Tuesday, 30 September 2014

Sea Lions

I've definitely looked at the web comic Wondermark before, but I haven't been a regular reader. Today I saw a link to a fair recent strip about Sea Lions that caught my fancy.

I've posted here before about how to argue, mostly to point out how other people are doing it wrong. Recently I talked about the innovation of the strongest argumentators being co-opted and bastardized by those who they argue against. This comic shows two tactics that have been thoroughly debased - reasonability and demanding evidence.

This is pernicious stuff to use. It's very tough to attack someone for being reasonable or for wanting evidence to back up claims. On the other hand, it's pretty obvious that these are often tactics to make people feel that they are better than other people rather than honest attempts at discussion. You can usually tell that people doing this, like the sea lion, are using exaggerated neutral language.

This brings me back to my post on ad hominem last week. At some point, pointing out that someone is just annoying or comes across as an idiot is just fair game, and it doesn't make them right to do so. In a more civilized era behaviour like this would be dealt with by a punch in the face.

Monday, 29 September 2014

A Disturbing Development

If you love to fill out surveys, then you'll want to check out CBC's Vote Compass to see who you should vote for in Toronto's mayoral election.

I like to take surveys but generally I find that the way they put questions together make me skeptical of the results. Take this statement, for example:
Toronto should build more subways rather than light-rail transit (LRT) even if it costs more.

If you have the entire context of the debate over public transit in Toronto for the last four years you'll know exactly what this question is asking. Rob Ford and many of his supporters - including Doug Ford - have argued that subways are the only solution to public transit is subways and that surface transit should be avoided because it will add to traffic congestion. This statement could instead read, "I agree with the Fords about subways."

But if you take the statement on it's face I need a "Well, that's just a dumb thing to say that completely frames the problem incorrectly" button to go with Strongly Disagree and Strongly Agree. How could we begin to address the complexity of predicting the effect of surface transit on traffic and then weighing that effect against the addition cost of subways in a statement that I could agree or disagree with? Even if we take this as a question about whether we prioritize cost or effect on traffic higher, I still need to know "higher than what?" If I assume the baseline is what Rob Ford did in his term, then I would pick "Strongly Disagree." If I assume the baseline is what was worked out in the Transit City deal that Rob Ford was so opposed to, then I would probably say that was about right, or at least that I don't know.

Of course I know what they mean, so I picked "Somewhat Disagree" because I don't think traffic considerations shouldn't play a very strong role in deciding on public transit plans - traffic is going to be very bad no matter what we do - but I recognize that picking "Strongly Disagree" on this question signals that I don't think there should be any consideration given at all to how surface transit would affect traffic, which I think would be a silly position to take.

A survey where I am picking my response based on how I know it will be taken instead of answering the question is never going to be giving a more accurate reflection of my position than I can come up with myself by just thinking about it. It will not be offering me insight.

But the survey did offer me some insight. First of all, it illuminated how many of the issues in this election I don't know or don't care about. Should we tear down the Gardiner? I don't know, what did the people studying the problem say? Should we require that companies hire young people to give them city contracts? I don't know, is that an effective policy? It doesn't seem like it would be to me, but has anyone else tried it? How well did it work for them?

More importantly, for me, though, here was another one of the statements for me to evaluate:

Toronto police should be allowed to stop, question and record information about anyone who they consider suspicious.

Wow! Is that an issue in this election? First of all, I don't really see how it could be. This doesn't seem to fall within municipal jurisdiction at all. I suppose the municipality could be putting pressure on other levels of government to change things, but this probably butts up against the constitution, so there is a lot to this that is way out the control of Toronto.

But secondly, and more importantly, are we unfathomably stupid? Did New York's stop and frisk policy do such a good job of targeting minorities that we want to import that racism here? After looking at Ferguson in the wake of Michael Brown's death, are we left saying to ourselves, "What we really need is more powerful police"?

Another question is about equipping police with Tasers. Because those helped the RCMP so much in the Robert DziekaƄski incident. Someone arguing in favour of this will point out that had the officer who killed Sammy Yatim had a Taser maybe Yatim would be alive today, but really, Yatim is dead because that officer decided to kill him. With a Taser he might have decided only to torture him instead, I'll grant you, but without the video the Taser that was applied to Yatim after he was shot repeatedly on the ground would have likely been used to cover up the shooting.

But then in the same category of "Law and Order" there is a question of whether Toronto should ban all handguns. That is definitely way outside of municipal powers. Even if it wasn't, banning handguns will go about as well as banning drugs. People want them, other people can make a lot of money by selling them. It's a war that cannot be won and that would create yet another class of socially harmless people who will fund dangerous criminal organizations instead of business run by other socially harmless people. I don't like guns a lot more than I don't like drugs, but banning them is just not workable.

So I'm with Chow on not giving police the right to stomp on the constitution and harass minorities, with Tory and Ford on not creating a new war on [thing] regarding handguns, and off in the wilderness on not giving cops Tasers. So the candidate who doesn't think police should be able to stop and search people for guns if they are suspicious thinks guns should be outlawed and that candidates who don't think guns should be outlawed want to have a policy where police can stop people and ask them for information beyond what is currently allowed - presumably just not information about guns.

"Law and Order" is a codeword for "completely irrational." I knew that, but I didn't know it was an issue in this election. If it weren't for idiocy like this I would have a lot easier time stomaching "right-wing" politicians.

Friday, 26 September 2014

An Old Mystery Solved

Back when Glitch was a game, there were some rare items that were hard to get and worth a lot of currants. Among the rarest of all was the SB-1 Musicblock.

There were a few items that were quite difficult to get or that were only given out at a particular time or as part of a specific event. The SB-1 Musicblock, according to the developers, was not one of these items. There was an action in the game that could result in getting one of these musicblocks, but they wouldn't tell us what it was. Despite that, the only people who had ever received these blocks received them from the developers as gifts. No one had ever found one in the wild, or if they did no one had ever come forward to say it.

Today I decided to do a quick search of the now Creative Commons licensed glitch code to see what we missed. The speculation of one of my Glitch compatriots was right, it had to do with tree patches.

Tree patches were not things that people commonly interacted with because most of the time there were trees on them. A tree patch could have a tree planted on it, but then as long as the tree was not extremely neglected or intentionally poisoned that tree would last forever. If a tree did die then the patch had to be watered and tended and then a new tree could be planted, but then generally it would not be watered or tended again for a long time.

There was an achievement called Paul Bunions for clearing 1009 dead trees. To get that you were going to have to kill a lot of trees and then presumably replant them, which would involve a tending a patch once. Also, everyone who had trees on their home streets tended those patches once. Unfortunately Tom C's great glitchium site disappeared with the game so I can't look up the final number of glitchen who got Paul Bunions, nor can I check how many trees there were on home streets, but I seem to recall that Paul Bunions was in the 20-50 range and trees on home streets I would guess were in the 10k-20k range.

Adding another few thousand on for the trees in the world plus another ten or twenty thousand for replants by people who were not achievement hunting - including the terrible Spice-Gas wars in Ix, I would think that the total number of times anyone ever tended a patch in the lifetime of Glitch was probably around one hundred thousand, but I would be surprised if it was two.

But the box could only appear if the tender had Soil Appreciation 5. Soil Appreciation was a very bad skill that had almost no effect on your play, and it took 20 hours to learn, so there is a very good chance that a large number of those tends happened without it. Presumably most of the ones that went into Paul Bunions achievements had it, but a lot of incidental ones that filled the world and many of the home street ones wouldn't have.

So what were the odds of getting an SB-1 block. Well, when you took an action there was a drop chance, and if you got the drop you rolled on a drop table. Drop chances were expressed as whole percentages and drop tables rolled 1 to 100. But obviously if there was a 1 in 100 chance of the drop we would have seen it.

The trick is that while drop tables only had 100 possible rolls, the result could be another drop table. So every time you tended with Soil Appreciation 5 there was a 10 percent chance you got a drop from the soil_appreciation_large table. If you rolled 100 on that table you got a drop from the musicblocks_brown table. On that table there was a 1 in 100 chance you got the SB-1. That's a one in one-hundred-thousand for every tend action.

Ultimately it's entirely believable that this item just never dropped, but the game developers weren't lying to us when they said it was out there to be found. If the game had become a big hit with millions of players there would have been some of these around.

I found that when I was going for Paul Bunions I could poison, chop down, and replant about 6 trees a minute. That meant spending about 1800 currants a minute on poison and beans. Generally the best you could do for generating resources was about 30 per second, so that's another 1800 a minute. That's a total of about 600 currants per tend if you were aggressively going after them. Each tend had a 10% chance to roll on the drop table which averaged about 250 currants of value, so we'll call it 575 currants per tend. At 100,000 tends per SB-1, that would put the value of an SB-1 at about 57.5 million currants.

They weren't worth that much in the game, but people weren't working for them. Maybe between Children of Ur and Eleven we'll one day have people hunting for that big score.

Thursday, 25 September 2014

The World Will End Tomorrow

"The world is going to end tomorrow."

"What a moron!"

And so the world ended the next day, because, as we know, ad hominem is a logical fallacy.

The saying goes that if a fool says the sun will come up tomorrow it still will. The flip side of that is that all the fancy reasoning in the world can't make you right if you are just wrong.

There is a self-selecting class of frequent internet forum posters who think that a hundred people telling them they are dumb just proves how right they are. A few of us are actual genius-prophets who will be proven right by history if by some slim chance we are remembered by history. For the vast majority, if most people think you are dumb, it's probably because you are dumb.

Tuesday, 23 September 2014

Blood Test for Depression

I was reading that someone has developed a blood test for depression.


We currently use a behavioural model of diagnosing mental illness. You have a mental illness if you exhibit a certain set of behaviours. There are many reasons why a person can exhibit a set of behaviours. An example I read recently is that while autistic people tend to display less behavioural signs of pain when getting a needle, recording physiological signs of pain shows a greater response than a normal person. Different people are different and they behave in different ways in the same circumstances.

Depression is often associated with low serotonin. Or at least they try to increase your serotonin to try to deal with depression. But two people with lower-than-average serotonin levels are not going to behave in the same way. A blood test that showed serotonin levels, for instance, would not tell you if a person behaved as a depressed person behaves.

There are problems with the behavioural model of mental illness. One of the primary ones is that we are probably conflating a lot of different problems because people with them act in similar ways. We might also be missing connections because people with similar underlying problems do not behave in similar ways. Having some kind of objective look at what is going on behind the behaviours is a useful step in finding out more.

But "depression" is a way people behave. If there is a blood test that has a high correlation with depression and that allows us to divide depression into two types - blood test positive depression and blood test negative depression - then that would tell us that the blood test shows a condition that gives rise to depression.

Imagine we had blood test for common viruses and bacteria that upset people's digestive systems. We would not call that a blood test for stomach aches.

What we don't and can't possibly have, is a blood test that tells us how people behave or how they feel. That's more complicated than what is in your blood - if it wasn't we wouldn't bother having these brain-things in our heads. What we definitely can't have is a blood test that, if it comes back negative, proves a person is not depressed and therefore should not, for example, receive insurance benefits.

And that's important because there are people with a lot of money out there who would like to give less money to people who have been giving them money so that they can keep more money for themselves, and to them, a "blood test for depression" must smell like an opportunity.

Monday, 22 September 2014

Dark Souls

I was watching a Let's Play of Dark Souls on YouTube when I decided that I should stop in case I want to play the game in the future. Now Dark Souls is not remotely a new game, but I don't let that kind of thing bother me.

I think I was put off of Dark Souls because it was advertised as being very hard. When I think "very hard" I think of obscene shoot'em ups and abusive platformers. These are not my kind of games.

Dark Souls isn't exactly my kind of game either. First of all, I pretty much don't use controllers and I'm under the impression you really want one for Dark Souls. Secondly, there is some kind of multi-player thing where other people can come into your game and kill you - that doesn't appeal to me in the slightest.

What really does appeal to me about Dark Souls is that is looks like one of the coolest exploration games I've seen in a long time. Both in terms of the world and the game mechanics, it seems like there is just a lot to see and do.

Something that seems incredibly sweet about it is that you can just wonder into various boss fights long before you are ready for them. In some cases you can just run right through the boss room, avoiding the fight, and then carry on to another area. There are a ton of different weapons which certainly do different amounts of damage but they also have different ranges, speeds and attack types, so choosing them is more about choosing the one with the highest damage. There appear to be a bunch of different builds you can do depending on which weapons you prefer.

Running around and checking things out is cool. Games that are hard enough to make you feel like you accomplished something when you win are cool. At this point I'm obviously not going to pay full price for it, but if I end up getting it on a deep sale and liking it then I might pay full price for Dark Souls 3, which is obviously going to be a thing.

Friday, 19 September 2014

King's Bounty: Dark Side

I started playing King's Bounty: Dark Side. I discovered this franchise with King's Bounty: Armored Princess which I purchased because it was on sale and called, "King's Bounty: Armored Princess." I'm glad I did.

The original King's Bounty game was made in 1990 and is regarded as a precursor to the Heroes of Might and Magic games. The series reboot began in 2007 and so far there are four games, all but the last with with an expansion each. I never played the original, but I played a lot of Heroes of Might and Magic III and this game does nothing to ruin the awesomeness of Heroes of Might and Magic, so it's great.

Today I was reading some reviews of King's Bounty: Darkside just because they came up in a search I did while trying to figure out if the reason I hadn't learned the Slow spell yet was just bad luck or if they had made it scarce or removed it. Most of the reviews have a similar take on the game: It feels more like an expansion than a standalone game because it is too similar to the previous ones.

And they are not wrong. Each King's Bounty adds new artifacts and units and spells, but for the most part you are playing the same game as you played the last time. There's no big innovations or new systems. Get quests, run around the world, turn-based combat on a hex-grid. Go up levels and smash your enemies.

I really like these games and I'm glad they are basically the same as one another. The reviews mostly agree on this point too - Dark Side is fun to play and it's probably one of the better ones from the series. I've written about Final Fantasy: Dimensions as well - a game I am loving specifically because it feels like a remake of the Super Nintendo era of Final Fantasy games.

Among the reviews are a few pretty bad ones. I found one that gave the game 50 out of 100 because it felt like the developers just released the same game again. Sure, that's exactly what it feels like. But I really, really liked that game and I'm happy to play more of it. If Square released another game that was FFX with a new story and a few tweaks I'd throw fistfuls of money at them.

If you've played a lot of Heroes of Might and Magic and older RPGs you'd probably love this game. Instead of having town management you just have a hero, but your army size is limited by your level so you get a stronger and stronger fighting force as you level up. There are four difficult settings that are what they say: Easy is easy, I really can't imagine how I'd play on Impossible. Another neat thing is that the units have way more special features and abilities to use, so there is more variety between them.

I've purchased but haven't gotten around to playing King's Bounty: the Legend, the first in the series reboot. I've played through both Armored Princess and Warriors of the North, though, and they all of these games are great. There is something to be said for doing the same thing over and over.

Thursday, 18 September 2014

Can You Draft Wingmate Roc?

Look at it!


At a quick glance I thought this was the number one windmill slam first pick from the set. You open this and do you a dance.

So what's with this post? Anyone who has ever played Magic knows that card is amazing and you should play with it all the time. A more apt title for a post might be something like, "How often would you switch colours in the third pack for Wingmate Roc?"

Wizards made a big announcement a couple of weeks ago. Blocks will no longer be three sets, they will only be two. Standard will be the last three blocks, so it will cover 15 to 18 months of cards. This seems like such a great change. Third sets have always been kind of awkward and the Core set was getting less and less "core" all the time.

But the Core set did have a feature that was of particular interest to me. The Core set was where they printed the weird stuff. I really like to write "Can you draft..." posts, but they are about core sets. That's where they put the rares that are hard to evaluate - that might be powerful if things come together but that might not be workable in the environment.

Khans of Tarkir, spoiled in full last week, just doesn't have cards like that. The two closest rares are:

This one isn't all that tough to figure out. With five commons and numerous uncommons with Outlast in the set, I think you should probably at least give this a try. There are a variety of other ways to get +1/+1 counters onto your creatures as well. I suppose this warrants a proper count in the same way I did counts for Obelisk of Urd and Door of Destinies. But to me this is transparently powerful enough that it's worth giving a shot.
This spell is really terrible if you have four mana or five mana, extremely sketchy at six, maybe okay at seven and definitely good at eight or more. Again, some analysis could be done here, but the real question for this card is, "Is an eight or nine mana sorcery that doesn't win me the game something I can play in this format." That's really a question about the format that I can't answer through analysis. Players who are a lot better than me are going to have to play it to see how that shakes out.

So yeah, these two cards merit a little bit of looking into, but even if it isn't terribly obvious whether you can play them successfully or not, they aren't as zany as the cards we've seen in the Core sets for the last two years. Neither of these is near the zaniness of a Strionic Resonator or a Dismiss Into Dream. Cards in expansions tell a story. Cards in the Core Set just fill roles, and one of those role is being wacky. I hope that as the new formats are rolled out there is plenty of room for wacky cards in them.

Wednesday, 17 September 2014

Free My People!

If I had to pick a heritage I identify with, it would be Scottish. I don't mean that I would pick that out of a hat - I am definitely substantially Scottish by descent. What I mean is that I feel more Scottish than I do English - though I have English ancestors as well. Or, I should say, perhaps I am Viking by way of Scotland.

I am not going to attempt to put  a veneer of rationality over these feelings. I will say that when I visited the United Kingdom my time in Scotland was constantly wonderful and my time in England - while overall worthwhile and probably on the whole enjoyable - was riddled with disasters large and small. Plus the average daytime high while I was in London was probably around 30 and the daytime high in Edinburgh was never higher than 17. Also, my clan is ancient rivals with the McPhearsons.

So even though I have very little stake in the matter and I wouldn't want to speak on behalf of actual people living in Scotland, I do feel like tomorrow it is my people who are voting for their independence. And with that, I feel like they are voting for their freedom.

The United Kingdom is a really rotten place with a horrible political class and an ever-increasing police state. They've got detention without charges, secret courts for rich people, pretty much no freedom of assembly or expression, and ubiquitous surveillance. They are really deep into the idea of passing absurd to draconian laws to police the internet. They are still a deeply classed society.

The United Kingdom has some things going for it, but it seems like Scotland has those things going for it as well. I feel like independence is the best option to get away from the maniacs who run things in London.

But also, I don't think independence is nearly as big a deal as everyone is trying to make it out to be. In an objective way it is a really big deal, but the changes in the day-to-day lives of both English and Scottish people wouldn't be that large after an initial period of upheaval. Where there were large changes in Scotland it would probably be because that's what the Scottish people voted for.

In 1995 when Canada nearly lost Quebec in a similar referendum, our federal government painted the separatists as monsters trying to destroy the country instead of sitting down at a table and saying, "So what is all of this about, why do you want to separate?" It feels like we back then our federal government could have had a constructive conversation with the leaders of Quebec so that both parties could understand what it was that the other wanted to achieve. Imagine what you'd like the country to look like five years in the future then mutually determine if that is best accomplished by independence or within the existing structure.

That kind of, "What do we want and how can we get there?" type of thinking is obviously expecting a lot from people who are in charge of running countries.

But the reality is that in London a couple of days ago a rally to try to convince Scots to vote "No" had about two-thousand people present. Bob Geldof and Eddie Izzard both spoke at that rally. If either of those two people had charged tickets to a performance they could get a similar number of people to buy $100 tickets in any major city in the UK or North America, but between them they could only get that many to come see them for free when it was about Scottish independence. Maybe this just isn't as big a deal as David Cameron and others would suddenly like us to believe it is.

Friday, 12 September 2014

Different Points of View

Anita Sarkeesian makes videos about how video games use tropes that portray women as non-people or that encourage violence against women. She has quite a number of critics. When I say critics, I mean people who are critical of her work and her message, not people who are making threats - that's not really being a critic.

So by "critic" I am talking about people who address the message of her videos, but I'm not necessarily talking about people who are doing a good job of this or being even vaguely reasonable. I had actually made a point of avoiding any link to an article or video that was criticism of Sarkeesian because I didn't think that I was going to be treated to a reasonable or well-thought-out point of view. The other night, at the behest of a person who honestly wanted a reasonable discussion, I watched on "rebuttal" video to Sarkeesian.

I definitely regret giving the maker of that video a hit on his youtube channel. He spends quite a long time making a simple point. Sarkeesian claimed that players were "invited" to murder strippers in Hitman Absolution and then drag their bodies around, and said that players were meant to derive a "thrill" from doing so. The rebuttal points out that players are, in fact, penalized for killing the strippers - or anyone else who is not the target of their hit - and that if you watch youtube videos of people playing the game you will never see someone killing the strippers. In summary, Sarkeesian's claim that players are enticed into being violent towards representations of women is untrue.

So that is what I would call criticism. And it would be very good criticism if Sarkeesian's overall point rested on the incorrect idea that a perfect playthrough of that game means killing strippers. I don't think it does. But that's what criticism does, it opens the discussion up.

What good criticism doesn't do is paint the person who delivered the message as a liar. I would say the message of the video I watched could have been delivered very effectively in about two and a half minutes. I say that because there are a good two and a half minutes of the video where he shows clips of various playthroughs of Hitman Absolution where people go through the room that Sarkeesian depicted the violence in. He contrasts what the LPer's say - "One of those strippers sometimes wanders into the path we are going to go through, so you have to watch out for her" - with the things Sarkeesian says about being invited to act upon the strippers bodies.

But the video is ten minutes long. It has a screenshot of Sarkessian's kickstarter showing how much money she gathered to make these videos. The guy who made it goes into an extremely long-winded metaphor about what a lying liar Sarkeesian is.

I did a search on youtube for "Hitman Absolution Stripclub Scene." Of the top five videos, one was an LP that avoided the stripper's dressing room completely. Two featured killing strippers and dragging their bodies around the strip club for fun. One was a top N list of sexy moments in video games. One was a short video meant to showcase how incredibly detailed the strip club was - I think this was also supposed to be sexy.

The idea that people are playing a strip club scene in a video game to be titillated is very embarrassing for me to contemplate. If I were going to watch one of those videos it would definitely be the LP and I would be interested in the gameplay elements. Presumably that same kind of preference for content is what led the maker of the rebuttal video to watch many LPs where strippers were not killed and to not watch the videos of strippers being killed when he did his own research. I believe him that he watched a bunch of videos, and I don't think he intentionally selected against videos that would have stripper murder.

Sarkessian, on the other hand, rather than being interested primarily in the gameplay of the game, or in watching pro play of the game, is interested in how the game represented women and how people who play the game treat those representations. So she probably would have watched both kinds of videos.

The gameplay videos I'm most interested in are usually speedruns. In creating a speedrun that is not exploiting some geometry glitch to skip the whole level, you can bet that the makers would definitely try routes that involved killing strippers and routes that didn't to see what was fastest. That's what Sarkeesian means when she says that the game invites us to explore and exploit violence against these women. Video games invite us to explore and exploit everything within them. That's why I play video games.

So we have a hardcore gamer and a feminist culture critic who watched videos of a video game - either or both may have played the game as well. They watched different sets of videos and drew different conclusions about them. Then we have the gamer calling the cultural critic a "liar" and "dishonest" for the conclusions she drew. To conclude Sarkeesian is dishonest, the gamer must sincerely believe that: 1) He has access to The Truth; and 2) Sarkeesian does as well.

To be charitable to the gamer in question, it's possible he has a broken theory of mind and doesn't really understand that people think and know different things than he does. But that charity only goes so far. It's one thing to have a disability and it is another thing to be a complete jerk. And making a youtube video to go on and on about how a cultural critic is a money-grubbing liar is pretty much being a jerk, especially when that person is already the target of death- and rape-threats.

Thursday, 11 September 2014

Before it was Cool - Accusing People of Becoming What They Hate

I'm obviously very proud of myself for winning arguments on the internet, I write about the arguments I've gotten into here every now and then. Rather than accepting the wisdom that you can't argue with internet trolls, I've made a point of arguing with the most belligerent people I can find every now and again.It's my little act of vigilanteism. I'm just trying to clean up the streets.

Of course we all know that vigilantes fight crime with crime. Beating people who commit crimes is criminal. And the analogy holds - I don't argue with these people by being reasonable, I do it by being an outrageous jerk. If I continue to respond to someone in a pointless argument for a week and a half, I'm not trying to win on points, I'm trying for a TKO.

I said just the other day that if you tend to win arguments then, rather than being clever, you are probably just emotionally exhausting. My threshold for emotional exhaustion has to be outrageously high just so that I can interact with ordinary people and hold down a job, these internet jerks don't know what they are dealing with.

So if the point of arguing is to give the people a "taste of their own medicine" by being frustrating to talk to, then accusing people of being everything they hate is a pretty decent approach. The point is to push emotional buttons, after all. If they are frustrated at how "irrational" everyone else is being, concentrate on demonstrating that they are being irrational. If they think those with opposing political views have been taken in by mass media, focus the argument on how they need to "wake up."

Let's talk about Independence Day, yeah, the movie with Will Smith. How does Will Smith save the Earth from the aliens? Well, naturally he flies up there in an alien spacecraft. That's art imitating real life. When people are being oppressed by other people with superior technology, the people with the inferior technology are eventually going to steal the superior technology and put it to use against their oppressors. Technological advantages are temporary without continuous innovation.

But, of course, Will Smith doesn't know how to build an alien spacecraft or fine tune one, he just figures out which button to press to make it go. And so we see the technology of accusing people of being what they hate debased into, "Atheism is just another religion."

Anyone can repeat a stupid phrase like that. The point of this tactic is make the other person feel like this was the genuine impression you got from interacting with them. You aren't just out an insult in their direction, you are listening carefully to what they are saying and really thinking that they sound like everything they don't want to be. That's effective emotional bullying. If you just want to call someone names, just go with "doo doo head."

Until I saw other people doing this crassly I don't think I even realized the extent to which I employed this tactic. But these days I feel like I have to stop myself whenever it comes up. The loser hipster wannabes have started going to see that band I like and I just don't want to be there anymore.

It's too bad, because the right wing nuts really do regularly adopt total moral relativism to justify themselves and I'd like to be pointing that out. Oh well, as I said, those with the better technology have to innovate. This week someone was arguing that "fairness" was a childish goal and that "fair" didn't really mean anything. I asked him if he had studied economics. He had!

Wednesday, 10 September 2014

The Very Complex Math of Sandcastle Builder

Some of the math behind Sandcastle Builder is surely accidental, and some of it is surely genius. An example of accidental is that I don't think I've ever had any useful number of castles produced by Ninja Builder or any boost that references ninja stealth level at all. Ninja Builder is there as a prerequisite for Factory Ninja and otherwise can be ignored.

And example of pure genius, even if also accidental, is how the math behind the Tool Factory works. I'm currently at the stage where I have Space Elevator and Friendship is Molpish but I don't yet have the Crystal Flux Capacitor. This means that I never have to worry about loading chips into the factory and that my source of chips is castle tools, and therefore ONGs.

Space Elevator multiplies the value of Scaffolds by one ten-thousandth of the number of ladders you have. But since the factory outputs all tools at the same time, that's basically the same as squaring the number of Scaffolds you have and dividing by ten thousand. But ten thousand is a small number, and the difference between what Scaffolds produce and what your other tools produce is a small number, and double is small so Knitted Beanies is doing the same thing. The important thing is that the chip production of your tools is O(n2).

But unlike the castle phase of the game, the cost of tools is linear. So if the tool factory produced as many tools as you has chips for, that would actually represent the acceleration of your production as well. That is, your production is increasing exponentially. Of course the factory does not produce as much as you have chips for, it is limited by Production Control which costs one million times the current number of runs to upgrade. So the price of increasing Production Control is also O(n2).

At the same time, though, you are also getting chips via the Blast Furnace and Automata Control. You need those chips to further upgrade Automata Control. Automata Control's price escalate exponentially with its current level. The number of chips you can produce is determined by the current level of Automata Control times the production of your Glass Furnace which is, at most, 100 times your Sand Purifier which costs glass blocks in linear proportion to its current level to upgrade. You are getting glass blocks by sawing them out of the chips in the factory queue, so those are being produced at O(n2) as well and the Sand Purifier cost is also O(n2).

Throughout this whole process you are exponentially increasing your number of tools by constantly creating glass on the order of the number of tools squared and spending glass on that same order. Your Automata Control level, with its exponential cost, is basically increasing linearly as your tools increase exponentially so over time you are slowly but surely approaching 300 when you can move onto the next phase of the game.

I find this part of the game immensely rewarding. It's a very long grind on the order of days to weeks, but there is steady progress in the order of magnitude of the number of tools you have and in the linear value of Automata Control. There are so many small constants being multiplied through the system that what is really going on is far from obvious without analysis.

At some point I really regretted giving up my previous game, but I'm actually really happy I'm playing through Sandcastle Builder again. Maybe I'll start looking at ways the initial gameplay experience could be improved and submitting my ideas to the GitHub. I think most of the development goes into the extreme end game that I am still months from reaching. It would be neat to see some improvements for new players - maybe in the Ninja Builder area.

Tuesday, 9 September 2014

Selling Monopolies

Ontario is selling off the Ontario Lottery and Gaming Corporation to combat the provincial debt. First of all, the value of this is very suspect. OLG brings in $2 billion in revenue a year and we are looking to sell it for about $1.3 billion. The math behind this is much more complicated - and much of the revenue will still be flowing after the sale - but on its face that looks stupid. You know a business is going bankrupt when it starts selling off it's profitable components to deal with debt.

But who knows, maybe the Government of Ontario employs someone who can do math and this is a good long term decision. Whether or not this increases revenues isn't the big issue here.

The big issue is that the government is planning on selling a monopoly on lotteries to a large business.

I'm not going to claim to know what to do about gambling. We can't prohibit it. I don't think we can get companies that offer gambling to identify and protect problem gamblers before the problem gets out of hand. I think services for problem gamblers are almost always going to be picking-up-the-pieces services instead of preventative ones. If we structured society to contain a great deal less misery that would probably help, but that's a pretty big task.

What I will claim is that I know at least one thing we absolutely should not do with gambling, and that is give my cable company a monopoly on it, or even on a piece of it. I don't know how to begin to address how transparently stupid this idea is.

Let's think about that another way. Suppose there was a new business. A new product or service has been developed that everyone wants. Conducting this business is extremely lucrative. So the government decides to put out an offer to sell monopoly rights to conduct that business to the highest bidder. Imagine that instead of monopoly rights to conduct lotteries the government was selling monopoly rights to bake bread. I bet Bell or Rogers would be willing to pay a billion dollars to buy the exclusive rights to bake bread in Ontario.

Lotteries are not bread, and I think someone can successfully argue that the government having a monopoly on holding lotteries is a good idea while the government having a monopoly on baking bread is a bad idea. Whatever that argument is, though, it is going to collapse completely once we change the words "the government" to the words, "a large cable company."

If the right public policy decision is to maintain a tightly controlled monopoly on gambling then keep the OLG and keep the government's role in it. If the right public policy decision is to allow private enterprises to offer gambling then lets dismantle the OLG and make the switch. But then police that industry for anti-competitive behaviour vigorously.

Odds-on favourite for the outcome of the sale of OLG will be:
  • Decrease in government revenue that offsets the sale value within just a few years
  • Increase in problem gambling
  • Big paychecks for the executives of the company that buys it
Of course if I were in government there is a chance I would be selling off the OLG as well. It's just that immediately upon selling it I would dismantle the legal framework that gave the monopoly, totally screwing whoever bought it from us. My goal in doing this would be to permanently poison the well of selling off government assets to big business. I'd be much more likely to do with with the LCBO, though.

Monday, 8 September 2014

Life or Death Choices

It was a really big August for news that made me angry. Michael Brown's death in Ferguson and the subsequent police action was and is still preposterous. Anita Sarkeesian having to leave her home because of credible death threats is nuts. The coverage of suicide following Robin Williams' death was very problematic. But before all of that, the day before my second daughter was born, news was breaking about a woman who had been arrested for endangering her child by letting her child play in the park alone.

Debra Harrell had a tough decision to make between actively watching over her 9-year-old daughter or going to work. She needed the money she made at McDonald's to pay her rent and buy food to eat. Exposing her daughter to the danger of playing alone for several hours was just the price she had to pay to pay the bills.

I could point out that if park is so dangerous that sending a 9-year-old there is criminal then the police could probably find better things to do than arresting the children's mothers. But let's accept, for the sake of argument, the absurd idea that leaving a 9-year-old in a park is criminal negligence.

Suppose you have a 9-year-old child who is diagnosed with a brain tumor. The doctors aren't quite sure how bad things are. They can do surgery followed by radiation and chemo or they can just do radiation and chemo. The surgery has a higher chance of accidentally killing your child or of causing damage to other areas of the brain, but it also has a better chance of dealing with the cancer. No one can give clear odds on anything.

Are you are negligent parent if you choose surgery because you are exposing your child to a life-threatening situation? Are you a negligent parent if you choose not to do the surgery? Of course not, parents have to make life and death decisions for their kids. That's how life is.

We may be appalled that a woman living in a country with as much wealth as the USA could be making life or death decisions about putting food on the table versus adequately supervising her child. That doesn't make either choice negligence. It's just a mother doing what she has to do for her kid. Which is more risky: playing in the park all day or becoming homeless?

If we are, in fact, appalled at this situation then the solution ought to be the change the system that allows this to happen. Instead we built a system that just heaps on the misery. Things are not getting better for Harrel or her child - unless media coverage of the event has caused some kind of turnabout they are getting worse. Richer people who have the resources to actually feed and house their children without anxiety have created a system to oppress the poor in one more way.

Wednesday, 3 September 2014

Apparently Something is Happening

Anita Sarkeesian released her newest video just days ago and the hatred has been spewing. I say that like it is obvious because it is obvious. Of course she is going to get death and rape threats. The fact that there were credible threats with her home address was certainly new, and it's terrible that she was forced out of her home, but even if it is terrible it is expected. This is what we expect from the world.

It's what we expect on the Blizzard forums, it's what we expect in chat channels. It's what we expect in the comments section of major national newspapers and on blogs that have more than a dozen regular readers. And if you make a video game someone really doesn't like then you might get a bomb threat called into the plane you are on. If you are winning a game if Call of Duty then someone might call a real life SWAT team to raid your house. If you say that games should be different somehow then someone might post your banking information in a public forum.

But in the last few days, I feel like the collective fed-up-ness with this state of affairs is building into something. A huge list of video game designers have signed a petition against harassing women online. It's easy to ridicule a petition as being a meaningless gesture, but it isn't. The list of names on the petition is like a starting point to attain a critical mass.

I don't know what that critical mass will do, but I'm not hopeless. This week someone hacked into iCloud and got a lot of naked pictures of famous people - along with, presumably, naked pictures of people who are not famous. The collective response I am seeing is, "Don't look at them, if you look you are part of the problem." I'm not sure I've seen something quite like that before.

When you walk down the street, it isn't the police that keep you from getting mugged or assaulted or killed. Police usually get involved after the fact. It is other people - a community that doesn't approve of those actions. Maybe the internet can become a place like that. I know that people vehemently disagree about a lot of things and that people tend to dislike other people because they dislike their views, but I think there may be some broad consensus on what constitutes really odious behaviour that shouldn't be tolerated. Or at least such a consensus might be possible even if it isn't there now.

Horrible people acting with impunity on the internet doesn't seem inevitable to me. I mean, to a small extent it is. It's probably harder to eradicate than murder or even littering. But it's not like the drug trade - it doesn't take in enough money to fund large organizations dedicated to supporting it. It's not necessarily something that just has to be tolerated, and I feel like maybe we are moving towards a turning point.