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our glorious health care system

May 9th, 2016

I’ve been getting tired of my allergies recently (or, rather, getting tired of being made tired by my allergies), so after talking to my doctor, I made an appointment with an allergy specialist. That specialist gave me suggestions for different drugs to try, and also thought that allergy shots might make sense; but if I’m going to do shots, we need to know exactly what I’m allergic to and how allergic.

The standard way to do that is skin tests; unfortunately, if I want to do those, I have to go off of allergy drugs for a week, which doesn’t sound like fun. My doctor suggested that I take a blood test; if it shows me as positive, we can go ahead with the treatment, while if it turns out negative, I’ll still have to do the skin test. That seemed like a good idea to me, so I went and did that.

The blood test mostly turned out negative; that’s too bad, but not at all unexpected. What was more unexpected was when I opened up the bill from the Palo Alto Medical foundation: they billed a thousand dollars for those blood tests, which is ten times what I’d expected based on previous blood tests I’d had.

I didn’t have to pay a thousand dollars myself: my insurance has negotiated rates that are lower than the billed rates, and my insurance paid for a fair amount of what was left, so my bill was only about three hundred dollars. But there is no way that I would have paid three hundred dollars for a known-inaccurate test if I’d been aware of the price in advance; and the part that the insurance company paid for isn’t free, either, it just gets paid for by my insurance premium.

I sent my doctor a message, under the assumption that perhaps he didn’t know, suggesting that he might want to warn other patients. His response was that he was sorry that I’d gotten stuck for so much of the bill, which isn’t my point: my point is that spending a thousand bucks on a test that is known not to work without even warning me first is not a good idea. And I called the billing department: they said it’s my fault for not asking the price first. (And they, like my doctor, took the attitude that the only thing I should care about is the amount my insurance doesn’t pay for.)

So I decided to try to ask the price for my upcoming skin test. The Palo Alto Medical Foundation has a website that lists prices of some tests, but not that one. I sent a message to the billing department, saying “I’m scheduled to have skin tests done on this date, can you tell me how much it costs?” And their answer was: $25/unit, but they couldn’t tell me the number of units, and nothing in my medical record lists that number. (The blood tests were $29/unit; if I’d heard that, I would have thought that it was fine, but it turns out that those tests involved approximately 30 units.)

The amount of obfuscation here is amazing: the denial that the money paid by insurance matters, the refusal to list prices on the web site, the refusal to tell me and the lack of records to let me actually figure out the price even when I ask. (And that doesn’t even bring in the negotiation power that insurance companies bring in: the immorality of charging the most to people without insurance!) It’s very easy for a doctor to encourage you to take a test, and I would like to be able to just trust that my doctor’s recommendations are in my best interests, but I can’t do that. I don’t know which people in this system are consciously designing it to make more money for PAMF and which people in the system are just going along with the flow (and I’m sure that most of the people I talked to, possibly all the people I talked to, are in the latter category), but it’s a crappy system.


Last summer, Miranda had an appendectomy: her stomach was hurting, the PAMF triage department sent her to El Camino Hospital, and the doctor there (in consultation with us) eventually decided that there was enough risk of appendicitis that we should probably take it out. And the doctor and staff at El Camino were great, Miranda was well looked after in the hospital, she recovered quickly, and that’s one potential life-threatening problem that she’ll never have to worry about again.

So (unlike with the blood tests above), I have no regrets about making the choice for her to have that surgery. But still, there’s a bill involved; I don’t remember the exact number, but the hospital tried to bill our insurance for approximately forty thousand dollars.

Again, my insurance company didn’t pay that much, and we paid still less: it used up our deductible, and our deductible was high, but our part of the bill was something closer to two thousand dollars, maybe only one thousand? But still: forty thousand dollars is a lot of money, I remember periods in my life where I lived happily on an annual salary that was less than half of that.

Yes, I realize that appendicitis is potentially deadly; yes, I realize that multiple very skilled people were involved in the surgery and care. But she was in the hospital for less than 24 hours, and appendectomies are also completely routine surgeries. I have no idea how El Camino Hospital justifies that price, but I have a hard time imagining that I would accept whatever justification they would provide. Miranda will be going to college in a little over a year; I expect that to cost about fifty thousand dollars a year, I think that price is also too high, but that’s a place where she’ll be living for nine months a year and where many many equally highly skilled people spending much more of their time helping Miranda than El Camino Hospital did; how does a brief, routine surgery end up costing almost as much as an entire year of college?


When I moved out here and started getting allergies, I found that a nasal spray called Vancenase worked well. I eventually switched to Claritin, but I recently thought I should try Vancenase again, given my problems. These days, the same medicine is instead sold under the name Qnasl, so I tried to get a prescription for that.

My health insurance didn’t want to approve the prescription until I tried several other drugs first; given that I knew the medicine had been effective in the past, I considered paying out of pocket, so I called up the pharmacy and asked for the list price, which turned out to be $110. (Or maybe $140?) So I decided to try other drugs first: heck, maybe they’d work as well, and it would save both my insurance company and me money. (My insurance company had Qnasl listed at a $40 copayment, so they were strongly urging me to try other drugs.)

When I saw my allergist, he gave me a free sample of Qnasl. And what was interesting there was the card that came with that free sample: it’s a coupon saying that Qnasl’s manufacturer (Teva Respiratory, LLC) would pay all but $15 of my copayment, and in fact if I were uninsured, they would pay up to $90 for the drug.

I said above that I didn’t know how much Palo Alto Medical Foundation’s system was a conscious system to obfuscate pricing in order to get as much money out of me and my insurance company as possible. In contrast, I am completely confident that Teva Respiratory is consciously trying to use the insurance system to get as much money out of the drug as possible. This is an out-of-patent drug that, based on their discounts for uninsured patients, lets them make an acceptable profit at a $20 price point; they charge five times as much, and design the pricing so that, even if insurance companies try to fight back by affecting individual’s purchase decisions to accurately reflect this higher price, they’re unable to do so because Teva changes the pricing so that individuals don’t actually see that higher cost. (At least individuals that are lucky enough to be talking to a doctor with free samples; individuals who don’t do that are just collateral damage, with the uninsured who don’t have access to doctors taking the worst hit.) This American Life had a segment on this practice a few years ago; now I’m seeing it first-hand.


None of this is a sob story for me: I have a Silicon Valley tech salary, I’m part of a two-income family, so while there are many other ways that I would prefer to spend $300, we can afford it. But I also live in a company where health costs are twice as high as any other country in the world, while having no better outcomes than other industrialized companies, and where health costs are growing: this is a serious problem, and stories like the above are, I think, exactly why.

I don’t like insurance companies, but I actually think my insurance company (Anthem Blue Cross) comes off better in this than any of the other parties involved here. About once every other year, my insurer comes close to cancelling their contract with PAMF; that ends up not happening, and I don’t really want it to happen (we like our GP a lot, and she actually is good at warning us about expensive tests), but they’re right that PAMF is way too happy to spend my insurance company’s money. And Anthem actually just cancelled their contract with El Camino Hospital a couple of months ago; if you’d asked me a year back, I would have been pretty unhappy that my insurance company didn’t want me to go to the hospital that’s closest to my house, but now I’m completely willing to go a little farther away in a non-emergency situation, that could easily save tens of thousands of dollars. Anthem is pretty hard-nosed about pushing back on certain prescription drugs, wanting you to try cheaper alternatives; again, this now looks like a good thing to me.

Maybe I’ve been listening to too much Econtalk, but I’m also seeing the downside of health insurance: the fact that the person making treatment decisions is mostly insulated by price outcomes really does lead to a lot of waste. Don’t get me wrong, I still think that universal health insurance is table stakes for a civilized country in this day and age, but the reason why I believe that isn’t because I think it’s good to have my prescription drugs mostly be paid for by my insurance premiums instead of being paid out of pocket: it’s because insurance is important for people who really do have emergencies or unusual chronic health issues, and because people who don’t have Silicon Valley tech salaries need healthcare, too. But the current US health care system is doing a lousy job of meeting those two objectives at any sort of reasonable price.

persona 4

May 1st, 2016

I didn’t know how much I needed to play Persona 4, but wow, it really was the perfect way for me to spend my game-playing time over the last two months. (Many thanks to Dan and Adam for nudging me to play it!) I’ve gotten sick of games that present you as an all-powerful hero saving the world via buckets of blood; so, in retrospect, it’s not a big shock that a game that presents you as a surprisingly competent hero who saves a town via making friends and helping people confront their true selves turns out to be just up my alley. And of course I did enjoy Persona 3 and I’d been hearing people gush about Persona 4 for years; still, I didn’t expect to react to the game quite so strongly.

What most impresses me about Persona 4 is how it commits to showing the virtues of daily life. You’re a teenager, which means that you get up in the morning, you go to school, you spend the afternoon in a way of your choosing within constraints, you go home and see your surrogate sister and father, you spend the evening maybe with them or maybe studying or working, and then you go to bed. And you wake up the next day, and the pattern repeats. Which, written out like that, sounds boring, but the game doesn’t force you to spend time needlessly going through repetitions: a couple of button pushes and you’re through the school day, unless something surprising happens at school that day. Instead, the structure provides a context that makes your choices of actions meaningful: I’m not sure quite what the right musical analogy is, but it’s something like the way the repetition of the chorus grounds a song, or the way musical themes acquire weight on repetition.

And that repetition isn’t limited to the basic structure of your days that is given to you: it’s in the choices that you make as well. Because you don’t have an array of options for you to express your creativity (with the arguable exception of the dungeon crawling mechanic): in your afternoons, you’re going to wander around a bit through the town (or rather the few small areas in the town that the game exposes to you), you’re going to decide whom you want to spend your time with that afternoon (or, if nobody’s around, what you want to do instead), and then you’ll spend time with them. Do I feel like spending time with Yukiko, with Yumi, with Koh and Daisuke? If it’s raining, do I want to study in the library or to take a swing at the Mega Beef Bowl?

Which, in the wrong hands, could be really boring: you’re ultimately just pressing a few buttons to get the next bit of story drip. But there’s just enough interactivity for those button presses to matter: expressing what you want to do that day, expressing how you want to respond to your friend in any given situation. And the bit of space given by wandering around town is just right, too: if you were constantly in story mode, the game would feel more like a visual novel, whereas if you were almost always wandering around, then the story bits would feel like infodumps to be ignored. As is, though, it feels like you’re living your life, just in a distilled form.


And the stories are really good! Or at least I responded to them very strongly: I can’t quite figure out why, because there’s nothing really remarkable in any of them, in fact the opposite is true. But, somehow, that manages to work: the game is about celebrating the joys of daily life, and daily life isn’t filled with people living extraordinary adventures (at least for those of us who don’t have a special power of entering televisions to fight monsters buried in our collective psyche) or being in unique situations. Instead, it’s people going through the same frustrations and the same joys that billions of other people have gone through before them; but it’s their lives, their frustrations, their joys, and that turns out to matter a lot.

You can’t always advance the various stories that you’re going through with different characters. But, as frustrating as it can be to not be able to hang out with anybody on a given day, I think that too helps the game, as does the fact that the story with a given character doesn’t advance every time you hang out with them. People have their own lives; sometimes those lives intersect with yours, but not always. And even on the days when their lives do intersect with yours, sometimes it intersects in a moment of quiet companionability; that turns out to have its own impact, to be good enough. Of those quiet moments, I particularly liked the family routines: tending the garden with Nanako, or the evenings when Nanako had gone shopping and you spend your evening making a lunch for you to share with a friend the next day, with results that were sometimes excellent, sometimes mediocre, and sometimes disastrously bad. (Food preparation is a running theme: it turns out that, if you have teenagers preparing food, they will frequently not be very good at it.)

And, on a family note: Nanako is an amazing character. She’s a kid, much younger than you; she’s lonely, she’s glad you’re there, and you turn from a guest in the house into a brother for her, as important to her as anybody. And, conversely, she’s as important to you as anybody; you spend many happy hours together, but you also help her work through frustrations, help her accept and come to terms with what’s going on. And she’s fundamentally a such a good kid (but realistically good, not saccharine); she has every right to be frustrated with how little time her farther spends with her, but you help her see his good side, and you also help him realize not just how important she is but how important it is for him to show that with conviction in his actions, to not be lost in memories of his wife.

Nanako also helps show what an excellent set of friends you have: you’ll frequently run into friends during outings with Nanako, and they’re always genuinely happy to see her and to include her. The game doesn’t pretend she’s a peer, she’s a little kid surrounded by big kids: but the warmth that they show her is genuine, their lives are better because she’s around, and she glows when she’s around them. The game builds up those interactions in a way that, when the inevitable plot point comes when Nanako is in danger, your and your friends’ distress is real, she’s the furthest thing from an abstract plot point princess to be saved.


Like most games, you’re playing an idealized character. But your character isn’t idealized because they’re an all-powerful savior or because they’re an amazing fighter. Your character is idealized because they’re really good at making friends, and really good at being friends. Even the boss fights are focused on this: you help your friends or friends-to-be come to terms with the fact that the image of themselves that they’d like to present isn’t everything who they are. And with your acceptance of their hidden sides, you help them accept those hidden sides.

That ability to make and be friends in turn opens you up to the great good fortune of having a rather wonderful group of people who want to spend time with you, with their lives enriching yours, your life enriching theirs, and their lives enriching each other’s. That is a game that I can very much get behind.

alto’s adventure reconsidered

April 20th, 2016

When I wrote a paragraph about Alto’s Adventure a few months back, I really thought I was done with the game; but maybe a month or so later, I picked it up again in a free moment, and this time it stuck with me longer.

The basic issue that I had before was that it was a game that seemed like it should be about virtuosity, but the one-button gameplay didn’t support that enough. And, don’t get me wrong, Alto’s Adventure is largely about the experience of the environment. But, once you unlock the second character, your choice of actions expands just enough to be interesting: you can backflip at the crest of every hill, which means that you can always be doing tricks and chaining tricks, which increases the density of choices enough to bring in more traditionally gamey virtues. And, while I’d actually already unlocked her when I gave up on the game the first time, I hadn’t really realized the consequences of that unlocking.

For me, the major consequence was ultimately that it gave me a choice: I could try to maximize my local fun by doing tricks all the time, or I could try to maximize the duration of play sessions (which, admittedly, has its own more serene form of enjoyment) by being more restrained and only leaving the ground / backflipping when I was sure it wouldn’t have a bad effect. Of course, the ideal is to not have to make a choice between those two, and I found myself being able to avoid that choice more and more: initially because the second character let me be successful with tricks much more often, but then later because I got better at judging the risk envelope of tricks, learning when it’s safe to do a backflip (or a double backflip or a triple backflip). And, beyond that, the game starts having tricks actively help you get long runs instead of hurt you: you have to constantly do tricks to stay ahead of the later elders, and if you get far enough, the rock density gets high enough that you have to be spending most of your time time either above the rocks or smashing the rocks.

So there’s an ideal on the horizon; and there are challenges in the way. Not just in learning when a backflip is safe, but in the goals that the game throws at you as you advance (get a certain distance, acquire a number of coins, but also weirder ones like doing a rock bounce to a grind). And, even as you get better at judging your backflips, there’s still one basic tradeoff: the more time you spend in the air, the less likely you are to realize that there’s a chasm coming up that you need to avoid. And with the second character in particular the tradeoff is starker than that: she’s slow unless she’s coming right off of a trick, so she has a hard time with two of the chasm types. So, on the one hand, she wants to be jumping all the time to keep her speed high, but, on the other hand, that increases the chance of landing into a chasm instead of before it. And the game in turn supports that: letting you unlock a hover feather which gives another option for avoiding chasms, giving a visual cue of an approaching chasm by changing the visual zoom / scrolling behavior, and eventually, when you unlock the last character, letting you not only not have to choose between jumping and speed but even letting you survive one chasm misjudgment.


So: a better game for me than I thought. And, of course, the initial presentational / experiential virtues that I saw in the game are still there, and still distinguish the game from others that I’ve played.

ori and the blind forest

April 14th, 2016

I was not that impressed with Ori and the Blind Forest when I first started playing it: the opening made me think it would be a game about companionship, which could be interesting both narratively and mechanically; but the parent figure gets summarily disposed of at the end of the opening, the pretense of narrative disappears, and it turns into a standard Metroid-style game.

Once I got over my disappointment, though, I decided that it does that Metroid gameplay rather well. The play of the first couple of hours is straightforwardly pleasant; then it starts demanding a little more execution out of you, and then the hammer comes down in the form of the first dungeon, making it clear that the game is going to ask you to perform sequences over and over again until you get them right. And the remaining two thirds of the game stay in that vein: it’s not just the dungeons that are hard, the passages that you have to progress through to get there really do demand your attention.

Except that the pacing is subtler than that. For one thing, part of the Metroid-style experience consists of returning to familiar areas, going through passages that were previously locked or getting pickups that you couldn’t reach before. And that lets you relax a bit, since you don’t have to figure out the tricks, you’re better at the moves, and you’ve got a higher life bar than the last time you were in those regions. Also, the game’s save system gives you a break: it lets you save almost anywhere that isn’t right next to an enemy, and it even slightly refills your life bar when you save. Saving does cost you energy, so it doesn’t let you make the game boring for yourself by saving after every enemy, but in practice energy shows up frequently enough that you can always save if you really feel like you need it, and in fact you can generally even do a couple of nearby saves if you need a double life boost. I’ve never seen a save mechanic quite like this, and I really liked it.

It’s really striking to look at, too: a lovely painted aesthetic, with an organic feel to everything.


So: definitely glad I played it, it’s a well-done example of a genre I haven’t played for a while, and it does a few things very well indeed. I wish it had made some different narrative choices: either stepping back even more or else doing something distinctive with the narrative the way they did with the art. But the moments were good, and that’s what the game’s about.

current netrunner status

March 23rd, 2016

Last fall, I wrote a post about wanting to get better at Netrunner and possible techniques for doing that. I’ve tried some of those ideas, I haven’t tried other of those ideas; I’m still pretty bad at Netrunner, still not managing to get back to where I’m winning half of my games in tournaments.

The main thing that I have tried is playing a wider range of decks: I tried out a Prepaid Kate deck and an NEH Fast Advance deck for a while, and more recently I’ve been trying a Whizzard Wyldeside deck and an ETF deck. And I’ve been keeping them around even after I’ve tried them for a while, and my coworkers have also been trying multiple decks, too. (And there are some decks we’ve been building ourselves, too: I worked on a Sunny deck for a few months, and a Spark deck that was in part informed by the NEH deck.)

I would like to think that I’ve learned something from that; certainly I’ve enjoyed having more decks around. But, like I said, I’m not actually doing well in tournaments. Though at least I’m starting to learn more about my weaknesses: on the corp side, I’m having a hard time getting the timing right, figuring out when to go for the score and when to hold back and make some money. And, on the runner side, I’m still too conservative, though there at least the decks are getting me trying out stuff that I wouldn’t have tried out before.


Given all that, I think there are two clear next steps if I want to work on getting better: 1) play more, including playing a lot of people online; 2) go over games, ideally with experts, so I can figure out when I’m making poor choices at the table. But, of course, both of those take time; and, honestly, I don’t think that’s where I want to spend my time right now.

Which doesn’t mean that I don’t want to spend time on Netrunner: I like it a lot! It’s more just that the current amount of time that I’m spending feels like the right amount to me, and in particular I don’t want it to take up more more of my weekend / evening times. That means that I’m not going to get better as much as I could otherwise, and in particular that I won’t catch up with more serious tournament players; I’m okay with that.

And one thing I really do like about netdecking is that it breaks me out of the rut of “I want to try out a new deck, but that means that I have to find time to build one.” Like this weekend, I wanted to build a Palana deck; I didn’t really have the energy / time to do so, however, but I had enough energy to browse a few decks and assemble one. And it’s been super fun playing that deck this week, I might even take it to regionals. So really it’s about acknowledging how much energy I have for what, and using that awareness to figure out how I’ll enjoy my time the most.

guys and dolls

March 19th, 2016

(This was originally going to be a followup comment in a Facebook discussion with Roger Travis and Joan Pepin, but it started getting long and I don’t blog nearly enough these days, so I figured make it still longer and stick it here instead.)

A few weeks ago, I was rolling my eyes at Luck Be a Lady, calling it creepy; Roger asked me about that, and eventually it turned out that I was missing an important piece of information, namely that I’d been listening to a Sinatra performance from a collection of his songs, without realizing that it was originally from Guys and Dolls. And Roger’s claim, which sounded reasonable, is that the song is rather better (and in particular rather less creepy) in context; in addition, it also seemed plausible to me that Sinatra’s performance of the song was particularly condescending. Given that I’d somehow never watched Guys and Dolls, it seemed like time to fill in that gap.

So we watched it last night. (We watched the 1955 movie version; I’m quite willing to believe that it might have been partially butchered in the transfer to screen, but it’s what I had around.) And yes, Roger is totally correct: in context, I’m a lot more sympathetic to the song, sung as it is by somebody who really needs this roll of the dice to go well because of something that’s much bigger than the game. Though my Sinatra hypothesis also still seems good to me: I like how Marlon Brando sings it a lot more than how Frank Sinatra sings it (a phrase I don’t expect to type very often!), because Sinatra is confident and condescending, which actively works against the redeeming values that the context in the show provides.

But if we step back still further, away from the details of the context of that scene: this is a musical called “Guys and Dolls”. In other words: A) It puts a focus on gender right in the title; B) It looks at women through a term that places them as inanimate objects that are only given action and voice by others. And, in that context, Luck Be a Lady gets creepy again: it’s all about instructing women on the proper way to behave, with a good cop aspect of “you probably didn’t realize that what you were doing was bad” and an implicit bad cop threat of “let’s keep this party polite”. And that’s not at all out of keeping with the title’s claim that women are / should be dolls.


So, right now (and, again, based on a movie version that I have no reason to believe isn’t actively bad), I’m not a fan of Guys and Dolls. It’s a musical explicitly about gender relations; it does that by showing two couples that I don’t see as particularly well-drawn and that both have bad gender politics motivating their interactions. If I want to take a good view of how it presents gender relations, I’ll say that the psychology book bit is a nod to the idea that society boxes in women in a way that is unhealthy mentally to the extent that it makes them unhealthy physically as well; I think it’s at least as likely, though, that the psychology bit is instead more of a “women are crazy, right?” elbow to the side. Fugue for Tinhorns is a great song, the floating crap game has some virtues as a farce but isn’t quite central enough to turn into a really well-done farce, and I thought the mission testimony scene was pretty funny. On the one hand, I feel like I should watch the musical on stage to give it a fair shot, but, on the other hand, I have enough doubts about it that I’m not planning to go out of my way to do that.

Compare to Kiss Me Kate. (But please, not the 1953 movie version, it’s the reason why I’m wondering so much about the movie version of Guys and Dolls, I’m very glad I first saw it through a DVD of the 2001 London version.) It’s also a musical where gender politics are front and center, it’s also about two couples who have issues caused in part by societal gender constraints. But the scenes and songs do a much, much better job of presenting those couples as real people, not caricatures; and the musical is also constantly and actively interrogating those societal constraints instead of taking them as given. (And, of course, there are tons good songs, and I think the farce aspect is a little better done than in Guys and Dolls?)


Part of the discussion that Roger, Joan, and I were having was around enjoying art from that era (and earlier eras), given its misogyny. Guys and Dolls was from 1950 while Kiss Me Kate was from 1948, so obviously I’m capable of quite enjoying postwar musicals. But I also kind of suspect that societal currents at the time did make it harder to produce art that I would enjoy, and I don’t even think that’s just me. We watched Silk Stockings maybe a month ago; I liked it, but the way that the movie shoehorns the main characters into a caricature box in order to say something about communism and women really hurts it in my eyes. Still, I liked Silk Stockings more than Guys and Dolls: the main characters are written more like people, and I really do love both Fred Astaire and Cyd Charisse. (Though, actually, Marlon Brando is pretty good too!) It’s been a little longer since I’ve seen High Society, but again I have the same unease: it’s trying to say something about women and class, and falling down while doing so. (And, again, there are same saving graces compared to Guys and Dolls: it’s a more personal movie, so the humanity manages to break through out of the caricature. And Grace Kelly, Louis Armstrong, and Bing Crosby are all pretty great too.)

Whereas if we go back a little bit further, earlier Fred Astaire movies, say don’t feel like they’re making quite the same sort of statement as those movies from the 50s: I can’t say I like their gender politics either, but they generally use that gender politics in the service of a farce to which the commit wholeheartedly, and I can forgive that a lot more. And, well, I can forgive Fred and Ginger almost anything, given how spectacular dancers they are, and those movies always have a couple of wonderful songs.


I could be making too much of this: Singin’ in the Rain is also a 50s musical movie, and it delights me from start to finish. And, again, Kiss Me Kate also points at the good of the time, at least on stage. But it does feel to me like musicals (or at least movie musicals) might have been fighting a particularly bad uphill battle artistically in the postwar area because of the pervading ideological issues, especially around gender.

alien: isolation

March 17th, 2016

For years now, I’ve been frustrated by games’ fixation on an anointed hero saving the world through mass slaughter; I’ve been talking about that most frequently recently in the context of Dragon Age: Inquisition, but of course anointed murderers are all over the place, the only reason why I bring the issue up in the context of that game is because of the possibilities it and its series show of the good that can come from being is specific, personal, grounded, moments that I love.

And while Alien: Isolation is specific, personal, and grounded in a very different way from the best parts of the Dragon Age series, it very much shows those virtues in its own ways, and the virtues that come from stepping away from the standard anointed murderer tropes. No other game has drawn me in this much over the last year, and Alien: Isolation has accomplished that despite being a stealth horror game, combining a genre that I actively dislike with one that I respect but don’t enjoy.


To begin with, putting Alien: Isolation up against the “anointed hero saving the world” concept: while your character is hypercompetent in a video game way (or a “modern action media in general” way, really), and while she is framed that way right from the beginning as the daughter of a famous movie protagonist, the scope of her hypercompetence is ultimately managing to survive in a very hostile environment, doing so by staying out of the focus of others who are more powerful than her. (Though she manages to accomplish some few tasks beyond bare survival necessities while doing that, to be sure.) There’s not even a world for her to save, just a space station; and while, all things being equal, she would like to save that station, she’s more focused on her survival, and gets plenty angry when one of the other characters prioritizes the survival of the station as a whole (or, on a more selfish vein, his survival) over hers. In the one place in the game where she has a choice to eliminate the threat at the expense of her own life, she actively scrambles to prevent that from happening; it is admittedly not only her own life that she would be sacrificing, so I don’t want to present this as purely a choice of saving her own skin at the expense of the greater good, but it is also not a choice that I can read as heroism.

And, as for mass slaughter: I didn’t keep count, but my guess is that if you wanted to go all-out with killing, you could maybe kill 50 beings? That would certainly be enough to qualify you as a famous serial killer in normal circumstances, but most video game protagonists reach that body count by breakfast; furthermore, most of those potential victims are robots of dubious sentience, who are probably better seen as tools of a malevolent, possibly sentient computer whom you can’t kill. I don’t particularly like the lack of gravity with which the game treats killing other humans or the way in which those other humans generally insist on seeing you as an enemy who must be killed, but even so, the low body count is remarkable; and not only can you make it through the game without killing another human, it’s not even an expert-level playstyle, I managed it myself without particular trouble. (Admittedly, I was playing at the very easiest difficulty level, but I imagine the harder levels would have made the killing paths more difficult as well as the stealth paths.)

So it’s a game at an individual scope rather than a world-dominating scope, in terms of how it presents you, how it presents your mission, how it presents your fellow beings; that in turn translates into how you approach your environments, as human-scale locations that you play close attention to instead of the more traditional world-scale environments that are mere backdrops to casual slaughter in support of a hamster wheel of leveling up. Alien: Isolation‘s world is a station, with hallways and rooms where people have spent time, where you spend time and return to, despite the linear motion that the game forces you through.


The environments in games that I remember most strongly are those that I return to often at leisure: Dragon Age Inquisition‘s Skyhold or Mass Effect‘s Citadel, or all of Kirkwall in Dragon Age II. Or, indeed, places I’ve built or walked through over and over in Minecraft. Whereas the most forgettable environments are ones that I go through only once, that are solely instrumental in nature, and that have me focused on enemies instead of my surroundings.

And I won’t say that I connected to the environments in Alien: Isolation the same way I connected to the Citadel or to Kirkwall: from the very beginning, the environments feel anything but leisurely, and while you frequently end up going to an environment twice, that’s the limit, and it’s not a return under your control, it’s a plot-driven propulsion. And yes, you are focused on enemies: in particular, no matter what else is going on, there’s always the fear that the alien is going to drop own from a vent and kill you.

But those enemy interactions don’t get in the way of your connecting with the environment. That’s a big advantage of stealth games: the environment is a key ingredient in your interactions with enemies. Admittedly, those interactions have you appreciating the environment on an instrumental level rather than a narrative level, but still, it’s something, and it’s a richer interaction than, say, the questions of which parts of the environment form cover in a shooter. Also, part of the stealth learning curve is replaying areas after you die in order to learn the mechanics; again, not as rich an interaction as you’d get from revisiting areas on your own term, but it has an effect.

And Alien: Isolation isn’t just a stealth game, it’s a horror game: and, in a horror game, absence is key. So you spend large amounts of time without any enemy interactions at all, just making your way through the environments and trying to understand them. I loved the restraint that the game showed by not showing any enemies at all until at least two hours into the game; later pauses in enemy interactions aren’t nearly as long, but they’re still substantial. Again, this isn’t an unalloyed benefit in terms of environmental interactions: even when enemies aren’t there, or when you haven’t even met your first enemy, half your attention is trying to pick up signs that enemies might be lurking behind a wall. Still, it’s a huge difference in environmental interactions compared to more action-oriented games.

All that added up to environmental interactions that worked as well for me as in any game I’ve played that’s focused on enemy interactions. I’ve been getting pretty tired of System Shock style audio logs, but even those worked for me in this game. Heck, I’ll put the environmental interactions up against some purely narrative games: I liked Gone Home a lot and I liked it more as story than Alien: Isolation, but wandering the space station of Alien: Isolation connected with me more than wandering the house of Gone Home. (Not that it’s particularly fair to compare the two, given the size of the respective teams!)


The bigger surprise for me, though, was that: by the end of the game, I kind of enjoyed the stealth aspects. Which definitely wasn’t true for me in the first third of the game: the first stealth sequence in particular drove me up the wall, and I’m glad that I looked up a walkthrough when I did. (And I kept a walkthrough accessible throughout the game, and it’s one of the few games I’ve played where that was an actively good choice: it blunted my frustration without taking away from my involvement with the game.) Part of that was definitely me not reading what the game was asking: if I’d played that section later, I would have immediately realized where I needed to go and I wouldn’t have waited too long before just sprinting through the door, accepting that I would be getting winged in the process. But, having said that, I don’t think I behaved too unreasonably in assuming that the environmental mist that you could turn on would help me, and in unsuccessfully trying to use that to get me past people; whereas it turns out that you can just wait in an extremely shallow wall niche when the enemies show up, then they’ll walk right past you without even turning their head to the right, leaving a clear path to the door.

So I don’t think that was a very well-designed encounter; and while I didn’t mind the first long interaction with the Alien in the medical ward too much, I felt that the game was telling me that I should spend my time looking at the tracker and hiding in closets, which isn’t a very rich experience. Eventually, though, I got beyond the tracker, beyond looking for patterns (which the Alien didn’t follow anyways!), and beyond hiding: I found that I enjoyed stealth situations more and more when I could see the Alien, when I was even in the same room as the Alien, as long as it wasn’t looking at me.

Because that ended up flipping the whole power dynamic: once the Alien is out of sight, it’s potentially anywhere, and any misstep is potentially fatal. But if it’s right there, then I can crouch behind tables, I can creep around, and I can react to its actions without it being able to react to me. Maybe it’s an artifact of playing on easy that I was able to do that successfully, I’m not really sure (and I assume there’s a much richer game out there if you actually use the tools that you’re cobbling together to distract the Alien), but whatever the reason, it’s the first time stealth games have given me that feeling of power.

Or, indeed, arguably the first time any game has affected me that way. I gather it’s actually a potential strength of the stealth genre, that it’s about using the environment to your advantage to get your enemies to do what you want without being aware of you. But, in the past, with the (significant but idiosyncratic) exception of Mark of the Ninja, stealth games have never worked out that way for me: I’ve spent too much time being bored watching enemies to learn their patterns and then waiting for the right time in their pattern (and then getting it wrong anyways and having to do it over), and my inventory loss aversion means that I don’t want to use my items because maybe I’ll need them later, so I don’t even learn how to use them well, leading into a negative cycle. Playing Alien: Isolation on easy made the item issue more or less irrelevant (especially given the inventory caps, because hitting those relieves my loss aversion), and the lack of patterns and the way interactions are structured nicely dealt with the former. I won’t say that the game has turned me into a stealth fan, but it’s nice to be able to appreciate the genre.


I’m very glad I played Alien: Isolation; there is a lot in here that I would like to see in other games.

ipad game roundup

January 24th, 2016

A few iPad games I’ve played recently:

Alto’s Adventure

After hearing about this game on Apple podcast after Apple podcast, I figured I should try it; and I just don’t get the hype. (Or rather, I get that Apple podcast hosts don’t play games much.) It’s really quite lovely, in a subdued way; it’s a game that could be about virtuosity, but has only one control, admittedly with two variants. So your only choices are when to jump, and whether to try to backflip while jumping; this is not very exciting, though at its best it can be really rather soothing.

You Must Build A Boat

If you liked 10000000, you’ll like this. I did, and I basically did, but not quite enough to last out the final challenge.


Very well done, in a Spry Fox way, albeit with a bit more random reward microtransaction bait than I’d like. I played it happily a few times a day for maybe two months, until the rolls of the dice turned against me and I didn’t get any legendary bears for two weeks solid. Still, I enjoyed my time with it.

Lara Croft Go

A turn-based puzzle game, and quite well done. For a while, I thought it was a bit too straightforward, but I chalked that up partly to it having a well-done difficulty curve and partly to, well, there are only so many options that a turn-based puzzle game can give you. But then I got to the (free!) extra level, and it turns out that I was wrong about the difficulty.

poe and leia

January 18th, 2016

Before watching The Force Awakens, I’d heard that it had a lot of parallels with the original Star Wars; so I was looking out for parallels when the movie started. And, sure enough, they were right there: there’s this person who is being chased by the Empire (well, they’re not called the Empire, but they’re the Empire with the serial numbers filed off), who sticks plans in a droid, who gets captured, and, after a bit (sooner than in Star Wars), who gets rescued.

So: this Poe person is Leia? And BB-8 is R2D2, Rey is Luke, Finn is Han, Kylo Ren is Darth Vader, Han is Obi-Wan, Chewie is himself, the Millenium Falcon is itself, Jakku is Tatooine, etc. (And nobody is C3PO; poor guy.)

Of course, none of these new characters are carbon copies of their 70s analogues. So maybe I’m stretching, maybe the new characters are remixes of the original, with their own flavor added in? E.g. Poe acts like Leia at the start, but like Luke when he’s flying?

Which is reasonable enough, but I’ll suggest a different way to look at the movies: take that analogy seriously, and say that Poe is what Leia could have been in a different world. A world where this incredibly competent woman wasn’t boxed in by being a princess, a world where we didn’t have the Return of the Jedi ridiculousness two movies later of showing her as being bold enough to threaten Jabba the Hutt while breaking into his hideout to rescue her boyfriend, then where the movie lost its nerve and decided that, no, we really needed to see her in a bikini, but then it got a bit of courage back and at least let her strangle Jabba. A world, instead, where she could fight and kick ass with the best of them, where her leadership skills weren’t relegated to some sort of abstract planning that we didn’t have the material to conceptualize. A world that acknowledges that, yes, sexual tension is a thing between adults, and that the Leia analogue and the Han analogue are probably the best fit for each other, but everybody gets their own agency, we don’t have to lead into that with damsel rescuing tropes.

Don’t get me wrong: the original trilogy did a lot of things well with Leia’s character, and the Leia of those movies can certainly plausibly lead into the General Organa of the new movie. But still: we can do better. And I like Poe as a vision of what an important, attractive character who is slightly off the main focus of the plot could be.

game of thrones and life is strange

January 7th, 2016

I played through Game of Thrones and Life Is Strange at the same time this fall. I started both of them when about half the episodes were out, and played through one episode a week (alternating weeks between the two games), so I got a slightly compressed but still episodic experience out of them. If I’m remembering correctly, the last episode of each was the only time when I had to wait for episodes to come out, otherwise I played through each game on a biweekly cadence.

And I’m glad I made the pairing; on the one hand, I seem to be more temperamentally suited to the Telltale style, but on the other hand, I liked Life Is Strange a lot more.


The aspect of the Telltale style that I’m referring to is how it forces you to make choices: you have a limited amount of time, and you have to make your response by then or say nothing. Thinking about this more, there’s actually a split in my personality when it comes to decisions: if I’m playing a game where I’m, say, fighting with limited ammo, then I’ll save all the time, and sometimes even reload if things go less than optimally. Whereas I never take back narrative decisions in BioWare RPGs, and in fact I’ve never replayed one of their games, as much as I enjoy them: the way I played them is the way it really happened, so why would I want to try doing it differently?

I’m not sure exactly what’s going on here, what it is that causes me to respond in a “never reconsider” way instead of an “everything is temporary” way: maybe it’s the narrative aspect and a belief in the sanctity of story, or maybe it’s just that I trust games to be accepting of a range of narrative choices in a way that I don’t trust them to be accepting of a range of combat choices. Whatever it is, Telltale games trigger it even more: I don’t have time to calculate possibilities, I have to react as I (or as my interpretation of my character) really feel at that moment.

Having said that, though: I’m happy enough to have played Game of Thrones, but I’m also happy to be done with it, and I doubt I’ll play the likely sequel. Maybe I’m a bit Telltaled out after two seasons of The Walking Dead; or maybe I’m a bit Game of Thronesed out after watching four seasons of the TV show (yes, I watch them a year late) and after finally reading the books this year.

And I do think that those are both playing into my feelings about the game, but also part of it is the game itself. Like The Walking Dead, Game of Thrones takes place in a horrific world (though arguably one that is less pervasively so); but The Walking Dead focused on a few characters that it suffused with love and humanity, while this game has a large cast of characters that are frequently horrific themselves, and with their calculations primary in their mind. Which, actually, works well in the books and TV series (though I almost stopped watching the TV series after the first two episodes), but those are of a much broader scale, about the world as a whole, or at least the continent. This game, though, is focusing on one minor family; and while, in general, I prefer a much more human scale, part of the reason why I prefer that is because a human scale allows games to focus on, well, humanity.


Life Is Strange is the opposite in all these dimensions. On a mechanical sense, it not only allows you to think about your decisions as much as you’d like, it actively encourages you to experiment and rewind time until you’re comfortable not with your choice but with the outcome of your choice. Which I did a couple of times, but it wasn’t my style, so eventually I just stuck with my choices.

They also use the rewind time mechanic as a puzzle mechanic there; works well enough, my only issue there was, because I didn’t want to use the mechanic in narrative bits, I sometimes forgot I could use it in puzzle bits! But that’s on me, not on the game.

In terms of scale, Life Is Strange is the polar opposite of Game of Thrones, and I far prefer that. A teenage girl, a small town, her problems; and her amazing magical ability, but one special thing I can deal with! I got sucked in pretty well, the twists that started about halfway through drew me in much more than anything in Game of Thrones.

And then there’s the final episode. That one, I don’t know what to make of, but I’ll give them credit for going out on a bang and giving me something to think about. I’ve seen claims that the intended true ending is saving the town; that’s not the ending I chose, I haven’t even watched it on Youtube, so I don’t have an informed opinion on the matter. I will say, though, that halfway through the episode, Warren made a case that every time you rewind time, you make things worse; I wasn’t completely convinced by his argument, but I’m more convinced by that than I am by the idea that it’s supposed to be obvious that, if you intend to make a choice that will save the town, then the town actually will be saved!

So, based on Warren’s argument, it made at least as much sense to choose with my heart; and, after my dream sequence in the episode, there was absolutely no question where my heart led. The dream sequence showed you all of your fears, and they felt real as fears; but it also showed you how you and Chloe mattered to each other, and that felt real, period.

And that’s what can be so great about small-scale personal games, what grandiose games have a much harder time with. My life has nothing to do with saving the world; it has a lot to do with a few people who matter a lot to me, though. I’m a very different person than Max, than Chloe (especially than Chloe!), but that questioning and that feeling hits me very much indeed.

tai chi, attention, and pain

December 21st, 2015

I started taking Tai Chi lessons this fall, from Master Tony Wong, and it’s been a very interesting experience indeed. I’ve been getting more curious recently about small decisions, and about paying attention to my fundamental reactions to experiences; Tai Chi gives a lot of material to think about on both fronts.

Over the three months that I’ve been going to class so far, we’ve gone through the first 16 of the 75 movements of the Chen Tai Chi first form. Over and over again, I’d do a new movement dozens of times in the class on Tuesday, and when practicing at home on Saturday, I’d realize that I didn’t actually understand some aspect of that movement at all: there were so many possibilities that seemed plausible, and I’d try to figure out which one made the most sense. I’d come up with a guess, which would in turn feed into next Tuesday’s class, where I’d focus on the bit that I wasn’t sure about.

About halfway through the class, a coworker who was also a more advanced student of my teacher pointed me at a book that gives quite detailed explanations of the form as performed in our class; reading that book made me realize just why there was so much that I wasn’t sure about. Take the sixteenth movement, “Angled Body Fist” the one I’ve most recently learned (or at least been exposed to, I’m not very confident in it yet!); the book breaks that movement down into eight parts, of which the fourth is as follows:

The right elbow continues its arc past the right knee while the left hand continues toward the back of the head. Eyes watch the right hand. As the right hand passes the knee, it becomes a downward-pointing hook hand. Then, simultaneously:

  • The torso rises into a vertical position as the waist continues to turn right.
  • The right wrist leads in an upward arc to a position about forty-five degrees forward and right of the right shoulder. The right arm straightens some as this happens but remains slightly curved.
  • The left hand passes the left side of the head and continues past the face to push toward the inside of the right elbow. Eyes follow the left hand as it passes the face (see figure 5.48).

So yeah, there are a lot of small decisions to think about. Which also feeds into the other question I’d been thinking about: what’s my reaction? On those times when I was confused, could I find one of these which makes more sense? And, if so, is that actually the correct one? I got better at that as the class went on: e.g. paying attention to weight shifts, and to how having my weight on one foot allows me to turn the other foot. And our teacher would give more context to moves, helping us think about them in terms of interactions with a hypothetical opponent.


We do more in the class than just the first form, though: we do Silk Reeling Exercises, which systematically go through your joints, and Qigong Exercises, which are a set of meditation techniques. I’ve been finding the latter surprisingly interesting, especially Wu Ji: that’s a form of meditation where you stand with your eyes closed. In some sense, that’s just taking the question I mentioned above of what feels right to its extreme: what feels right when I’m not doing anything at all? (And, actually, this specific question of what feels right when standing is something I’ve wondered about before.)

But there’s another reason why I’m interested in Wu Ji: in claims that it helps you gather your energy in ways that lead to surprising consequences if you stick with it. Discussion of this (and other Qigong meditiations) turns to a discussion of qi, which makes me uncomfortable: it works within a paradigm that is quite foreign to me, and that part of me has a hard time taking seriously. For example, what am I to make of claims that, while doing standing meditation, I should have my tongue touch the roof of my mouth because doing so completes the circle between my front meridian and my rear meridian, allowing my qi to flow? And you’ll see claims that, if you do a couple hundred hours of Wu Ji meditation, you’ll start to really feel different; on the one hand, at least that’s an empirical claim that I can try to test without understanding the qi paradigm, but, on the other hand, that’s a lot of time to put in on faith.

But, nonetheless: I like mysticism, I do actually feel like I could benefit from learning how to stand better (even setting aside all questions of qi), and I also believe that meditation probably really does have good effects on mental clarity. So I have been doing Wu Ji outside of class: not every day, and not for all that long when I do it (eight or nine minutes at a time, currently), but on weekends sometimes I do it multiple times a day.


If I’d written this post a month and a half ago, that’s where it would have ended up: Tai Chi was giving me a lot to think about, it felt like I was getting more in touch with my body, and I was curious where Wu Ji would lead me. But then my leg started hurting.

This isn’t new; I don’t think I’ve blogged about it here, but I had pretty serious leg pain last year, caused by a herniated disc in my back. Eventually, with physical therapy and drugs, it got better, but it was not good for a while. And a few weeks after starting Tai Chi, I had a bit of a twinge; nothing outside of the range of my normal experiences, but enough to make me wonder. That went away, though, and in fact for a while it felt like my back was as solid as it had ever been recently, so I assumed that Tai Chi was helping.

But then the pain came back, with enough of a vengeance that I knew I had to deal with it seriously and quickly. My current theory for the explanation of the good period is that I got prescribed some steroids in an attempt to get rid of a persistent cough, and that that, as a side effect, calmed down my back. (But it’s only a theory, part of the lesson of this story is that I shouldn’t put too much stock in my theories!) I’m not even entirely sure why it got worse so quickly; maybe it was slowly getting worse and I passed a tipping point, maybe the fact that I started taking two Tai Chi classes a week stressed out my back too much, maybe the fact that we were doing sword work in the Saturday class stressed out my back. I’m fairly sure that Tai Chi is related, both because it’s the only major change and because it sometimes seemed worse the day after Tai Chi, but I guess I don’t even know that for sure? And I’m certainly curious if Wu Ji is related—I don’t think so, but it did get worse right after I started doing more Wu Ji.

The pain is getting better again now. I got another course of steroids, but I already have some evidence that that alone isn’t enough to last more than a month or so, so I don’t want to count on that as more than a short-term solution. I’m trying to be more judicious about what I do in Tai Chi; my current theory is that a couple of the Silk Reeling Exercises are stressing my back a bit much, so I skip those. And I’m toning down some of the more forceful movements, though I didn’t ever do most of them too hard—e.g. my stomps in the “pounding the pestle” moves have always been relatively minimal.

And I’m actually taking a month off from Tai Chi: there’s a break in the beginner’s course from mid-December to mid-January, and I’ve decided to skip the other class during that period as well. I timed that so that I could get an epidural in my back a week after the course stopped: my doctor had brought that up as an option last year, and while I didn’t take him up on that back then because it was doing well enough, right now I really want to get things under control. (One of my theories is that, if I can get the disc un-herniated, then certain actions will switch from harmfully squeezing the disc to helpfully strengthening muscles. But, of course, that theory could be wrong!)

That’s not the only thing I’m doing, though: in a (hopefully) helpful bit of random synchrony, one of the other participants in the Tai Chi course happened to bring a copy of Esther Gokhale’s 8 Steps to a Pain-Free Back to class. I got a copy, and I’m finding it surprisingly interesting and convincing. Well, maybe not surprisingly, because I have a thing for this sort of thing; and, to make it complicated, now I have dueling paradigms / empirical claims trying to convince me. Should I tuck in my pelvis, as Wu Ji recommends, or not, as Gokhale recommends? Should I, when walking, land on the front of my feet, as the barefoot running people recommend, or barely on the back of my feet, as Gokhale recommends? We’ll see; at least not everything is dueling, some of the stuff Gokhale recommends boils down to traction, which the physical therapist I went to last summer recommends, and concrete guidance in how not to slouch sounds like a good idea.


The current plan is:

  • Get an epidural in my back. (Done!)
  • Skip Tai Chi for a month.
  • Work on Gokhale’s recommendations, especially about how to sit but probably also about how to walk.
  • Go back to Tai Chi in January, trying not to dial back too much but skipping some of the exercises that I’m dubious about.

If this goes well, then the epidural and rest will get my back non-inflamed, the Gokhale method will teach me how to look after my back in my day-to-day actions (and, given how much time I spend sitting down, it’s entirely possible that changes there will have a bigger impact than changes in a few hours of Tai Chi a week!), and Tai Chi will be pleasant and helpful on both a physical and a mental level. Whereas, if this goes badly, then I’ll be having another needle stuck into my spine…

dots and two dots

December 7th, 2015

Dots is a charmingly presented puzzle game. Like many puzzle games, the board is a square of objects that you want to make disappear; in this game, the objects are colored dots, and you make them disappear either by connecting same-colored dots via paths or by making a square of same-colored dots. In the former case, the game plays a series of tones as you make larger and larger chains, and then the dots in the chain disappear; in the latter case, it vibrates excessively and all dots of the given color disappear.

The main mode asks you to make as many dots to disappear in a minute; there’s also a mode that asks you to make as many dots disappear as you can in 30 moves. And there’s an infinite mode, and a multiplayer mode; also there are special moves you can purchase, either for real money or through currency earned through the normal course of the game.

Like I said, the presentation is charming: the colors, the sounds. The gameplay itself, however, is fine but not wonderful: making squares turns out to be the key, both because it removes the most dots at once and, because for the next move, there will be one fewer color on the board, making it easier to make squares a second time. And if you succeed a second time, then one color will be completely gone and one color will be almost gone, so the chance of making yet another square increases. So the result is that, even though the aesthetics are about wanting to make longer chains, the gameplay turns out to be about finding a way to make a first square and then hoping it cascades, and I didn’t find that particularly satisfying.


With Two Dots, the developers recognized this: the sequel took the same game mechanic, but focused you much more directly on learning how to make squares. They built the game out of levels, instead of reusing a single playing field; each level asks you to destroy specified numbers of dots of specified types within a specified move limit, which focuses you on learning how to play as efficiently as possible; and the different levels have different shapes and numbers of colors, grouped into worlds that typically add a special types of dots with unusual characteristics.

In other words, they found the best aspect of the gameplay of the original game and expanded on it; they also continued to focus on the aesthetics of the game, adding some rather lovely artwork. But they also made another change: they added an energy mechanic (five lives, each taking 20 minutes to refill) while increasing the pressure for you to spend money on consumables.

I’ve never actually played Candy Crush, but this matches the descriptions I’ve heard of that game. You can make lots of progress without paying a cent, but if you do that, you’ll periodically hit levels that take days to make it past. (At least assuming that you’re dipping into the game instead of returning to it every 20 minutes.)

There is actually a positive aspect of the energy mechanic: it focuses your learning. You’ll only have five chances at a given level before running out of energy, assuming you don’t successfully complete the level; this, combined with the lack of time pressure for individual moves, encourages you to think about your moves instead of just charging ahead. So I actually end up thinking and learning more than I would have without the energy pressure: if the energy pressure hadn’t been there, it wouldn’t bother me if I had to take twenty tries at a level, I’d just keep on clicking instead of thinking about ways to make it so I only had to take ten tries instead of twenty tries.

And I did happily play the game for a week or two, and I got more out of Two Dots than I did out of Dots. But, ultimately: I’m at the mercy of the game’s designers as to how difficult any given level is going to be, and I don’t particularly have faith that they make those choices for my enjoyment instead of in an attempt to maximize their revenue. I would be entirely happy to pay money for the game, or to unlock levels, or what have you, but paying unpredictable amounts of money at unpredictable times isn’t my thing. (And the game’s badgering me to connect to Facebook didn’t help, either.) And, as I said when discussing Dots, the mechanics aren’t the best; I liked what they did with those mechanics, enough to make it through a hundred levels, but I didn’t feel like I was learning any more by the time I stopped playing.


Interesting experience, though. And it is charmingly put together.

returning to okami

November 30th, 2015

What a game Okami is. I loved it when I first played it, though in recent years, I’d started to wonder: maybe that game went on a little long, maybe I was thinking about it through rose-colored memories? As it turns out: yeah, sure, the game does go on a little long, but wow what a game it is.

Mostly I love how humane a game this is. It’s a game where the key area unlock mechanic involves blooming cherry trees, where feeding animals is a key leveling up mechanic. But I also love the art in the game: it’s beautiful, it’s unusual, it’s integrated into the story and the mechanics. It’s got all the considerable Zelda-style goodness of construction as well, and I enjoy the Japanese tales that are woven throughout it.


Thinking about it more in the context of The Nature of Order: so many parts of the world in this game feel so alive. I’m used to this to some extent in towns in adventure games / RPGs, though even here I think Okami does a quite good job: e.g. your initial village is small, but it feels like a small village where everybody knows everybody else, everybody has relations and feelings with everybody else, the village has rhythms, traditions, and a past history, the village looks at you through the context of that past history.

But where Okami is more unusual is in how that feeling of life extends to the countryside and even the dungeons. The countryside doesn’t exist solely for travel and monster fighting: people live there and carry out their lives, and the plants and animals are a key part of the experience. (And one that also links back to the village experience, with the linkage of all the guardian saplings. There are monsters in the countryside, but they too are a part of the world: if you respect them, they won’t hurt you. (At least during the day: I guess part of respecting them is staying inside at night!)

The dungeons are mostly in the Zelda vein, but some of them do a good job connecting to the rest of the world (e.g. the water dragon or the Emperor), and the Moon Cave may be my favorite dungeon in any game. Again: monsters are people too, they’re part of the world, and the chef really does care about Orochi.


I’m still coming to terms with Dragon Age: Inqusition. I frequently give the game a hard time, and the above is really why: the large environments, as glorious as they can be, don’t have the same pervasive feeling of life as Okami‘s do. Too many ruins that are placed because the game’s designers seem to want you to run into structures every so often; too many fetch quests in an attempt to bring a connection where none is present; too many herbs to pick because, well, that one I can’t justify. (Though the flip side is that Okami has too many pots to smash.)

Having said that, it is a little odd to praise Okami‘s environments, given how tiny they are while still having less topographical texture than similar-sized chunks of Dragon Age: Inquisition‘s environments! So I’m probably doing a combination of giving Okami a bit too much of a pass and being too hard on Dragon Age: Inquisition.

And of course what’s really going on is that there are aspects of Dragon Age: Inquisition that I love as much as many parts of Okami, and for much the same reason: the feeling of life and connectedness that can be there. (If I didn’t care about the game, I wouldn’t get so annoyed at it!) Your interactions with your companions are wonderful (and it’s not a coincidence that the DLC that focused on those relationships is by far the best piece of DLC for the game); your home bases are small enough to feel like, well, home, and while those home bases themselves don’t have quite the same feeling of connected history as your starting village in Okami, the game makes up for that by pulling in connections from previous games to form a foundation.

There are sparks of life elsewhere, too: sure, the Hinterlands is full of quests I don’t care about, but then you run into the family that raises horses and, well, they feel like a family made up of people with their own feelings, contexts, beliefs, and drives. And most of the time, when I read a document lying around in a building somewher, I skim it and hit the B button before it’s really entered into my brain, but every once in a while a piece of lore really resonates with me (Andraste’s Mabari, say), and I’ll never pass by an entry of Hard in Hightown.


Ultimately, though: given the choice between a smaller-scale game that manages to be suffused with life and connections versus a larger-scale, more polished game where the life and connections are less omnipresent, I’ll go for the former. Not that I’m against large-scale games or polish: if life is there as well, and if that life appears frequently enough, then I may end up falling in love with those games, too. But I suspect that a larger scale makes it hard to focus consistently on that feeling of life. (There’s a reason why Dragon Age II is my favorite game in that series.) And connected, free-form environments are always a double-edged sword; they give you more control as a player, which sets up the possibility of bringing more of your life into the game, but the flip side is that those environments also give more room to do activities that ultimately don’t nourish you. (So there’s also a reason why I in general prefer the Mass Effect series to Dragon Age.)

Also: if games are going to continue to have you do rote activities to rack up points, and if games want to do that in ways that nourish you instead of separating you, they could do a lot worse than having one of those rote activities involve a lovely and peaceful cutscene of you feeding animals…


November 15th, 2015

I can’t think of another puzzle game like SPL-T: it’s deterministic, but it nonetheless has the “responding to random circumstances” feel of a game like Tetris or Drop 7.

That was especially the feel for the first week or so when I was playing the game, when I didn’t realize how the drops work. When you create a 2×2 (or 3×2) pattern of equally-shaped rectangles, they lock in place with a count; that count is the number of moves you’ve played so far, and when that count goes to zero, they disappear. The rectangles above them fall down; importantly (but not obviously when you’re first playing around with the game), locked rectangles have their count cut in half when they fall.

So, once you realize this, the basic parameters of your play are set: you’re going to want to start from the bottom of the screen and work up, so that, when something disappears, there will be stuff above it that gets closer to disappearing.

The game ends when you’ve got the entire screen locked up; there’s a score as well as a move count, but in practice I ignored the score, and I don’t really think it pulls its weight: you get different amounts of points for locking large rectangles compared to small ones, but it wasn’t a dimension I felt like optimizing along when playing, and just to survive I was going to spend most of my time diving the screen into as small squares as possible anyways.


So, basically, I thought of the screen as divided into four columns, each of which was 8 squares high, and I wanted to divide those squares into 2×2 blocks in a controlled fashion. I would mess up at that sometimes: in particular, every once in a while I would accidentally finish a square while not realizing that I’d already divided the adjacent half of a neighbor square, so I would make a 3×2 block instead of a 2×2 one, messing up the adjacent column for the rest of the game. So I spent a week or two trying to get better at avoiding mistakes like that.

Eventually I decided to think a little more about what was going on. I’d like to maintain a steady flow of 2×2 squares disappearing, so I’ll be creating new ones at the same rate as they’ll be disappearing. Which raises the question of how long it takes a square to disappear: if I create it on turn N, then it has to count down from N in zero, except that if it falls it gets cut in half. If it’s at height H and if I space out the numbers properly beneath it, then it will fall (H-1) times, so really I want to divide N by 2^(H-1); it takes 3 moves to finish a square, so I figure the right spacing between when I finish a block at height H-1 and one at height H is somewhere between 2^(H-1) and (2^(H-1))*3*4. (The 4 is the number of columns.)

I suspect that there’s something useful that you can do with this; the big problem is that drops really screw up your timing, because if you’re targeting a difference compared to the previous K*2^(H-1) and then there’s a drop beneath you, all of a sudden you’re targeting K^2*(H-2) and the number you’re comparing the difference with also drops in half. The first of those isn’t so bad (after all, I’m pretty vague what the correct number is for K, but I think anything between 1 and 12 is workable); but there’s a big difference between being in range of 200 and being in range of 100.


At any rate: that thinking helped a bit, but only a bit. Soon after I started taking the 4-column approach, I had a lucky game where I hit 450 splits; my high score is still only 485 splits. I get over 400 more often now than I did then, but it’s still quite rare; if I get less than 200 splits, I’ve actively screwed up, 200–300 means that I’ve done a bad job, but 300 400 is the normal range for me.

I’m glad I spent time with the game, and I still come back to it occasionally, hoping that I’ll find the magic timing that lets me reliably get past 400 and even reach the unknown reaches of 500. Maybe I should try a more horizontal strategy instead of focusing so much on the left two columns…

read my linkblog!

November 10th, 2015

A periodic reminder: this isn’t my only blog: I also have a linkblog, http://links.malvasiabianca.org. I cap posts there at four a day (unless I mess up), and most days there aren’t that many posts. Heck, probably most days I don’t post anything there, though I certainly post there more often than here!

And then there’s my gameplay notes blog, http://scenes.malvasiabianca.org, though that one is really not very interesting: just monthly Minecraft pictures and notes on my (bad!) Netrunner decks.

clapping music

November 9th, 2015

There’s a game out now that has you play through Steve Reich’s composition Clapping Music.

Pleasant to play through: it took me a couple of tries to figure out what they were asking for, but once I got the feel for it, I enjoyed the music, and I got a lot more out of the music than I would have just listening to it.

On hard difficulty, though, I usually couldn’t last very long. Which was educational as well: my rhythm is not as tight as I would like to think it is…

more on small business models

November 8th, 2015

Some items feeding into each other that I ran across last Friday:


StartUp episode #16: The Secret Formula

In the first season of StartUp, one of the possible routes that they considered taking is the traditional VC strategy of getting a large audience by making lots of stuff, trying to build a large and defensible business via network effects. I was glad to see that they didn’t take that route: these days I’m getting more interested in what it takes to do something really well rather than to do something at scale, and I’m getting less interested in VC growth strategies. (See also Signal v. Noise post suggesting reconsidering VC money.)

So I really enjoyed this episode, where they started off by talking about how their “secret sauce” is to put in a lot of very skilled work producing very well crafted podcast episodes, and then they gave a live example of how that works. They showed how they go from idea to raw footage to a better idea of where the story is to a revised script to better footage: I love this sort of concrete, worked-out example.

And I appreciate seeing an apparently successful small business, with some modest VC pressure, navigating the waters of growth.


Unwinnable: Content is the Opiate of the Masthead

I’ve been published in Unwinnable twice now: a reprint of parts of my post on the Shenmue 3 Kickstarter and a reprint of my post on games, prices, value, and uncertainty. I didn’t get paid for the former; I asked about payment for the latter, was told that their standard rate was $50, and I didn’t argue.

That $50 rate felt a little funny for a couple of reasons, though. One of those reasons is that the article was almost four thousand words long; $50 feels like a token payment, given that. (I won’t say that they’re 4000 great words, but I also didn’t get paid in the learning that comes from editing, either.) And the other is that an Unwinnable subscription is $96/year; so, even though I’ve been published twice this year, I’ll still be paying them money overall! I actually thought about asking to get payment via a free yearly subscription instead of via money, but I ended up not doing that.

That was just in the back of my mind, not anything that actively bothers me; my blog posts are in the public domain, after all, so Unwinnable would have been perfectly within their rights to publish them without even asking me! I have zero desire to try to be a freelance writer, and I have a good salary, so $50 versus $250 doesn’t seriously affect me, either one is a pleasant but small windfall.

Though, actually, I have been thinking recently about unsubscribing from Unwinnable. Again, the price isn’t so much the issue, though $100 / year (or the $8 that I see on my monthlycredit card statement) is enough to pass my financial “should I keep doing this?” threshold in a way that the $35 Kickstarter subscription price wasn’t. Rather, It’s the rhythm of the thing: I either need to find time to read Unwinnable every week or I need to fall behind, and I’m not thrilled with either idea. (I have enough magazines on my dining room table already…) Five out of Ten fits into my rhythms better, as does plain old reading a book. (Or at least I would like reading books to fit into my rhythm better; and in general reading longer-form work makes me feel better about myself.)

With that as prologue: this article. Seeing that $50 is the standard rate made me glad that I didn’t argue: I’m happy to be in the same boat as the other writers, even if I do blather on more. And seeing how on the edge of financial ruin Unwinnable is makes me feel a little guilty about considering unsubscribing, though not too guilty: I hope that I am following the article’s requests of not spending too much time on word factory sites, and of paying for the more substantial writing that I am trying to spend time on.


Exponent Episode 58: The Attention Market

If you only follow one of these links, this is the one to follow, even if it will take an hour or so to listen to: once it got going, it was repeatedly fascinating. The podcast hosts have been talking for a while about a concept of a publishing landscape where the middle ground gets squeezed out but where either very large sites or individuals with a focused audience can survive; this podcast was an important evolution of that thought.

The first part I thought was really interesting was when they talk about how writing is only a part, potentially a rather small part, of how small sites make money these days. In particular, they laid out a chain of interactions where somebody follows an interesting link to your site, then they start reading it more regularly, then they follow a podcast link, then they end up being a podcast regular. This gives two opportunities to make money off of (tasteful, targeted, native) focused advertising: posts in your feed / on your site (maybe one per week), and spots on your podcast episode (maybe three per episode). (Daring Fireball / The Talk Show is a canonical example of this strategy.)

The point here is that, for a small site, standard display advertising is extremely unlikely to make enough money to support you, because the rates are too low for your volume. Subscriptions are a possibility (it’s how Ben Thompson, one of the podcast hosts, makes most of his money), but having your content be free has huge advantages in building an audience. If you’re a really focused site, though, and if you’re in the right sort of market, then there will be people who want to advertise specifically to your readers / listeners: they won’t be the big companies, they’ll be the small companies who are heavily involved in your target market. So that gives you a way to get higher rates (and flat rates instead of per-page-view rates); apparently podcast ads are actually a pretty decent way to make money these days, though you need both reputation and audience volume to pull this off.

The other part of the episode that I thought was really interesting was their discussion bundling. We all find bundling annoying when we look at our cable subscriptions and see a hundred channels that we’ll never watch, but the hosts made a pretty compelling case that bundling is actually good for both the audience and the content producers.

If all content is unbundled, and if people are choosing everything that they’re paying for, then an awful lot of time people will end up deciding not to buy, leading to less money for the producers and fewer choices for the consumers: e.g. if I’m a baseball fan but only a casual basketball observer, then I’ll be happy to pay $10/month for baseball but I wouldn’t be willing to pay that for basketball (and I probably don’t even want to think hard about how much I’m willing to pay for basketball); this can play out in various ways, but one way where this can play out is that I won’t get to watch any basketball and the basketball teams won’t get any money from me. Whereas if they’re both bundled together for $13, then I’m probably happy with that price, I have more stuff to watch, and the content producers get more money overall from me and from my basketball fan / baseball casual alter ego.

And this in turn got them rethinking their suspicion about medium-scale businesses: maybe a medium scale group that’s made out of bundled focused smaller groups could be successful.


Those last two items, of course, raise the question of whether Exponent has lessons for making thoughtful games commentary a sustainable business. One option would be to broaden the revenue stream: don’t just focus on writing, add in podcasts and youtube channels as well, with the various audiences all feeding into each other and with native advertising in all of these places. (As Unwinnable is in fact doing with their Unreal Engine articles.)

The downside there is that you still need the audience size / devotion and you still need to be able to convince advertisers that it’s worth their time and money to focus on you.

The other potential route is bundling: maybe Unwinnable, Five out of Ten, The Arcade Review, etc. could get together and offer a joint subscription that would give people access to all of their magazines at either the current price for one or something a bit higher. Or maybe a cross-genre approach would work: Unwinnable could pair up with philosophically similar publications about sports or books or music, so people who are devoted to one of those but have some interest in reading about the others could combine together to build a bigger audience than the combined individual publication audiences would be.

Or, of course, combine both of those! Have some of your content (e.g. most of the long-form writing) behind a bundled paywall, but also have podcasts that anybody can listen to with its own native advertising!

I dunno; it’s a hard problem, and I’m glad it’s not my problem to solve. I’m still not convinced that there’s enough of an audience for regular high-quality games writing to make a business out of it; maybe a patronage model, with eventual dreams of a guaranteed minimum income, really is the way to go in that sphere.

attention, joy, connection, and life

November 5th, 2015

I reread The Nature of Order this summer and fall, and I’ve already talked about how the second volume, The Process of Creating Life, has a lot to teach me about to teach me about writing software.

The final volume, The Luminous Ground, is more fundamental, more basic, in a mystical way. It’s explicit about relations, about direct connections, about “the eternal self”:

This relatedness that occurs is something between you and the bit of blue in the painting. You do not, I think, experience the bit of blue as if it were your self. I believe rather, that you experience something stretching between yourself and the blue hill, something that seems to mobilize your self, stretch it out towards the bit of blue, connect with it. The thing which comes into play, is the something stretching between you as you stand there, and the bit of blue. That is the relationship I am referring to.

What happens? You look at the blue hill and something, stretching between you and the blue hill, then comes into existence. But it is a very important thing that comes into existence. It is not the mundane, everyday self, which is being mobilized. It is as if the eternal you, the eternal part of you, your eternal self, is somehow being mobilized—and has been mobilized—simply because you are looking at that bit of blue.

(p. 62)

So I asked again, “Where is your I, exactly, in this case, when you are looking at the red cushion?” Remarkably, then, he said to me, “It seems to go out toward the cushion. Somehow, for some reason, I feel my I exists beyond my body, it includes the cushion … or (he corrected himself), at least it goes out toward the cushion; when I look at the red cushion my I seems larger than before, and it tends to expand toward the cushion, includes it.”

(p. 64)

Since I read those sections, I’ve been looking around more, and noticing where my gaze expands. When I’m looking out the window at work, it often goes into the distance, at mountains and clouds. And part of that fits what I read in Alexander: my self really does move in that direction. But part of me wonders how much is just a trick of the circumstances: maybe if I were focusing on anything in the distance, I would naturally feel like I was moving that way? It’s not just that, though: the mountains and clouds really do have life that the buildings, streets, trees up close don’t.


A bit further on, getting at the core of his fifteen properties, he says:

I believe the following sentence expresses the kind of thing they might have carried, mentally, with them:

Whatever you make must be a being.

Stated at slightly greater length, it could be stated thus:

While you are making something you must always arrange things, or work things out, in such a way that all the elements you make are self-like beings, and the elements from which the elements are made are beings, and the spaces between these elements are beings, and the largest structures are beings, too. Thus your effort is directed toward the goal that everything, every portion of space, must be made a being.

Such a short rule could easily have been carried about consciously by a 14th-century craftsman as the secret of his art.

(p. 95)

I was reading this at while attending Agile Open California; the book and the conference both raised the question of what craftsmanship means to me, and what it would mean to take it seriously.

And then there’s this:

At first it may seem funny that I could write four volumes, nearly two thousand pages, and that it would all come down to this: that you must, and each person must please yourself, herself, himself fully. Then the structure of the environment will be a living structure, and everything will be all right.

But you may turn this funny-seeming statement around, and view it backwards. Imagine me saying something like this: The two thousand pages I have written about living structures are — I think — true. But they are to be understood in such a way that every line, every specific structural detail, can be rephrased to say: people will make living structure only when they truly please themselves. If there is any detail about the structure that is not clear, you should understand this fact clearly: What pleasing yourself truly IS, is the process in which we create living structure.

Our biggest problem in the world, the absence of living structure, the choked difficulty of finding true freedom, true art, all comes from this: that people do not know — emotionally — how to please themselves. In part, they are prevented by society. And in part, they are prevented by themselves, by their inner thought police.

Creating living structure is to be attained, in the end, by the greatest and most sublime process which can happen: that each person lives, works, exists, in such a fashion that they truly please themselves.

Then we may say, if we wish, that we are close to God.

(p. 299)

Listen to yourself, listen to what really makes you happy, and as part of that you’ll be part of something much bigger.


That last quote, about truly pleasing yourself, dovetails with another book I was reading at about the same time: Marie Kondo’s The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up. It sounds like a book about cleaning, organizing, and throwing away, and of course it is, but I really was not prepared for the approach that the author takes.

When I woke up, I knew immediately what that voice in my head had meant. Look more closely at what is there. I had been so focused on what to discard, on attacking the unwanted obstacles around me, that I had forgotten to cherish the things that I loved, the things I wanted to keep. Through this experience, I came to the conclusion that the best way to choose what to keep and what to throw away is to take each item in one’s hand and ask: “Does this spark joy?” If it does, keep it. If not, dispose of it. This is not only the simplest but also the most accurate yardstick by which to judge.

(p. 41)

This is so similar to Alexander’s recommendation to look at items and designs, and to ask yourself: what is a model of your self, what pleases yourself, what causes a real connection. And the section “Appreciate your possessions and gain strong allies” begins with this:

One of the homework assignments I give my clients is to appreciate their belongings. For example, I urge them to try saying, “Thank you for keeping me warm all day,” when they hang up their clothes after returning home. Or, when removing their accessories, I suggest they say, “Thank you for making me beautiful,” and when putting their bag in the closet, to say, “It’s thanks to you that I got so much work done today.” Express your appreciate to every item that supported you during the day. If you find this hard to do daily, then at least do it whenever you can.

I began to treat me belongings as if they were alive when I was a high scool student.

(pp. 168–169)

That paragraph continues, in a way that again has me connect Kondo with Alexander: taking completely seriously the notion that objects are alive, and that that matters.


So: I should pay attention to myself, to my reactions. (To, as Kondo says, what truly brings joy.) I should pay attention to other objects: what is my connection to them, but also what life inheres in them.

Paying attention to myself at a direct level is not something I’ve always been good at. I’ve been taking Tai Chi classes for a month and a half now, and that’s being very helpful and very interesting: I’m spending much more time paying attention to what my body is doing, and I think that’s also translating into paying attention to other parts of myself.

I need to figure myself out more; and I need to figure out the external facing aspects of myself. Interacting with the world, interacting with objects as craft, art, and life. And starting to take more seriously creating objects as craft, art, and life.

agile open california 2015

October 25th, 2015

I’ve gone to every Agile Open (Northern) California, and it’s absolutely my favorite conference. I’ve learned a lot there, I’ve had a lot of really interesting interactions there, it always gets me thinking. For a few years, the conference was therapy for me; fortunately, that wasn’t necessary this year.

I felt significantly more detached than usual this year, but that didn’t stop it from being great: two of the sessions that I went to were excellent, and just being there got me thinking about what I might want to do with my programming.


The first talk was by Josh Kerievsky; I forget the title, but basically, it was about what modern agile might look like. (Update: Here’s his post summarizing the talk.) One metaphor that he had at the start was “getting rid of training wheels” – when teaching his kid how to ride a bike at all, they didn’t use training wheels at all, they instead used a “push bike”, which (I believe) is basically a bike without pedals. So the point is that it teaches you about balance right at the start, whereas training wheels don’t help with balance but instead teach you something that is much easier (how to pedal). In that light, when rethinking agile, we shouldn’t necessary assume that traditional practices are good even as a stepping stone to better practices: maybe they’re simply going down a route that in retrospect isn’t so useful.

Here were his suggestions for what modern agile would focus on:

Outcome. Take Kathy Sierra as inspiration: make users awesome, make them badass.

Lean Startup. Rapidly and frugally validate or invalidate your ideas. Fail fast on your requirements.

Continuous Deployment. Amazon deploys code every 11 seconds on average; Intuit runs 300 experiments a day.

Blameless Culture. His example here was Etsy: a new employee took down the entire website, and ended up getting the “three-armed sweater” award.

Somewhere around here was an interlude: lean startup changed the definition of Done. Done doesn’t mean that code satisfies the acceptance criteria: done means that users are using the code and being badass.

Kanban. Work with windows of time instead of sprints. At the end of sprints, quality goes down in order to cram stuff in; also, sprints work against continuous deployment. Thin vertical slices certainly are valuable, but sprints are bad training wheels for that. (And note, when doing Kanban, you still have to make sure your slices are thin: if something sits around too long, that’s a bad sign.)

My memory was that this got some amount of pushback from one or two people in the audience. Which surprised me, but I also heard other people talk about this in other sessions, that some people really like their sprints and their estimates.

Evolutionary Design. An old principle but still good.

Cross-Functional Teams. Ditto.

Another interlude: in early days, all teams learned managerial and technical agility. Now it all starts with the management side (i.e. Scrum); this starts off fine but turns into a mess a few years later. So he thinks Scrum is a bad training wheel, you need balance. Also, programmers want to badass, to take pride in their work.

Mob Programming. Or pairing in general, not just on programming. His company has been experimenting with mob programming from 11am to 1pm every day; it helps deal with the big problem of knowledge silos. They like the results so far. (I asked him a bit about other types of pairing; I got the feeling that in general he thought that pairing was a good idea that hadn’t gotten the traction is should have.)

Minimize Estimates. Design your process to not depend on estimates: the secret to hitting a deadline isn’t estimates, it’s evolutionary design.

(Blameless) Retrospectives. Another oldie but goodie.

DevOps. Modern agile brings devops into the fold, not as a separate team.

Story Mapping and Personas. This helps inform the notion of what it means for a user to be badass.

Lean UX. One thing he noted here is that this goes against continuous deployment: you get a better user experience if the UI doesn’t change piecemeal.


That was an interesting list from a conceptual point of view, but also useful to me from a personal point of view. It’s gotten me thinking about what learning I want to get out of my current job; I’ve long since given up on the idea that my current job will teach me much new about agile, but actually there are two items on Josh’s list, Continuous Deployment and DevOps, that my current job has taught me and continues to teach me about. So, in retrospect, while my job isn’t teaching me much new about traditional agile, there are at least some aspects of a potential modern agile that it’s a very good place for me to learn about. (In fact, my current project is getting me in the thick of both Continuous Deployment and DevOps, which is great!)


The other talk that I thought was really interesting was by Matthew Carlson, on What Social Science Can Tell Us about Agile. Here are some slides; I think they’re world-readable? Part of it was going over the Crossing the Chasm ideas: early adopters, early majority, late majority, etc. And part was talking about pressures to conform (“isomorphic pressures”) that are always present, which he classified into three groups: mimetic pressures (imitating others), normative pressures (social conformity), and coercive pressures (do this or else).

And then he talked about decoupling: gaps between policy and implementation. The point is that you have that trio of pressures both on the side of the official policy and on the underlying context that the implementation takes place in; you need to conform to both, but that may be quite difficult, putting you in a double bind. So the upshot is: decoupling is a solution, not a problem: it’s a solution to the very real problems arising from conflict between the pressures of context and the pressures of change in policy.

He presented various results related to this; e.g. that late adopters typically get less benefit from adoption than early adopters, largely (I think) because of this decoupling.


And the conference was also a time where I could sit and think. I don’t want to talk too much right now about that, but maybe more will come out in that regard in future blog posts.

unpleasant web sites

September 19th, 2015

I’ve come slowly to the whole ad-blocker debate: all things being equal, I’m not an active fan of ads, but I accept them as a possible way for writers to get paid, and most of the time they’re not that bad. Sometimes, they do cross the line for me—I really don’t like the “around the web” style ads that promise to tell me about strange people living near me or miracle foods or celebrity plastic surgery mishaps—but I’m generally content to ignore ads that aren’t scraping the bottle of the barrel. So, while I read many articles through Instapaper (at least if I’m on my iPad) or through Feedly instead of clicking through to the website, and while I’ll turn on Safari’s Reader View for particularly cluttered pages, I also see a decent number of web pages on the publisher’s web site as the publisher presents them. (Actually, ads aren’t the main reason why I turn on Reader View: I’m most likely to turn it on because of content width and font choices that make it hard for me to scan the text.)

In fact, what’s been annoying me more this year on web sites isn’t ads: it’s stuff that websites inflict that are about the site itself instead of about external products. I distinctly remember following a link to a Jay Smooth video, and having the page be completely covered by an overlay that encouraged me to give them my e-mail, or something like that. It was one of those things that makes me wonder just what the thought process was behind that: I have zero relationship with this site, I’ve done absolutely nothing that would give them any reason to believe that I care about the site at all let alone would be willing to give them my contact e-mail, yet they think this request for my e-mail is so important (and likely enough to succeed) that they’re going to block the whole screen with it? I guess it got me to remember the site, which I probably wouldn’t have otherwise (it was fusion.net), but not in a good way: I seriously included sticking a fake DNS entry in /etc/hosts so that I wouldn’t accidentally visit that site again.


That’s where I was until this summer’s WWDC announced that iOS would support content blocking. And then I read articles analyzing the costs that ad requests impose: loading what should be a basic web page takes 11 seconds and loads 14 megabytes of data. That’s ridiculous, and it puts a completely different spin on something else that I’d been noticing, namely that my iPad was getting slow: sure, the machine is old, but it sounds like ad networks and their scripts are significantly increasing the amount of work that my iPad has to do.

Having something that’s not actively offensive be on the fringes of my vision is fine. Having ads start crowding out content is annoying; it pushes me towards to reading articles from random web sites through Instapaper, and I’ll also turn on Reader View to deal with this. But when websites start presenting me with bullshit overlays that I have to click through, popups that aren’t for ad purposes (which I’m actually relatively happy to accept, that’s a clear tradeoff that I understand) but that I read as a complete lack of thought about how the reader is approaching the site, then I get angry. And when I realize the hidden costs that ads are imposing on me (costs that potentially translate into me having to spend hundreds of dollars for a new machine and/or having a phone battery die in the middle of the day), then I start thinking a lot harder about ad blocking. This isn’t an open exchange of my attention for value that websites provide, this is software being run covertly on my computer for purposes I don’t agree with; blocking that seems no more wrong than browsers blocking popups, as they’ve done for years. (Marco Arment’s post from August seems right to me; also, he brigs up tracking behavior, which is another aspect of ads that I do not agree to accept.)


So I’m running Ghostery now. I don’t block everything that Ghostery allows me to block: I block Analytics, Beacons, and Privacy by default, and I leave Advertising and Widgets unblocked by default. But if I go to a web page and I see bottom-of-the-barrel “around the web” crap, then I’ll figure out where it’s coming from and block that. This probably doesn’t have as much an effect on load times as I’d like, but at least it’s something.

That’s on the Mac; my iPad is, unfortunately, old enough that content blockers won’t work on it, but I expect I’ll be running one on my phone as well soon enough. The iOS content blockers don’t yet seem like they’re as fine-grained as on the Mac (though I haven’t done a lot of research); if I have to take a scorched earth approach for a while, then that’s probably what I’ll do.

That still doesn’t fix those annoying overlays, though. Maybe I really should go the /etc/hosts blocking route for that….