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turned on https

August 13th, 2019

I’d been vaguely thinking for a while that I should enable encryption here. I’d had it enabled for Memory (my spaced repetition memorization tool) since the beginning of that project, but with a self-signed certificate; getting real certificates for that and my other domains didn’t seem worth the cost, though. But then Let’s Encrypt came along, so the cost problem disappeared, and it sounded like the ergonomics were quite good as well.

So, maybe four months ago, I signed up for a certificate through them; I had it list all of my domains, but I initially only used it for Memory. Worked fine there, and when I checked three months later, I verified that the tooling had automatically renewed the certificate.

After that, I added it to all of my other domains. Took a bit of Apache fiddling, but I eventually got that right. And some of my domains have custom code and custom code generation, so some of that had to be updated; e.g. I ran into CORS problems and proxy configuration problems when doing the code that retrieves the blog posts associated to a game I’ve played. But it all worked out fine.

Yay for Let’s Encrypt, I’m quite impressed by it.

gender roles and divisions of labor

August 12th, 2019

In a few podcasts episodes that I’ve heard over the last year or so, I’ve heard basically progressive guys talk about gender roles and division of labor in heterosexual marriage; and I agree with most of what I hear them say. But then I hear them say things like “of course, it also depends on what the partners enjoy or care about the most”; and, well, of course that’s true, but it’s also not that simple? And, similarly, they’ll say that it also depends on what works best for people’s entire life context (their jobs, in particular); true, but also not that simple?

Because, in both cases, these effects don’t come from a vacuum, there’s an awful lot of social effects shaping the context. And, in particular, if you’re a man, I think it behooves you to push a bit (to push more than a bit, actually) into taking on actions that are traditionally gendered female, even if you don’t enjoy them as much. I’m certainly not saying that I’ve been perfect in that regard, but I’ve tried, and I think I’ve gotten something from those attempts. So I wanted to write about that a bit.


Example one: cooking. When I grew up, my mom did all the cooking, and I don’t think that was uncommon. (Whereas I feel like cooking behavior has shifted significantly over the intervening decades.) And that felt wrong to me; and also, I like eating, why wouldn’t I want to participate in cooking? So my memory is that, in the summer after my first year of college, my girlfriend at the time and I both cooked; I honestly don’t remember the details, I’m pretty sure she was a better cook, but I think I helped? And then the next summer, Jordan and I were roommates at a summer math program, and we both actively worked on cooking. (And, as mentioned above, I see this as part of a societal shift.)

And Liesl and I started dating after that, and my memory is that we would sometimes cook together when we were hanging out; she was certainly a significanly better cook than I was at the start, but I’ve caught up fine since then. So when we started living together, we would always cook together. (And we’d grocery shop together; it’s important to not forget auxiliary tasks! On which note I think that Liesl currently does a little more dishwashing than I do, whereas I do more grocery shopping.) (And we were living with Jordan during grad school, so actually all three of us would cook and grocery shop together most of the time.)


So cooking with Liesl is basically an unquestioned part of my routine. (Slightly more flexible now, because it’s not that uncommon for one of us to start cooking while the other walks Widget, but we’ll finish cooking together.) Which has external effects: it’s also my assumption that, the vast majority of weekdays, I’ll get home around 6:00 or 6:30 for some combination of dogwalking and cooking.

Which is, from my point of view, a good thing, in multiple ways: I like cooking, I like hanging out with Liesl, I like walking Widget. But also I like having a reason to leave work at 5:10 or 5:15 every day, and I like having a more-or-less socially acceptable excuse to ask, when interviewing for a new job, whether it will be expected that I stay at work into the evenings. So cooking turns out to be useful to help me establish work/life boundaries; but the flip side is that not everybody wants to establish those boundaries, and establishing those boundaries can impose real career constraints. I’m fortunate to have had that work out well for me, and to be the sort of person who wants to have those boundaries instead of throwing myself completely into my job; but it is a choice, a choice with potentially negative consequences, and a choice that isn’t necessarily going to be as available for everybody.

It’s also not an individual choice: if you’re married or living with somebody, it’ll affect both of you. And the factors that influence the choice (personal preferences, external influences) aren’t formed in a vacuum.


Child care was a different sort of choice. I’m sure there are families who can split the child care, at least after the first few months: alternate who picks the kid up from day care, for example. But that’s not the way it worked out for us: we (almost always) had child care near one or the other of our works, and we didn’t work near each other. So, at any given point, one or the other of us was doing significantly more child-care-related activities.

This could have ended up really unbalanced; as it was, I think it was more somewhat unbalanced than really unbalanced, if you take a longer-term point of view? There were a couple of years (maybe a year and a half, I can’t remember?) when child care was near my work; this was when I was teaching at Stanford, and I actually ended up working from home some, having Miranda spend time in my office some, and having her be looked after by a grad student’s wife who lived on campus.

Then, when I was still trying to get academia to work out for me but realizing that was somewhat rocky, we switched to a day care near Liesl’s work. That lasted for a few years.

And once Miranda was old enough for school, we switched her to a daycare that picked her up from school and had an after-school program. I’m almost positive Liesl did the pickup a significant majority of the time, though it’s been long enough that I can’t remember all the details.

That all adds up to Liesl doing most of the daycare pickup/dropoffs, but I did some. But also Miranda attended a parent participation school in elementary school, and I was the parent who helped out in the classroom in five out of those six years.


I feel okay about how all of that balanced out: we both had skin in the game, Liesl did more of the regular pickups / dropoffs, but I probably did more of the helping out at times other than the start / end of the work day, and there was enough of the latter to be significant? But I can also easily imagine us having made different choices with careers as a justification, choices that would have played into “child care is women’s work” cultural conventions.

This also gives a hint as to how to use the Silicon Valley tech career conventions to your favor, though: since typical working hours skew a little late both at the start and the end time, it actually made it easier for me to help out at school, because if I helped out towards the start of the school day, then people wouldn’t really notice me being absent from work. Whereas if Liesl had had to duck out from work or come in late to work in order to help out at school, that would have had more of an impact on her coworkers; not an insurmountable problem, we actually made that choice one year because I was changing jobs that year, but this was definitely a situation where tech schedules helped rather than hurt.

(Hmm, what about when Miranda got older and didn’t need daycare but did need transportation at times? I feel like we split the work of taking her to lessons fairly evenly, it’s even vaguely possible I did a little more of that? Liesl definitely did a fair amount of “drop Miranda off at school on her way to work” during those years, though. I feel like that actually wasn’t super out of Liesl’s way, but still, it’s definitely an impact that I didn’t share in.)


So that’s cooking and childcare. I guess next is all the other things around the house, cleaning in particular.

This is another situation that I can imagine easily leading to imbalance, and one that I’m sympathetic to: I can easily imagine situations where the two partners have different expectations of levels of cleanliness, where the person with the stricter expectations ends up doing a lot more of the cleaning, and where that person is female a significant majority of the time.

And, in situations like that, I feel like there’s something missing in the easy answer of “the guy should do half the cleaning anyways”: it’s definitely worth interrogating the question of how much cleaning the couple should do, instead of just accepting the answer of “the couple should meet the stricter of the two cleanliness standards”. But, having said that, the answer of “if person A cares about cleanliness a lot more than person B then each should clean as much as they feel like” is an awful one: person A ends up doing all the cleaning, person B benefits from this, and that’s not fair and it’s not going to lead to people being happy.

So, in a situation like that, you have to talk it out, and probably the fair solution is to either meet in the middle, with both consciously giving something up, or else to hire outside help for cleaning. Fortunately for us, though, we weren’t in that situation: Liesl probably cares a little more about cleaning than I do, but the gap isn’t huge. (It mostly shows up when guests are about to arrive, but even there the gap has significantly diminished over the years.)

So what happens in practice is that, because of allergies, Liesl wants to steam clean the carpets periodically (not frequently, somewhere between once and twice a year), I realize that this is reasonable and that I’d be an asshole for not helping, and so we agree on when we should do that and then split the work.

That’s not all the cleaning, of course. Liesl does clean the kitchen floors more than I do (though I think I clean the stove as much as she does?), I probably clean the toilets more often than she does (but not very often, and, honestly, cleaning toilets is super easy), I deal with the back yard most of the time (and actually Miranda helped out with that too!).

Not sure who takes out the trash and recycling more. Liesl does dishes more than I do but not a lot more (and I think probably my doing most of the grocery shopping balances that). We both do our own laundry and I can’t imagine the idea of couples not handling laundry that way. We’re pretty good about balancing dog walks, and in particular we explicitly split the longest ones (I do Saturday mornings and Liesl does Sunday mornings, so we each get to sleep in on one weekend morning.) Liesl basically did all of the “take Miranda shopping for clothes” trips. I’m usually the person who deals with bills.

This is, of course, an area where husbands are traditionally unaware of the amount of labor their wives are putting in, so I’m willing to believe that our labor in this area is more unbalanced than I realize. But I hope we do a decent job with this; and I feel like both Liesl and I basically do family stuff from when we get home 6-ish until when dinner ends at 8-ish and then we both have time to do stuff for ourselves from 8-ish until we start going to bed a little after 10, so that’s at least some evidence that hidden family tasks aren’t consuming her evenings. (I can attest that, while I’ve been writing this post, she’s been spending this evening playing Dragon Age: Origins!)


And then there’s one choice that doesn’t take up time, and that I honestly didn’t think about that much for years, but which turned out to be an area in which we made an unexpectedly weird choice: that of last names.

When we got married, the choices are: 1) take my last name; 2) take Liesl’s last name; 3) hyphenate (with two sub-variants possible); 4) come up with another name; 5) stick with our names. 1 buys into the patriarchy, 2 doesn’t have much to say for it from my point of view other than to consciously go against the patriarchy, 3 doesn’t scale and doesn’t really resolve the problem. 4 feels like a nice idea if having a shared name matters, but it didn’t really matter to us, certainly not enough for us to put in the effort of coming up with a common name, so choice 5 it is: keep your own names. And that is a quite common choice in the social context that we’re in.

When picking Miranda’s last name, we had the same choices, except that choice 5 doesn’t exist in that context. And we didn’t have a pre-existing name to use for 4; and, again, 3 doesn’t scale. So, this time, it came down to 1 or 2; and you can go with the pro-patriarchy choice or the anti-patriarchy choice, and it seems like there’s a pretty obvious answer there?

Not saying that everybody should make the same choice as we did (for either of these naming questions), but I feel like we went down a pretty straightforward decision tree and made perfectly reasonable choices. So I honestly didn’t think about this much for years, I just assumed we were doing something that was pretty normal given our social circles.


It turns out, though, that while, in our social circles, it’s completely normal for Liesl and me to both keep our last names, it was actually quite weird in those circles to give our kid Liesl’s last name instead of mine. I was blithely unaware enough that I didn’t realize that this was a weird thing to have done until Miranda was well into middle school (maybe even until she was in high school?); but hey, now I know. And it’s even weird enough that people make various inaccurate assumptions about what led to that name, and (as I subsequently learned) even say not-particularly-appropriate things to elementary school kids based on those inaccurate assumptions. Live and learn, I guess!


Having written all of the above, I’m still not sure why I wrote this all up; and I’m pretty sure that the most obvious reading makes me look self-serving; oops.

But still: decisions around gender-linked behavior are hugely important parts of our lives. So I feel like it’s good to talk about them. And navigating those decisions isn’t always easy; I’m happy with where we’ve ended up, but those choices have also had consequences that other people wouldn’t necessarily be as happy with as we are. And I’ve been extremely fortunate to be in situations where the consequences for me have, honestly, not been particularly serious even on a basic career level.

But I guess the flip side is: it’s not necessarily that hard, either? Like, there’s nothing in what I’ve written above that is something that has felt like it’s led to real downsides for me; and there’s a lot of it that has led to real upsides.

And I look forward to a future world where those consequences diminish further, where talking about this sort of thing just seems bizarre, and where people are digging into more subtle questions of gender programming than “who does the cooking?” or “who does the child care?”. Certainly my context is different from my parents’ in that regard, and I feel like the questions and choices for current young adults are different still.

persona 5

July 7th, 2019

It took me quite a while to get around to playing Persona 5: I don’t normally play games close to their release date, but given how much I liked Persona 4 and Tokyo Mirage Sessions, I would have expected Persona 5 to be an exception. But some of the stuff I’d heard about the game on release gave me pause: what struck me most about Persona 4 was how life-affirming that game was, whereas Persona 5 sounded like it might be kind of creepy?

So I didn’t pick it up for a while. As time went on, I started hearing more good things about Persona 5, though, or at least getting more good feelings about it: not so much hearing specific good things as seeing people whom I trusted behaving like fans of the game, making it clear that there was something there that mattered to them. And then my wife played it, and ended up playing it two more times over the last year or so, when going on a game binge; I trust her taste in games, too. So clearly I should give it a try; I just needed to find a spare 80 hours or so to spend on the game! Which finally happened this summer.


And, when starting the game, I could see why people had had serious questions about the game. The series as a whole has always taken on dark themes, and placed teenage protagonists in uncomfortable situations, but it’s generally handled that material in a respectful way; the first section of Persona 5 crossed the line for me, however. It starts off with a teacher who is physically abusive to students on his sports teams, and who goes way too far in his behavior towards one of the female students in the school (Ann, who isn’t on the sports team and who becomes one of your fellow persona users). And then it ratchets up the behavior, with the teacher telling Ann to sleep with him, otherwise he’ll bench her friend on the team; when Ann refuses, he then rapes her friend, who tries to commit suicide.

That alone is a potential deal breaker for me: it starts off in a place worth exploring (abusive treatments within school sports teams), but then it goes in directions that are quite a bit more sensationalistic. Those latter events are, unfortunately, also realistic in their own way, but they require quite a bit more care with how you handle them, otherwise they end up turning into voyeurism and going in exactly the wrong direction.


And that voyeuristic direction is, unfortunately, exactly where Persona 5 goes. Because Ann, the character in question, isn’t just any old high school student (who happens to be a persona user), she’s also a model. This isn’t new ground for the series, and it’s actually something the series has handled well in the past: I liked Risette as a character in Persona 4, and Tokyo Mirage Sessions is an entire game about idols that manages to be wonderfully humanizing instead of objectifying. And, in fact, in many ways, Ann is a quite good character in Persona 5 as well, presented as a fleshed-out human being.

The problem is, Persona 5 also dresses up the persona users in costumes when they go into the game’s dungeons; Ann’s costume is a shiny, tight-fitting red body suit, with a zipper going all the way down the front of the costume straight through her crotch. That alone would be enough to give me pause (and, for what it’s worth, all the characters’ persona outfits are pretty extreme, but the female characters’ outfits are significantly more sexualized than the male characters’), but the animations that play in various combat-related situations go out of their way to show off Ann’s breasts and butt.

So, basically, the game is constantly sending the message to you: sure, Ann might be a good friend, she might be a good teammate, she might be good at fighting, but we know what you’re really interested in: check out those tits and that ass! And, I should add, there’s nothing about the way that the game presents Ann’s personality that makes that behavior seem natural for her: yes, she’s a model, yes part of that is wanting her body to look good, but there’s a big difference between that and constantly putting yourself in male gazey poses.

Don’t get me wrong, I am happy to ogle bodies in fictionalized situations. (And sometimes, in the right contexts, in real-world situations, though that’s much more delicate.) But this is a game that leads off by raising issues of sexual harassment, power, and objectification right from the start; and what the game’s developers are saying with their presentation of Ann is that sure, they think repeated sexual objectification of women, of teenage girls is a great idea! And, well, I don’t.


Fortunately, that initial section of Persona 5 is the worst part of the game. The game’s treatment of Ann in dungeons remains bad, but it doesn’t get any worse; and other female characters don’t get the same sort of poses. The plot goes in its normal Persona direction, with the usual strong statements about friendship, about family, and about constructed family; this iteration of the series did particularly good job emphasisizing both the importance and the difficulty of doing the right thing. And Social Links continue to be a surprisingly effective delivery mechanism for delivering story that’s separate from the main plot, and for giving you choices with real tension.

So yeah, I can see why people are fans of the game, and why my wife played it multiple times; I’m a fan of the game now too! Even setting aside the significant problem of the start of the game, I don’t think it reaches the level of Persona 4 for me, but that’s a very high bar: not being as good as the best Persona game still leaves a lot of room for a game to satisfy.


Persona 5 actually isn’t my second favorite Persona game, either: that would be Tokyo Mirage Sessions. And Persona 5 imitates Tokyo Mirage Sessions in a couple of different ways: both are set in Tokyo instead of in an invented smaller town, and dungeons are (with one exception) constructed instead of randomized. Both of which seem like fine changes; constructed dungeons are a little more interesting, and while I liked the smaller towns from Persona 3 and Persona 4, Tokyo is fine too, always nice to say hi to Hachiko.

There’s a pretty significant tonal difference, though. Tokyo Mirage Sessions somehow manages to combine being virtuosic with having a real heart. The music is amazing, the battle combinations make fighting a joy. Your character is actually the least virtuosic of the whole cast, but he’s the core of the group, helping bring out the best in them.

Persona 5, in contrast, is constantly probing darkness: the very conceit of the game involves physically exploring the psyche of the powerful, and those psyches don’t reveal the powerful to be good. Persona 5 has a heart as well, but the heart is smaller-scale (though no less important!), focused on individual interactions and frequently linked to families, both birth and chosen.


I continue to be a Persona Team fan. They build stories with heart; people and relations matter to them. As part of that, they look into people’s psyches; and they’ll show us both the good and the bad there, instead of focusing exclusively on one side or the other. And they build games with style, and they’re actually getting better at that aspect of their games over the last decade. They messed up with Persona 5, but ultimately not in a way that was fatal for me; I just hope they’ll be a little more thoughtful in the future.

childhood consciousness

June 16th, 2019

I read Michael Pollan’s How to Change Your Mind a week and a half ago; it’s about psychedelics, and the benefits that apparently come from taking them. And one thing that comes up in that book is the “Default Mode Network”, a pattern of brain activity that Pollan says is correlated with the ego, and that subsides in people who are taking psychedelic drugs. (Or in meditators, especially expert meditators.)

What caught my eye was Pollan’s claim that young children don’t have an active Default Mode Network. Which seemed a little odd: I don’t think of young children as exhibiting the sorts of behavior Pollan describes in the other contexts he’s referring to. (It’s been a while since I’ve spent much time with two-year-olds, but I don’t recall being struck with a notion of how meditatively they were acting!) But, despite that, Pollan’s claim stuck with me, because it potentially correlates with one experience that I had when young (and that is probably my earliest childhood memory, though I don’t remember it clearly any more): I was just sitting around or something and was all of a sudden struck with a realization that I was me and was distinct from other people. (Or something like that. Like I said, I don’t remember it clearly any more.)

I’m still kind of embarrassed to type that: it’s simultaneously egotistical and silly. I’ve never written about it before, I’ve only talked about it once in person, to a friend of mine when we were teenagers; but my friend actually reported having a similar sort of memory himself. It seems like it might be a reasonable match for what Pollan is talking about, though? So maybe what my friend and I remembered was our Default Mode Networks starting to switch on, maybe that’s the perceptual side of that change in the brain.


This consciousness thing is weird. I used to think of that moment in my past as when I became conscious, but, reflecting on it, I I’m not so sure that’s right: as described above, it seems like I probably was conscious before then, I just didn’t have the same notion of the self before then? Heck, maybe a better way to say it would be to flip it around: that consciousness wasn’t I before then?

To me, consciousness is the single best argument that there’s something fundamental missing in the model that physics presents of the world. But that Default Mode Network example shows how that’s complicated: assuming that I am correct in identifying Default Mode Network activation with a significant state in the nature of my consciousness, then that’s an example of how consciousness and physical properties are significantly intertwined. Which, yeah, we know; and I can imagine our society going further down that route, and finding more and more physical correlations with aspects of consciousness. But it still feels to me like there will be something fundamental missing in that explanation, unless the conceptual model of physics broadens somehow.

On a related note, there are some interesting psychological / physiological experiments showing that decisions we’ve made reflect themselves in our body before they make it to our consciousness, which casts doubt on the notion of free will. I’m actually more willing to believe that free will doesn’t exist than that consciousness doesn’t exist / is a purely physical property, though many of the arguments I’ve heard against free will seem to me like arguments that would also apply to claim consciousness doesn’t exist, and hence are probably wrong. Hard stuff to understand…


While I’m going down this path of embarrassment: another way one could choose to conceptualize this is to hypothesize that I didn’t have a soul until that moment. I’m not at all sure that that’s a correct way to think about this: if I really was conscious but not self-aware before that moment, and if we accept that the concept of soul makes sense, then I probably had one before then? I’m not completely sure that that’s the case, though; it’s not like I have a better candidate for when I would have gotten a soul. Again, assuming that the concept of soul is a coherent / useful / potentially correct one.

I was recently rereading Mitchell’s Comprehensive Guide to Daoist Nei Gong; the theory presented there often likes dividing stuff up into five parts, and in particular it divides the mind into five parts. Two of those parts of the mind are closer to consciousness; two are closer to the body; one of them is in the middle. And one of those parts that’s particularly tied to consiousness and to the concept of the soul, namely the Hun, is further divided into three parts: one comes from collective consciousness, one comes from past lives, and one comes from your parents.

I don’t take any of that particularly seriously, but actually reincarnation has struck me in the past as something that’s not obviously incorrect: I don’t understand how consciousness enters the body, so I don’t feel like I should have strong confidence in my undersanding on how consciousness behaves once the body falls apart. I certainly don’t have any reason to believe that there’s anything fundamentally correct about that aspect of Daoist theory; but I do like the way it opens up the possibility that, even if we take notions like consciousness or the soul or reincarnation seriously, it could all be a lot more complicated than our (or at least my!) naive imagination of those concepts: it’s not you that’s reincarnating, it’s one third of one fifth of your mind that’s carrying over from an individual past life. There’s potentially all sorts of stuff mixing around in our minds, and until we understand it better, best to be open to the possibility that there’s quite a bit of complexity in how stuff gets in there, let alone how it interacts.


Enough for now. And, enough on this specific topic for quite a while, I suspect: I really do not feel comfortable writing about it…

baba is you

May 23rd, 2019

I wasn’t expecting to bounce off of Baba Is You nearly as quickly as I did: I think of myself as somebody who likes puzzle games and who is good at them, but neither of those proved to be particularly the case with Baba Is You?

Maybe I like puzzle games with consistent rules? Maybe it’s that Baba Is You is a programming game with a remarkably bad programming language / environment? (Which is, to be clear, not a strike against it as a game; it just might be a strike against it as a game for me.) Or maybe it’s that I started playing Baba Is You while I was in the middle of Persona 5, so I had something else drawing me away.


Dunno; I still feel like Baba Is You is probably a neat game, and I’m not going to rule out returning to it at some point, maybe when I’m on a trip and don’t have anything else to play? But clearly it’s not as much the game for me as I exxpected it to be.


May 19th, 2019

Maybe it’s just the podcasts that I listen to, but it’s been odd to hear how negative the reaction to Luminary has been. I get why people were mad at Luminary’s initial implementation of external podcasts, but it seems like a lot of the anger is at Luminary’s basic business model, and that I don’t understand.

The current podcast ecosystem’s business model is based on three approaches: 1) ads; 2) donations; 3) doing podcasts for fun. And I’m not exactly against any of those business models (I am against ads in contexts where that leads to excessive tracking, but podcasts have nicely avoided that), but surely those aren’t the only business models?

In particular, consider the business models of 4) pay for specific things that you want and 5) pay for access to a library of content, some of which you’re quite interested in and some of which you’re not at all interested in. Those both seem like good ideas to add into the mix, and in lots of other contexts I actively prefer them to models 1-3. Take video, for example: ad-supported video (whether from TV or from Youtube) is okay, I guess, but all things being equal I’d much rather have my video without ads; and while I think that it’s great (with caveats!) that video platforms have opened up that allow people to distribute video for fun, I also think it’s great that high-production-value video is out there.

So why wouldn’t I want that same wealth of business models for podcasts? I’m not even sure that “podcast” is the right analytical category here: isn’t the proper format audio, or at least spoken-word audio? And we have lots of examples of music distribution that falls within my categories 4 and 5, and Audible is a spoken word example that falls within my category 4. This is good, right, we wouldn’t want to say that music has to be donation- or ad-supported? So why are podcasts different?

Maybe it’s just a terminology thing: if you define “podcast” to mean “non-textual content served up via an RSS feed that can be read by any client”, then yes there is something distinctively good about podcasts (just as there’s something distinctively good about blogs) and Luminary doesn’t fit. But that’s not a reason to attack Luminary or even to be particularly suspicious of Luminary; I (obviously!) like blogs but I wouldn’t want all written content to be blogs, I like books too!


I first heard about Luminary because The Bright Sessions moved its followup show there. And yes, I’m sad that I won’t be able to listen to that show until I give in and subscribe to Luminary. (I like The Bright Sessions quite a bit, but I don’t like it $8/month; at least I don’t think I do…)

But The Bright Sessions tried Patreon; their Patreon is now paused, but it had just over 1000 patrons. (I was one of them, I was happy to kick in $1/episode.) Assuming two episodes a month, and assuming that almost everybody pledged at the $1/episode level, then that’s about $25,000/year (if it kept up a two episodes a month pace all year); that forces everybody involved in the show (which has multiple writers and voice actors) to treat it as a side gig. If Luminary can bring their show to more people and let the people involved turn this (and their future projects) into a career, then that’s a good thing, surely?

It’s possible that the Bright Sessions folks could have made a bigger business out of that show. But the flip side is: maybe they were more interested in making art than in growing a business. I mean, actors are always out there hustling for work, it’s not like actors can ignore business concerns; but we also don’t expect TV stars to be finding advertisers for their shows, or to be assembling the groups of people who are working on the show, or to do the heavy lifting pitching the show to a studio. And I’d like the podcast industry (or the spoken audio industry, or whatever we want to call it) to be healthy enough to support similar forms of specialization.


And maybe the above is the answer as to why I’ve been hearing complaints about it on podcasts: the podcasts I’ve been hearing those complaints on are done by people who run small websites / podcast networks / programming shops. They have interesting enough things to say that I listen to them (at least sometimes), but also this is the genre of “put three people in front of mics and have them blather away for a couple of hours”.

So these are people who are okay with being involved in all aspects of making their business work; and these are also people who (at least in their podcast work) do not put a premium on production values. Which means that the benefits that I see Luminary as potentially providing are not benefits that that group of people values, at least as producers?

I dunno. And, again: the open web is special, I’m not arguing with that, and we do lose something when walling off portions of it. But stuff can flourish behind walls in ways that is harder to pull off in the open, and business model diversity is good too. And this experiment in particular feels to me like one which has the potential to start filling in an important gap.

return of the obra dinn

May 13th, 2019

(If you’re super spoiler-sensitive, probably don’t read this, just play the game? Though if you’re only mildly spoiler sensitive, it should be fine, I’m just going to talk a bit about the approach to problem solving in a couple of places.)


Liesl and I played Return of the Obra Dinn together. It’s a good game to play with somebody, I think: 90% of the time, we had the same ideas, but there were several situations when she noticed something that I didn’t, and I can easily imagine that that would have led me to bang my head against the game for hours longer if I’d been playing it alone.

Which is, of course, not unique to this game: it’s something that happens with logic games or puzzle games or point-and-click adventure games. Maybe the point there is that, in games like that, the distinction between single-player and multi-player games isn’t so clear as it is in action games: if you’re trying to understand an environment or a context, then there isn’t so clear a link between the number of players that the control affordances suggest and the number of players that can best enjoy playing it together? (I had a similarly positive experience playing Her Story with Miranda and Liesl, talking about what the scenes meant and coming up with ideas for words to try.)


Obra Dinn certainly has good puzzle design, and I’ve gotten more impressed with that design as I’ve thought back on the game. When we went through the scenes in the game the first time, we basically ended up identifying one trio of characters per chapter; I assume that’s by not an accident, and it meant that we always were making progress. Though sometimes that progress felt substantial (the introductory chapter, where you can identify almost every death), while sometimes it felt much more minimal. (If a chapter has a dozen or more fates, then only solving three doesn’t feel like a success!) So at that point we’d seen everything, it felt like we’d only solved a few of the deaths (and we certainly hadn’t solved half of them, maybe a third?), and it wasn’t at all clear how we’d solve the rest.

At that point, my assumption was: we’d spend one more evening trying to figure things out, and then we’d stop. And that would have been totally fine: Obra Dinn was already a neat game, and it’s a relatively open-ended one, so I respect a game that leaves it up to you how much you want to engage with it, that feels satisfying to leave at different spots in it.


And, for most of that next evening, that was still my working theory! We took harder looks at scenes, we filled in information more thoroughly than we had before, and we managed to chip away; but I still didn’t see how we were going to make it past even identifying half of the people on the ship.

But, while doing that, we were getting a better feel for the game; and clicking on the question mark next to pictures pointed out some more useful routes for investigation. (As a side note: I’m really impressed by how the game didn’t foreground that information in a tutorial, it just had the question mark sitting there for us to click on when we happened to notice it, and that happened at the right time!)

We ended that session with two realizations. One was that we were actually fairly close to identifying all of the officers / one-off people, so we could switch to a process of elimination style approach there. The other was that Liesl noticed something that gave us a clue to the fate of the four people who apparently left on a boat. So, with those, we had an active reason to keep on playing: the game continued to be doling out discoveries to us.

And we did indeed manage to succeed in identifying all of the officers in our next session: a bit of a back and forth, enough to make us feel like we were figuring things out, which ended up getting us over a hump, to where it felt like we really would be able to identify everybody.


We had one more session after that, where we did a further divide and conquer and identified all of the Topmen and then all of the Seamen. And, honestly: for some of those, we just guessed! There were a couple of instances where we could only identify people up to their role / ethnicity but hadn’t yet figured out their name; rather than going over the scenes yet again to see what we’d missed, we tried things a couple of different ways to see what unlocked.

Which is another impressive aspect to the game: it wouldn’t have been as good if you could brute-force single characters at a time, but some level of brute-forcing is going to be necessary. For example, Liesl and I had multiple discussions about whether certain deaths counted as being spiked or as being speared – ultimately, we ended up just trying some people both ways.

And the way the game gave you credit for identifying sets of three people was a great way to balance that tension: no single-death brute forcing, but if you’re in a situation where you’ve accumulated a few people that you’re 80% confident of, then you’ll be able to learn which ones are right, or if you have two guesses for somebody’s name or death, then you’ll be able to figure that out.


We actually didn’t figure out all of the deaths: we got to 56 of the 58 non-epilogue deaths, and while we knew who those two characters were, we just couldn’t figure out how to describe their deaths. So we looked those two up; and that was also the right choice, we would have been banging our head against those two for quite a while otherwise.

But that was okay, too: the game didn’t feel any less satisfying because of that. Which is another data point on my claim above: Obra Dinn feels to me like it’s designed in a way to allow you to leave at a wide range of times while still feeling satisfied.


I could go on: pleasantly different art style, interesting contrast of the static nature of the death scenes versus the dynamic nature of the regular navigation of the ship versus the audio of the death scenes. Really neat game: I’ve never played something quite like it, and it’s put together very well.

ps4 remote play

April 28th, 2019

A couple of months ago, Sony released an app for the iPad that lets you play games on your PS4. And I’ve been playing Persona 5 recently; it’s a long game that I enjoy but need to keep chipping away at, so playing that while Liesl was watching something else on the TV seemed like it might be a good idea?

So I downloaded the app and gave it a try. It seemed to work; the downside is that you have touchscreen controls, which wouldn’t be good for most games, but which sounded workable for Persona 5: you spend a lot of time basically interacting with menus. But I didn’t get around to do more than just verifying that the app can connect.

This last week, though, I was in Cincinnati helping Miranda move out of the dorms at the end of the semester; we were busy a lot of the time, but not all the time, so I decided to make some more progress on Persona. Conveniently, I’d just finished one of the major dungeons, so I didn’t need to worry too much about the interface: I can make progress in social links just fine with touchscreen controls. Assuming, of course, that playing remotely works at all…


And it turned out to work great! I opened it up, told it to connect to my PS4; it took a little while for it to convince the PS4 to turn on and connect to it, but once it had booted up, there was the video and sound right there. When I was playing in Miranda’s dorm room, the network connection was solid enough that I didn’t even get any stuttering; in the hotel room, it was a little patchier, but still usable.

Or at least useable as long as you’re not doing something action-oriented. I didn’t try a major plot dungeon, but I did do some dungeon-crawling in Mementos, and it was noticeably harder to reliably get a jump on the monsters. So if I were doing this a lot, or trying to play a game with more action, then I would definitely invest in a controller; but even with a good connection, there might have been just enough lag that it could cause problems?


Nice to have a bit of a taste of the future, at any rate: I still don’t see myself using a cloud-streaming game service, but that feels like a more real possibility to me now than it did before, a big part of me felt like the game system was right there in front of me. (And I did get something like 5 hours of play in, this was more than just dipping in my toes.) I do hope that Microsoft adds this sort of functionality to the Xbox, though: that’s where most of my game collection lives, and I’d rather not change that.

Or maybe Microsoft will say that I should stream from their upcoming cloud game service; honestly, that would be fine too, it would have access to my save files, after all. Heck, in this particular instance, that would have been better (if I’d wanted to play a different game): while I was out, Liesl was replaying Dragon Age: Origins on the Xbox, so I might not have been able to use our Xbox.

And of course the other option is to play games on the Switch or the iPad when I’m traveling (and I did use both of those as well!): certainly good to not need a network connection. But it’s nice to see the boundaries blurring, so that I can play more types of games in more places.

foot pain

April 18th, 2019

I can’t remember exactly when my feet started hurting: 10 years ago? 15 years ago? I went to see a doctor, he told me to get insoles. I honestly can’t remember how much that helped, but, having the interests I do, I fairly quickly went in a different direction, looking for thin-soled shoes and reading about ways of walking.

I still feel that there’s something to that latter approach? Like, I keep my shoes off at home and, much of the time, at work, and my feet never hurt then. I’m not going to say that that’s compelling evidence, because it’s not like I’m actually doing much walking at home or at work, but still: why wouldn’t our bodies have evolved to have feet that work for walking without help?

Having said that, though, I’m not using thin-soled shoes right now. I used Softstar shoes for a while, but when they changed their sizing for the third time, I got tired of them; also, the shoes wore out in something like three months, and weren’t cheap enough that I didn’t mind. (And the fact that I really could tell when they were wearing out is evidence that thin soles could be a problem, that padding is actually useful!) And, in terms of reading about ways of walking, I found it surprisingly difficult to find advice that I trusted and could actually carry out in practice.


So then I tried regular running shoes. The main problem that I ran into there is that they didn’t seem to fit right; eventually I went to a store that spent a little more time with me, and put me in quadruple-extra-wide New Balance shoes, and that solved the fit problems; I guess I have wide feet! And they also put me back in insoles, which didn’t seem to be hurting either.

That was a little more expensive than I would have liked, but that first set of New Balance + insoles lasted for a year; so that’s a lot cheaper than replacing Softstar shoes four times a year. The problem is, that turned out to be a total fluke: now I feel lucky if my shoes are lasting six months. So what happens is that my feet start hurting a bit, I spend a week in denial and bargaining, and then it’s time to get new shoes again; a little annoying, and a little expensive.


To some extent, the annoying part of that is on me: my reaction isn’t really helping me, I should just get past that and accept that, as soon as my feet give me a twinge, it’s time for new shoes. And sure, foot pain is no fun, but it’s a problem that I can solve with money, and an amount of money that isn’t at all unmanageable in the grand scheme of things; if we think about it in medical terms, it ends up being something like a once-a-month $40 copay for a drug, which I don’t like but which I’m fortunate enough to be able to deal with fine.

But I also kind of feel like the pain is telling me something? Like, my shoes wear out in a very particular way, right under the base of my right toe: that’s probably a sign that I’m putting pressure there more than is healthy. And also I used to pronate a lot; doing Tai Chi has helped me be aware of my weight distribution in a way that I think should let me solve that problem; maybe I can apply that awareness to this problem too.


In other words, one way to think of this pain is that it’s a virtue in disguise: pointing out a real pre-existing problem that I can solve in a more fundamental way with the help of feedback from pain and that I can work around with money while I’m working on getting a better fix in place. One comparison here is to my knees: my right knee isn’t bad, but it’s more like 80% healthy than 100% healthy, so it sometimes hurts when I’m doing Tai Chi; but the answer there is always “shift your weight from your knee to your kua”, which is better behavior whether or not my knee is giving me a twinge. So, in some sense, I wish my foot pain were more frequent but less severe: as-is, I don’t get feedback from pain until my shoes are seriously weakened, at which point just shifting my weight isn’t good enough, because the shape of my shoes is already messed up.

So I’m trying to be more aware of my weight distribution when I’m walking, even with new shoes: where the weight lands when I roll onto the front of my foot, where the weight lands when my foot hits, and how hard my foot presses into the ground in both situations. I’m currently not getting immediate feedback from pain, which is too bad, but hopefully I can still use the past feedback to alter my behavior. And hopefully that alteration will actually turn out to be beneficial: beneficial for my feet, beneficial for my wallet? I certainly feel better when walking this week than I sometimes have, like I’m landing lighter, so that’s good.

I do feel like I it’s time for another experiment with thinner-sole shoes, though. I bought some shoes just to use for Tai Chi, but that doesn’t solve the walking problem; I’m kind of thinking that, the next time I need to replace my walking shoes, I should try out Chuck Taylors…


April 11th, 2019

Hexcells is a puzzle game take on Minesweeper. Unfortunately, it’s been decades since I’ve played Minesweeper, so I can’t really comment authoritatively on that game, but it has you gradually unveiling more information about the game. This distinguishes Minesweeper from Nikoli/Conceptis-style paper puzzles where all the information is there at the start, you just have to make deductions from it. And, in Minesweeper, you have to guess instead of depending on deductions, you regularly get to situations where there’s not enough information to be able to mark / clear any of the spaces with confidence.

Hexcells keeps the gradual unveiling approach, but changes the rules so that you can find a solution just by reasoning. Which requires some changes! To start off, it’s a hex grid; I’m sure that affects things, I just don’t have a great feel for how. It’s actually possible that Minesweeper on a hex grid would make it too easy to solve puzzles, because another change in Hexcells is that, for some cleared spaces, they don’t show you the number of adjacent marked spaces, so you have less information that you might have. Also, there are two other variants of cleared spaces: some of them say that the adjacent marked spaces are consecutive, others say that the adjacent marked spaces aren’t consecutive.

But some of the marked spaces get numbers as well. These don’t show the number of adjacent marked spaces: instead, they show the number of marked spaces within a radius of two. And then there are numbers in some places at the edge of the grid, showing the number of marked spaces in a particular line. (Again with consecutive / non-consecutive variants, though the details of what “consecutive” means are a little different.) Also, the grids aren’t full grids, there are parts of the grid removed completely. And, finally, there’s a total count of the number of marked spaces on the grid.


That is a lot of rules. I’m sure each one is there for a reason, but they don’t feel particularly elegant to me. And some, honestly, feel a little ridiculous: that total count, for example, is almost never relevant until the very end, where it sometimes lets you fill in the last two or three spaces because the remaining count is either zero or matches the number of undetermined spaces.

Also, there’s another design decision that’s related to the need to gradually uncover information: how do you handle speculation? Sometimes, when thinking out a pencil puzzle, I like to try to work out a chain of reasoning on the puzzle, and then erase (or rather undo, since I’m almost always on my iPad) once I find a contradiction. But, if you want to support that way of solving, then you run into problems with uncovering new information, because that brings a non-deductive element into the game.

Hexcells decides to not let you speculate at all: if you click and get it wrong, it’ll refuse to make the move and an error count will go up, while if you click and get it right, then that move is there permanently. I found that latter decision to be actively annoying: sometimes I’d tap in the wrong place, or realize right after tapping that I’d done something that wasn’t justified by facts on the ground, but then the effects were there on the grid. So I either had to come to peace with guessing or try to pretend that I hadn’t actually gotten information about that one hex on the grid or restart the entire puzzle; I don’t like any of those solutions.

And you can only go so far with deduction, because you have to be able to do all the deduction in your head, so the game can’t really stretch you. And, because of all the rules, everything feels ad-hoc anyways, so I don’t feel like there are clever deductions to be made. Which doesn’t mean that the puzzles are trivial, some of them do actually require a bit of thought, but nothing like the best pencil puzzles.

Or at least that’s what I thought until I started playing the game’s randomly generated puzzles, and found that I get completely stuck in, say, one out of 25 out of them. Maybe that’s a sign that I’m being dense, maybe that’s a sign that it’s not actually reliably generating puzzles that it’s possible to solve without guessing, but maybe there are subtler strategies lurking there that I just haven’t found?


I still basically enjoy Hexcells: it’s soothing, and its random puzzle generator is pretty good. But it’s also way too ad-hoc to be a great puzzle type, and the specific implementation choice of not allowing undos or speculation is one I don’t like even granted the rules.

And, in the genre of “puzzles that are like Minesweeper but are solvable”, there is a much better puzzle type, the one that Conceptis calls Fill-a-Pix. It’s just the single Minesweeper rule except with all of the numbers that you’re going to get being visible at the start (so, in particular, the numbers are only there on a small portion of the squares): one rule, but one that gives rise to a lot of tricky deduction.

Conceptis actually does two versions of Fill-a-Pix puzzles: the Basic puzzles are trivially solvable by finding a number where enough of the adjacent squares are known to let you fill in all the remaining adjacent squares as marked or unmarked; that mode is soothing, it’s just a hunt for where to go next. Whereas the Advanced puzzles require you to make more subtle deductions; those can get very tricky indeed, on large grids I’ll spend hours on a single puzzle sometimes.

So I wish Hexcells had leaned more in that direction: keep the progressive unfolding and/or the hex grid, but find a way to use a much smaller rule set to force you to make deeper deductions.


March 28th, 2019

I have never seen a video game with an art style like Gris: I’m used to games striving for realistic approaches, and while I still think cel-shading is underused in games, there are a bunch of examples of that. But Gris is doing something else entirely, with some sort of of pen plus watercolor style. It’s really striking: I’m not going to say that every game should try something like this, but more games should try something like this, and more games should try something different!

Once I got past that surprise, my next take was: Gris is a lot like Journey. It’s more of a platformer than Journey is, but there were way too many shared visual cues for that to be a coincidence: for my first fifteen or so minutes with it, Gris felt like it was trying to answer the question of “what would Journey be like if it had a little more traditional platforming mechanics sprinkled in?”


That’s the way the start of Gris felt, but once I got to the next section, that feeling of similarity receded: it was a plant-based area, which was a significant break from Journey’s landscapes. And Gris also started to get more interesting in other ways: each area adds a new mechanic in addition to a new environmental style, so it’s always changing.

And, it turns out, Gris is a lovely game on many levels. It’s lovely visually; it’s lovely environmentally; and it builds nice little puzzles out of its mechanics, giving you something new to think about at frequent intervals without having those mechanics either outstay their welcome or turn into a game about virtuosic execution. It’s a little longer than Journey, but not much (more like a two-evening game for me instead of a one-evening game); I enjoyed and was charmed the whole time.

I suspect that there’s something there thematically, too: I wasn’t really paying attention to it at the time, but listing to the Experience Points folks talk about the game, it does make sense to read Gris as a game with something to say about the experience of depression.


I wish I had more to say about Gris, but: more games like this, please. I really appreciate short games that are made with care and thoughtfulness. And, again: that art style really is something.

small steps, shorter posts

March 26th, 2019

I was listening to a podcast interview with Kent Beck on the way home today, and he was (of course) talking about taking small steps when programming. And it got me thinking: I’ve gotten stuck in a rut where my posts usually are around 1500 words and take a week or more to write. There’s nothing wrong with posts like that; but it also means that I’m feeling reluctant to write about a topic if I don’t feel like I have an idea that’s at least somewhat thought out? Sometimes I feel a similar reluctance when programming, and taking smaller steps is the answer there; it’s probably a good answer here, too.

On a related note, I’ve abandoned a few posts over the last year, because they weren’t coming together as a coherent whole; I never used to do that. And the thing is, there were seeds of ideas in those posts, they weren’t complete crap; I should expose those seeds, I think? For that matter, part of me actually feels like 1500 words is too small: I feel like, if I can get all of those seeds out there, then I might be able to put together a bigger picture?

Six years back, when Jordan hit 1000 posts, he mentioned some advice that I’d apparently once given him, to have low standards for what qualifies as a blog post. Probably time for me to take past me’s advice…

hollow knight

March 21st, 2019

Playing Hollow Knight reminded me of how it feels to play a horror game. I like to be in control, and I’m loss averse as a player; so part of me doesn’t enjoy walking through a new area, getting more and more nervous about what might happen, having made more progress since I last saved and not knowing if I’m going to lose that progress before the next time I’m able to save.

The thing is, there’s something really good about uncertainty, about the unknown, about discovery. And my desire for control can get in the way of me experiencing that; when, once or twice a decade, I actually play a horror game, I am glad to have done so: I don’t always enjoy it on a minute-to-minute level but I do at a broader level.

Hollow Knight isn’t, of course, a horror game. But I get a variation on that feeling every time I enter a new area of the game: I don’t have a map, I don’t know when I’ll get a map, I don’t know where the next save spot is. And, even if I do find a save spot, in some ways that makes it worse: now, if I die, I’ll be put back into that new, uncertain area, instead of being resurrected in a place I understand. Combine all of that with the corpse run mechanic, and I can be on my toes for quite a while as I come to terms with an area; doubly so if I had to pass through a one-way gate to enter the area in the first place.


The flip side, though, is: once I get used to an area, once I have the map and have an idea of what’s going on with the regular enemies in the area, once I know what to take care of in the environment and where the nearest stag station is, the mood changes completely. Sometimes, the area will almost feel soothing, pleasant to traverse through but with enough for me to do to prevent me from getting bored. Sometimes, there are sections where I still have to be careful, where I could die if I mess up a few times; depending on my mood and short-term goals, I’ll either avoid those sections or lean into them, but either way it’s a known quantity.

So there’s a different rhythm to my emotional experience: rather than the horror mood alternation of “things are definitely bad” with “things haven’t been actively bad for the last minute but a jump scare could be around the next corner”, it’s more an alternation between “I don’t know what’s going on here and I’m going to feel more and more nervous until I have a map, a save spot and a good path back to other areas” versus “I feel pretty much in control here and can relax if I need that, or I can pick a challenge if I’ve regained my strength”.

And, once I’m feeling secure, I have a range of different experiences I can look for, depending on what kind of mood I’m in. Maybe I’ll farm so I can buy something, maybe I’ll look for secrets, maybe I’ll fight a boss battle, maybe I’ll go for an environmental traversal challenge. I normally play console games in stretches of two hours or so at a time: with Hollow Knight that’s enough to let me go out of equilibrium and back to it several times, with one larger challenge (a boss fight say) mixed in with a few more medium sized challenges (the first foray into a new area, a difficult traversal puzzle, etc.). It’s a satisfying way to spend an evening.


I suspect that a more common point of comparison for Hollow Knight is the Souls series of games; I should play one of those games at some point, but for now all that I know about them is what I hear / read. My guess is that Hollow Knight is a much better match for my temperament than FromSoftware’s games, though: Hollow Knight uses some of the same mechanisms for building up tension, and ultimately it’s up to you to learn how to traverse the environments and creatures and challenges, but the environment is fundamentally not actually particularly grim or hostile: it doesn’t take too long before you come to terms with it and can reach a detente where you treat the environment with respect and it doesn’t get in your way too much.

I also read about people having to do quite a bit of offline research / learn from friends to play the Souls games well, because the game doesn’t explain anything and there are so many ways for things to go wrong. Hollow Knight takes a different tack (different from my imagination of the Souls games, at least!), which is also pleasantly refreshing compared to other games that I’m used to playing: it also doesn’t explain anything to you, and gives you a lot of choices, but that’s okay. Utimately there are a lot of different paths that work, and while the uncertainty about which path might be best in a given situation also added to my nervousness, it turns out okay.


That lack of explanation combined with a lack of prescription really was a surprise to me, though. The first two or three areas of the game don’t give you a lot of choice: your movement abilities are limited, so you don’t have a whole lot of choice other than to make it to the area’s boss fight, at which point you get a new movement capability which unlocks a few small areas to explore and exactly one new area of the map.

But then, once you get to your third or fourth area of the map, the possibilities start opening up: you have choices for the next area of the map to open up, and it’s not at all clear which to dig into next or whether it matters. That was a source of stress in a different way; and then, when the game threw a one-way gate at me after I did finally choose where to go, I was off balance for a while! That was interesting, too, though, seeing a slightly different rhythm to the way I was confronted with uncertainty; and, once I was past that, I felt secure with the game at a more fundamental level: the game would throw situations at me and give me choices, I wouldn’t really know what to do, but it would work out okay.


Also, at about that point in the game, I found myself really enjoying the game’s mechanics. At the start of the game, you’re just running, jumping, and hacking. But then you get double-jumps, dashes, and wall jumps; and the game gets a lot closer to “if you can see it, you can reach it”. And, at a more primal level: it just gets more fun to move around! It’s actually not quite the case at this stage that you can reach everything you can see, so you still have something to look forward to with future abilities; and future abilities will also turn difficult challenges into much more manageable ones, so you can stretch yourself now with difficult traversals and then enjoy them in a different way as your powers grow in the future.

Your combat abilities also change as the game goes on, both through new combat abilities that you learn and through an increasingly large palette of charms to choose from that change how those abilities express themselves. Honestly, I didn’t lean into this so much: it’s not my thing, I enjoy movement / environmental challenges more than combat ones. But I did enjoy the boss fights, or at least most of them: there’s still something satisfying about learning about a boss’s behavior, and improving your recognition and execution skills.


A very good game: reminds me that I like Metroidvania games and that I don’t play enough of them, and gives me a hint of design ideas that Souls games have brought to the fore and that are, rightly, lauded. And I’m also glad that those Souls ideas are starting to spread in less masochistic ways: it makes me optimistic about what the next half decade will bring as those ideas continue to percolate through the design landscape.

brothers: a tale of two sons

March 14th, 2019

From the double emphasis in its title, you would guess that Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons is a game about masculinity. And that suspicion would deepen as you watch the initial cut scene, in which the mother of the game is immediately fridged; we then see the titular brothers morning at her grave, after which they go home to their ailing father, who sends them on a quest to retrieve a magic potion that will heal him.

Out of the village they go; and we learn that it’s a tale not just of masculinity but of whiteness. Not that you actually encounter non-white people (though, to be honest, there might be one or two there, I didn’t pay close enough attention early on): the game treats race metaphorically, with size playing the role of skin tone, in the form of trolls, and (later on) giants. Brother kicks off its exploration of race with a (slightly cloying) moral parable: we shouldn’t be afraid of people just because they look different from us, this scary-looking troll actually turns out to be nice! I mean, he’s mostly just a mechanism, allowing the boys to traverse environments in unusual ways; but hey, that’s a metaphor too, showing how white people all too often think of non-white people at best as helpful tools to be exploited.

That’s not all there is to the game’s metaphors: Brother is commentary on male privilege as well. As the boys traverse the environment, they pass through more and more explicit one-way gates. You might think: how will the boys get back to their father with the potion even if they find it? But they are male (and white to boot): they know that, whatever they do, they’ll be provided for, it will all turn out right at the end if there’s any justice in the world.

The game continually uses video game tropes to reinforce this message: the hooks that are affixed to walls in exactly the right locations for the boys to jump to them, the tree branches that sag just so one of the boys can reach them, but wait to collapse completely until after they’ve been used, the entire environment is designed explicitly for the benefit of these boys. And, in a particularly over-the-top bit of commentary on the blitheness of privilege, the older brother carries around the scroll showing the location of the potion just tucked into his waistband, secure in the knowledge that, even if he jumps into a raging river, the game will provide for him and the scroll will be preserved intact.


As the game continues, these messages get reinforced. We see another woman in the mine run by the trolls: this one doesn’t get fridged, but she’s pure plot device, imprisoned solely so that the boys can save her. And, in a wry commentary on white people’s need to see themselves as always the hero, never the villain, her imprisoner is a fellow troll! But the white savior boys release her from the cage and kill her imprisoner, freeing her from the wrong man so she can return to the right man, giving the troll who earlier allowed himself to be used as scaffolding the proper reward for his subservience to the white boys.

As we proceed through the game, we also see commentary on toxic masculinity woven in. Yes, the boys are on a journey in a world that’s laid out explicitly for their benefit. But it’s a harrowing journey, one where the path that they’re taken does contain many apparent dangers: surely they might do better if they stepped slightly away from the path, avoiding some of the obstacles, coming up with less obtrusive solutions to their difficulties? But no, the invisible walls of societal conditioning prevent them from straying from the path, from even being aware that other paths are possible. And, in one particularly clever bit, the constraints turn from the invisible to the visible, with the boys tying themselves together with a rope: rather than attempting to move independently, they immediately submit to the whims of the rope, throwing themselves into the gravity-defined constraints of the pendulum. (Well, gravity-plus-physics-engine-plus-quite-a-bit-of-cheating-to-let-them-reach-far-too-conveniently-placed-handholds. Handholds that they could have, you know, just jumped to like they did everywhere else in the game. But I digress.)


A little over halfway through the game, we get an unexpected twist on the fridging: the boys are creeping through a giant’s castle, and they encounter a giant bird dog creature. It’s wounded, and kept in a cage by those horrible giants, as an object of scientific study. (Giants being such unreasonable brutes: who else would treat living creatures in such a callously instrumental fashion, instead of as beings deserving of respect!) The boys release the animal; and the animal, in the only reasonable response to being treated so well by such noble creatures, immediately invites them onto its back, flies them away to the next location in their travels, and then promptly expires from its wounds. Quite a twist to have a bird dog fridged in this way instead of a woman (though, now that I think about it, I think the only sensible conclusion is that it must be a female bird dog, I confess I didn’t think of looking for signs of external genitalia at the time); and one of the bird dog’s feathers becomes the trigger for a cut scene to remind us of the father’s existence, that what’s really important here is serving men.

At this point, the game really digs into the satire. We were in a giant’s castle, but we didn’t actually see any giants: now we see dead giants who have sacrificed themselves in the name of providing environmental puzzles for the boys, where those puzzles come in the form (I swear I’m not making this up) of having them be shot by large arrows with rope winding around them in two different places so that each of the boys has a handhold that they can use to grab on to the arrow to remove it. Then we meet a tribe of pagan idol-worshippers; and (again, I swear I’m not making this up) carved into the side of their temple is a picture of two red people, next to a convenient waterfall of blood, exactly so that the boys can stand on each other’s back in front of the picture and bathe themselves in blood. (And, of course, they do this to save a white woman from those heathens.) Everything is done for the benefits of the two boys, no detail is too small.

But that’s not all: we eventually encounter a giant who is actually alive. And, in a masterful twist on white people’s shying away from confronting racism, the giant is invisible: truly, the boys are above us all, they don’t see color!


Finally, the tragic denouement. The younger boy is less fully enmeshed in toxic masculinity than the older boy is: so, when the girl they rescued tries to take them down a path that looks dangerous, he points out an alternate route that seems a lot safer, that makes a lot more sense. But the older boy is ensnared by the seductive virtues of the system in which he’s enmeshed, so he does what he’s supposed to, by, um, inserting himself into the hole that the girl presents to him.

At which point the girl reveals herself (and we learn the answer to the mystery of why, of the very few female characters we’ve seen, she’s the only one that the game presents as competent and with agency): she’s not a girl, she’s a spider. She traps the older boy, the younger boy fights her off, the older boy gruesomely tears off of her legs, and he gets impaled by the last one, mortally wounded by the reversal of receiving a phallus when he’s supposed to be the one doing the inserting.


Look, I’ve been trying to pretend that this whole game is clever satire, but I just can’t do it for that part: it’s just transphobia personified. Transphobia will get you killed? That’s the most charitable interpretation that I’ve got.

But the older boy actually getting killed, followed by the younger boy bringing back the potion to the father (with the aid of the twin dei ex machina of the resurrected bird-dog and the spirit of the non-resurrected mother) is actually a clever commentary on war: older men send 18-year-old boys off to fight, the boys die, and the old men profit. Toxic masculinity really will get you killed!


attending my first lotus nei gong course

February 21st, 2019

I’ve read a few Nei Gong books by Damo Mitchell over the last few months, and I thought they were pretty interesting. From an intellectual point of view, they were one of the better introductions that I’ve happened across to the conceptual framework that underlies parts of Tai Chi, Traditional Chinese Medicine (e.g. acupuncture), Qi Gong, and so forth; I’m pretty dubious about the actual truth value of that framework, but I figure I’ve gotten enough out of doing Tai Chi that it wouldn’t hurt to learn a little more about these concepts, in case there’s something there that would shed light on my experiences with Tai Chi? And, from a practical point of view, he presents a set of practices that he claims help lead to a direct experiential understanding of aspects of those frameworks, and also gives somewhat specific claims about how different parts of that experience will manifest in different stages in your training in those practices; that gives the beginning of an empirically testable approach towards validating some of those claims that I’m dubious of. (Not empirical at the standards of clinical trials, or anything approaching those, but that’s okay with me: I can get value from evidence provided by internal experience as long as it’s my internal experience!)

So I’ve started going through a few of his basic exercises a few a week; nothing deep coming out of that, but there have been some sensations that I’m not used to that make me at least somewhat interested in going a little bit deeper. I looked on his website, and it turns out that Mitchell will be giving a five-day introductory course in the Bay Area in May; maybe I should sign up for that?

Five days sounds like a bit much time to devote to something that I’m not particularly sure about; not much I can do about that, though, the duration is what it is. But it also made me think that I should see if I can get a bit of local hands-on instruction: if there’s one thing that Tai Chi has been teaching me, it’s that it’s very very easy to get not just details but broad aspects of movements and positions wrong, so the chances are nil that I’m coming close to successfully reproducing exercises just by reading them in books. (And, of course, there are lots of exercises that I’m not even trying yet.) So I figure doing a bit of hands-on learning first will get me aware of some of the most basic mistakes, so I’d be able to make it to learning about slightly less basic mistakes in May.

I emailed a local teacher, and it turns out that she and another teacher were co-leading a four-day course in February; I wasn’t up for spending four days on this in February, but she kindly offered to let me come to the first two days. So that’s how I spent last Friday and Saturday.


My main takeaway: this was significantly more intense than I expected. I was assuming that it would be like a Qi Gong course; and, even if it’s more active than that, I’ve done a most-of-a-day Tai Chi seminar without much trouble? But this course was quite a bit more painful than that: significantly more physical exertion than I’m used to in Qi Gong (even in the parts of the course that qualified as Qi Gong, which not all did), and exertion of a type that was different enough from what I’m used to spending time on in Tai Chi that my practice there hadn’t helped in the ways I’d hoped. Basically, the difficult exercises in the Nei Gong class were more along the lines of “hold this posture for a period of time that feels like forever” instead of “go through this sequence of different moves a few times, with instruction sprinkled into the repetitions”; and unless the relevant muscle groups are used to that sort of test, it’s going to hurt. (And also going to cause me to sweat buckets!)

This kind of training is actually quite in character for martial arts as well, it’s just not the style that I’m used to, and went quite a bit beyond the level of pain that I normally seek out. But I’m also quite willing to believe that, for students who are willing to put up with it, it’s a more effective training regimen than the kind of regimen I’m used to; also, the teachers for the seminar live in other parts of California (I believe), so I can see how it would make sense for them to give fewer but more intense workshops instead of weekly classes with a more gradual on-ramp.

And the second day felt different to me than the first day: some portion of that was probably the specifics of the exercises on the two days (there was a little more movement in the second day, and I found those exercises less painful), but the second day involved quite a bit of the most painful exercise from the first day, and I managed it better. I still didn’t enjoy the second day at all (and I bailed out a little before the end; but I basically kept going through all the exercises right until then, whereas in the first day I dropped out of individual exercises several times), but that was a sign both that the exercises weren’t completely beyond my capabilities and that they were already having a physical effect, even if that physical effect is probably mostly a prosaic muscular one rather than anything deeper than that.


So: what next? I definitely feel like I’m more informed about the May course than I would have been without this course; I haven’t actually decided yet for sure whether or not I want to go, though. My initial reaction was that I in fact don’t want to go to the May course. Two days of pain is bad enough; five definitely sounds like too much. And I didn’t see anything that made me want to seriously up the time I spend working on the Lotus stuff, doing it daily or having it supplant some of my Tai Chi work.

Thinking about it once the pain had receded, though, I’m now leaning the other way. The next day, my abdomen felt strangely calm: I don’t know that that’s a sign of any long-term benefit (and, a few days later, it’s returned to normal), but that seems like something good was going on physically? Also, in terms of pain: that one exercise that was most painful for me was also the one they said was most important. So I can work that into my Tuesday/Thursday lunch practice: start out just doing it 5 minutes (which I’m confident won’t be a problem, and indeed that has proved to be the case this week), bump it up a minute each session or two, and I’ll be up to 20 minutes by the time May comes along, which will put me in a much better position. (And hopefully my improvements will come from relaxing more and improving my positioning, not just from building up muscle strength.)

There’s also the question of whether I feel like I’ll really benefit from the course. I’m curious but sceptical of the systems’s claims, and I didn’t really see anything to change that. (Though a few of the other, returning students were showing some of the apparently inadvertent physical and emotional reactions that the books do claim are a normal part of the process, so that’s something at least.) But I didn’t really expect to experience anything significant directly; and I do feel like I’m at least starting to appreciate the feeling of doing some of the Lotus Nei Gong movements correctly, and how that differs from what I’m used to. And, like I said, my abdomen really did feel better after the course.

So I think I’ll probably go to the course in May? Though it may not be up to me: I’m on the wait list right now, so I might end up not having a choice…

software kill switches

February 10th, 2019

A couple of weeks back, Apple remotely disabled some apps that Facebook had written: one that they were paying people to sideload so they could be spied on, with Facebook’s internal apps getting disabled as collateral damage. College-student me would have been horrified by this; present me is glad?

The main difference is that, basically, security wasn’t a thing when I was in college. Yes, we had passwords; but we also used rlogin and telnet (ssh hadn’t been invented yet), and X11 let you just stick stuff on the screen of other people sitting next to you, and (I’m fairly sure) snoop their keystrokes if you really wanted to. So, basically, all this depended on the internet not being serious business yet (this was in pre-HTTP days), and on good behavior.

Whereas, right now, we’re in an environment where we have unparalleled tools for distributing software and where both people who are aware that they are bad actors and people who don’t think of themselves as bad actors but who nonetheless spy on your constantly are actively taking advantage of that. We’re much more sensitized to the need for secure software, we’re much better at writing secure software, but yet the browser, the single most powerful software distribution platform, is constantly running other people’s software on your computer without any meaningful consent, software that you’d frequently very much prefer not to be running if you had a choice.


I don’t pretend to know how to resolve this tension. But I’m also glad that we’ve at least gotten some new tools to deal with this. Filesystems are great, but I’m really glad that my phone doesn’t expose a cross-app filesystem. And I’m glad that the set of permissions that apps can get on my phone are getting more granular and more restrictive by default every year. There’s still a large attack surface, but those are both very meaningful security improvements: I download software every week for my phone without thinking about it, whereas I download software much less often for my laptop, and doing so basically always terrifies me if I think about it too much.

These granular permissons only help if software doesn’t regularly demand expansive permission grants, of course. I’ve never used Android, but my understanding is that that’s a serious problem on Android: there’s a culture of apps asking for expansive permissions, and the Google Play store lets them get away with it? So, yeah, I actually do want a benevolent overlord in this instance: sure, I’d like freedom to do what I want with my hardware, but it’s also important to me that other people don’t have freedom to do what they want on my hardware. And, right now, I’m willing to give up some amount of the former in service of meaningful restrictions on the latter.

Apple’s recent use of kill switches on enterprise certificates is an unusual and extreme example of what that entails, but I think that ability is a correct part of secure design: I don’t expect review processes to be perfect, which means that I want a way to kill malware after it’s been deployed to phones. And I view the Facebook software in question as malware: surveillance software without meaningfully informed consent.


There are flip sides to my position, of course. One is that there are other aspects of Apple’s software policy that I don’t like at all. Security restrictions are great; content restrictions are the opposite of great, and Apple is using the security restrictions to give themselves a monopoly on app distribution. And Apple’s rent-seeking profiteering on their App Store is bad as well. What I really would like is for Apple to provide universal security reviews for a close-to-cost fee and for them to allow other people to run app stores with varying curation policies; not much chance of that happening, unfortunately.

And the other flip side is that, while I’m glad that my phone (and my tablet and my video game consoles) have a restricted app environment, I’m also glad that I have access to machines that are more permissive: I’m glad for personal reasons, I’m glad for employment reasons. I don’t really know how to square that circle, and I’m not even sure that there’s any need to square that circle: different devices for different purposes is okay, with some being more permissive but with me scared to install software on them and some being more restrictive but safer? As long as both categories remain healthy, I think I’m okay with that?


I have no good idea of what to do about the browser, though. And I’m definitely worried about IoT proliferation: so far I’ve been able to resist having significant transition from dumb devices to smart devices in my house, but I have no idea how long that will remain tenable, and I don’t have any faith in those vendors’ security models. And, speaking of vendors, while I’m right now happy in general with Apple’s security posture, that could certainly go bad too; I’m not worried about that over the next few years, but I don’t see any reason to believe in a beneficial security overlord once I start looking a decade or two ahead…

card quest

February 6th, 2019

Card Quest is, in many ways, right up my alley. It’s a roguelike with a card-based mechanic; I like card games, I wish I liked roguelikes more than I do, but I like the way Card Quest approaches the genre. The card mechanics put me in a state of mind where I’m expecting to lose frequently and to jump back in, but the game also lets you capture improvements as you make it further through the game, with those improvements coming in the form of increased number of deck-construction choices, a richer set of options instead of a simple power leveling up.

And the game gives you a lot of choices. Right from the beginning, you have a choice between four different classes which give you four different starting decks; and those starting decks are extremely different from each other. The tutorials for those classes actually make a pretty good game on its own, because each tutorial gives you a series of challenges with more and more of the starting deck available for you, forcing you to find a perfect line of play through increasingly difficult circumstances. The only downside of the tutorial is that it’s a little unrepresentative compared to the regular game, because it turns into a puzzle game forcisg you to uncover an extreme line of play emerging from predefined order of drawing cards; but it’s a good puzzle game, and its extreme nature makes you aware of possibilities that would be harder to uncover otherwise.


Once you get to the regular game, the scenarios are much less extreme, at least at first. Which is a little relaxing; but when you get to the boss battles at the end of each section, you certainly have to be on your toes. And, as you finish each section, you unlock upgrades: sometimes they give you new options for your deck, sometimes they give you powerups that you can (typically) use once per battle. Those upgrades are persistent, giving you more options for your future playthroughs; there are also temporary powerups that you accumulate on each individual playthrough, which give you another set of choices for tweaking your capabilities.

So there’s a lot of meat here, and I enjoyed it. Having said that, I also stopped playing earlier than I would have predicted, after only exploring a fairly small subset of the possibility space. I think the main reason for that was a difference in the game compared to my expectations: I was expecting Card Quest to be a game that I would play in spare moments, but play sessions turned out to be longer than that. Which is fine, but it meant that I had to schedule play sessions, and I already had another game that I was playing in my longer sessions.

And the other consequence of those longer sessions (and the related fact that gameplay is asymmetrical) is that the density of learning is a little low. In a game of, say, Ascension, you’re testing your feel for the cards in every single match: your opponents have access to the same cards as you do, so it’s always a potentially even game. With Card Quest, in contrast, enemy encounters are of radically different difficulty levels: so you spend a lot of your time in encounters that you can make it through without thinking too much, some time in encounters that keep you on your toes, and only a little bit of time in encounters that require you to up your play through repeated attempts. So most of your time in the game isn’t particularly conducive to learning; this is actually completely normal for video games, but card games can do better in this regard.


Anyways, a good game: in a different timeline, I can imagine playing it for months on end, and it’s still entirely possible that I’ll decide to come back to it, there are many many deck and opponent possibilities in the game that I haven’t yet explored.

traveling to india

February 3rd, 2019

I went to India for a business trip a week ago: my employer has an office in a suburb of New Delhi. And it was great talking to my coworkers in that office: lots of interesting and useful discussions, they’re a great group of people.

I was also kind of excited about the travel part of the trip. It was only a week (and in a location that’s more or less maximally bad for jetlag), and I was going to spend most of my time doing work stuff, but still: I was visiting a country I’d never been to before, I like visiting new countries / cities, and I certainly like eating Indian food.

Unfortunately, the travel aspect of the visit wasn’t so great. Part of that was expected: jet lag was actually not as bad as I feared but still a real thing, and the air quality was quite bad. And part of it was something I wasn’t necessarily expecting but was totally predictable in hindsight, namely that my tolerance for spicy food has gone down over the years, so my stomach wasn’t always happy. (I didn’t even pack an antacid; whoops.) But that’s not all that was going on.


Each day basically went the same: I’d get up and shower, then go down for breakfast (usually eating alone), then take a car to work with other coworkers who were also visiting from the US (we try to synchronize visits), then I’d be in the office all day (spending most of that time in meetings with Indian coworkers), then I’d take the car back to the hotel, and then (usually but not always after a short break) I’d have dinner with my American coworkers; sometimes in the restaurant of the hotel we were staying at, sometimes in the restaurant of another hotel nearby.

And there are two problems with that. One is that I’d was spending time with coworkers basically twelve hours solid every day. And, nothing against them, but that’s not how I would normally want to do things, I’m way too introverted for that. I get that the whole point of the trip is to meet with Indian coworkers, so I expect to be spending lots of time talking to people; that’s totally fine. And I can even accept that there’s something good in having an excuse to spend time interacting with American coworkers in an unusual context. But still: 12 hours (with most of those hours actively interacting with people, not just happening to be in the same location) is not what I want to do day after day, especially when I’m feeling a bit off because of time change / stomach uncertainty and don’t get as much refreshment from the post-dinner time as I normally would.

The other problem, in retrospect, is how hermetically sealed it felt. I wasn’t visiting India: I was visiting a hotel and an office and being shuttled back and forth in a car. We placed ourselves in a bubble, and never left it: even when we went out for dinner, it was just to a different hotel!


There are some good reasons for that: the CDC is happy to warn you about bad things that can happen if you eat or drink the wrong thing while traveling to India, and certainly the air quality didn’t make me excited about walking around outside. But I would never seal myself off that way while visiting a country on vacation; on a business trip, it’s easier to let myself get sealed off because I have less unscheduled time and because other people are handling a lot of the planning, but still.

I did have one unscheduled day, on the Sunday at the start of the week; one of my coworkers very kindly showed me around that afternoon. Which helped a lot; the one drawback in retrospect was that he took me places by car, so I missed an opportunity to get a better feel for the area right around the hotel. (Though the place where we ate dinner wasn’t all that far away from the hotel, something like half a mile or a mile away, now that I look it up on a map.)


So, the next time I go, I should probably lean into that more: seeing the city some on Sunday, but doing it on foot? And then hopefully that will make it easier for me to leave the hotel bubble after getting back from the office? It’s actually even possible that next time I’ll be able to avoid getting driven to the office, too: there’s a metro station that’s opening up right across from the office, so maybe we’ll decide that that’s a better way to get to the office from the hotel.

Not sure how well that will work, to be honest: there are logistic reasons for the current setup, and I may also find that they environment just doesn’t agree with me. Still, I feel like I should at least try to leave the bubble a little more? And I should also probably make sure to reserve a little more time for myself: it’s okay if I eat alone half the time, I think…

how to learn

January 15th, 2019

I spend a fair amount of time thinking about how to learn; and I want to drill into one aspect of my approach to learning. Specifically: when learning, spend most of your time aligning your mental state with how experts think about the topic, and intersperse that with rarer periods when you step back and think in a way that’s grounded in your personal point of view.

There are a few points here. One is that it’s really easy to coast and do things that feel good under the guise of learning; I do this all the time myself! But, when I’m doing that, I want to be honest with myself: my goal in those moments isn’t really focused on deep learning, it’s using shallow learning as a tool towards some other kind of enjoyment. And that’s totally fine, maximizing learning isn’t everything; but I’m making a choice in such situations, and I want to be conscious of that.

Another point is that any successful learning is ultimately going to involve some kind of paradigm shift. Maybe it will open you up to options for how to think about situations that you didn’t have before; maybe it will present some ideas that are actively at tension with how you think about certain situations; maybe you’ll ultimately decide that those new ways of thinking about situations are better than how you’d been thinking about them. It’s hard to know where the shifts will be in advance, or how profound they will be; and with deep enough learning experience, you’ll find that your perception is changing over and over again, as you uncover subtler (and potentially more profound!) differences between how experts think about a topic compared to how you think about a topic.

So it’s really important to adopt a mindset that opens yourself up to that possibility! And this is an active process: you spend a lot of your time trying to match your thinking to how you currently believe experts approach a topic, but it’s also very important to have another layer of your brain trying to detect situations where experts are doing something that doesn’t match your mental model of their approach. (Which is different from the very common situation where they can do something that fits into your mental model but that you can’t yet carry out.) Because following up on those leads are how you can make leaps in your understanding.

(An example: when I first heard about Test-Driven Development, I felt like I understood it fairly well; and I tried it out, and listened to people talk about it, and that definitely helped solidify my understanding. But then I read Kent Beck’s book on the topic, and he gave an example where, to make an initial test green, he hardcoded the answer, and I realized: wow, he’s willing to cut corners in the green phase of red/green/refactor a lot more than I realized.)


I’m not saying that, whenever you decide to learn something, you’re automatically signing up to get sucked into a cult. Though I’m not exactly not saying that, either: to me, an important part of really deciding that I want to learn something is figuring out how to make space for that learning. A lot of that making space is time based — what am I going to stop doing in order to be able to spend enough time on my new learning project to make a difference — but mental space is important too. I need to be not just open to but actively seeking out new ways of thinking about something, or even new things to think about that I’d never thought about before; and I need to actively practice those new ways of thinking, analyzing scenarios in light of that way of thinking, while actively quelling my old ways of thinking in that area to the extent that they conflict with the new ways.

But that’s not a lifetime commitment: it’s also important to periodically (not constantly, maybe once every three months or so?) step back and think from a broader position. Are you getting the benefits you expected from what you’re learning? Are you getting benefits you didn’t expect from what you’re learning? Alternatively, are some of the ways of thinking that your new learning suggests not panning out well in practice, even though you’ve actively been trying to give them a fair shot? Or are things somewhere in the middle, where you’re happy to be learning but you’re not uncovering big surprises.

Depending on how you answer that question, you might want to stay on track, you might want to increase your studying, or you might want to dial back. Or you might still feel that there’s something there, but that things aren’t firing on all cylinders: maybe you should explore switching teachers or something.


I can’t remember where I heard the following, but it stuck with me: when programmers are listening to a talk, they’re waiting until they hear the first thing that they disagree with, at which point they stop listening. Whereas, when sales people are listening to a talk, they’re looking for one idea that will help them close a sale: if so, the whole talk is more than worth it. And I think there’s an uncomfortable amount of truth to that.

So: at least in this regard, act like sales people, not like programmers! If you want to learn something, then open your mind and actively seek out ideas that feel different, even wrong. There will be time later for you to step back and do a more global evaluation; but, if you’ve decided you want to learn, then learn.

early 2019 tai chi update

January 10th, 2019

I’ve been doing Tai Chi for a little more than three years now; time for another progress report, I guess? If for no other reason than I feel like I’ve made a lot of progress over the last three or so months.

There are lots of forms to learn: I’ve been studying the first Laojia form since the beginning of classes, I’ve been studying the second Laojia form and the first Xinjia form for about a year, I’ve gone through two different Dao (broadsword) forms, one Jian (straight sword) form, and I’m in the middle of a spear form. And I’ll start a staff form next month, and there are at least two other weapon forms that my teacher regularly teaches, and a few more weaponless forms that he teaches sometimes.

The funny thing is that, as I get better, I want to spend less of my time on all those different forms. Or, if not less time in the absolute, less time as a proportion of my growing amount of practice time. Because I feel that, out of all of those, I’m getting the most out of the first Laojia form; and, as I noted last month, I’m getting quite a lot out of the Silk-Reeling Exercises, which focus more on individual parts of the body. Though those two reinforce each other: everything that I wrote there about something to pay attention to during the Silk-Reeling Exercises is something I can pay attention to while doing the first form as well.


And that’s the way in which Tai Chi is being so interesting to me right now: paying attention these isolated, more fundamental concepts in the context of my body’s movements and behaviors. It’s feeling like every couple of months I’m seeing some new aspect that I should be paying attention to while going through the first form, and when I do that, it usually feels like it’s unlocking something.

One thing I’m curious about is how much of what it’s unlocking is perceptual and how much corresponds to physical changes. For example, I’m a lot more aware of movements inside my abdomen as I go through the first form; to what extent were those movements always there but I was just unaware of them, and to what extent is my body changing in ways that significantly alters its internal movements? Presumably the answer is “both”, but it’s hard to say: I’m more sure that my perception is changing than I am of how my body is internally changing, and the former is basically the only way that I have of getting information about the latter.


So I’m doing more practice and more repeated practice. I’m still not managing to find time to go through the whole form every day, but there are a couple of isolated exercises that I’m doing every day, to work on my Dantian and my thighs / Kua. And, these days, when I do practice the form outside of class on Sundays, I go through it six times in a row; I’d been doing it three times in a row, which honestly didn’t feel all that different from doing it once, but when I tried going longer, I had a few experiences where all of a sudden my natural internal rhythm for the form shifted.

Which is a useful reminder for me: often, when I’m learning something, I do it persistently and thoughtfully but in small chunks. And, honestly, that’s mostly the attitude that I’ve been taking with Tai Chi. But, unsurprisingly, it is the case that if I practice more (but still thoughtfully) then I’ll make progress faster; and I’m getting some evidence (from doing the form six times in a row, from doing Dantian Rotations daily) that doing something more can lead to a difference that feels qualitative rather than just quantitative.


So I guess I should step up my practice? Fortunately, besides continuing to be interesting, practicing is starting to be actively pleasant; I assume this is endorphins kicking in? And doing all of this is helping me feel better, or at least a little different, during the my non-practice time: e.g. if I open my Kua while standing / walking (basically spreading / relaxing the top of my legs a bit) then I get a sort of strange feeling of energy connecting my abdomen through to my thighs, which seems like a good thing.

There is the question of when that practice would be, though: I don’t really have large chunks of my weekdays that I’m not using for other stuff. And, for that matter, what to practice: should I go through the form more, should I do the Silk-Reeling Exercise set more, should I do isolated exercises more, should I do Qigong more?

That latter one is something I’m starting to seriously consider upping up: I’m curious what’s going on inside of my body, and how to interpret and nurture these feelings of energy in different places in my body, and Qigong provides one analytical framework with which to approach that. And I recently ran into an author who seems to have some interesting things to say on the subject, which is helping me move past the Qigong I’ve seen in the intro Tai Chi course.

So now I’m trying out some of the exercises from his introductory book, and I’m hoping to take a seminar of his in the Spring; we’ll see if I managed to do so and, if so, how that turns out. Though I imagine that the center of my practice will remain Tai Chi: I know I’m getting something out of that, I have a local teacher who I think is excellent, and I like my community of fellow students.


It’s been an interesting three years and a bit; I look forward to years to come.