a few agonizing hours and a few uncomfortable days.

Maybe I'm being dumb, but I really think the idea of having to go back to measuring and counting every particle of food I eat, having to avoid almost everything that I enjoy, and then having my blood tested and wasting a day in a doctor's office every three months, is just not worth it to avoid that one day of pain. The cure is worse than the condition. I spent way too long having to live that way for much more serious reasons. I got a surgery (and if you think about it, that was deliberately inducing the same kind of pain and discomfort as passing a kidney stone) specifically to avoid the medical concerns (namely diabetes) that led to me having to live my life that way.

No, I'm not saying I want to be dissolute and throw caution to the wind, eat anything I damned well please, and give up exercise. (Okay, actually, I would like that, who wouldn't? But I'm not saying that that's what I'm proposing.) I'm just saying the balance I have between the things I do to take care of myself (the things I don't eat, the exercise I do even when I don't want to, etc.) and the things I do because I like them (like exploring interesting foods, or saving a few minutes a day with convenient foods sometimes), needs to be maintained. I'll go so far to avoid the pain of kidney stones, but if they want me to go five times that far, I'm inclined to go buy some more Pepsi and say to heck with them. I'll just budget a few days off each year or two for passing a kidney stone.

Friday, February 18, 2011


My second visit to the nephrology department at Fletcher Allen was, somehow, more unsatisfying than the first. In the first, my actual doctor just read some papers and then had another doctor breeze in, having not really read my file, and announce my problems must be not drinking enough and taking in too much salt, because that's everyone else's problems, and then breeze out with some recommendations for more testing and followups. I kind of miss that old curmudgeon.

Today's visit got off the right foot with a wait of more than an hour and a half before we even saw the doctor. Then he was in and out in about two minutes so he could get yet another doctor -- the second doctor from the first visit wasn't in, so we got yet another new doctor. He also managed to complain that my bloodwork for last week never got sent to them. (We called the labs and confirmed it was, then got another copy sent.) Then more waiting.

The results, of course, contradict everything I've been told before this, just as everything before this has contradicted everything before it. My calcium intake, for instance, was stopped, then reinstated, then doubled, then tripled, then dropped back to the original levels, and at one point today the second doctor was talking about raising it again. Having previously been told to increase citrate intake, I was told this time to stop drinking lemonade, even though they're putting me on a citrate prescription supplement. And so on.

I don't know how much of it is because I can't seem to get the same doctor twice, or ever get a doctor that actually read my file beforehand. My urologist seems a lot more consistent and much more willing to listen to me and explain things to me, but even he seems just short of admitting that they just don't really understand what's going to work -- though he blames that on him being a urologist, not a nephrologist. So maybe if I had a nephrologist that stayed on the case, and wasn't always too busy to read my file or talk to me or listen to me or give serious thought to my situation, they'd be able to give me a coherent answer. But then, maybe not. At this point I wouldn't be surprised if it turns out they're just shotgunning because they don't really understand what's going on (or because the tests it would take to make a real diagnosis and treatment are more costly than just trying a bunch of things).

Ultimately, what they want me to do is:
  • Decrease the high-oxalate foods in my diet, like kale (which I never ate), cola (which I already eliminated months ago), nuts (which I've all but stopped eating), and beer (yuck). The only high-oxalate food I still have is chocolate.
  • Stop drinking lemonade, and drink water instead. Because I need to bring my citrate levels up.
  • Drink more fluids. I already drink literally twice as much as most people, but when I tell doctors how much, they always give me a stare that means they're thinking "why is he lying to me?" which only convinces them it must be low fluid intake (since that's the problem for so many people). My urine capture happens to have been unusually low, and they don't believe me that previous ones were "unusually" high.
  • Lose weight. They just throw this one in so the AMA doesn't revoke their license.
  • Stop ingesting salt. I think my salt intake is probably 'average' and I'll concede that 'average' is probably too high. But I think they think my intake is "eats Swanson Hungry Man and McDonald's every meal" and they want it to be "lives on a moon base and synthesizes nutriets via photosynthesis".
  • Take a prescription potassium citrate. I'm not Mr. Better Living Through Chemistry, but this is the only thing they said that I think might actually help. Everything I've seen about my citrate and oxalate levels suggests my numbers are way too far from normal for dietary changes to make that big a difference.
  • Come back in three months so they can reverse everything they've said and waste another four hours of my day. And don't forget more urine and blood tests.
At least I got a copy of my test results this time so I can read it for myself.

I'm really starting to regret getting onto this track, but that's for tomorrow's blog post.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

RTC Variant for Reincarnation Time Travel

I'm reposting from a Facebook note to here because I don't know how long the Facebook note will remain visible, but the blog posts last for a longer time. Plus I might get some response to posting it here.  Also,  posting here lets me include this delightfully goofy diagram that appears to have been posted in complete earnest by someone who is probably a good friend of the timecube guy.

This is a fleshing out of the ideas I wrote in a recent blog post about a way of making a "richer" version of RTC, still rules-ultralight but maybe just a little less so, for use in Siobhan's time travel via reincarnation campaign. The amended rules should probably have another name, but I don't know what it should be yet.

1) Change to Specializations

In RTC, each skill has a value from 1-6 and a single specialization, fairly broad (for instance, "Brawling" for Fight), which is two points higher. It is assumed that everything in the base skill is known at the skill's level, except the specialization, which is two higher.

In the new system, the base skill level applies only to things that the average person would know or be able to do, though perhaps at different proficiencies. For instance, in a modern world setting:
  • Drive: drive a car; ride a bike; navigate a public transit system
  • Fight: handle yourself in a barroom brawl; kick people; fire a pistol
  • Heal: staunch bleeding; treat a cold; identify a stomach upset; splint a broken bone
  • Know: your native language; use a library; be aware of current events; understand social conventions
  • Move: run; climb a tree; play softball
  • Persuade: ask someone on a date; complain to a customer service representative
  • Resist: deal with an angry person; get a better price from a car salesman
  • Use: make a phone call; put a shelf up; hook up a stereo system
However, anything that is not something that anyone would know, you don't know unless you have a specialization saying so. Some examples of specializations:
  • Drive: airplanes; motorcycles; jet-skis
  • Fight: gun repair; demolitions; judo; archery
  • Heal: emergency medicine; diagnostics; acupuncture. veterinary medicine
  • Know: German; poetry; astrophysics and cosmology
  • Move: acrobatics; track and field; mountain-climbing
  • Persuade: seduction; politics; multi-level marketing techniques
  • Resist: resist interrogation; sleep through anything
  • Use: car repair; software programming; lockpicking
You can also specialize in things that are also within the general base of knowledge, to reflect having a better mastery of it, if desired.

In each skill, you can have as many specializations as you have points in the skill.

You only have to decide, during initial character creation, some of those specializations. You must choose at least one per skill, but you can leave others blank. Whatever you choose reflects the knowledge of your present-day self. Any you leave blank will be filled in each time you travel into a past life, and reflect the knowledge of your past self.

2) Backstory Tokens

In addition to plot twists, there will be another token, called a backstory token and represented by a different color of chip or bead. These are handed out at the time when each character goes into his past life, and for a typical adventure, ten will given to each character. Like plot twists, these can be spent during the adventure, and when you run out, you run out; but unlike plot twists, they cannot be shared or traded between characters, and when spent, they are taken out of play.

Each backstory token can be spent at any time to add to your character something which can be discovered by revealing something of the character's backstory. They specifically refer to the backstory of the past life, and will generally provide you with a new resource. Generally, you will need to narrate something to explain it, possibly in the form of a flashback, or simply your character suddenly remembering something of their past life that could help. (You cannot contradict anything already known, but you can reveal things that it's feasible your present life didn't know about, and hasn't yet recollected.)

Some examples of the sort of thing backstory tokens can be spent for, and the corresponding costs:
  • 1 token: add one more specialization to a single skill, lasting only the rest of this past life insertion
  • 2 tokens: add one point to a single skill, only for the duration of this past life insertion
  • 1 token: some single item of minimal value that it makes sense for your past life to have is somewhere you can get to it (e.g., a wig of just the same color as the Duchess's hair, if your past life worked in the theater)
  • 2 tokens: as above, but an item of more value (e.g., an emerald earring), or an item that doesn't make as much sense (e.g., that wig, if you were a butcher -- and you still need to make up an explanation), or an item with a very specific application (e.g., the key to the butler's private passage)
  • 3 tokens: as above, but it can be extremely valuable, or both valuable and unexpected
  • 1 token: someone in the area owes you a minor favor, or is a casual acquaintance
  • 2 tokens: an important or powerful person owes you a favor
  • 3 tokens: you have serious leverage on a powerful person
The GM of course always has veto power. Generally speaking, you can't ever use these to simply solve the challenge of the adventure directly. (You can't spend three tokens to make the villain of the piece beholden to you, or one token to add the specialization "knowing just where the sword is buried because I stumbled upon it when I was a child once".)

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

An annual glurp

Way back when, I used to have a cassette in my stereo all the time ready to record songs I wanted when they played on the radio. The resulting tapes were a big mess of songs in random order, with their first few seconds cut off, and sometimes with DJs talking on their ends; but often that was the only way I had those songs at all. I started calling those "glurp tapes" because they were just a random assortment of stuff, and for some reason "glurp" seemed to fit that.

Later, when I made what people might call a "mix tape", I adopted that name for the same purpose. The main time I made these would be burning CDs full of MP3s to play on the car stereo. At any given time, we might have about 30 CDs, each full of 100-200 MP3s, in the car. (When a disc is meant to play on a car stereo, on not-so-great speakers and competing with engine and road noise and the heater, high bitrates are kind of a waste. Even 128bps MP3s sound better than FM stereo.)

And yet, it still gets to feeling like we don't have enough choices. Part of that is how half of them we can't ever play. A lot are the complete works of a band, but that's usually too much of any one band for Siobhan to want to hear. Some are for moods that don't come up often. Some are collections of a genre, and those get played more, but even those sometimes feel like too much of a single thing. The two kinds of discs that get played most often are album-discs (which are around 8-12 albums on a disc), and glurp discs.

Usually I make a glurp disc by just using my MP3 software to make a random playlist of songs that both Siobhan and I like, and then burn as much of it as will fit. However, I just recently decided to make a new one and used a different approach. During January, I made a playlist of just the things I had added to my library in 2010. To my surprise, it was almost two CDs worth of MP3s, but that also included too much of a few things (some artists I'd added one or more albums of, while others I'd only added a song or two) so I decided to winnow it down to one disc, removing all but the best few songs from most of the artists, particularly artists of styles that either I didn't think Siobhan would like as much, or that I had too much of. I also did a lot more work hand-massaging the order of tracks: I started with a random order, but then moved things around to create better contrasts and spread out single artists more. I labelled the disc Glurp 2010.

It came out so good, so full of enjoyable music that feels fresh, with such a great variety of stuff, that I've listened to it as a playlist a few times in addition to mostly playing through it in the car, and enjoyed it each time. I wonder if, by 2012, the 2010 disc will be feeling too familiar, and if I'll have enough material for a new Glurp 2011 disc. I have a feeling that I've just started a new annual tradition.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Proverbs that go too far

A coworker has a sign up in her office that admonishes us to seize life. "Dance like no one is looking," it begins, and concludes, "Live each day as if it were your last."

Taking this literally is of course missing the point. If you knew today were literally your last day, it'd be a pretty joyless day, I bet. And you wouldn't be doing any of the things the person who penned the sign had in mind. But we all know what they really mean.

Almost all the proverbs that give us life advice are like this to varying extents. That is, they are all, all of them, simply wrong. They tell you to behave in a very unbalanced way that would be disastrous or misery-inducing. But they still have "a grain of truth" in them because, in a very simplistic, pithy way, they target one unbalanced way we tend to live, and try to nudge us away from it by citing the opposite, even-more-unbalanced attitude as a virtue.

That's why so many of these aphorisms have equal-but-opposite aphorisms. Look before you leap, but he who hesitates is lost. Many hands make light work, but too many cooks spoil the broth. Life is what you make it, but que sera, sera. The pen is mightier than the sword, yet actions speak louder than words. Each one is true because it's intended not to be taken literally, but rather, contrasted to when you're going too far the opposite way.

Ultimately almost every single one of them could be replaced with variations on the bromide "Moderation in all things". If there's a question of how to behave, it's because there's not a single obvious answer (when there is, the question never comes up), and when there's not a single obvious answer, it's because two (or more) extremes need to be struck a balance between. The right answer is always in the middle, yet virtually every proverb points at one end or the other. Because in ten catchy words or fewer, it's hard to point at a vague middle. All you can do is hope that your proverb will be cited at the right time.

Too bad most people don't realize this and cite each of these proverbs as if they actually were intended to be true. Sometimes they have the opposite of the intended effect, being used to justify the imbalanced behavior that their opposites are intended to curb. Just don't think about it too hard. Don't look too closely.

Monday, February 14, 2011

A new Android pad

It may seem odd that, after having mostly disappointing results with a cheap Android-based tablet, I would buy another Android-based tablet. That tablet turned out to be a little too unreliable, a little too slow, and based on software that's a little too out of date, to do that much. (However, I do have a great idea for a use for it. I'm going to mount it to the wall and run a copy of Rover on it to make it a home automation control panel.)

However, the key thing about this one is, I bought it for one and only one primary purpose: to replace my Archos as a means to watch video on the go. I tried the other tablet but the ancient version of Android on it does not really support video very well. Virtually every file I tried, even transcoded ones, wouldn't play -- it was either audio no video, or video no audio, or garbled noise, or refused to try. However, this new Android pad running a recent version does quite well at video. Everything I've tried works, and it's a great image, smooth video, good sound on the headphones (the built-in speakers suck of course but they're tinny tiny things), and it even has an HDMI output. Heck, it streams YouTube as good as my laptop.

So if it never does anything else worth doing, it's still a better video player than the Archos, at about the same price. Still, I'll probably play with doing other things on it. I've loaded a bunch of free software on it already: some utilities (a good scientific calculator, a stopwatch, and a sticky-note program), a few games, Internet clients for various things (IM, Facebook, MUDs, and Sharepoint), a dice roller, and a Kindle client (but this is way too heavy to replace a Kindle, besides having the wrong kind of screen). I also configured it for email, and synching with my calendar and contacts.

I also loaded Adobe's reader and have used it for the purpose I originally bought that earlier tablet: it's damned good at reading PDFs, and the 10" screen certainly helps as much as the better software. Even so, the monstrously overproduced Dresden books are only passable, not great. Other PDFs like Fiasco look wonderful and have great page turn speed and such. Adobe's Android reader is, I hear, not the best, and one day I might try some of the alternatives to see if I get better page turn speed and features.

Other things I like about it are that it has two MicroSD slots (so I can load 64G of removable stuff on it), two USB ports (so I can use my Matias Folding Keyboard with it, though I do need a stand for it),

There are still a few oddities. The gravity sensor is a little oversensitive sometimes, and if you turn it off, the device ends up stuck in landscape; you can't go to portrait and then turn it off, even if you're reading a PDF that should stay in that ratio. There's a front-facing camera, but no webcam-chat software (and the free Android version of Skype doesn't support the camera), so there's not really any use for it yet. (I suppose there's software out there that would remedy that, which I haven't bothered to get.) And it has GPS and even has an external antenna option, but since it has only WiFi, not 3G, and the only mapping software on it is Google Maps which depends on a wireless connection, it's kind of useless. The screen's size would be fantastic for a GPS computer, but anywhere you could use the GPS function, you would be away from the map data. Maybe someone sells an Android GPS program that doesn't depend on a network connection, but given how most Android devices are 3G, I don't know if anyone does.

But then I'm not intending this to be an iPad killer, even if I may end up using it for a lot of things I would use an iPad for (at half the price). Ultimately it turns out that I really don't have anywhere near enough use for an iPad to make it worth it to carry one, let alone buy one. What little use I do have, this can pretty much do all of that: multimedia player, PDF viewer, web browser, and Swiss-Army-knife computer. Which is pretty cool.

But how's this for a sacrilege: I wish there were an Internet Explorer for it, just because Sharepoint won't use anything else for a browser, and it would be really geekishly cool to be able to use it to get into my Sharepoint site. (Okay, okay, what I really need is for Sharepoint to support other browsers, but let's face it, that's not going to happen either. Pity.)

So once I finish another book or two, it's back onto my plan to watch all those movies I never saw but should have.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

The Warlords of Mars

I know there are more books in the Barsoom series, but the end of the third book, The Warlords of Mars, feels like a pretty solid ending. I have the feeling that later books are going to feel tacked on, the author having been pressured to write them to continue a popular story beyond its range.

As with the earlier books, A Princess of Mars and The Gods of Mars, the story depends almost entirely on two things: that John Carter is a complete idiot who doesn't recognize clues when they fall in his lap, and that Providence tends to arrange the most remarkable coincidences every page to cause clues to fall in his lap.

In this third book, both of these factors started to strain past the point of being endearing and into the point of being annoying. John seems to get dumber every book -- perhaps it's all the blows to the head. Yet Providence, not content ensuring every random turn he makes leads the right way, every random person he meets happens to be of vital importance to the world or a relative, and every random encounter he has happens to be with someone who's just on the first line of a speech full of vital information, now goes to such extremes as to take a part in virtually every paragraph in parts of the book. I feel like Burroughs himself is getting tired of it, since he makes fun of it in character at one point, with Carter himself noting how kind Providence is to him (and how this explains why he doesn't bother to try to make decisions).

I have heard they're making a movie (and apparently that is a process that's been going on since the 1930s, the longest any movie has ever spent in development), and I wonder how they can do it without making such huge rewrites that we don't recognize the story. I can't imagine a modern audience could tolerate a hero so bafflingly thick-headed and idiotic. There's a particular scene, where he fights for a half hour or so thinking someone important to him is behind him despite her voice having been suddenly silenced a while back, and an enemy having been spotted mere moments earlier behind a tapestry, and never does he glance back and notice she's gone. In the middle of that fight someone even comes out and laughs at him about it and he still doesn't think to glance over his shoulder. He's doing things like this all the time.

Despite this, the story that spans the second and third books is surprisingly solid. As I wrote about the second book, the author has found lots more about Barsoom to flesh out without feeling like it's forced, like he's just cramming in stuff that should have been evident in the first book but wasn't. By the end of the third book, however, he has pretty much put himself in that situation. There's still room in Barsoom for a handful more things, hidden places, unknown secrets, previously unmentioned details, but it'll very soon start to feel like the world is crowded, like some of these things should have come up earlier, or like he's just stretching things out too far. So further books will probably start to lose their wonder since there's not really any room for a lot more of Barsoom to discover. But this far, it all fits together.

Unlike Gods of Mars, this book doesn't get too far off onto grandiose epic battles; everything is very personal like it was in the first book even when it's also epic in other ways. In fact, the author stages a big climactic final battle and then contrives to ensure it happens off camera by letting our hero face just two other people while it's happening far away, in a very nicely framed contrast.

Burroughs actually alludes to the possibility that the "heroine" (I hate to call her that, since she spends all her time being a damsel in distress) might pick up a sword and help out at one point, and yet she never manages to so much as slap anyone. The best she manages is to struggle in her chains and thus make a burden of herself to the villains. I know it's a modern sensibility, but I think the book would be improved, without having to sacrifice any of its feel, if just once she'd gotten to be the one to fight someone off, or save John, even if only from one of those acts of Providence. Burroughs sets the idea up but then doesn't act on it.

This book also does a good job of tying up the loose ends. It ends like Burroughs wanted it to be the end, or at least was planning for it. I have decided, therefore, to go read other things for a while. I'll come back and try the fourth book, but if it goes how I imagine it might, I won't feel compelled to finish it. I might just decide that this was the end.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

What game system to use?

We talked a bit about my time travel via reincarnation campaign idea that Siobhan intends to run at the final session of our Committee for the Exploration of Mysteries game, but we didn't settle that many of the pending questions. One of those is the question of what system to use.

Arguably my two roleplaying game systems, RTC and Prism, occupy opposite ends of the spectrum between simple and complex (or what people usually mean when they say those things about RPGs). Probably neither of them is right for this game.

Prism is too cumbersome for a game where you're going to be redefining your skills in some ways every adventure. You could make it work but all that complexity wouldn't be buying you that much. Probably the best way would be to make it so you had some number of development points that were permanently spent for your "present day" character, and then a pool you could spend on top of those every time you started an adventure, for whatever is added by that particular life, but you wouldn't lose anything you already had. I think this could be made to work but it'd be a strain. First, any number of points for your flexible pool would be too much and not enough; it'd be too much since it'd make it too much work to prepare for an adventure, and not enough to reflect all of your past life's skills. Second, even using the character spreadsheet, it'd take too long. And you wouldn't gain enough from this for it to be worth it.

RTC might be too skimpy. It's one thing to use it in a fixed, well-understood setting like the real world, where we can assume that the GM and players will largely be on the same page about how difficult tasks are, or what outcomes to expect from an action, or what a person of a particular skill level would know. In that situation, the ambiguity and vagueness is no obstacle. But even assuming you were able to make some small adjustments between your present-day and past-life characters, the differences wouldn't really tell us what your past life knows about the religion of his native ancient Egypt, how to make barrels, the current state of various noble houses in Florence, which dialects of Demotic he can translate, or how comfortable he is with the Swiss pike. In the end you'd be too much the same each time.

One idea for how to address this is for me to make a tweaked version of RTC with a bit more detail thrown in. First, I'd increase the number of specializations you could have, and some would be redefined in each world. Thus, the amount of work you're doing at the start of each adventure is really nothing more than writing down a list of things your past life knows -- the same thing you'd be doing if you did this free-form, really. Second, I'd come up with some rules for a new flavor of token-spending similar to, but distinct from, plot twists. These tokens would represent as-yet-unspecified past life knowledge or resources; you'd get a bunch at the start of each adventure, and then spend them to "remember" that your character's past life knows something, or has something. Examples would be "Oh, I remember I learned how to tie that kind of knot when I was working for a sailor in the French Navy," or "I think I stashed a spare ingot of copper just like what we need behind the anvil in my forge," or "Actually, I recall the Duke owes me a favor because of that indiscretion of his daughter's that I kept to myself." You could make these up on the spot as you needed them, so they'd be like plot twists, but they'd always take the form of past-life backstory, not a present event; and you'd have a strictly limited number of them. In essence, half the "redefine your character" stuff would be something you'd put off and do in play.

The latter approach seems more promising, and I will probably spend a little time trying to write up those rules. However, it's possible the best approach is to use neither system and instead use one of the countless, and often very good, systems that already exist. I just need some ideas on what it would be -- and then, I'd need Siobhan and me to get familiar enough with it to do the game development and then play it. Anyone have suggestions?

Friday, February 11, 2011


Can God make a rock so heavy even He cannot lift it?

There are a lot of paradoxes and problems with the idea of an omnipotent god, but this isn't really one of them. It is an interesting question for various reasons; in particular, it is one way of considering the mathematical questions around the concept of infinity. But it's not really as much of a theological question as it sounds.

Consider this question instead. Could God make it so that nine was one more than five? Sure, God could make it so the word we use for the number one more than five was "nine", that's easy, but could he make it so that the concept we currently call "nine" was actually the number that's one more than five? If the answer is no, is that a limit on the "omni" part of "omnipotence"? Could God make it so if you added one to five you got a spicy cheese soup? Could God make colorless green ideas sleep furiously? Could God transform roundness, a property of objects, into a sofa?

When it comes down to it, the rock question is fundamentally the same as these kinds of paradoxes: the paradox is in the question, not the action. No sensible definition of the word "omnipotence" can ever pass that test if you allow questions that are innate contradictions.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Wearing hats indoors

If I don't wear a hat, especially (but not exclusively) during the winter, I get headaches. It was mostly a coincidence that let me discover that the periodic headaches I often got went away when I wore a hat. Sometimes, I wonder, of all the people I know who get headaches, how many of them even tried a hat? Did a doctor ever suggest it as a treatment? Maybe there's lots of people with this "odd" circumstance who never find out relief is that easy.

Long ago, wearing a hat was the normal way of things. After all, the world was cold. Houses were typically heated with a single source of heat, a stove or fireplace, and the farther from it you were, the more cold you had to deal with. Clothes were the first and best protection. We lose a fair amount of heat from the head, and so a hat was as essential as any other garment. Yes, people wore hats indoors.

But rich people, the aristocracy, sometimes were able to afford so much luxury that they could heat every room in their houses. As with so many other things rich people did, not wearing a hat was a ridiculously impractical thing that they took up as a means of flaunting their wealth. I'm so rich I can be warm without a hat! Soon everyone else who was rich had to do it, too. Amongst the wealthy, not wearing a hat became a status symbol. But when they went outdoors, it was still cold, so the social protocol became that you wore hats only outdoors.

So many of these dumb bits of intentional impracticality end up filtering down to everyone else by becoming "a matter of courtesy", and not wearing hats indoors is a perfect example. As progress brought us to where everyone could keep their homes heated better and better, more and more people adopted the habits of those wealthier than them, as a status symbol again; and the "don't wear hats indoors" rule became widespread. Ask someone who believes in it why you don't wear hats indoors and they will invariably have no better answer than "just because that's how it's done!" but this is really where it comes from.

For the first time in a thousand years, we are finally in a position to look back on what peasants used to do and ask ourselves, did that make more sense? In particular, we are realizing that even if our industry and standard of living can have us all living literally like princes (the average middle-class American lives far better than a medieval prince did, by almost any standard you choose), our impact on the environment can't sustain it. We don't want to start living the "nasty, brutish, and short" lives of a serf, sure, but we're just starting to also reject some of the more impractical things that we got from the aristocrats. Maybe we should be thinking more about, instead of keeping our houses at 75°F all winter so we can dress like it's summer, maybe we should be letting the house get down to 65°F (still well warmer than the winter temperature of the house of anyone other than a rich person, any time before central heating) and putting on a sweater.

And a hat, maybe. A hat probably will do more than a sweater to make you feel warmer in a chilly house. Maybe it's time we put that rule about hats indoors back into the dustbin of history where it came from.

(But maybe not tophats. Those are just silly.)

Wednesday, February 09, 2011

Culture's virtuous and vicious circles

One of my character's jobs in Lusternia is being the Minister of Cultural Affairs for Serenwilde. This is the vaguest of all the ministry positions: there are almost no actually coded things that the minister has authority over, and the largest part of the job is about things that aren't officially supported. We get access to the commands to run our arena, and a command to submit theatrical productions for competition, and that's it. But it's taken as written that the ministry is also in charge of anything else that falls within the rubric of culture: festivals, rituals, contests, treasure hunts, fairs, etc.

These kinds of things are far more demanding and exhausting than people realize, since we have to do them ourselves with essentially no assistance from the code. However, they can be very rewarding. But it's always a challenge to get people interested. Lusternia is brimming over with other things you can be doing with your time, and most of them involve some measurable reward: gold, experience, and credits being the most notable. Plus there's plenty of ways that other people can decide what you're doing with your time -- for instance, by raiding. For most of Lusternia, raiding is an occasional interruption which is exhilirating and thus worth the interruption; however, if you happen to be currently on the bottom of the totem pole, and thus the game's whipping boy, those raids are both frequent and dispiriting.

And Serenwilde has been at the bottom now for two full years, fully 1/3 of the game's history, far longer than anyone else has ever been at the bottom. This has had a lot of effects, but the only one I want to talk about today is how it's eroded cultural activity, and what I think we need to do about it.

In its heyday, Serenwilde, as the leading beacon of culture in the game, had a virtuous circle going on. Every cultural activity tended to reinforce the next one, and in three different ways.
  • If you are a culture aide planning a festival, you're going to be doing tons more work than anyone realizes, enough to easily burn out your motivation to do more. However, all that gets turned around the moment the festival is a success, the moment people show up and seem to enjoy it. (If someone thinks to say 'thank you', a rare event, that's doubly so.) Every success makes aides more involved, more enthused, more likely to make more events, more interested in participating in the events others set up.
  • The people of the commune get used to the idea that events can be fun and interesting, and that in part depends on them being attended -- many events only work if there's enough people participating. If they show up and have fun, they are likely to show up to the next one, and tell their friends.
  • If you're the kind of player who likes this sort of thing, you'll be likely to move your character to Serenwilde, or create one there and then spend time on it, because that's where the good stuff is happening. That means there'll be even more people producing and participating in culture.
For all that, though, once things get worn down you get the opposite, a vicious circle. The key point here is that every time you try to produce something and its participation is very low, or it doesn't happen, this reinforces the things that make it unlikely the next one will work.
  • The aides who are trying to create events get discouraged very very easily when no one bothers to show up after they poured hours of work and creativity into it. They probably won't try again, and might not even attend other events.
  • It seems trivial but it's actually huge and pervasive: if people go to an event and find it doesn't end up happening or is dull due to lack of people, they're that much less likely to go to the next one, and they'll spread that attitude to others. This one is slippery because if you ask people about it they don't realize this in their own thoughts. Many people don't think of themselves as the type to be into culture but will still show up and participate and surprise themselves by having fun -- but only if everything's working perfectly. Others don't realize how much of an impact this attitude has on them, and fail to consider how many other things are available for them to spend their time on, and how thoroughly they can become jaded about culture.
  • The longer Serenwilde is on the bottom, the more people find they're just not having fun, and think about doing something else. Those people who are into culture will end up making another character in some other nation where culture thrives (currently Hallifax), or just stop playing so much, or have their character leave Serenwilde. Thus eroding culture in Serenwilde in a way that is especially hard to recover from.

Those whose experience has been in the virtuous circle phase tend to give very pat and patronizingly simplistic answers to how to get culture moving. Just host more events. Get your aides to work harder. Offer prizes. Ask people what kind of events they want.

These are all good advice (if a bit obvious) when you're in the virtuous circle phase, and since they're all you need, people might get the idea that anyone who's dismissive of that solution is just making things too difficult. But what works when you're in a self-sustaining cycle, to keep that cycle from ebbing, is not going to work when you're in a self-destroying cycle.

Prizes don't work because the kind of person who's motivated by those things will generally find they have a lot of better ways of getting them quicker. Also, many people assume anything with a prize (generally a contest) will have other people who are more likely to win than them, so don't bother to enter.

And if you ask people what would get them to events, the answers you get are essentially useless. If you give people what they say they want, they don't come. I made this mistake for a long time. The simple fact is that the thing most likely to bring someone to a festival is not the festival itself, it's all their friends that are also going to it. Even combat-monsters go to, and enjoy, festivals when all their friends are going. And even culture-mavens don't bother to go if they have the pernicious feeling that it's not going to happen anyway.

So how do you turn the vicious circle virtuous again? I wish I had a definite answer. But I do have a plan, with two main parts.

1) Avoid big events: they just add to the general sense that these things never work out or aren't well attended enough to be fun, so they just do more and more damage. Instead, have lots of very small events which are designed specifically around one key detail: that they should work fine even if only two people participate.

The hope is that, once you run one of these, everyone involved -- even if that's only the organizer and two participants -- comes away feeling very slightly more positive about culture, and very slightly more likely to be part of future events. It's a very fragile advance. Every step forward like this can easily be undone by any failures; a single big event that fails to go off could reverse the progress of a dozen previous small events. We might have to go back to the start a number of times. But it has a chance of slowly, gradually, reversing the vicious circle. If we can pull off two-people events enough to start seeing four-people events, we can set the stage for eight-people events. Like any feedback loop, it starts with tiny gains on tiny amounts, but if you get far enough, exponential growth starts to run away on you.

2) To try to make that process go faster and be less likely to slip backwards, we can take advantage of a peculiar fact of Lusternia (and probably most MUDs): the "celebrity power" of the gods/administrators. People always react with denial to this idea, but it nevertheless is easily observed: if a player announces a treasure hunt, and then a god announces a treasure hunt, the latter will automatically get at least four times as much interest even if nothing else is different.

Why? Some of it is just the assumption that the gods can do what mortals can't do -- make things part of big world-shaking events (the kind of stuff that gets you in the Events posts and thus "famous" if you're involved), that they can make things where there's real coded effects and thus a smoother process, that the rewards could be greater, and many other things. But the biggest part is really just star power. They're exotic and interesting, rarely seen and obviously important. I'm just some shlub that's run a dozen festivals before.

I can't ask for one of the gods to actually create events for me, or even to offer support for an event, by coding something to make it work better. (At times I've tried, and always been denied, even when I bend over backwards to make sure that what I'm asking for will demand as little as possible from those poor overworked gods, and produce as much value as possible for the investment. On the other hand, New Celest is currently getting more support for their festivals than we've ever gotten in all ours put together, including some they didn't even ask for. Astonishgly and unprecedentedly, their most recent festival even got tied into an ongoing game-wide Event, and rolled into the Events post that resulted from it -- something that is causing everyone else, already envious of Celest having three over-active gods when most of us have at best one barely-active one, is practically aching with envy.)

But I can ask a god to offer tiny bits of support that will produce small, but still measurable, amounts of celebrity power. This is not a necessary element of my plan; the appearance of Lord Hoaracle in an event isn't going to make an event out of nothing. What it is is a force multiplier: it makes whatever I'm already doing significantly more impactful. (If he actually ran an event like what Celest had added onto its festival, that'd be a huge multiplier, but even having a cameo role in a small event would be notably helpful, I think.)

So as Serenwilde's culture minister I have documented this plan over the last few weeks, talked to my aides about it, even recruited new aides for it. I also talked to Serenwilde's only active god, Lord Hoaracle, and gotten his support for the celebrity power part of it, despite this running somewhat counter to his personality as a meditative recluse.

Unfortunately, none of it is going to happen. Because despite the fact that I was also talking to the Moonhart Circle, Serenwilde's ruling body, about it all along, while I was setting it up (with their implied consent) they were actually split between those who had very, very different ideas, and those who couldn't care less and still haven't bothered to speak up about any of it. It turns out that the only source I need or could hope to get for support, apart from Hoaracle, either offers no support or active opposition.

The most visible example is a festival plan I was handed in the form of an executive order: implement this. It was a perfect study in what I think we should not be doing: it's like every festival wrapped up in one monolithic overblown mass. It would tank and burn badly. Worse yet, the attitude reflected was that the Minister of Cultural Affairs is not in charge of setting a direction for culture and carrying it out; he is a mere functionary whose job is to do the "trivial" work of actually preparing and executing events. (Similar to those who are always contacting famous authors with ideas for books and expecting to get 50% of the credit and money, as if the idea is the hard part and the mere act of writing the book is comparatively trivial.) This plan was effectively withdrawn immediately, and apologies tendered, but they all missed the point: that this reflects a fundamental difference in what they think my job is, and what job I want to do.

Since I don't want to do the job they are expecting of me, I'm resigning, but with plans to take the job up again after there's been changes in the administration and we're back to a point where they're looking for the same from a Culture Minister as I want to give. To force myself into being what they want now would just burn me out and exhaust me. To waste my energy fighting with them to get them to see what I'm trying to do, and to elicit a reaction from the 2/3 of them that didn't even answer at all, would also drain me.

So my ideas will either be picked up by my successor, or more likely, forgotten until I get to try again. Or maybe if I'm really lucky, forces outside our control will change things and Serenwilde will be alive and vibrant again by time I take the job, and it'll be my turn to be glib about how easy it is to just go out and make events and people will show up.

Tuesday, February 08, 2011

Sexual orientation as a personal identifier

Several of my friends are gay, and none of my friends, to the best of my knowledge, has the tiniest smidgen of homophobia (I doubt they'd be friends for long if they did). Like anyone else, I have friends that don't know other friends of mine that well (in spite of all the social networking). Sometimes I find myself giving one friend the bullet-point summary of another friend, and when this happens, I'm never sure whether "gay" should be one of the bullet points.

Generally if I know that someone's gay it's because they are definitely "out" about it. I'm not discerning enough to tell any other way. So the fact that I know means that it's someone who isn't trying to keep it a secret. (Sure, they might not mention it in every job interview, but they don't keep it secret generally.) So it's not a question of giving anything away.

It's just that, suppose I tell my friend Able that my other friend Baker is gay, as part of a short list of basic stats (he's male, about my age, lives on the West Coast, works in healthcare) (note, all this is made up!), am I highlighting it too much? Does it sound like I'm mentioning it because it's a bigger part of defining who Baker is than it ought to be?

After all, there are certainly a lot of ways in which it doesn't matter. I don't expect it to change how Able feels about Baker. And yet it almost seems like saying it is making it out as being important enough to mention, and thus making it out like Able's opinion of Baker ought to be affected by it.

It seems clear to me that fifty years from now, mentioning that Baker is gay will be precisely as ordinary and unladen with importance as mentioning that he's male is now. But I wonder if we're not there yet. If one group is treated badly, we have to go through a period where the pendulum swings the other way before we can get to the proper balance. Bill Cosby once made this point about the kind of roles black actors got. They were always villains or idiots, then for a while, they had to be always good and sympathetic characters, and Bill suggested that equality would be evident when black actors could play the villains again. His point: eventually, it won't matter what color your skin is, what role you play, because black people are just the same as white people in terms of whether you can be a hero or a villain. But to get there, for a while, we had to make up for centuries of insensitivity with a few decades of oversensitivity before we could find the happy medium. So too might it be with gayness: in some ways, in terms of cultural acceptance, being gay is somewhat similar now to where being black was in the 1970s, and it may be a while before being gay is really so much no big deal that we can just toss it off like it's nothing.

As always, I probably am overthinking it. But these kinds of issues are tricky and it's easy to be doing the wrong thing, for the long-term goal, because of not thinking about the tiniest little behaviors.

Monday, February 07, 2011

Burning the wood I cut

The load of wood I just brought in this week is all wood that I cut. Some of it, in fact, is wood from the first year I was cutting my own, including parts from that incredibly dense tree that killed one chainsaw and almost killed another back in 2008. That tree sat for more than a year before it had dried enough that I could split it, so it's only now finally worked its way up to where I'm burning it.

And boy, was I right, it's some incredible wood. The pieces are so big and dense, one of them burns for hours. But it's dried so long that they aren't even that hard to get started up. What we've been burning this year is mostly rock maple that we bought, and that's good wood, it lasts a good long time, but it's nothing compared to these wedges.

Of course they're also cut a lot more unevenly, at different lengths, not always split as far, and a lot bigger pieces with jagged shapes. They're hard to stack and sometimes hard to fit into the woodstove.

So, like I wrote once before, there's that subtle satisfaction of knowing that the wood that's keeping me warm now is wood I brought in myself. (This particular tree is probably the same age as me, so I'm being kept warm by the same sunlight that has been with me my whole life, too.) But unlike last time I wrote about this, this time, not only is it nice to be burning my own wood on an emotional level, it's also really, really good wood.

Sunday, February 06, 2011


I wasn't sure if I should blog about this. One person suggested it's a security risk, but I doubt that, for reasons that will become clear by the end of the post.

In December, Siobhan's grandfather died at the age of 93. We went down there for the funeral on short notice. We hadn't even given a moment's thought to the idea of an inheritance. First, it didn't occur to me that there would be an estate of any size; most people these days have fairly little, or at most they have the house, which takes a while to sell. Second, and more compellingly, he had three surviving children, so it seemed logical that they'd get whatever there was. I didn't even go through these thoughts in my head, consciously. The idea of an inheritance just never came to my mind.

But it turns out, to our surprise, that there was one. His will stipulated that the estate was to be divided amongst his four children, and if one of them predeceased him, their share would propogate to their children. We've been sitting on this news ever since to make sure it was real, that it wouldn't turn out to be a mistake or nothing or caught up in some legal tangle.

As soon as we heard, before we even knew the amount, mere minutes later, we decided to share some of this windfall. The idea is simple: we weren't expecting it, weren't counting on it. If you find $20 on the sidewalk, if you give $10 to someone else, you are still up $10 you weren't expecting. So why not share?

The other thing you do with found money is, you take a certain amount of it, a small amount, and you set it aside for doing something frivolous and fun. If you try to be responsible with all of it, you either end up unhappy you never get to be whimsical, or more likely, you end up being whimsical with money somewhere else and the amount ends up being more.

So we decided to take the amount and subtract whatever is needed to cover taxes and other administrative costs. What's left we would divide up into our half and everyone else's half. Our half will be mostly used to pay down debts and the mortgage and maybe do some stuff around the house, all responsible things. (Maybe we'll use some to put in some fencing to give Socks more room to run, for instance.)

The other half, we'll be sharing on to give others some windfalls too. Some of our friends who have been there for us are on the top of the list. That includes a few who have had financial troubles in the past, but that's not why -- we're not looking to be a charity. It's just because they're people we're very close with, and with whom we'd like to share our good fortune. It's just like how you've always said, if you won the lottery, of course you'd buy some things for your friends. Well, this isn't exactly a mega-millions, but the logic still applies. And some of it will, in fact, go to charities. We haven't decided which yet, but we're fairly sure the local food shelves will be prominently placed.

So the reason why I don't think posting this is going to make someone decide to rob us is that this money isn't going to be sitting in a box in the bedroom. As soon as it comes in, it's going right back out, to pay off various things and to be given to various people. I was more worried someone might be upset that they're not on our list of recipients. If that's you, it's not that we don't care, it's just that we decided better to give a few people enough to make a big difference (for instance, for one person, it's paying for a surgery he's needed) than to give a lot of people small amounts that would just be a little extra pocket money.

Saturday, February 05, 2011

The recycle bin

Operating systems were using a Trashcan as the visual metaphor for where deleted documents go for years, since it was the obvious metaphor to use. Even before GUIs the word trash often appeared in the relevant command or directory names. And at first Windows stole the Trashcan from Mac (the same way Mac had stolen it from Xerox) though it wasn't very prominent or integrated. But Windows 95 introduced the Recycle Bin. By now we all take it for granted, but really, that was a brilliantly better metaphor, for several reasons.

First, and maybe only geeks like me would even notice this, it's far more accurate. Stuff that goes into a trash can goes to a landfill is gone. But when you delete a file, every resource that made it up is made available, immediately, for making new files. It really is a lot more like recycling, and perfect recycling at that.

Second, the image of rooting around in the trash to find that thing you just realized you shouldn't've tossed away was always a bit unsavory. Sure, a Mac's trashcan is blessedly free of coffee grounds and rotting banana peels, but while a sterile window of documents is not a negative, it does limit how far they can develop the metaphor without being circumspect to avoid awakening connotations that might be negative and bad marketing. But in the modern workplace, the recycle bin is not only just as ubiquitous, it's far more palatable to imagine digging into. Heck, I've done it plenty of times, but I don't think I've ever needed a discarded document enough to root through an actual trashcan for it.

Finally, imagine how everyone would feel about it if Windows had the trashcan, and had had it for ages, but Apple had the recycle bin. Apple is young, hip, modern, and urbane, and thinks outside the box; Windows is stodgy and old-fashioned. If it were the other way around, the recycle bin would just be another example of how Apple is more in touch with modern sensibilities. But since it ended up the other way around, no one really thinks of it that way. In the end, Microsoft scored a coup there if only by preventing Apple from grabbing that particular marketing-possible image.

This probably all sounds kind of petty. But seemingly trivial differences of imagery like this often prove vital and important beyond their apparent significance in both the fields of marketing, and user interface design. Microsoft never gets credit for the few times they do it right.