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January 25th, 2015

I’d been impressed by (and am still impressed by) Hoplite, and one of the things I like about it is that it’s a roguelike where you have a relatively large amount of control over your build. And I’d been hearing about 868-HACK for a while, so I figured I’d give that game a try as well, hoping that it might have some of the same charms.

It may well for some people; it didn’t particularly grab me. But I can’t say that I gave it a fair shot, either.

ascension: darkness unleashed

January 6th, 2015

Ascension: Darkness Unleashed has the same energy mechanic as the prior iteration; on that, it layers a second kind of energy (“dark energy shards”) that let you banish cards in your discard pile (and occasionally trigger other card-specific effects), and a transformation mechanic whereby many cards permanently become more powerful if you’ve acquired a specified amount of energy in a turn before playing them. Which you’d think would make the game more unbalanced, but actually I had a lot more fun with this version: Steve and I played a ton of games with it, and while they were frequently wild ones, they often ended up pleasantly wild on both sides. I guess what was going on was that the dark energy banishment and the transforming cards both ended up accelerating the speed of improvement of your deck, which meant that you got to the fun stuff faster but that both sides ended up enjoying it?

Anyways: good expansion. And it’s great to see the expansions coming so quickly now that the licensing situation has gotten settled.

tomb raider

January 4th, 2015

I’d never played a Tomb Raider game before the 2013 iteration of the series; that playthrough was also the first time I’d played a newish AAA game in something like two years, so I’d gotten a bit unused to that sort of polished spectacle. And, I will say: it was a very well-done polished spectacle, I’m quite glad to have played the game. I enjoyed much of the mechanics, I enjoyed much of the plot, it’s probably the most conventionally gorgeous game I’ve played, and even the parts I didn’t like so much were fine to go through on autopilot.

Still, it’s a AAA game, which means that it’s not as coherent that it could be, that it contains a slightly ungainly mixture of elements, perhaps to increase the number of people the game might appeal to. You could make a case that this is a game driven by combat, driven by exploration, or driven by plot; those elements weren’t exactly deployed at cross purposes, but they weren’t all pointing in the same direction, either.


The game certainly spent a lot of time on combat: I think the game would probably be better named “Bow Hunter” than “Tomb Raider”. Or rather, I used the bow a lot; but for people who like combat, there are four different weapons to choose from, each of which can be upgraded to have a few different firing modes. And, actually, “Hunter” isn’t the right word, either: while your bow is introduced with a scene of you hunting a deer, the vast majority of your weapon uses will be against humans.

And, honestly, for a lot of the game that annoyed me. I didn’t mind the combat mechanically, but it’s just not my sort of thing: I set the difficulty to easy, mowed through waves of enemies and didn’t think twice about it. But from a thematic point of view, the manner and quantity of violence didn’t seem to fit in the game. At the start of the game, it seemed to me that the game wanted me to feel like Lara was vulnerable (albeit in a very capable way), having to use all of her skills, ingenuity, and perseverance to survive. So, from that point of view, using a makeshift bow to kill a deer fits: but having the animal hunting be a one-off didn’t fit nearly as well. And feeling like any stranger could kill you fits; but that feeling goes away when you meet (and subsequently dispatch) wave after wave of enemies.

About halfway through the game, though, my feeling about the combat shifted. I realized that enemies had started referring to Lara as “The Outsider”, and used that term with fear. Lara had morphed from somebody who was barely managing to survive to somebody who had taken control of the situation, an avenging angel who wasn’t going to let anything stop her from rescuing Sam and getting off of that island. And, from that point of view, the combat fit in a lot better: of course she can take on a dozen enemies at once and emerge victorious.

Having said that: still way too much fighting, still way too little respect for human life. I’d like to see a game that manages that better, and in fact there are a few examples: Another World is one model, The Walking Dead another, Shadow of the Colossus a third. Controlling violence seems to be hard for AAA games to do; and there is a very real question of whether it’s worth investing time in real combat mechanics with a cap on the body count. (The Walking Dead says no, Another World and Shadow of the Colossus say yes.) It feels to me like constraining the body count would be quite difficult to do within what I imagine the structure of the AAA development process to be (but what do I know!); it also feels to me potentially worthwhile, with individual deaths turning into Strong Centers from a narrative point of view.


The game’s title isn’t “Bow Hunter”, however: it’s “Tomb Raider”. I don’t know what previous games in the series were like, but I will say: not a lot of raiding tombs here. But there was a lot of exploring and navigating environments in general.

And in some ways that felt to me like the best of AAA development coming forth. Big, beautiful environments that the studio had clearly invested a lot of time into, combined with extremely legible affordances for how you can maneuver in and manipulate that environment. I can imagine an alternate version of this game (or of me!) where the exploration felt a little too focus-group tested, a little too pat, but for me it was great: I enjoyed getting around the environments.

I’m somewhat less thrilled with the purpose of my getting around the environments, though. It’s a rare game that is willing to have the navigation of a complex 3-D world be its own reward, so there have to be goodies strewn about. So: collectibles, and lots of them. I’d be going through a portion of the world, and the narrative would be telling me that I should be frantically trying to save Sam, but the map would tell me that I should be trying to figure out how to reach a GPS cache hidden over in the corner somewhere.

Which certainly isn’t a problem unique to this game: right now I’m in the middle of Dragon Age: Inquisition, which has the same problem and is handling it worse. Still, as with the copious gunfights, it’s a problem.

But, as with the copious gunfights, I became more at peace with the problem towards the end of the game. I came to a situation where I felt like it was reasonable to take a breather from the main plot rush, and just explore: Lara is, after all, an archaeologist, and archaeology is the reason for the trip in the first place. So I went back to the previous environments to poke around them, finishing off my collecting.

(Side note on two things the game did right: I couldn’t go back to all previous environments, because some really only made sense as set pieces. The game wasn’t shy about inserting those set piece locations where they made sense, but it also didn’t put collectibles in them, so I didn’t have to worry about missing anything. And the second thing that the game did right, though it wasn’t obvious to me until I reached the end, is: once you’ve finished the main plot, you can still go back and explore the island to your heart’s content. That makes no sense narratively, but I don’t care, it’s clearly the right choice, one I wish more games would make.)

And those were some of my favorite moments in the game, favorite in a completely different way from the plot-driven moments. I was wandering around these lovely environments, lovely both visually and from an exploratory point of view. It was nighttime, lending a wistful atmosphere without me actually feeling lonely: instead, it felt like Lara was in her element in a completely different way from the kick-ass Lara that I’d spent most of the time with, and I liked that Lara as well. And actually the single biggest jump scare I got was during this wandering: I heard some whistling, and I realized that, for whatever reason, there actually were a few enemies left in that environment, unlike all the other ones I’d just been re-exploring.

So in that context the exploring felt great, even though it was still driven by collectibles. If I wanted to pull out some Alexandrian concepts that might make sense here: there’s Alternating Repetition between plot-driven action and plot-free exploration, with the exploration serving as a Boundary to the plot that’s thick enough to be Positive Space and a Strong Center in its own right. Or rather, that’s what I’d like it to be: the real issue that I had was that the plot was pervasive enough that, for much of the time, even though I was alternating between exploring and progressing the plot, I felt like I was actively undermining the plot by behaving that way. So I would have liked there to be more space for freedom from plot; or, alternatively, integrating the exploration better into the plot instead of having it be isolated collectibles. (I.e. more Deep Interlock and Ambiguity.)

Like, say, have more tombs, and work them into the plot. The tombs in this game were pretty odd: they were fun, but they were also short and optional. I’m not sure what went into that decision: maybe the shortness was to make sure people could solve them, or maybe the shortness was because they required one-off mechanics that needed individual crafting in a way that scattering artifacts across a level doesn’t? And maybe the optional nature is intended to make them feel like a real discovery instead of an inevitability, or maybe that’s because the game designers didn’t trust players to solve puzzles in the same way that they trust players to mow down dozens of enemies.

Still: I enjoyed the exploration, and I enjoyed the choice of elements both because of how they combined and how legible they were. And ziplines are cool.


And then there’s the plot, which I though was well done, in a way that is atypical for AAA video games. I liked Lara, I think they did a good job of presenting her as supercompetent but still needing to learn what that means, how to express that. (And both sides of that work really well in an action video game context: you want to be able to kick ass, but you also want to kick more ass as the game proceeds.) I liked the Lara/Sam arc: it was charming, it kept the plot moving, it made me uncomfortable that I was spending time poking around environments instead of rushing to save Sam. And I liked the interactions with the other crew members! (The crew member diaries made this one of the few games where narrative collectables really added something for me.)

I wasn’t a big fan of the enemies, admittedly. Not that the main enemy was badly done, I just didn’t think he was actively well done, and I had a hard time making sense of how the presence of his group (and other past groups) on the island would work in a practical sense. Also related to that was the game not being sure how far it wanted to push the horror aspect: it included a fair amount of horror aspects at the start, enough that Liesl quickly decided she didn’t want to watch the game, which I think was a little bit of a shame: that ended up not really being what the game was about, and I think she would have enjoyed watching most of the game? Or, alternatively, I can imagine the game going deeper into its horror side: trading combat off for horror would have made a lot of sense to me, it’s just not what they did. And I suppose was never going to go all-in on horror, given the desire to have Lara turn into an avenging angel as the game goes on. So, from that point of view, horror right at the start does kind of make sense?

There were a lot of impalements in the game: one right at the start, and they showed up regularly in quick time failure scenes. My first reaction was that this was cheap, inappropriate sexualization, but now I’m not so sure: maybe it’s a smart commentary on gendered violence? Ashelia had a really good post on how the game portrays violence against women; it affected her strongly and, ultimately, positively. Given her reading, I’m inclined to think that this is actually an actively good part of the game, details of the impalements and screams aside.

But I think what I liked most about the plot was the way it focused on small-scale individual interactions. There’s no saving the world from ultimate evil here: there’s a handful of people trying to survive being stranded on an island. With, admittedly, a psychopath heading up a small army, and with a remarkably competent heroine, but still: no overblown JRPG / Zelda plot, and also not the Metroid model of a smaller-scale problem being navigated by somebody effectively completely independent. The relationships are present, they matter, they’re just at a personal level.


I’m really glad I chose this as my first AAA game in a few years; many thanks to those of you on Twitter who encouraged me to play it. It showed off the way in which AAA games are a mess, but it kept that mess under control; and its polish also showed off the virtues of AAA games, and the game had real virtues entirely independent of the size of its studio.

morality play

December 28th, 2014

Single-player narrative games frequently put you on the side of somebody actively fighting for justice: I’m in the middle of Dragon Age: Inquisition right now, for example, and that game has the all-too-familiar RPG plot of a chosen one saving the world. This means means that, of Jane Jacobs’ two moral syndromes from Systems of Survival, Guardian Moral Syndrome is the correct fit, with the following list of characteristics:

  • Shun trading
  • Exert prowess
  • Be obedient and disciplined
  • Adhere to tradition
  • Respect hierarchy
  • Be loyal
  • Take vengeance
  • Deceive for the sake of the task
  • Make rich use of leisure
  • Be ostentatious
  • Dispense largess
  • Be exclusive
  • Show fortitude
  • Be fatalistic
  • Treasure honor

Going in order: “Shun trading” is actually not a great fit for RPGs, they have shopkeepers all over the plase. But the flip side is: Dragon Age is entirely typical in that item management / shopping is one of the least satisfying aspects of the game and that it’s entirely possible to do fine just grabbing the items you find as you travel and selling the ones that don’t have the biggest numbers.

“Exert prowess”: yes, you show off your powers as frequently and as capably as possible. “Be obedient and disciplined”: you’re in charge of a party, they simply do not have the choice to not do what you say, and you as the player have to color within the tight lines that the game designer gave you.

“Adhere to tradition” and “Respect hierarchy” also fall within that last vein: it’s always clear who is giving the orders, and the rigid class system of RPGs is a manifestation of the power and enforcement of traditions. Of course, in general, hierarchy goes up as well as down; but games work around that by putting the player’s avatar of being uniquely positioned to save the world, hence answerable to nobody in the hierarchy. And adherence to tradition shows up in games at a meta level as well: the way different games in a series remix the same elements over and over again.

“Be loyal” and “Take vengeance” are two sides of the same coin: they show up most strongly in BioWare companion quests, but in RPGs more broadly you know who is on your team and who isn’t, and you’ll do whatever your friends say, including righting wrongs that they’ve claimed against them. (Or in single player narrative games: I could just as easily use Tomb Raider as my example for Guardian Moral Syndrome.)

“Deceive for the sake of the task”: the hero is unconstrained by common rules. Not just the mass slaughter that you engage in, not just the subterfuge necessary to sneak into enemy fortresses, but the constant looting of noncombatants’ houses. You’re saving the world, what does it matter if you have to break a few rules along the way?

“Make rich use of leisure”, “Be ostentatious”: I suppose the former is the minigames and the sidequests that are purely for sport, while the latter is decorative armor, arranging your castle, spending money on items that have no in-game benefit? And “dispense largess” shows up every time you’re doing a fetch quest, or deciding who comes out on top in a plot choice.

“Be exclusive”: you are the chosen one, and only the most select of people are allowed to accompany you. “Show fortitude”: that’s all the trials the game throws at you. “Be fatalistic”: did I mention that you are the chosen one? And that this is all part of an inevitable grand sweep of history?

“Treasure honor”: that’s the ground assumption that underpins all of this. You are all that is good and honorable; anybody who disagrees with that is an enemy who must be stopped.


But, of course, we have another moral syndrome to consider, the Commercial Moral Syndrome:

  • Shun force
  • Come to voluntary agreements
  • Be honest
  • Collaborate easily with strangers and aliens
  • Compete
  • Respect contracts
  • Use initiative and enterprise
  • Be open to inventiveness and novelty
  • Be efficient
  • Promote comfort and convenience
  • Dissent for the sake of the task
  • Invest for productive purposes
  • Be industrious
  • Be thrifty
  • Be optimistic

The natural place in games for this syndrome is in systems-based games, frequently multiplayer, frequently board games rather than video games. “Shun force”, “Come to voluntary agreements”, “Be honest”: we’re all playing by the same rules. “Collaborate easily with strangers and aliens” and “Respect contracts” show up in the temporary alliances that multiplayer games lend themselves to, while “Compete” reminds us that, yes, we’re trying to win the game.

“Use initiative and enterprise”, “Be open to inventiveness and novelty”: we’re constantly trying out different strategies. “Be efficient” (and perhaps “Promote comfort and convenience”): those strategies aren’t just for the sake of making us happy, they’re because they’re the best way to accomplish our goals, elegantly advancing our position in as many ways as possible.

“Dissent for the sake of the task”: this is the engine of the way a healthy meta is constantly shifting. “Invest for productive purposes” is every time you spend your in-game currency on improvements instead of armies. (Or, at a meta level, it’s every hour you spend going over other players’ games, practicing life-and-death problems, trying to get the different achievements in Hoplite not for the sake of an achievement or even for the sake of an unlocked power-up but for what it teaches you about the space of play.) “Be industrious”, “be thrifty”: every piece you place on the board has to be put to good use. And finally, “Be optimistic”: always throw yourself back into the game, treating losses as learning experiences that will help you in your future matches.


Two tweets from the last few months: @metasynthie talking about how gaters see themselves as the player character fighting NPCs, and @m_kopas talking about how games don’t teach you how to read systems, they teach you how to willingly participate in them. Guardian Moral Syndrome games in particular fall into this latter pit over and over again: they do an excellent job of teaching you how to be a good guardian while so rarely taking a step back and even asking whether what you’re fighting for is right, let alone whether the ends justify the means.

I’m writing this at the end of an awful year, a year most recently characterized by the New York Police Department saying that they are at war, at war with both the elected leadership of the city and with the people who live in that city. Maybe their discouragement of guardian moral reflection makes games the perfect medium to express this moment in time.


December 22nd, 2014

So: Hearthstone. Gameplay-wise, it seems like a stripped-down Magic; and while it’s probably unfair for me to compare the games to Netrunner, it looks like Hearthstone has a lot fewer options for how to approach the game. And it’s designed to make you spend money to get better cards; the first time I was playing against an opponent and I ran into a card that was exactly the same as one of the core cards except it did more stuff, I knew this really wasn’t the game for me.

I’ve heard people talk about how polished it is; on the one hand, it is, but on the other hand, it’s not a style of polish that I like, and in particular the voice acting grated on me. And the deck builder doesn’t work with the way I like to build decks (include lots of stuff and then throw out extras); I’m sure there are online deck builders, but the CCG aspect means that they won’t have the right set of cards for me.

Not that it doesn’t have virtues: I had some interesting games when I started holding onto more cards in my hand, and I’m sure there’s a lot more for me to learn. But it’s not my style, I’m not going to get hooked on it the way several of my friends are.

systems of survival

December 18th, 2014

I’d been feeling insufficiently empathetic recently, like there are a lot of people out there whose belief systems are alien to me; so I decided that it was time to reread Jane Jacobs’s Systems of Survival. It’s an interesting book: its thesis is that, while there are certain concepts that show up more or less across the board in lists of virtues (she doesn’t give an exhaustive list, but examples she gives are cooperation, courage, moderation, mercy, common sense, foresight, judgment, competence, perseverance, faith, energy, patience, wisdom), there are also some concepts that show up frequently but not at all universally, and that these other concepts cluster into two groups.

She labels the first cluster as the “Commercial Moral Syndrome”, though she says the precepts also show up in scientific work. Those virtues are:

  • Shun force
  • Come to voluntary agreements
  • Be honest
  • Collaborate easily with strangers and aliens
  • Compete
  • Respect contracts
  • Use initiative and enterprise
  • Be open to inventiveness and novelty
  • Be efficient
  • Promote comfort and convenience
  • Dissent for the sake of the task
  • Invest for productive purposes
  • Be industrious
  • Be thrifty
  • Be optimistic

And she labels the second cluster as the “Guardian Moral Syndrome”:

  • Shun trading
  • Exert prowess
  • Be obedient and disciplined
  • Adhere to tradition
  • Respect hierarchy
  • Be loyal
  • Take vengeance
  • Deceive for the sake of the task
  • Make rich use of leisure
  • Be ostentatious
  • Dispense largess
  • Be exclusive
  • Show fortitude
  • Be fatalistic
  • Treasure honor

That second syndrome is, in many ways, foreign to me, and I wouldn’t associate the word “moral” with much of that. (Ostentation, obedience, hierarchy, and vengeance are not high on my list of virtues.) But that’s one of her points: not only are some moral virtues not universal, there are actually these big clumps of moral virtues that oppose each other. And her other point is that each of these clusters has its own natural space: if you’re trying to sell stuff or make stuff, then the first cluster is more likely to guide you successfully, whereas if you’re trying to protect or lead people, then the second cluster is a better fit.

And there are certain situations where I’ll slip into virtues from the second group without even thinking about it. I try to be loyal to my family and friends; or if a group that I feel like part of is threatened, I’ll at least fantasize about vengeance, and may well actually engage in it.


Certainly that second syndrome is relevant to two of the horrors that have flooded my timeline in the second half of this year: Gamergate and police killings. The most sympathetic part of Gamergate is people who feel that something important to them (traditional AAA games) is being threatened: so they want to guard that, in ways that include adhering to tradition, respecting hierarchy, taking vengeance, deceiving for the sake of the task, and so forth. And the less sympathetic part of Gamergate is misogynist assholes who also feel that something important to them (male dominance) is threatened; again, the same response. I’m sure that there are people involved in the movement who are coming from places that have no relation to any moral syndrome, and at any rate linking behavior with natural group protection reactions is not a defense of that behavior; but it’s one route into getting a picture of what’s going on that doesn’t start off with pure antagonism. (If that’s what you want; honestly, I don’t see any real reason not to be purely antagonistic towards Gamergate.)

And similarly for police killings. Again, the sympathetic picture: most policemen (I was going to use a gender neutral term there, but, well) have that job because they do want to be guardians of society, and they want that for noble reasons. And with that, they want obedience and discipline, they’ll exert prowess, they’ll show fortitude, they’ll show vengeance and deceive for the sake of the task. I’m hard pressed to say that any of those are inappropriate for police; even vengeance and deception have their place when going undercover to take down a criminal kingpin. But they all have their bad sides, too: humane, consistent obedience to laws is one thing, but obedience to police as police no matter what they do is something rather more sinister. And, of course, police killings have also shown a much worse version of guardian syndrome, namely guarding white supremacy: it’s fucked up, but fucked up in a way that’s consistent with the guardian moral syndrome.


All sympathies aside, both Gamergate and police killings are pretty messed up at their core: misogyny and white supremacy are terrible, with terrible direct consequences. And, unfortunately, my read of Jacobs’ book is that she’s helping shed light on why those problems are so deeply rooted, in the face of their immorality. And I do think that you can make a case that part of the reason why I label them as immoral is rooted in the universal virtues that Jacobs doesn’t spend much time on: e.g. probably some variant of “help people who have less power” would be on a list of generic moral virtues if she were to make one. (Though it isn’t on the list of examples that I copied from above, the closest there is probably mercy.)

But when you look at the two syndromes, neither of them does very well with that problem. The guardian moral syndrome is about guarding and leading a group; if you’re on the outside of the group, then that prowess and vengeance and deception will be used against you, largess will never be dispensed your way, and honor will be defined in a way such that you can’t satisfy it. And even if you’re in the group but are one of the people being guarded / led instead of the guardians / leaders, then your role is obedience, you’re supposed to look up when respecting the hierarchy, and the largess is dispensation that you should be grateful and even grovel for.

Of course, that’s what I would say as somebody more drawn to the commercial moral syndrome. And the commercial moral syndrome has nice things to say about problems of inequality: instead of the powerful imposing by force, you should have voluntary agreements, you should collaborate even with people outside of your group, you should be open to novelty.

But the baseline assumption of the commercial moral syndrome is that there is a level playing field: that we can come to meaningful voluntary agreements, that we can compete on a fair playing field, that we all have the capital to invest with. As a good liberal, I’d like those things to be the case; but that good liberal status, when combined with my social position, means that it’s very easy to be blind to the many many ways in which that level playing field doesn’t exist at all. And I don’t think the commercial moral syndrome gives a useful guide for how to get there: at best, it’s a picture of where I’d like us to be, but the syndrome doesn’t work to uncover differences between reality and that picture nor tell us a way to work to narrow those differences in the face of resistance. (And I suspect that narrowing those differences will require a large dose of guardian moral syndrome behavior; it took a war to make slavery illegal in the US, for example.) Ta-Nehisi Coates’s The Case for Reparations did a great job of showing how easy it is for the commercial moral syndrome to ignore these problems, to actively work in favor of inequality.


Interesting book. And a crappy half-year, though the problems that it’s brought to the fore have been around for centuries, it unfortunately sometimes takes a lot for people like me to start noticing just how bad things are.


December 4th, 2014

Our November VGHVI Symposium game was Antichamber. It’s a game that had been on my radar for years (I saw an early version of it under the name Hazard: The Journey of Life at GDC in 2010); I avoided it for platform reasons when it got released, but I was happy that Dan gave me a nudge to play it.

So I didn’t come into the game completely cold, but I also didn’t know too much about the game in advance. I remembered something about the geometric oddities of the game, but I didn’t really realize the prominence of the block puzzles in the game. And I seemed to remember something about the earnestness of the game (as in the original subtitle), but I didn’t expect the messages scattered all over the game, or the charming pictures that accompanied them.


Those messages ended up being what surprised me most about the game; Roger and I ended up spending a fair amount of time arguing about them. Because, no question: those messages are incredibly trite. Trite to the extent that the natural question isn’t why I found them interesting, the question is why I didn’t actively dislike them.

But yet I did like them. Part of that is because: I do have a soft spot for that sort of thing. I like to come back to simple rules and principles, and, honestly, a lot of what the game says speaks to me. My life this millennium has not been what I would have predicted in many ways (and, of course, has been what I would have predicted in many other ways); so yes, “Taking one path often means missing out on another”, “A path may not be right or wrong. It may just be different”, “Life has a way of pushing us in the right direction”. Though, as I quote those, there’s not even necessarily a coherent message: are we worried about a right direction or not? But that, too, is okay: life doesn’t always have to fit into a coherent narrative, especially while you’re in the middle of it.

Still: I would never want to read those messages by themselves, and while those pictures helped, they don’t help nearly enough. There are a few ways to present messages like that that I would accept: one would be to have them underlying a richer narrative, another might be to leave them stripped down while adding a little more poetry to them. But Antichamber takes a third route, one which is something that video games are particularly well suited to but rarely do: it presents the message in a context of genuine uncertainty.


Take “If you never stop trying, you will get there eventually” as an example. I said above that part of me likes the messages, but that’s actually one of the messages that I don’t particularly like: it really isn’t the case that trying is enough to make something work. At any rate, if an author wanted to present that message via a story, they’d probably have some plucky hero overcoming adversity; you’d know how it was going to turn out when you started reading it, though. Or in a video game, you’d perhaps have a particularly long stretch of enemies; you’d know you’d make it through them, you just don’t know how long it would take. (And you’d probably be bored the whole time.)

I encountered that in a different context in Antichamber, though. It was towards the start of the game; the main things that I’d learned by then are that I really do sometimes hit dead ends, and that the geometry doesn’t make sense. In particular, I’d run into a situation where I went down a hall, turned around, went back, and ended up somewhere other than where I started.

And then I encountered a circular passage, with the aforementioned message in front of it. I could go in either direction around that circle; I picked one direction, went around the circle, and I wasn’t surprised to find that, when I’d gone a full rotation, I wasn’t back at the entrance. Instead, the circle continued, with a different picture and message, saying “Some choices can leave us running around in circles.” So: am I supposed to be persistent, or am I just biting my tail? (Shades of the beginnings of Enchanter.) I went around another couple of times, and I just saw that same second message taunting me, so I decided to go back.

When I went back, I did make it back to the entrance (but the game was keeping track of the number of times I’d gone around, I had to go back the same number of revolutions.) I looked around the entrance just to see if anything had changed, but nothing obvious had; I went the other direction, and had a similar experience. I think I came back to the entrance one more time, but then I decided to just keep on going around the circle, and eventually I made it out. And, when I made it out, I was greeted with a message saying “Raw persistence may be the only option other than giving up entirely.”

There are a few things I like about this. One is that I really didn’t know what I was supposed to do, what the game was going to do: the ground rules were sufficiently unsettled that it could have been a dead end, it could have required some sort of backing and forthing, there could have been a secret passage on the wall (later on there are walls that you can only go through by backing through them!), it could have required me to go around the circle 20 times instead of however many (5?) it actually was, or one direction could have been endless while the other could have been finite. (Actually, I supposed I don’t even know that that last possibility isn’t the case – maybe I just got lucky!) The second is that, by throwing so many messages at me, the game avoided presenting “persistence always leads to success” as some glorious universal truth: like it said in this segment, sometimes you’re just running around in circles, and there’s a message elsewhere in the game that says “Some choices leave us running around a lot without really getting anywhere.” And if you put those two together, then it lets me get past the banality of this message and accept it on more positive terms: it really is true sometimes that I feel like I’m going through a plateau when trying to figure something out, that I don’t know if I’ll ever make it past or if I’m doing anything useful at all; and in many (but by no means all) of those situations, if I keep on pushing at things, then eventually I’ll have some sort of breakthrough.


Actually, that particular experience ended up being a pretty good mirror for my experience with the game. Because I’d frequently have situations where I really didn’t know what to do: I’d be pretty sure I couldn’t advance on most of the places I could reach, I’d have an idea of two or three places where it seemed conceivable that there was a puzzle I could pass if I thought about it enough, and I’d also suspect that I was wrong about a few of the places in the first category (i.e. that I actually could progress even though I was pretty sure I couldn’t), I just didn’t know which. So I’d spend time wandering around (and that wandering around is more/differently stressful in this game than in most other games, because of the difficulty of forming a mental or physical map), and eventually I’d find a way to progress.

I’d both progress on the puzzle and progress on a conceptual level, e.g. my understanding of maps in the game improved. But my understanding of it as a puzzle game also improved: in particular, it now feels to me like there are two sorts of puzzle games mixed into Antichamber, one involving messing with your understanding of space, and one about playing with blocks. (Combined with a third sort of meta puzzle game about your experiences!) And, as it turns out, I’m not completely sold on either of those puzzle games. The problem with the “messing with space” puzzle game is that there aren’t any real ground rules: there’s nothing in the system that means that the way to advance in one situation isn’t to go up and down a hallway five times, stop in the middle, face one wall and try to back through the other. That’s a contrived example which is much worse than anything the game did (or at least anything the game did that I actually figured out!), but the point is: I was at the mercy of the game designer a little more than I liked.

The block puzzle game was much more under control, though even there I was a little disturbed that I couldn’t reliably predict in what situations I’d create a chain disappearance of green blocks. But there I ran into a different problem: some of those block puzzles seemed to want a pretty long and potentially tedious sequence of actions, and some of those actions required excessively fiddly controls. I’m sure it’s mostly just an artifact of my gaming setup, but puzzles that involve tracing out sequences with the middle mouse button held down are not something I particularly enjoy: not being a PC gamer, I have a motley collection of mice around, and pressing down a scroll wheel while being asked to guide things ended up actually breaking the mouse I’d been using.


At any rate: I gave up eventually. I was most of the way to the end, I think I’d even unlocked the last color of blocks? But I didn’t feel like working on red block puzzles, I didn’t feel like trying to figure out more spacial puzzles, and I didn’t feel like looking things up in walkthroughs. So I took stock, decided that I’d enjoyed the experience I’d had so far but that it was time for that experience to come to an end.

Which is a pretty unusual reaction for me: I’m a fairly strict completist. But the thing about Antichamber is: I felt that the game supported me even in that choice! To quote a few more of the game’s messages: “Life isn’t about getting to the end”, “Live on your own watch, not on someone else’s”, and “If you don’t like where you’ve ended up, try doing something else”. Right then, following those messages felt like a better choice for me personally than following messages about persistence, and I appreciated the game for being open to that interpretation, for giving me several pleasant and instructive hours and then graciously letting me go.

freecell and addictive games

November 30th, 2014

FreeCell is, in its own way, one of the best games ever designed. I am not aware of any other puzzle game which does such a good job of balancing three factors:

  1. The game should be based on random seeds.
  2. Almost all random seeds should be solvable.
  3. The search for that solution should be rewardingly deep.

To expand on that third point: puzzle games are approachable via exhaustive search, so the fun comes in coming up with rules that let you prune that search while leaving enough scope for judgment that the pruning doesn’t become routine. In a lot of my favorite puzzle games, that judgment can be expressed in the form of theorems about the game: I love Slitherlink because I was still discovering new theorems about it after playing it for months. Nurikabe doesn’t lend itself to as many theorems as Slitherlink does, but both games have a real pleasure in the interplay between pattern matching to apply rules locally, using a more global judgment to figure out where to apply your rules to solve the game most quickly, and figuring out where to try an exhaustive search if your rules don’t suggest any obvious next move.

FreeCell is different, though: there aren’t really any theorems per se other than figuring out what size stacks you can move in the presence of a given number of open spaces. Instead, it all comes down to pure positional judgment: what sorts of moves are going to increase the organization of the game board in a way that actually helps solve the game. And this lends itself to all sorts of wonderful tensions: do you try to increase organization by moving as many cards as possible to the foundations? Do you try to increase organization by increasing the number of sequences that you have built up on the board? The former is the obvious strategy; the latter, in general, turns out to be better, but if you go too far in that direction then you can end up with sequences that are too big to ever move them, leading in turn to a search for ways in which to cleverly break them up to move them by components. Or then there’s the desire to maintain options: normally, you want to maintain as many options as possible, which leads to interesting consequences like not always playing a card to the foundation if that will leave your stacks uneven, but you can’t leave options open forever: eventually you’ll have to do something that reduces your options while increasing your organization, and hope that it turns out well. (And FreeCell is a game where an undo button is necessary, I think.)

In fact, this latter tension is present at the very beginning: you’ll almost immediately have to play a card up to a cell, which decreases your options, and you’ll rarely have four cells available to you again; so there’s this delicate balancing act where having two cells filled is generally fine, you’ll sometimes go for long stretches with three filled (and you’ll constantly be temporarily spiking up to all four being filled), but you’re playing with fire with three filled, and sometimes even keeping two filled for a long period of time is too much. Also, the organized cards are covering unorganized cards; and frequently, there’s a card you need down in that unorganized section, buried deeply enough that your organization is hurting you rather than helping you. So sometimes you’ll explore path after path, find them not quite working, push one of them to the limit, and then finally things will cascade out into happiness. Sometimes even that doesn’t seem to work, so you’ll have to fall back to a less common technique; I’m always pleased and surprised when I think I’m stuck and realize that I can cut deeply by playing down two of the suits at the expense of the other two suits.

And this is all in the context of a game that is based on a random seed, almost always solvable, but where a decent proportion of the time the random seeds still give you (or at least give me) interesting games and where the straightforward games go through quickly enough and pleasantly enough that you don’t mind. It’s an amazing balancing act.


Despite how much I enjoy and respect FreeCell, though: I don’t always feel good about myself when I’m playing it. There’s been some number of attacks against “addictive” games this year; many of those attacks feel to me like they’re coming from a polemical basis that is routed in a political position that I disagree with, but still: if some games really are addictive, then that on the face of it sounds like a bad thing.

So: what contributes to making a game addictive? Intermittent rewards are a classic technique: our brains are wired to respond to intermittent rewards even more strongly than reliable rewards, and games frequently use that to keep us playing in hopes that things will turn out better next time. (Or, alternatively: if we just got lucky, then that reminds us why we want to keep on playing as well!) Sometimes this is transparently manipulative, e.g. in the case of random loot drops, and I try to stay away from games like that; but any game with a random component is going to raise the possibility that the play experience will turn out more to your liking if the next roll of the virtual dice is different, and FreeCell’s random seeds are no exception to that.

Short play length is another thing that I find contributes to games that I find addictive. (Where I’m using “addictive” in a naive sense of “I pick them up and/or continue to play them even when part of me feels that that’s not what I should be doing right then”; I don’t pretend to know anything about any more formal notion of addiction.) If a game only takes 30 seconds or two minutes or even ten minutes to play, then it’s easy to pick up when I have a bit of free time, easy to keep on playing even after some lull in external activity has passed. (Or: easy to spend way too much time playing on the toilet.) Again, FreeCell qualifies: I think it’s a great game, but that doesn’t mean that I want it repeatedly worming its way into cracks in my day, let alone enlarging those cracks.

(And then there’s a special variant of that last one: games with multiple goals at overlapping time scales, some of which are short. Games that go all in on that are, mercifully, rare, but there’s a reason why I haven’t played a Civilization game for years, despite how good I think that series is.)


Still: a lot of the reason why I go through periodic FreeCell binges (or binges of other puzzle games) is because I do find them rewarding. And, also: there’s nothing wrong with playing through a game just for the pleasure of doing the right moves, even if I’m not learning much from doing so. A lot of this summer, I wasn’t in shape to do much of anything that required thought; I was quite glad to have the collective works of the fine folks at Conceptis to give me something to do. But the flip side is: longer form works are good, too, a lot of the time I get more out of reading a book than out of playing yet another puzzle in the same puzzle game. So I should listen to what my brain is telling me, I should try to figure out what will nourish me most at any given time.


November 18th, 2014

We’ve been without dogs for almost three years now; Yosha and Zippy were wonderful, but we wanted a bit of space. Not too much space, though: we knew that we’d be getting another dog or two in a few years, it was only a question of when. Last winter, we took advantage of of not having dogs in the house to remodel the kitchen, and this summer we remodeled one of the bathrooms; with that, the house was in good shape, so we figured the disruption was over and it was time to get another dog.

Another poodle, to be specific. Partly because they’re a breed that Liesl isn’t allergic to and partly because, well, poodles. Maybe we’d even get two poodles: having both Yosha and Zippy was great, though it was also fine that Zippy came along three years after Yosha.

My back troubles threw a bit of a wrench in the plans: getting a dog while I couldn’t even sit down without being in pain didn’t sound too smart. But after a couple of months of being free from pain, it seemed like time.

And we didn’t have any external commitments this past weekend, so towards the end of last week we started looking around. Rescue dogs were one possibility, but there were almost no poodles around in local shelters. We got Yosha and Zippy at a pet store, but, what with the bad rap that puppy mills have, pet stores are a lot less likely to carry dogs these days. So we searched a bit for breeders; poodle breeders, as it turns out, are not very good web site designers / SEO experts, but the American Kennel Club had a handy search page.

A couple of phone calls later, we were talking to a breeder named Oksana Fagenboym who had five puppies over in the east bay. They were standard sized poodles, which was larger than we were tentatively thinking, but we figured we might as well drive over to meet them on Saturday.


And her dogs were amazing. The grownup dog we met (their mother) was very nice, and all of the puppies were fabulous: energetic (but not over-the-top so), friendly, affectionate, great to be around. So, in short order, we decided that we’d made the right choice: based on what we were seeing, it was pretty clear that these were all great dogs, the only question was which one. (And one rather than two was the right number: we need to figure out how much space one standard poodle takes up before adding a second.) Honestly, that last choice was mostly at random, but we ended up with one lovely puppy.


So we returned with a more populated car than we arrived in. We named him Widget, and he’s fabulous. Friendly, cuddly, but surprisingly mellow for a puppy and surprisingly well-adjusted for a poodle. (Admittedly, Yosha and Zippy were both distinctive in that last regard, so our standards may not be well calibrated.) He was a bit quiet and unsure while dealing with the transition, but he handled it remarkably well, and three days later he’s settled in great.

And it’s super nice at a primal level, too: having another warm, friendly body who’s there and who is glad you are there is very comforting indeed. I missed having poodles around, good to be restarting that, and I’m looking forward to learning more about Widget as he grows up.

We have many good years ahead of us.

is it time to upgrade consoles?

October 25th, 2014

When the new consoles came out, I had zero interest in getting one: I hadn’t been playing AAA games much, and nothing on the new consoles caught my eye at all. And that continued for quite a long time: until I started playing Tomb Raider a few weeks ago, I hadn’t played a newish console game since Papa & Yo in January 2013, and I hadn’t played a newish AAA console game since Dragon Age II in October 2012. (And of course what I like about both of those was how they stepped away from the standard AAA space!) It’s a year later, and I’d been pretty much in the same position: if you’d asked me a month ago, I would have had no idea when or if I’d get machines from this generation of console.

But a few things have made me change my stance recently. One is Tomb Raider: I’m glad I played it, and it’s reminding me what I like about console gaming. The second is Rocksmith 2014: it was announced for the Xbox One with DLC portability, so if I switch over to the Xbox One, I’ll be able to stop using the 360 except for special occasions. The third is Dragon Age: Inquisition: I’d assumed I’d play it on the 360 so I could import my save files, but they’re handling imports through the cross-platform Dragon Age Keep, so there’s no reason to stay on the same generation, as far as I can tell. (Actually, I’m a little annoyed at how they’re handling save games: if I’m reading the FAQ correctly, there’s no save file import into the keep, I’m supposed to remember my choices and enter them in by hand? Ugh.) Finally, Brendan’s post on Alien: Isolation has gotten me quite curious about that game, so that’s another game I’d just as soon play on the new generation.

So, basically: I’m assuming that I actually will play another AAA game soon, so I might as well do that on a new console so it will look spiffy? Right now, games I’m interested in are still being released on the older consoles, but at some point that will change, so I might as well upgrade now. But then when I started looking into that, I got a little less sure: I’d forgotten that the Xbox One was still $400, there’s the purchase paralysis from my not being sure if I want the Kinect version, and based on last generation I’ll certainly be able to get a console for cheaper if I wait a year and it might even be a smaller, better-designed version of the same console. And, also, while I don’t think I’ll particularly mind losing my progress in Rocksmith 2014, there are a few songs I like that I’ll have to unlock again; if I wait another year, maybe I can switch consoles at the same time as another Rocksmith comes out? (Or I might pause playing guitar at some time over the next year, too.) All of these make me think that maybe I should stick with the 360 for a while longer, waiting for things to shake out.

I dunno. I’ll probably end up getting an Xbox One when Dragon Age: Inquisition comes out; but I am annoyed at the save game thing, so if there isn’t save game portability and if Inquisition ends up feeling more like the first Dragon Age than the second one then I might just wait a while on that game. And if I do that, then I might as well wait for a price drop: there are enough interesting games out there on consoles I already have that I won’t be bored…

interviews and whiteboard coding

October 22nd, 2014

I talked with a friend of mine at Agile Open California a couple of weeks ago who was bemused by an interview he’d had recently: the company had asked him to do a programming exercise in advance, which he enjoyed and was looking forward to talking about with them during the in-person portion of the interview. But when he showed up, they didn’t talk about that exercise at all, his interviewers just threw whiteboard coding questions at him. Which didn’t impress him: why would they pass up an opportunity to discuss programming in more depth and in a more concrete way in favor of an exercise that is shallower and less representative of real programming work?

I’ve always been at companies that spend most of their interview time doing whiteboard coding; but I’ll have to agree, that doesn’t make a lot of sense. I do spend some time asking behavioral questions, and some time asking questions about architectures of systems that people have been involved in; but the latter also feels artificial to me, because when I get an answer that I don’t find informative, I’m never sure if it’s because the person in question just isn’t good at explaining things or if they don’t really understand the pros and cons of the system in question in depth. Also, we want to let a good number of people talk to the candidate and to be respectful of the candidate’s time (both in person and at home); both of those lend themselves to relatively short questions. So I’ve found it too easy to end up with whiteboard coding, and if I’m not careful, with pretty simplistic whiteboard coding at that.

So yeah, I should try to be a more thoughtful interviewer. But I should also try to be a more thoughtful interviewee! Because: I’m in general quite good at whiteboard coding, and I also tend to think I’m a good programmer, but I’m not at all convinced that my programming strengths have much to do with my ability to do whiteboard coding. I think I’m a good programmer because I’m good at refactoring, good at testing, good at incremental development, good at getting at underlying structures in code; whereas I’m good at whiteboard coding because I had lots of practice with math contests teaching me to quickly come up with simple algorithm answers. I enjoy whiteboard coding fine on its own, and I also enjoy performing well on tasks, which means that I come out of interviews like that with a bit of a buzz; but I’m not at all convinced that companies which fill their interviews with questions like that are ones where I’d be happiest or where I’d learn the most.

So maybe the next time I’m looking for a job, I should pay closer attention to the kinds of questions I’m asked in interviews. Because if I don’t do that, I’ll end up selecting for companies that are, in turn, selecting for a very narrow profile. (“Top” schools in a conventional sense, thinks quickly on their feet in a sort of jousting fashion, has a startup pedigree.) And the fact that I happen to fit that profile well doesn’t mean that that’s the sort of job I should be looking for, whether for enjoyment reasons or for “stretching myself” reasons.

trying to make sense of the apple watch

October 19th, 2014

Apple showed off the Apple Watch last month; they were the first company to really figure out smartphones, they were the first company to really figure out tablets, so are they going to do the same with smart watches? And, if so, what does that mean? We’re obviously quite some distance away from knowing the answer to that, but still, I’m really curious what’s going on here.

The obvious part of the watch story is: it extends their range of screen sizes. Which makes sense on its own, but it’s particularly interesting right now after the iPhone size increase: even with an iPhone 6 I’m noticing that I use my iPad at home significantly less than I had been, and the iPhone 6 Plus is surely going to eat significantly into iPad Mini sales. But the 6 Plus is also too large to fit into most people’s pockets; and, as my daughter frequently reminds me, even the smaller phone models are too large to fit into the pockets of half the people on the planet. So there’s definitely room for a smaller screen that’s always accessible.

A smaller screen is only useful if you can do something with that smaller screen, though! Or, rather, with that smaller device: smart of Apple to think about how having something on your wrist enables a wider range of touch notifications. Still, there’s the question of what the job is to be done: I sure don’t know the answer there; when I think about how I use my phone, there’s very little there that I would want to do on a watch. And, watching the Apple event, I kind of think that they’re not sure either: there’s a ridiculous number of icons on the screen, and while some of the apps seemed cool, the presentation didn’t do a good job of telling a focused, compelling story around the watch. (See episode 17 of Exponent for more complaints about this, e.g. their alternate version of a product introduction 56 minutes into the podcast.)

What I’m not sure is to what extent having a clear job to be done matters. Or rather: I’m sure that it does matter, having a compelling story and vision is one of the reasons why Apple’s entries into product categories are so much more effective than other companies’ entries. And maybe the lack of a compelling story is part of the reason why the iPad has stagnated? But the flip side is: Apple’s iPhone event told a great story about being a great iPod, a great phone, and a great web browser, but that’s not where I spend most of my time on my iPhone these days, and in fact I almost never use those first two pieces of functionality. Instead, there are a handful of super compelling apps that I use, which the original iPhone didn’t even allow!

So maybe predicting the jobs to be done in advance isn’t what’s so important. What’s important instead is perhaps coming up with a few good interaction models, coming up with some examples of how to use those interaction models, and then watching what other people do with them? And the watch does have a couple of interesting interaction methods, I suspect Apple will do a good job of providing apps that show users and developers what’s possible with those interaction methods, and hopefully the app store will do the rest.

And opening up possibilities for third-party developers is something where 2014 Apple is on fire: this year’s WWDC was super exciting with the range of technologies introduced, with them bringing those technologies to both iOS and OSX whenever that made sense, with a significantly increased ease of communication both between applications and between devices, and a whole new programming language to build on. So tools are there for developers: and in particular tools for communication between different classes of devices are going to be very important for the Apple Watch, especially on early cell-less models. I have no idea what will blow me away on the watch the way Tweetie did on the iPhone, but I have a lot of confidence in both the developers and the tools.


But the announcement interests me more because of the context it puts the Apple Watch in: the announcement puts the Watch in a watch context and in a fashion context. A lot of the tech press coverage seemed bemused my the amount of time the presentation spent on the watchiness of the Watch, in particular on the astronomy-focused watch face. But I like the respect that shows for tradition: if you’re entering an arena whose roots go back thousands of years, then why not make a nod to that history? It’s a welcome counterweight to the Silicon Valley tech arrogance that thinks that we can march in anywhere and show people how to do things: let’s acknowledge that we’re working in a context, and that that context has value.

And the fashion context of the watch is even more interesting. Again, returning to Silicon Valley norms: we’ll look up our noses at conventional versions of fashion, you’ll do better in an interview if you’re wearing a scruffy t-shirt and jeans than if you’re wearing clothing that sends an overt signal that you spend time focusing on your choice of attire. (And pity the programmer who shows up at a job interview wearing a suit or wearing makeup and perfume.) This is, of course, fashion as well, and it has the potential to be a particularly oppressive one: not fashion as self-expression but fashion as insistence on avoidance of certain types of self-expression or signaling.

Apple’s been in an interesting position here. They clearly care a lot about the design of their objects in all senses: how it feels to use them, to look at them, to touch them, and yes, to be seen with them. The iPhone 4 was amazing to feel, I love the curves around the edges of the iPhone 6, the MacBook Air and recent MacBook Pros have been gloriously thin, and I still have fond memories of the second generation iPod Nano. But Apple’s small product line, their remarkable hegemony, and the desire to always buy the most recent version for purely technical reasons combine to mean that you don’t have a lot of choices compared to any healthy fashion environment.

They’ve taken some steps in that direction. Going back a bit, the original iMac came in a range of colors; they’ve generally stepped away from that in their computers (though I wouldn’t be surprised at all if color choices start reappearing), but they had a decent range of color options in their cheaper iPods, they added color choices last year to their cheaper iPhones, and they’ve started expanding the range of color options in their more expensive iPhones as well. And, moving beyond color, you’ve been able to purchase iPods in a lot of shapes and sizes over the years, again with more experimentation on the cheaper range of the line. I get the impression that Apple is now much more willing to produce a range of options for similar devices than they have been in the past; I’m not sure why, maybe it’s simply an issue of focusing on that sort of choice, maybe they’re now more confident in their ability to forecast demand, maybe they have short enough manufacturing cycles to be able to respond to unexpanded demand?

Still, there are limits to the amount of styling choice that Apple allows. Part of that comes down to the very nature of the iPhone: by its nature, one side of the device is going to be dominated by a big piece of glass. And the watch suffers from the same problem: the display is important, the display is also featureless. (At least if it’s turned off: both devices, when turned on, can be personalized much more than a traditional physical device!) But part of that is Apple’s opinionated nature.

Like I said, though, I think that aspect of Apple’s nature is changing: they’re not going all grab bag, but they’re producing a wider range of options. That certainly is the case with the watch: they’ve never launched a product line with that number of choices. Which works well with the nature of a watch: it’s out there on your body for you and other people to see (instead of being hidden in your pocket most of the time), and the strap is much more visible than the back of a phone is.

So: lots of choices, compared to the norm for Apple products. And not just choices of colors, which we’ve seen on a few different product lines of theirs, but the different straps differ substantially in materials, in design, even going down to the level of how the wristbands close.

And, of course, a range of prices as well. Nobody knows how much the Watch Edition models will cost; the smallest reasonable guesses I’ve heard put it at $1500-$2000 based just on the cost of the metal, but the guesses pegging it at $10,000 based on comparable models in the current luxury watch market seem just as well grounded to me. And, on the one hand, the idea of a $10,000 Apple Watch boggles my mind; but on the other hand, there’s a part of it that I like. I totally get where Marco Arment is coming from when he said on an Accidental Tech Podcast episode that he can’t imagine owning one or seeing any of his friends own one; but to me, that’s mostly a reflection of the insularity of the tech scene. We’re supposed to care about certain aspects of goods and not supposed to care about other aspects of goods, and that approved list of aspects comes from social norms, social norms that are very much influenced by gender and cultural norms, including valorization of stereotypical geek behavior. (Insert snarky comment about “meritocracy” here.)


Still: $10,000 sounds like a lot of dollars to me, too, especially for an item with such a short lifespan. I don’t actually expect the Edition models to be that expensive, but I’m also sure that the Edition models will be priced such that I’m extremely unlikely to get one. But I do wonder if there’s a way to soften that blow.

As I said above: one of the reason why Apple has such a limited range of designs is that there’s only one or two designs available for a given device at any given point in time. But, over time, designs can differ quite a bit more: look at all the different versions of the iPod Nano or iPod Shuffle, for example. So I still think the second generation iPod Nano or the iPhone 4 look great; unfortunately, that doesn’t translate into a range of currently viable options, because I wouldn’t want to buy a new phone with years-old technology.

With the watch, though, I think the story might be a little different: the fact that it has to fit on your wrist means that we won’t see iPod Nano / iPod Shuffle levels of form-factor experimentation, and it might even guard against the size bloat that we’ve seen on the phones. So I expect the primary functional differentiating factor over generations of watches to be the electronics inside, with perhaps the quality of the screen and sensors a secondary differentiating factor.

In a recent episode of the Talk Show, John Gruber and Ben Thompson talked about the possibility of having the watch be upgradable; I hadn’t even considered that idea before they brought it up, but it does seem doable. By far the fastest changing component will be the electronics: the CPU/GPU, the memory, the storage, the radios. (Plus the battery necessary to power all of that!) But the one constant in that realm is that those electronics will get smaller at least as quickly as they’ll improve in quality: is it really outlandish to consider the idea that the electronics might be modular enough to be able to fit the 2016 electronics, or even the 2020 electronics, into the 2015 watch chassis? It would be a significant design / engineering challenge, but if you start with that as a constraint, it should be doable. (Heck, for all I know that’s why the watch seems like it’s a little thicker than one expects a 2014/2015 Apple product to be.)

If the watches are upgradable, suddenly high prices make more sense. They make more sense from a value-for-the-price point of view, but they also emphasize the quality and fashion stories that the expensive models are telling. I imagine Apple will sell only a limited number of styles in any given year, but I also imagine that those styles will change significantly every two years or so, at least at the beginning. That means that there will be people who say “the Apple Watch 3 was the best-looking model” and who want to hold on to theirs for years or will be willing to spend quite a lot of money to buy a second-hand one once they’re no longer available. I doubt that that would be enough to convince me to buy an Edition watch (though who knows, I’d probably consider it the next time I’m at a startup that gets bought, the Rose Gold version and the Gold and Red versions of the watch are gorgeous), but upgradeability combined with the styling of the stainless steel and the Milanese loop would be enough to push me into buying the regular model over either buying the Sport model or not buying a watch at all.


I’m not at all sure that the watch is going to be upgradable: that would be quite a constraint for Apple to put themselves under, and maybe just having the bands work across generations (which I’m pretty sure will be the case) will be enough of a nod towards longevity, given that the bands are the most visible part of the devices’ style? But the Apple Watch does seem like it could be an interesting step from computers as functional, transient objects towards computers as objects that are integrated into the richness of our lives.


Some posts and podcasts on the Apple Watch that I’ve found interesting:

desert golfing

October 14th, 2014

I really don’t know what to make of Desert Golfing. I spent a while playing it, it has the sort of “one more level” feel that games based on micro levels lend themselves to. But the levels veered around so much: most are straightforward, a few require frustrating repetition, and there’s just not that much in the middle. Those ones in the middle weren’t absent, to be sure, and there was also a learning curve around minimizing the chances of bad outcomes, but still: not super rewarding.

And then there were surprises. The biggest of them, of course, is the permadeath levels coming out of a random number generator; but there was also the occasional level decorations that showed up, the gaps that started appearing, the bizarre leaderboard appearance.

I dunno. There’s something interesting there, and I’m happy enough to have played through 1945 holes. But it’s time to find something else (or return to an old friend) to fill in the gaps.

the xp practices

October 12th, 2014

Probably the most important hour I spent while I was transitioning out of teaching and into programming was spent attending a talk on extreme programming. Ever since then, the XP approach has been my default way of thinking about how to produce software; I’ve never been on a team doing XP, but I’ve dived headfirst into most of the practices. Still, I attended that talk twelve years ago, and I’ve got a lot more experience now than I do then; what do I think about the XP practices these days?

Of course, the XP practices don’t come out of nowhere: XP has values and principles as well. The values are Communication, Simplicity, Feedback, and Courage; hard to argue with that, but they’re also a bit general for me to say much about them. The principles are more interesting to me: Rapid Feedback, Assume Simplicity, Incremental Change, Embracing Change, and Quality Work. I could probably still write a post about each of those, and I keep on coming back to Incremental Change in particular, but they’re all super important to me in really concrete ways.

So the principles are a huge part of what makes XP important to me: but equally important is the concrete guidance that the practices give. Their guidance was particularly important when I was getting started; what do I think about them now?


The Planning Game

This is a funny one. It’s a big part of Scrum, a methodology which dominates discussions of agile; and wow, it’s really usually not done seriously. There’s this ceremony around estimating and committing to what will be in a release: but estimating is super hard, commitment is a serious word to throw around, and I just don’t see either of those treated the way I’d like.

The thing is, though: I think not treating estimating seriously is the right choice, I would just prefer to be up front about that. The Kanban focus on figuring out what to do next makes a lot more sense to me: how often does it really matter exactly how much you’ll get done in the next week or two or four? And, if you’re going to treat commitments seriously in a fixed iteration context, then either you’re a lot better estimator than I am (and I’m actually pretty good) or you’ll need to sandbag; I don’t like either of those choices.

I learned a lot from thinking about the Planning Game and trying it out. But still: not my favorite practice any more.

Small Releases

Another funny one, again partly because of its appearance in Scrum. A lot of Scrum teams seem to gravitate towards four weeks; in some contexts, that probably seems like very small releases, but it seems way too big to me. But once you start pushing it to one week, it gets a lot more interesting.

And, of course, it gets even more interesting once you push smaller than that: it starts raising the the question of whether discrete releases even makes sense. These days, I think that moving towards continuous deployment is better; small releases are a good stepping stone, but only a stepping stone.

But there’s another way in which I move away from small releases in the opposite direction. Part of the XP idea (at least as I see it) of small releases is that your released code is Done Done. But no matter how good you are at testing whether your code matches your intention, code isn’t Done Done until you’ve seen how customers react to it and you’ve adapted accordingly. Also, as somebody who works on backends of distributed systems: I wish I were better at predicting complex system behavior via tests, but I also think that some aspects of how they’ll behave in production are difficult to understand in advance.


Do you understand this? I don’t.

Simple Design

Now we’re getting good. Do the simplest thing that could possibly work; follow the four rules of simple design. Some people like to plan details of their design in advance, and there are many such people whom I have a lot of respect for; but I really like slicing design down into small chunks, and the guidance XP gives in that guard.


I was surprised that the principle is simply “Testing”, not “Test-Driven Development”: they’ve always been very closely linked in my mind. At least just calling it Testing has the advantage that you shouldn’t restrict yourself to unit testing. At any rate: I love TDD, and I strongly support testing more broadly even though my brain is less attuned to other forms of testing.

And I’ve always had coworkers who thought TDD sounded like a good idea; I’m generally furthest along the TDD spectrum at any job, but it’s always the case that unit tests are there when I show up and that many of my coworkers think honest-to-god TDD (as opposed to just writing unit tests at some point in the process) is a good idea. Which isn’t something I necessarily would have predicted, and maybe I’ve just gotten lucky with my coworkers, but it makes me happy.


Another practice that I love. It’s the mathematician in me: the desire for elegance, and the desire to get from place A to place B via a series of small, well-defined steps. (That’s something I like about TDD, too!)

Refactoring is something that gets talked about a lot at jobs I’ve been at, too, but in a much less precise way: people say “refactoring” when they mean “cleaning up the code”. That’s important, of course, but it loses something without the discipline of Fowler-style refactoring. But even there I see good things: a bunch of my coworkers are in the habit of generating pull requests that are best reviewed commit by commit, which gets at the heart of this benefit. (And which applies to situations where you’re changing behavior, too!)

Pair Programming

I just don’t know about this one. It mostly makes sense to me; I’ve basically enjoyed it when I’ve done it; but I still don’t seek it out. I’d be interested in working at a place that really is devoted to pair programming, especially if it’s part of the full XP package (and especially if the team pairs Belshee-style), but I won’t particularly shed a tear if I don’t have that experience.

My current job does at least have a quite good code review culture, and actually my previous job did as well. So that’s something. It’s probably a sign of my arrogance that I wasn’t big initially in pushing for code reviews, but now I like them a lot.

Collective Ownership

I love this one: I’m a very nosy person. And, just as I’m surprised how much interest in TDD I see, I’m equally surprised at how rarely I see collective ownership. It seems like startups (and maybe larger companies, for all I know) like silos, and frequently continue to like them quite a lot even after I’m there. (Though I have had some successes in breaking down silos, too.)

My view of this is getting more nuanced, though, because getting collective ownership to work right is linked with having small teams with clear boundaries. In the past, I haven’t always pushed for small teams, but now I appreciate them more; but I’m still not very good at figuring out exactly what those boundaries should be like, or how to make the boundaries work well with getting as much business value as possible.

Continuous Integration

This is a slightly funny one to see called out: not quite as much of a basic ground rule as, say, version control, but still. Though there are still subtleties here that I don’t understand how to work out well, especially on largish projects with lots of modules.

40-Hour Week

I think it’s a good idea. I’m not sure how much of that is for humane reasons and how much of that is for effectiveness reasons; I would like to focus more on making those 40 hours as high quality as possible.

On-Site Customer

This feels to me like it’s morphed into a business/engineering split, without the assumption that the business side is an actual customer. Which, on the balance, I think is a good thing: it seems to me to devalue the art of product development if you assume that being a customer is the key attribute to being good at picking stories to work on.

I’ve seen that split done well at Playdom; in other places I’ve been, product people haven’t been integrated into the teams.

Coding Standards

Part of me wants to treat this as the same sort of “well, duh” attitude as Continuous Integration, but I think there’s still a decent size contingent of people who don’t see the point of this one. My attitude has always been “what’s the point of not doing this one?”; fortunately, teams that I’ve been on have agreed. Still, it seems a bit out of place these days as a basic practice: if you’re doing Pair Programming or even just Collective Ownership, then of course you’ll adopt Coding Standards.


Good stuff; it generally holds up quite well fourteen years later. But there are also questions that I would ask or directions that I would move in a post-XP world, and in in a world of evolving distributed systems. In particular, I have questions around planning, iterations, and the question of being done: what are the benefits of iterations, and are iterations the best ways of getting those benefits? I like slicing things down into small chunks, I like prioritizing those chunks, and I like having a notion of what it means to be done with those chunks; I’m much more dubious about the idea of grouping and synchronizing those chunks, or of estimating how many chunks you’ll fit into a period of time. So the Kanban approach of focusing on prioritization makes more sense to me.

And, as I said above, I’m more dubious about the notion of a definition of Done than I used to be. The underlying assumption there is that you can you can predict in advance how code will behave in production, and I don’t believe that you can reliably predict either how customers will react to code changes or how large distributed systems will react to code changes. (Though there’s more scope for the latter than the former.) So I’d rather embrace that uncertainty, structuring code pushes as experiments; that means focusing on learning after the code push, and on making the code push as resilient as possible in the face of surprises. Those are important enough that I’d like an approach that calls those questions out explicitly, which requires a richer (and at least a two-phase) notion of Done.

There are other details about the practices that I’m not sure about: e.g. these days Continuous Deployment seems more interesting to think about than Continuous Integration. But if I step back one level, the XP Principles remain as rock-solid an inspiration as ever. Rapid Feedback; Assume Simplicity; Incremental Change; Embracing Change; Quality Work: I love all of those. And I imagine that if I come back a decade or two later, I’ll still find those principles motivating me.

phoenix wright 5

September 30th, 2014

Before playing Phoenix Wright 5, I replayed the first four games in the series. And it’s an excellent series, one that I’m glad I replayed!

The fifth game in the series is a good game, too. It’s changed mechanically, though: they dramatically reduced the number of situations where it was possible to be stumped about how to proceed. Which is something that, on the whole, I think the series was good about, but it was nonetheless an issue: I think they balanced that quite well in the first game, but even so there was one place in the first game where I got stuck and needed to look up help, and I seem to recall that happening on my first go through that game as well. And, in later games in the series, there were more places where I got stuck. So, while most of me thinks it’s a little too streamlined this time, part of me realizes that just one bit of frustration outweighs a lot of streamlining. I still wish they’d let me look around in the environments more (no more stepladder conversations?), but still: a helping hand is appreciated.

This game handles the cast of characters a little differently: three lawyers, each of which has their own special mechanic. The new mechanic that Athena adds is fine, and I appreciate the fact that the judge never penalizes you for mistakes during the new mechanic, but still: my sweet spot there was the second game, the Magatama was the added mechanic that fit in best with the gameplay. (And this game really misused the Magatama mechanic, unfortunately.) With the first game only a little behind the second game in that regard: the core gameplay of investigating and cross-examination is very solid. The cast of characters is also okay but not great: I miss Maya and ghost Mia and Pearl, the detective has nowhere near the soul that Gumshoe had, and of course no other prosecutor begins to compete with Edgeworth.

It’s the first 3DS game I’ve played; I tried out the slider, and then I stopped once my eyes started hurting. I think that was just me needing a new glasses prescription, but I’m really not sure.

So: it’s a Phoenix Wright game; but it’s not one of the best in the series, and is arguably the worst in the series. But, it turns out, the worst in that series is still just fine for me.

I’m curious to see how Layton versus Wright is. Maybe I’ll replay Edgeworth 1 before that? (Liesl’s doing that right now, she seems to be enjoying it.) Heck, maybe I’ll even give Edgeworth 2 a try; my guess is that my Japanese isn’t quite good enough for me to really enjoy that game, but who knows.

when to move on

September 27th, 2014

Come next spring I’ll have been at my current job for four years, which means that my initial options will all have vested. The company is doing well; given that, I think it’s reasonable to think the expected value of those options is non-negligible. Or, in other words: the expected value of my total compensation is likely to go down noticeably next spring. Given that, it might well be a better choice financially for me to look elsewhere.

It might not, of course. I mean, just the language “expected value” pretends to a precision that is inappropriate; and, whatever that expected value is, leaving my job would cause the expected value of my initial options to decline, at least a bit. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think my current company intends to try to pull a Skype or anything, but even setting that aside: companies frequently try to keep their current employees happy by reducing the effects of dilution on their stock (or otherwise inflating the values of that stock), whereas they don’t do that for past employees. Still, though, it at least suggests that I should start thinking about this; and changing companies might make sense just for portfolio diversification reasons alone.

Or for non-financial reasons. Because I don’t think of myself as a super money-driven person, though I’m certainly not about to take a vow of poverty. The end of my vesting period is really more of an excuse to re-evaluate what I’m looking for in a job: certainly doing that once every four years is not a bad idea! And, while I think my last job change was absolutely the right choice, I got swept along by external forces a little more than I would like. So, if I’m considering the possibility of changing jobs next spring, then now is the time to think about that: think about what’s important to me, and to think about what sort of process I might want to go through to increase the chance that I’ll end up in a good place.

And I’m certainly not at at ruling out the possibility that the best place for me might be my current job. That’s another reason to think about this now while I have quiet time: external recruiters are going to spin stories (and help me spin stories) about how the grass is greener elsewhere, so I need a countervailing force for that.


So: what is important to me? Recruiters and interviewers like to talk about how interesting the work they’re doing is, and how smart the people there are. And those are both important to me, no question; of course, if that’s the criterion, then my current job does quite well, I don’t have any complaints on either of those scores.

But I also think I’m, if not mellowing on either criterion, at least broadening. Sometimes I’ve gone into a job search with specific technologies (or at least technological directions) that I’m looking to explore; right now, though, I’m not feeling a particularly strong pull in any technological direction. Any problem worth solving is probably complex enough to be interesting in some way, I feel like there’s a fair range of problems that I’ve enjoyed in the past. (I’ve worked on a debugger, on a video server, on a Facebook game, and on log management; if there’s a common theme there, it’s not obvious.) I’m still somewhat picky about technologies, but even that’s more of an “I want to avoid having to use X and Y” thing these days (there’s no way I’m taking a job that’s focused on writing PHP code!) than “I want to work with Z and W”.

And then there’s the “smart people” theme. Now, I like being around smart people, and I’ve spent basically all my life around smart people; so yeah, that’s where I’m likely to be most comfortable. But I’m getting less and less comfortable: this desire for smartness seems to me to be excessively linked to dominance behavior and to a focus on individuals over teams. So you have rooms full of men arguing with each other, you have anointed architects who decide how things should be done, you have people fitting into small silos where they get to be the expert who wins the arguments in that area. Honestly, I actually enjoy some of that—I’m so used actively participating in and doing well in the arguments that I almost didn’t see them for years, and I can architect fine (but I’m nosy enough that I’ve never liked silos too much)—but that doesn’t mean that I think they’re good things these days.

I wish I knew how to feel out collaborative teams. It seems like something that it’s potentially possible to feel out while interviewing, but I also think that companies present themselves as less siloed than they actually are. (Or maybe I just ignore warning signs.) And it’s very difficult indeed when talking to recruiters: probably recruiters simply don’t know one way or another in the first place! There are also a lot of project management dysfunctions that I would like to be able to feel out, too.

Also, not to put too fine a point on it: sometimes the issue isn’t lack of collaboration, sometimes it’s plain old bias and discrimination. I’m getting pretty tired of hearing about a company, searching for their employees on LinkedIn, and finding out that there apparently aren’t any women working there in engineering. (And then, of course, going to their “About” page and finding that there aren’t any women in upper management, either. But hey, they have investments from fancy VC firms!) Really, Silicon Valley? Do we have to still be that way?


But I’m not even sure that even all of that is what’s most important to me. When I think about what makes me happiest about my current working situation, it’s frequently much smaller things. Like: I wasn’t that thrilled when we outgrew our Mountain View digs and moved to Redwood City, but Pamplemousse is amazing, I am so glad I can stop by there to get a croissant on the way to work. And, actually, the train ride itself has turned out well: it means that I have to get up noticeably earlier than I had been, but that hasn’t been a problem in practice, and I like having dedicated time to read each day. (But I’m also glad I’m only commuting as far as Redwood City, I’m pretty sure that San Francisco would be much more of a problem.)

And then there’s the fact that I can get a good Netrunner game at work a few times a week. I’m suspicious of companies that spend too much time talking about having fun instead of working, but still: I’d rather not work during lunch, and I think Netrunner (or other board/card games) is an excellent way to spend that time.

Most important to me, though, is: a job that I can go home from at the end of the afternoon. Not every day: emergencies arise, and I actually enjoy being on call, I learn a lot from that. But I want my regular pattern to be that I show up relatively early in the morning, work pretty solidly during the day except for lunch, and then go home to hang out with Miranda and cook dinner with Liesl.

And that last part certainly isn’t going to go away for the next job search. Miranda is a sophomore in high school, but I still have the great good fortune that she enjoys spending time with me and strongly prefers that I come home at a regular time. In less than three years, I won’t have the choice to see her regularly: I would be a fool to not do what I can to enjoy those remaining years with her. So when I see the Y Combinator president quoted as saying:

[S]tartups should look for their first 20 to 50 employees to be “maniacally dedicated” to the company and its products, and to “believe it’s bigger than themselves. They believe there’s a purpose to what they’re doing. That’s what inspires people to do great things.”

then my answer is: fuck that. I’m part of something bigger than myself, it’s called my family. And if there’s anything I’m going to be manically dedicated to, that’s what it will be. (And, honestly: carving out time for myself to pursue my own interests is pretty important to me, too!) But Y Combinator is influential, and the above attitude is far from isolated to them.


So yeah: I want an interesting job, and I want to work with smart people. But I’d also like to work with nice people, with collaborative people, and with people bringing different perspectives to the work. And I’d like to have really good pain au chocolat and games of Netrunner, and I’d like to be able to go home at the end of the day.

my first netrunner tournament

September 13th, 2014

About a month ago, I found that my current Netrunner decks were not only doing well when playing against friends, but doing well in a way where I felt surprisingly in control, like I had good options to guide the game in different situations. Still, I was always playing the same people (the same person, to be honest), largely against the same decks, so I didn’t really know how the decks were doing, how I was doing.

I probably should have given the decks a good try on OCTGN, but I just have not stayed in the habit of playing there: I’m not finding the time, and I’m always worried that something is going to go wrong with my networking setup. (Or more likely with Comcast’s.) So I decided to look for local tournaments instead; a local store called Game Kastle has a tournament once a month, it turned out, so I figured I’d give them a try.

Today was tournament day; I went, it was a lot of fun! It went five rounds, with me playing Corp once and Runner once in each round. I split three of them, lost both games in one of them, and won both games in one of them. In the round where I lost both, I was clearly the worse player; in the round where I won both, I was clearly the better player; and for the other three, I felt like I was the worse player but surviving pressure in one of them, and a little more in control against the other two. Which all added up to: I certainly felt like I belonged there, but I also have a lot to learn about the game.

Mechanics wise: it definitely felt a little more pressured than my normal games, but not horribly so? I didn’t go to time in any of my games, and I can’t think offhand of situations where I played the wrong move because of time pressure. I wouldn’t want to play against a clock all of the time, but having to spend an afternoon focusing more than normal was useful practice.

And it helped that people were super nice. (I’ve heard this a lot about Netrunner tournaments.) Basically, we all seemed to be responding to time pressure by helping each other out: people reminded me when I forgot to add virus counters to my Parasite, and I’d remind people to add Datasucker tokens after runs. Also, the tournament organizers were nice and generous, and even though I was in the middle of the pack, I did get an alternate art Aesop’s Pawnshop.

So: good choice! I’ll tentatively plan to go every month; if something else is happening that weekend, no big deal, but it will be there as a default. And now that I’ve tested this deck, try to work on more decks; I’ve bought yet another core set and another deck box so I can keep this deck assembled while trying out more experimental decks. And I definitely need to experiment more: I feel like I have a decent idea about traditional play based on what’s in the core set (and, incidentally, I find it heartening just how playable core set cards continue to be), but I need to get a more visceral feel for other possibilities.

the walking dead, season two

September 7th, 2014

(I don’t normally do spoiler alerts here, but given how recently this game came out, I’ll say: spoiler alert.)

When playing the second season of The Walking Dead, conversations felt very different to me than in the first season. When playing the early episodes of the first season, I treated conversations with a straightforwardly egotistical point-and-click style: I was either getting information or figuring out what branch I wanted to go down, and either way my choice was all about me and how others would see me.

About halfway through that season, though, my conversations got more nuanced: I stepped away from an instrumental view and started thinking about them more as, well, conversations. And conversations with a much richer potential flow than I was used to in a video game: in particular, I stopped exclusively seeing the timer as pressure that I would always respond to, and started seeing “don’t respond” as an affirmative choice. In real life, I wouldn’t always need to get my two cents in after somebody says something (though, to be honest, I almost always want to, but that’s a character flaw!); eventually, once the game helped me unlearn some habits, I realized that I could make the same choice here, and doing that occasionally made my interactions richer.

In Season Two, I made the “don’t respond” choice a lot more often. Because, over and over again, I got the feeling that the conversations really weren’t about me: they were about somebody else processing a horrific experience they’d just had that built on a sequence of prior horrific experiences over the previous couple of years. In a situation like that, they didn’t need me to inject myself, to make it about me; they generally needed me to listen and occasionally make supportive noises. (Unless, of course, shit was in the middle of going down, in which case that’s still what they needed but it wouldn’t help either of us right then for me to act like a therapist.)

Frequently, it wasn’t about me even when they were talking to me, accusing me. Kenny after losing Sarita, for example: for the second time, he’d lost his wife, and I’d not only been there while she died but had cut her arm off! So yeah, he’s going to be plenty pissed at me; he was really pissed at the world and overcome by grief, of course (he even admitted as much in the next episode), but right then, he needed to yell at me as a proxy for the world, and my yelling back wasn’t going to help.


So that’s one way in which conversations changed: so many conversations were tips of an iceberg with years of horror under the surface. Which is, more broadly, a way in which the second season differed from the first: in the first season, the apocalypse had just started, and you were in a narrative trying to hold onto hope. Whereas, in this season, the apocalypse was the new norm: we know that people who are here today may be gone tomorrow, we know that that may happen at the hands of zombies, at the hands of humans, or at the hands of a lack of resources. The new norm, but not a norm that we’ve learned how to deal with; indeed, not a norm that it’s clear it’s possible possible to deal with.

My Clementine was better at dealing with the new reality than most people, at least. I played her as a surprisingly self-aware and pulled-together child (which, of course, she is): people see her as a child, but rather than either giving into that or resisting that with protestations of how grown-up she is, she’ll respond in whatever way seems most likely to lead to a good outcome in the interaction in question. And not necessarily simply the best outcome for her personally: she realizes that sometimes other people need to hang on to a bit of normalcy, to treat kids as kids and to treat themselves as competent adults. (I loved Bonnie’s repeated returning to her gift of the jacket!) But every time my Clementine acted like a kid in an interaction, it was a conscious choice.

And, of course, it’s not like other people really thought of her as a normal kid. In fact, it frequently was almost explicit that she was the real leader of the group: they’d need something done or they’d need to make a choice, and everybody looked at her as if her opinion was decisive. This didn’t feel to me like a videogamey “the protagonist is always the leader” thing: this felt to me like a desperate and exhausted group of people that sometimes needed to give up the reins. So it was up to Clementine to sneak around the mall, Clementine to talk to Kenny when he’s at his darkest, or even up to Clementine to decide whether to travel today or tomorrow. (And we got to see Carver and Kenny as alternate versions of leadership.)


Just when I was getting used to this version of Clementine, Jane showed up. She was the non-Clementine character who interested me the most this season: she was the only person who seemed able to navigate this new world on its own terms. Yes, there’s a horde of zombies approaching, but that doesn’t mean that you have to put up a commensurate resistance to them or die trying: you can instead cover yourself with walker guts and walk right through them if you’re careful. That’s her way of dealing with the zombies: her way of dealing with other humans gave me rather more pause, but given what the game showed us this season, I couldn’t say that she was wrong to try to detach as much as possible. But I was also glad that a detached persona wasn’t all that we saw of Jane, that her interactions with Clementine showed that she could still care about people and that, with Luke, she could, uh, acknowledge her physical need for human interactions as well.

I was still trying to figure out the implications of Jane as potential role model when the fifth episode showed up. And that episode, honestly, went off the rails for me right from the beginning. We’d ended on a cliffhanger with a group of Russians showing up as a major threat with very little context; the new episode defused and got rid of them without giving any more context. And now we had an orphaned newborn baby with us: a baby who was almost certainly going to die soon and who would probably be a drain on resources in the meantime; the game had built up to the baby enough that I could understand why Kenny would be incredibly protective towards it, and I could accept that some of the other people would feel that same way. But I as player didn’t feel any particular affection towards the baby, I was pretty sure Jane also wouldn’t, and I wasn’t convinced that Clementine would let herself get too attached to the baby, either.

So, while I could accept Kenny being protective of the baby, pissed at Arvo, and as domineering as always, I also felt that, at this point, Kenny was pretty clearly unhealthy to the extend of being an active threat. And I felt that Clementine was self-aware enough and had learned enough from Jane that, even though she cared about Kenny because he was the person around with whom she had by far the longest history, she realized that it wasn’t at all a good idea to stick with Kenny. Yet the game not only kept us right with Kenny until the end, it did so with a very odd quadrilateral of Clementine, Jane, Kenny, and the baby; it is of course the case that the other remaining characters were window dressing, but the way in which they left the scene felt quite odd. And what felt even odder was Jane’s behavior around the baby at the end: I simply think that Jane wouldn’t have cared about the baby, she would have let Kenny do whatever he wanted with the baby instead of lying about it.

That meant that the game set up a climactic fight and choice, but did so with a buildup that felt quite off. (In stark contrast to the climactic choice in the first season.) And then it backed off a bit and ended in what seemed a reasonable enough manner, but decided that it had to throw in some scary music when we learned that the father of the family we let in has a gun. Yes, we get it, random people are scary; but you don’t have to throw that in our face, and everybody who is still alive at this point has a gun!


A really good season most of the way through, and one that was very good in interestingly different ways from the first season. But it really stumbled at the end, and did so in a way that left me not very optimistic about a possible third season. Hopefully the developers will surprise me; or maybe they’ll just leave the series be, I’d prefer that to clumsily tying everything up in a bow.

insect stings

September 3rd, 2014

I first got stung by a bee (or yellow jacket or wasp or something) at a math camp when I was 16 yearrs old. I remember thinking, “Oh, I’ve never been stung before, I guess that’s what it feels like! I wonder if I’m allergic?”, and then five or ten minutes later, no longer having to wonder about that latter issue. I can’t remember all of the details: loss of vision, getting driven in a car to a nearby hospital, probably passing out at some point, and then getting drugs that took care of things. (Though the Benadryl the next day knocked me out in the middle of a class, I think I barely managed to make it back to my dorm room?)

Since then, I’ve carried around an Epipen with me. At some point (I think in grad school?) I got tested, and I was still quite allergic. But I haven’t actually gotten stung in the intervening 27 years.

That all changed when I was walking home from the train station today; I felt something sharp on my arm, I looked down, and there was a yellow jacket. Oops. I figured it would be better not to deal with this alone in case I started passing out, so I called home, asked Miranda if her mother was there, was told not yet, said “shit” and hung up. (Not the most reassuring call I’ve ever made.) Then I tried calling Liesl at work but didn’t get an answer, so I called Miranda back, asked her to meet me on her bike with her cell phone, and sent Liesl text messages explaining the situation; Liesl actually got home as Miranda was leaving, so she showed up in the car just after Miranda did.

I thought about using the Epipen while waiting for Miranda to show up, but I was still not feeling awful and using the Epipen involved stabbing myself in my thigh, so I figured I might as well wait until I got home to do that instead of partially disrobing on a sidewalk or in a park. And then I got curious: just how allergic am I these days? Given that I wasn’t seeing any serious reactions yet, just a bit of pain and maybe a bit more sweating than normal, I figured I’d wait a few minutes before stabbing myself. Liesl had some Zyrtec with her, and she said it was good for skin reactions for allergies, so I popped a couple of those instead; she also made a baking soda poultice to put on the sting.

And then I sat down and waited: I wasn’t feeling wonderful, but my vision and breathing were totally fine, and I wasn’t at all convinced that the problems I was feeling other than arm pain weren’t just nervousness. The arm pain got a little worse, but not horrible; 30 minutes later, I was still not feeling great but no worse, whereas the first time I’d gotten stung I’d probably already arrived at the hospital by that point. And, two or three hours later, I’m basically totally fine: a tiny bit of residual arm pain, but even that’s almost gone, and everything else is normal.

So: yay. Either I’m not as allergic as I used to be or I got stung by an insect that I’m less sensitive to (though my memory of the prior test that I took was that I was quite sensitive to all the insect types I tested) or Zyrtec is a super awesome drug (not out of the question, allergy drugs have gotten a lot better in the intervening decades). Whatever the answer, I’m not complaining; and I’ll definitely keep a bit of Zyrtec in my backpack as well as the Epipen so I can take that immediately the next time I get stung.


September 1st, 2014

This week’s Rocksmith DLC was a collection of classical music arranged for guitars / bass / drums; I wasn’t sure what I’d think about it in advance, but I gave it a try yesterday and it was a lot of fun! I was worried that it would be over the top, trying to turn classical music into rock; but Ride of the Valkyries was the only piece that went particularly far in that direction and, honestly, I can’t blame them for that particular choice.

So the arrangements turned out to be pleasant to listen to; and, musically, they were interestingly different from the norm for songs in that game. A lot of the game’s music consists of chords and ostentatious guitar solos; I don’t particularly like the latter, and while I like the former fine, sometimes I want a change of pace. In contrast, the songs in this pack were a mixture of much less ostentatious melodic bits (except, of course, for Ride of the Valkyries) and arpeggiated sections that changed chords fairly frequently. So: the songs were fun to play, and I’ll probably keep on working on them.

The one exception was the Little Fugue. The arrangement was fine (or at least fine-ish, there were a few rock touches that I didn’t appreciate), but the performance was super heavy and plodding. But, in its weird way, that actually ended up being good for me, too: I know what I want that piece to sound like, and it wasn’t going to sound that way unless I went out of my way to make it so. So that gave me something to strive for that other songs in the pack didn’t.

Or, indeed, that other songs in the game don’t. Because this points at something I hadn’t really realized about Rocksmith: just how little I’d been working on my approach to songs. I try to make my playing sound good, not just get the notes right, but basically all the other songs available to me already sound good: they’re chosen because they’re great songs in their iconic performances! So the lead guitar track in the song is going to be great to listen to; and that in turn covers up a lot of flaws in my performance. Whereas the versions in this pack are arrangements of songs that have been recorded thousands of other times, and where this arrangement, just by the nature of the instrumentation, is not going to sound particularly canonical. That leaves a lot more room for me to think about the arrangements, and whether I want to play like that; sometimes the answer is yes (the arrangement of Rondo Alla Turca is charming, albeit with a way too straightforward beat), and sometimes the answer is no.

This also reinforces something I’d been aware of for a while: it’s time for me to significantly dial back on playing random songs the game throws at me, and to get back to focusing on improving a handful of songs. Playing random songs helped me a lot for years, but I’ve long since reached the limits of the game’s current recommendation engine (which really is not very good, I hope they focus on that for the next iteration). And even if the engine were better, it’s still time for me to focus on musicality more: it’s time for me to try to do a good job playing real songs instead of a so-so job playing stripped down versions of songs.