Friday, 28 February 2014

A Stranger

"Wow, that was incredible."  Holly could hardly believe that she and the man who would only call himself 'The Stranger' had saved the world from war in a far-flung future by exposing a government minister's plot to pin a string of atrocities of his own devising on artificial intelligence rights activists.

Thursday, 27 February 2014

Career Planning

I sat through a presentation on career planning today as part of a work event.  The presenter got me angry pretty early by suggesting that it was refreshing that members of the generation just entering the workforce consistently rated "Making enough money to meet their needs" as a major career goal.  She didn't seem to get that for those who face a combination of high unemployment, chronic underemployment and crushing student debts merely meeting their needs may be the most they can hope for.

She said some other things to get me angry, but I really lost it when she said that for interview preparation you had to be confident because no one would hire someone who wasn't confident in an interview.  If she had said, "No one would hire someone from a culture where appearing confident in front of superiors would be thought of as rude," or "No one would hire someone with an autism spectrum disorder" I imagine the crowd would have reacted differently.  Her statement was very close to true, but to hear that idea championed rather than lamented by a Human Resources professional who works in the public sector is distressing.

I think it's likely her employer would not make hiring decisions based on race or sexual orientation, but her comment showed the reality of the commitment employers have to "diversity."  Diversity is a good-feeling phrase for HR and management to convince themselves they are doing the right thing, people who are actually different from their notion of what people are supposed to be like should stay home.

T-shirt with a cartoon running man and the words, "Haters gonna make some good points"At the end she mentioned that you should surround yourself with positive people because negativity catches.  I'm sure she has lots of evidence to back this up - the successful people she knows are mostly positive people and all those jobless people, homeless people, people who can't pay their mortgages, people who's kids get cancer... they're all so negative!

Other than a lesson is how stupid confirmation bias can make an otherwise seemingly intelligent person, I don't think I learned much.  Maybe if she was willing to spend time with some negative people now and then one of them would point this out.

Wednesday, 26 February 2014

Do You Realize?

So despite the fact that I am a fat, stupid, lazy loser, I have a toddler.  The toddler is actually my own daughter and I am responsible for her health and safety.  She loves me and depends on me.


Tuesday, 25 February 2014

Other People are People

The Stanford Marshmallow Experiment is a little bit famous.  Children were given a marshmallow but told they could have a second if they waited 15 minutes to eat it.  The children were followed through a substantial part of their lives and many positive correlates were found with not eating the marshmallow.  The experimenters concluded that this showed the power of self-control and the ability to delay gratification.

Now, as it turns out, there are different reasons why you might eat a marshmallow quickly rather than wait for a second.  The chief of these reasons is that you don't think the second is actually coming.  A much more recent experiment found that if children are allowed to spend time with researchers in advance of a marshmallow trial the children who are given clues that the experimenter is reliable wait, on average, four times as long as those who are given indications that the experimenter is unreliable.  If it were about impulse control then the opinion of the experimenter should make very little difference.  Interestingly, the scientist who led the original marshmallow experiment had conducted research himself to show that belief in the reliability of the experimenter was a significant factor in children's ability to delay gratification for a reward, but he did not control for this in the longitudinal experiment.

So the flaw in the experiment is not anything to do with the setup or error in the results, it is with the interpretation of the results.  Children who do not wait for a second marshmallow have remarkably worse results on the whole - this is true.  The important thing that was missed is that it is children who do not wait, not children who cannot wait.  "Do not" is a fact, "cannot" is an unsubstantiated inference.

The idea that this has to do with self-control rather than with credulousness basically comes from the idea that the children being experimented on are boxes that the experimenters are pushing buttons on rather than people.  The idea that the children might be making good choices based on the evidence available to them doesn't usually enter the discussion.

No doubt we have learned a lot about people by putting them in rooms and giving them little tests.  But we have to be very careful in extrapolating the results of those little tests into a wider environment.  There's a classic experiment conducted on every Psych 101 student where a list of words is read out that includes many words relating to sleep or spiders or some other subject but does not contain the word "sleep" or "spider" or whatever.  When asked to list as many words as they can, many people will include that missing word.  Is this a profound insight into how our memory works or a profound insight into how we learned to be successful in school?  Has anyone conducted this experiment on a culture where a high value is placed on memorizing oral histories?

Other people are people, it turns out, even the little ones.  If we were so simple that would be explained and predicted by simple rules then there would already be fungi that grew on our brains and rewired us to get ourselves eaten by wolves so it could reproduce in their guts.

Monday, 24 February 2014

Dentistry and People

I had to get a filling removed and redone today.  Apparently there was a tiny cavity directly next to the filling, so they take it all out and put it back in.

Some days I'm okay with stuff like that and other days I'm not so good.  My neck was uncomfortable and my jaw was uncomfortable, but when the dentist asked me if I was okay - when he saw that my face had gone white and worried that I was going to pass out - I didn't bother to explain that it wasn't the needles or the drills or the constant threat that I might feel a sudden excruciating pain.  It was just him.

If you think about the feeling of having a really bad bruise and having someone apply pressure to it, that's the kind of experience I have when people talk to me.  Not every day, a lot of days it's fine.  And even on a bad day I can engage myself in the conversation and the affect that I am being doesn't feel the pain of talking.  But sometimes it's just awful.

So when the dentist asked me if I was okay, I didn't explain that him asking me if I was okay was so much worse than anything else he was or could be doing.  Explaining would have just meant more talking.

Friday, 21 February 2014

Getting Better

Our Darker Purposes has interesting advancement.  While playing you progress by finding items that make you better and by killing enemies to get experience to go up levels which gives you a choice of two different bonuses.

Once you die - or win - you can spend credits you earned while playing to either donate to the counselor to give you a fixed set of bonuses or by paying tuition for classes that give a variety of often game-altering bonuses.

There are a lot of real choices to make.  Which level bonus is better, which item is better and which classes are better all depend on which level bonuses, items and classes you already have.  At the same time, with a few exceptions, I don't think you can go all that wrong by just taking stuff when it comes to levels.

But there are two other ways you get better that are a little more hidden.  First of all, every time you win a chapter a new set of items are added to the item pool that are more powerful than the previous ones.  Now instead of finding a 10% crit item you can find a 15% one.  You can also find both and they stack, but the important thing is that on average the items you find are just better.  This helps because instead of having to win four floors to beat chapter one, you need to beat eight to win chapter two, topped with a harder set of bosses.

The final way that you get better is by getting better.  Practice!

I alluded this in my first post about the game.  The bosses in this game have fairly predictable patterns that you can learn, so playing against them over and over makes them much, much easier.  Learning about the different bonuses and items you can get helps you plan your game out better.

But mostly this is just like playing old arcade games like Golden Axe or Ninja Gaiden except it won't let you pour in your quarters.  Your first game you don't make it far.  Then you make it further, and then further still.  If you keep starting again from the beginning then eventually you are actually good at the game and you can win.

Games don't really do that to you very often these days.  And by not forcing you to start from the beginning again and again, they rob you of the chance to actually get good at them.

Wednesday, 19 February 2014

Homicidal Ideation (and behaviour)

Men get killed a lot more than women do.  It's actually a pretty big difference.  Statistics Canada gave me numbers going back to 1982, and the murder rate for men - measured in murder victims per 100,000 people - was consistently about 1.5 higher than the murder rate for women.  The fact that men are killed so much more than women won't surprise anyone who is paying attention, what surprised me was that the difference between the two murder rates seemed relatively constant, rather than fluctuating with the murder rates themselves.

I'll explain what I mean.  I would think that there would be a relatively predictable ratio between the murder rates of men and women.  Say, over time, men get killed about twice as often.  If the overall murder rate went down, I would think that both the male victims and female victims would go down and the ratio would stay about the same.  Instead, the difference between the two has remained pretty close to 1.5 and the ratio between them has gone up and up from 1.8 to 2.5.

If it were simply that, all other things being equal, people today were murdering each other about 60% of the the amount that they were in 1982 then we should see a steady ratio rather than a steady difference between the murder rates of any two groups.  That we can find a group where murders went down much more sharply than another suggests there is a difference between these two groups.  This also appears to be more than chance.  If 1982 were the prototype for the ratio of men to women killed then all three of the last three years would be a 1 in 100 year level event.

So the rate at which the murder of men has fallen has not kept pace with the rate at which the murder of women has fallen.  This is certainly due to a huge number of factors pushing murder rates both up and down, so it would be silly to try to speculate about the why.

But when I look at these data, this is how it looks to me: The murder rate in Canada would have fallen by about half between 1982 and 2012 were it not for a small number of men - about one in every 230,000 - who are stubbornly getting themselves murdered every year.  It's a very small proportion of the population, but a significant proportion of the murder rate.  In fact, about 13% of murders are accounted for by the obstinance of these men.  In a city like Toronto it might amount to seven or eight people in a year.  Seven or eight dead men who would have lived had they not been so intractable on the issue of being murdered.

Is that a joke?

I learned something else from murder statistics.  In 1997 Statistics Canada started tracking how many intimate-partner murders were committed in same-sex couples.  For the first few years it goes up and down pretty wildly, but in more recent years it's settled on between about 3.5 and 5 percent.  There are many reasons why people struggle with the idea of trying to say what portion of the population is gay.  There are questions of how you define gay, where you slot in bisexual people and people who don't even think of themselves as having a particular sexual orientation.  In university people bandied the number 1 in 10 around but it was entirely fabricated.  In the 1950s a survey showed that nearly 50% of people had some kind of sexual contact with people of their own sex, but that was coming out of the situational homosexuality of world war II.  There are so many confounding factors.  But here, I think, we have a fact-based number we can use for many purposes.  Murder is, presumably, a good proxy for love.

Monday, 17 February 2014

Our Darker Purpose

I'm far more interested in playing as Cordy
than as Isaac
I bought Our Darker Purpose, a very new game, on steam.  I noticed it because of the name and the art style.  I took at a look at it and it looked a lot like the Binding of Isaac, which was a game I think I would have played a lot of if I didn't detest the art style from it.

I was a little concerned that because the game described itself as difficult that it might be too difficult for me.  I'm not a I Wanna Be The Guy-alike player and I'm not really into super difficult games.  My next move was to see if anyone was streaming it.  Two people with a total of five viewers were, and neither appeared to be actually playing the game when I looked.  On YouTube I found a guy who was putting up videos of him playing it.

The guy playing it on YouTube talked about it being hard, and significantly harder than Isaac, which it sounded like he had played extensively.  There are buyable power-ups between playthroughs like Rogue Legacy, though, so he speculated it might only be really hard at the beginning until you start buying things.  In particular he talked about the bosses being challenging, but they looked like they had pretty predictable patterns to me.

Anyway, I decided to buy it and I gave it a whirl.  If anyone is thinking of trying it, I want to say, it is not that hard.  It's not that it's easy, it's just kind of like playing old video games.  You know, games that are hard and that you have to practice quite a few times to get good at before you can beat them.  I've played 28 hours now, and I've made it to the boss of the third chapter of four.  I got him pretty low on health too, though I wouldn't say I was close to winning.  But I learned his mechanics so I have a leg up the next time I get there.

It's strange how the idea of "hard" has turned into "you'll have to practice a bit."  Then again, maybe it's just that I'm very good at things, especially at learning enemy patterns.  Normally I would say I'm not good at games like this because my ability to duck through bullet hells is under-developed at best.  But this game isn't overly bullet hellish and moves at a pretty thoughtful pace.

Anyway, at 28 hours played for a game I bought on Friday night - admittedly at least a few of those hours were on pause while I went to the grocery store - I obviously like this a fair bit.  I'm not sure if the shine will come off quickly as I run out of things to unlock, but I don't regret buying it.

Thursday, 13 February 2014

Suicidal Ideation

"Suicidal Ideation" is, unsurprisingly, a term for thinking about suicide.  More specifically thinking about the possibility of yourself committing suicide, I suppose.  That's different than wanting to kill yourself or making a plan to kill yourself.

If you were to know that a person of my age and gender was going to die this year and were required to place a bet on how it would happen, it turns out that the best guess is either suicide or accident.  That depends on whether you lump every kind of accident that a person can have together into one giant category or not.  If you do then that's about 33% more likely than suicide, but if you break it down in some way - for instance if you divide accidents into vehicular accidents and non-vehicular accidents - then suicide goes over the top.  Of course one could argue that you could also break down suicide in some way as well, or you could lump all disease together as one thing too.  But the reality is that the way we actually keep statistics these days puts suicide at one or two, since vehicular and non-vehicular is a very typical breakdown.

Most of us recognize that a car accident is possible.  Even if we regard ourselves highly as drivers some drunk person could still plow right into us.  Most of us recognize we could be hit by lightning or murdered by a stranger for no reason or get a rare aggressive cancer.

Very few people think to themselves, "Maybe one day I'll just up and kill myself."  I mean, plenty of people think that.  Those are the people with suicidal ideation.  But for people who don't think about killing themselves as a possible solution to their problems, they don't usually put killing themselves in with having a piano fall on their head as things that could happen to them.  After all, they imagine that were they in a situation where killing themself was a possibility, they could simply not do it.

I have to imagine that people with a history of suicidal ideation are far more likely to kill themselves than people who don't, so it may be reasonable for people who don't have that history to think of that as unlikely.  Still, it seems far fetched to me that it is eaten-by-a-shark unlikely.

The idea that we actually decide what we do, that we can meaningfully say today that we will not do something a month from now, even something that feels antithetical to our ideas of ourselves, is a silly idea.  There are lots of adults with no history of depression who suddenly have a major depressive episode lasting several months out there  There are plenty of people who don't realize they have a gambling problem until they lose their life savings and their house and their family.  There are plenty of people who don't realize that their spouses are about to leave them or they are about to lose their jobs.

Of course another thing about my demographic is that I'm very likely to survive the year.  Threat of suicide, accident, sinkhole and zombie attack don't combine to a huge number.  But I know that we don't know ourselves or our circumstances, and death by our own hands is another thing that can happen to us.

Wednesday, 12 February 2014

8 PM or 1 AM

Recently I've been going to bed either at eight in the evening or one in the morning.  On one hand, there is no reason to be doing anything, so I might as well just go to sleep as soon as I'm no longer required to be working or parenting.  On the other hand, the things that I have to do are intolerable, so I want to put them off as long as possible, and going to bed is liking making it morning right away, so there is an argument for staying up as long as I can possibly manage.just to delay the inevitable.

The thing is, either way I can hardly stay awake at work during the day.  The sleepiness takes on a different texture.  In one case it's this sort of creeping lethargy that as soon as I stop moving it's just hard to get up the will to start again.  In the other case it's an assault of sleep attacks where the muscles around my eyes stop obeying my command and I have dreams that merge with my waking awareness of my environment.

Neither of those things are all that unpleasant, and when there is actually a reason for me to be at my job I seem to manage to get things done.  I've been keeping a spreadsheet of all of the stupid screw-ups I make at work and so far all of them have been emotional or just plain stupidity, none have been didn't-get-it-done-because-I-fell-asleep.

I wonder if I wouldn't be quite so tired if I aimed for about nine hours a night, but I suspect that right now how tired I am doesn't have a lot to do with sleep.  Well, except when I'm not sleeping - then I assume it has a lot to do with sleep.

Wednesday, 5 February 2014


I started my stealth Skyrim game.  I figured I might as well also murder people while I'm at it.  So far a mean woman who ran an orphanage and a man who took a rude tone with me have dropped, but now I'm in the assassin's guild so I'm getting contracts and everything.

There is a trend in games towards the more simple and streamlined.  In the reimagining of XCOM they decided that rather than giving you an action point system where you could potentially combine a large number of actions into a single turn, they would give a simple move and attack system.  They reduced the squad size too.

Contemporary RPGs have long since done away with sprawling puzzle-dungeons of ludicrous size in favour of essentially linear dungeons with short side paths to find extra treasure chests.  First person shooter levels, for all of their bells and whistles, have nothing on the complexity of Doom 2.

And I don't like any of that.  I like games with very deep systems that you delve into.  I like dungeons that you have to actually explore more than dungeons that you just walk through.  I like games you can break and stomp all over and that you can make bad choices in to make things hard for yourself.

With Skyrim I feel like Bethesda showed that simplifying can be done right.  The systems are nowhere near as complicated as Oblivion, but there are still tons of paths to take and choices to make.  Dungeons are essentially linear but they use art and atmosphere to give the feeling of exploration.  Skyrim has had some of the most exciting dungeons I've seen in any game.  There are no more custom spells, but that was absurd and trivial to break.  There are no more stats, but stats were just an opaque boost to the power of skills that weren't interesting to increase themselves except when stats were being a harsh punishment for not leveling the right way.

All the simplifications seems like improvements to me.  You can still break the game - any game this complex has to be breakable - but it feels like you have to do some work to get there.  At the same time, playing it straight seems to work pretty well whether you summon minions, blow people up with lightning, hit people with a hammer or stealth past obstacles.

I understand a big part of simplification is the desire to appeal to a broader audience.  Intense and complex systems that punish mistakes harshly are the domain of serious geeks who inhabit a smaller and smaller fraction of the gaming market.  But the reason that you hear complaints of dumbing down and simplifying is not that entitled self-proclaimed real gamers want everything to cater to them.  It's that most of the time the simplified really take something away from the game.  When you replace complex systems with simple ones that are actually better, you make everyone happy.

Monday, 3 February 2014

Skyrim Armor

My secondary game of Skyrim has become my primary one.  While I usually default to playing mages of some kind, it turns out that beating people with an outrageously sized hammer is great fun in a game where you actually control your character in combat.  It also seems that the game is heavily weighted towards doing so.  The amount of damage I can outlay with physical attacks puts the damage the spells do to shame.

Part of smashing with a warhammer is putting yourself in a giant metal box so you can get smashed by the other guy's warhammer.  Skyrim offers a fairly simple path to getting tough, just practice smithing and unlock perk after perk to make better and better armor.  You start with iron but you just find that stuff so you don't really make it.  Steel takes a bit more doing, dwarven metal can only be found by melting down scrap metal from dwarven ruins but dwarven ruins are everywhere, orcish armor is easy to get because there are orichalcum mines at nearly every orcish settlement, and ebony may be relatively limited in the world but its nearly all in one place so its pretty easy to pick up a full set.  Daedric armor is ebony armor but you also need daedra hearts.  Dragon armor, which I will probably get to tomorrow, presumably uses the dragon bones and scales I've been collecting incidentally while reaping dragon souls so I expect I can crank that stuff out in a hurry.

My armor rating has been going up and up and I feel great, particularly since daedric armor looks extremely badass.  But feeling great is one thing, knowing the formula that calculates how great you are in another.

Skyrim's formula is 0.12% damage reduction per armor point.  What's wrong with armor formulas like this is that each point of armor is actually better than the last.  If you have 100 armor then you get 12% damage reduction, making your 300 health into 341 effective health, giving .41 health per armor point.  If you have 200 armor then you get 24% damage reduction, making your 300 health into 395 effective health for 0.47 effective health per armor.  The last full armor point, the one before the one that gets cut off by the 80% cap on damage reduction, would be worth 8.8 effective health.  You see how that's better.

But there are some stranger things about Skyrim's formula.  You don't actually need 667 armor to get maximum damage reduction.  Most times you'll only need 567.

That's because each piece of armor has a hidden 25 armor rating that factors into the calculation but that is not shown on your inventory screen.  There are five armor slots that count: helmet, chest, gloves, feet and shield.  So if you wore all of those things you would get 15% damage reduction even if they had no armor rating.  But actually you wouldn't, since if they had no armor rating then they aren't armor and don't give the 25 hidden bonus.

A suit of unagumented leather armor has a total armor rating of 52 while a suit of unaugmented dwarven armor has a total armor value of 78.  Looking at those two numbers, it looks like the dwarven armor is 1.5 times as good as the leather armor at reducing damage and would increase your effective health by 3.4% relative to the leather.  In reality it is only 1.17 times as good at giving you armor rating, but despite this perversely increases your effective health by 4% because of that more armor is more good thing.

So they are hiding things in strange ways and having perverse effects.  Another confounding factor in the armor formula is just how easy it is to hit the cap.  I'm not in anything like endgame, I don't think.  I wasn't even drinking potions to increase my blacksmithing skill when I tempered my armor, let alone crafting those postions myself using gear I enchanted to boost alchemy.  But despite that my armor rating is 757.  Since I'm not wearing a shield that means my true armor rating is 857, way above the cap.

In fact, working down the list you can not only hit armor cap in dragon armor and daedric armor, but also in ebony, orcish, dwarven and even steel armor.

This has interesting consequences for the end game.  It's a good thing that if you max out your smithing skill and work at it a bit you can wear whatever kind of armor you want and still have maximum protection.  If you like the look of steel armor then it's neat that you can make it as good as dragon armor just by being the best guy in the world at making it.

On the other hand, it seems kind of lame to me that shields don't do anything to improve your armor once you get good enough at smithing.  The advantages of using a shield are better blocking and an extra thing to enchant.  I can't think of the last time I blocked, so I'm no so interested in the former.  The latter might be pretty tempting, but I don't think there are enchants that make up for the massive damage difference between one and two handed weapons.  Using a shield might also make it easier to hit armor cap while not wearing a matched or full suit of heavy armor - since these both give 25% bonuses with the relevant perks.  But the only items I've seen so far that would make me want to wear game-generated instead of me-generated items are master robes - and maybe the aetherial crown - and not wearing heavy armor in all slots would break up the 100 point perk which seems completely insane.

What this all means for me is that I'm collecting daedra hearts from my one reliable source of them so I can make myself a second set of daedric armor to enchant properly once I get to 100 enchanting.  Once I make that and get to 100 smithing I'm going to legendary my smithing skill and go up the light armor side this time.  We'll see how that goes.