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death stranding

August 3rd, 2020

So: Death Stranding. It’s actually the first Kojima game that I’ve played, or at least that I’ve finished: I dipped into the first Metal Gear Solid a while back, but it wasn’t really my thing, and I haven’t played any of his subsequent games.

It turns out, though, that I kind of like Kojima’s approach to world building, at least if Death Stranding is representative. Like, the basic world building doesn’t make sense, but that’s okay: it’s coherent and stylish enough? For a while, I actually was wondering if I was getting a Killer 7 vibe; ultimately, I decided that no, I wasn’t, but still, I respect a game that’s doing its own thing.

The way the game’s worldbuilding played into the combat was something that I wasn’t so into: I set the difficulty down to Easy fairly early on, and that was definitely the right choice. But the way the game’s worldbuilding played into the navigation and package delivery: that’s a completely different matter.

 

This isn’t an original observation, but: I started playing Death Stranding soon after COVID started, and it is shocking how well the two pair together. (I came to Death Stranding after Kentucky Route Zero, and I mixed in some Animal Crossing as well; I can’t imagine a more topical trio of games.) You’re playing as a character who doesn’t want to be touched, traveling through a mostly empty world to keep isolated outposts in connection by delivering packages and putting them online: yes, this is relevant.

But also: even setting COVID aside, Death Stranding turns out to be totally my thing. You spend a large portion of your game time traversing environments; the game treats this with respect, as something that’s a worthy activity on its own right.

I’ve played through so many RPGs that have you traveling from place to place, that constantly interrupt that traveling through battles, and where, if you skip those battles; you’ll find that upcoming required battles are somewhere between unpleasantly difficult and impossible. In a game like that, the priorities are clear: traversal is tertiary, battles are secondary, the leveling curve is primary. Whereas, in Death Stranding, most of the time, you’re just trying to get yourself and whatever stuff you’re carrying from A to B (possibly with the idea in mind of traveling to C after that): the game makes it clear that this is a worthy activity, even a primary activity on its own, one that the game actively leaves space for you to enjoy.

Challenges are present during your traversals, but they mostly take the form of the environment: making it through mountains or past bodies of water while carrying large amounts of cargo, trying to stay out of the rain. There are occasionally enemies: some are humans, some are supernatural creatures, and in general my feeling is that their presence mostly makes the game slightly worse; after turning the difficulty down to Easy, though, they were fine, and there was some benefit in terms of the occasional heightened edge that it gave to certain of your traversals. And the supernatural creatures tied in with the overall plot, and the game generally only seriously deployed them in a way that did help with the overall frame story; I’m less convinced that the human enemies added anything to the game, but, if you’re playing in Easy, it’s easy enough to beat up all the enemies in a region, after which they won’t respawn for many many hours, quite possibly not until you’ve left that region of the game.

 

The traversal isn’t an isolated activity, though, either in gameplay terms or philosophical terms. You’re traveling from place to place to help people, and to help rebuild a world. And that notion of a collective rebuilding effort is reflected in the gameplay as well.

In terms of rebuilding, the environments have places where roads are planned; if you deliver materials to them, then an auto-paver will come alive, and all of a sudden, you’ll have a nice smooth road cutting through some hills or even making a path around mountains; it makes things easier on foot, and makes it possible to haul large amounts of cargo by truck. And, for areas less amenable to roads, you’ll eventually unlock the ability to build ziplines to quickly take you from place to place, over ravines and up and down mountains; makes traveling hugely easier, and they’re fun as well! You can only have so many ziplines, but you can also place ropes and ladders to let you navigate particularly steep bits.

But it’s not just you doing this: the game’s world is a loosely shared world. So you’ll periodically get a notification that somebody else has delivered materials to one of the road’s auto-pavers; or you’ll come across zipline pylons that another characters has placed. The game does something interesting with the shared world nature: as far as I can tell, I don’t have access to all the structures that some fixed set of other players have placed, I only see a subset of their structures. But it’s enough to make a real difference: on an emotional level, it makes you feel like part of a group with a common goal, and on a practical level, it’s quite a bit easier to traverse a region once you’ve hooked it onto the game’s version of the internet and other players’ ropes and ladders and pylons pop into view.

 

So there’s something at the core of Death Stranding that I really like: it’s about an embodied world, about a collective world, about making things better in concrete ways. Yes, there’s this big overarching plot, and that plot is kind of remarkable in its own way. But there’s something more unusual and more powerful at its heart.

apple arcade games, round two

June 21st, 2020

My PS4 bricked itself during a system update a couple of months ago, so I needed to take a break from playing Death Stranding. Which was bad timing: Sony’s repair centers were closed because of COVID. (They reopened this past week, so hopefully I’ll get it repaired soon…) I decided the next large game I’d play would be the Switch version of Tokyo Mirage Sessions, but first I decided try out a few more Apple Arcade games.

Notes on the games I tried:

Sayonara Wild Hearts

I gave this one another try: I went through the whole thing again in the full album playthrough version, and also played through the first level or two a few times to get a gold medal. Still didn’t click for me: stylish, though.

Roundguard

I played it for a few hours, enough make it through the first boss once on the first character. I don’t yet have a feel for whether I think there’s something there: there’s an awful lot of randomness inherent to the second-to-second play of a Peggle-style game, and to me that seems fairly seriously at odds with the kind of potential control you’d want in a Roguelike? But maybe there’s more skill than is evident (I haven’t played the original Peggle much), or maybe they’ve designed the game in such a way that the randomness doesn’t matter as much as it seems, that you can manage it okay once you know when to spend your magic and how to best use your upgrades? I’m certainly willing to believe it’s the latter one, but ultimately I decided that, if I was going to spend time on a Roguelike, I should stick to Slay the Spire. (Which I’m playing a lot again, and which I like quite a bit more than I did when I first posted about it, I’ve gotten over the initial learning curve hump and I like what I see on the other side. Incidentally, they just released it on iOS, and I prefer the iPad interface over the Switch interface, but it’s great either place.)

Hexaflip

The only Apple Arcade game I’ve seen with a privacy policy when you launch it; I should have deleted it then, but I pressed on, and it’s an uninspired action puzzle game with a free to play energy mechanic only barely removed. By far the slimiest feeling game that I’ve played on the service.

Tangle Tower

A Phoenix Wright-ish detective game. Doesn’t have the same soul, and I was a little afraid that I’d miss stuff in the hunting and pecking through rooms and in the logic deduction, but it ended up having a decent system to support the player and help me not get stuck? Pleasant, even somewhat charming; happy to have spent three hours or so with it, not something that I would actively recommend, but if you’re already subscribed to Apple Arcade and have some time to kill, it’s not a bad choice? (I’m surprised they’re charging $20 for it on Steam, though.)

Manifold Garden

This one honestly probably deserves a post of its own. A 3D puzzle game that’s well worth playing: good core mechanics: you can change gravity so that any of the six directions of walls can be down, and sections of the world are like a 3D torus. Which takes a while to wrap your head around, but basically you can get to almost anywhere you want by combining those two facts. So you get used to the consequences of that for a few hours, and learn about a couple more mechanics and rules of engagement; and they do a very good job of dribbling out the learning, keeping me feeling smart most of the time, feeling frustrated some of the time, but always making it past my frustration. (I was very close to having to look things up in a walkthrough once or twice, but I didn’t.) And also the game didn’t outstay its welcome, and was divided up into sections that were well paced for making progress over an evening.

Also, the graphics style is super distinctive, in a way that worked for me; I certainly wouldn’t want every game to look like this, but the rectilinear nature, the symmetry of the six directions, and the repeating nature of the geometries added up to something honestly kind of special.

It’s playable with touchscreen controls, but they made one bad choice there (around the controls for dropping blocks) that was frustrating and kind of an unforced error. So most of the time I played it with an Xbox controller; and then I ran into a problem where using the controller interferes with Bluetooth audio through my AirPods. Which is a problem, since Apple removed the headphone jack on the current iPad Pros! So I’m annoyed at Apple both because of the wireless interference bug (I mean, maybe I’ve got a bad Xbox controller, but I doubt it) and because of the lack of headphone jack. Still, it’s a good enough game that I recommend giving it a try even if you have Apple Arcade but don’t have a controller; if I’d been in that position, I probably would have given up after an hour and a half, but I also still would have felt that that hour and a half was interesting and rewarding?

Spelldrifter

This game calls itself a Deck Building Tactical RPG, which sounds fun? But when I gave it a try it didn’t click for me. Part of that is that it didn’t match what I think of as a deck builder: when I went through the introduction (which was fairly lengthy, and included arcs for four separate characters), there wasn’t any deck building: your deck did increase in size, but in ways that were completely predetermined. Which maybe makes sense from a didactic point of view if you want to teach people how the mechanics work, but which wasn’t at all what I expected given the label.

It did seem to open up after the intro, giving me an option to construct a deck, but I guess it’s a game about selecting a complete deck instead of about gradually growing a deck? Presumably your card pool continues to change as you progress through the game, though.

I’m also not entirely convinced that card play and tactical RPG elements are a combination I particularly enjoy: I’m not sure but I suspect that I prefer games that focus more on one side or the other.

Anyways, I’m willing to believe that there’s something here, I don’t feel like I’ve given it a fair shake; but, as per the above, right now I’d rather spend my time on Slay the Spire.

using an ipad as a laptop

June 7th, 2020

For years, I’ve been using a laptop in the evenings when writing blog posts and what not, using an iPad for most of my other computer stuff at home (at least most of the other consumption-oriented stuff, though I did some of that on the laptop in the evenings too), and I have an iMac upstairs for situations where I want to archive data or where I want to do some programming. Which is probably one device too many; I’d been thinking for a while that I might switch to using an iPad as a laptop, since it’s my favorite of those three computers, but I’d held off, mostly because I wasn’t sure there was an iPad keyboard that I thought would work well in lap usage.

When Apple released pointer support and announced their iPad Magic Keyboard, I got curious again. And my iPad Air 2 was finally showing signs of being too old, so I was ready to replace it as well. (It lasted for most of 5 years, though! That was a really good machine.) So, when the reviews of the Magic Keyboard said that yes, it not only is as good as it sounds but it’s stable on laps, I went and ordered one; and I’ve been using the iPad instead of my laptop in the evenings for the last month or so.

 

And it’s really good! It’s really good with the caveat of it being an 11-inch laptop with narrow bezels, which means that it’s not particularly wide; I’m okay with the width of the keys themselves, but I’m finding it works a little better on a pillow in my lap instead of flat on my legs so that the keyboard doesn’t start to fall into the gap between my legs. (Part of me wishes I’d gone with the larger iPad size, largely for that reason; I’m honestly not sure which would be better for me, and I’m certainly not about to swap sizes now.) But it’s an entirely credible laptop setup; and yeah, it turns out that having a trackpad on an iPad really does work well, much better than I would have imagined before iPadOS 13.4 was released.

There was still an issue of psychological resistance, though: I’m just used to pulling out the macOS laptop in certain circumstances. So I’ve been forcing myself to use the iPad even in the face of that resistance, so I can figure out when it arises, what I can do about it, and if it’s pointing out a real situation where a traditional laptop works better.

 

For starters, I needed to be able to switch the iPad into laptop mode quickly! I’d been in the habit of leaving my iPad locked in portrait orientation; every once in a while, I’d experiment with leaving rotation lock turned off, and every time I do that, I quickly come to the conclusion that, no, I really do want rotation lock turned on when I’m using the iPad in handheld mode and not watching a movie. But I’m getting past my resentment of Apple removing the physical rotation lock switch, at least, so now I flip into landscape when that would be better. And the other part of laptop mode is, of course, the keyboard; I’m leaving the keyboard lying up against the side of the chair where I’m in the habit of typing. This all works: I now get the iPad into laptop mode quickly and regularly.

The next bit of psychological resistance was using web pages where I needed to log in to do stuff. I store all my account information in 1Password, and for not-very-well-thought-out reasons I’d never set up Touch ID or Face ID for 1Password on my phone or iPad. I’m still a little nervous about using biometric authentication for 1Password on my phone, but I decided that the same threat considerations don’t apply for the iPad (because it spends almost all of its time in my house), and, even with the keyboard to type the password on, the friction of having to type the password on the iPad really is very large. (Especially since, unlike the Mac, you don’t have to unlock 1Password once per session, you have to unlock it every single time that you use 1Password.)

So I switched to allowing Face ID for 1Password on the iPad. And it’s great! It now feels lower friction than on the Mac: I never have to type my password, Safari usually figures out when to offer on its own to fill in with 1Password and the share sheet action is there for situations where Safari can’t figure that out. So that reluctance has almost entirely disappeared, and I’m logging into stuff with abandon on my iPad. The one exception (for now, at least), is Google websites: I’m not logging into those on the iPad (and basically not using them other than Google search). I read my personal mail through Mail.app, if I want to check on my work calendar while I’m away from my work laptop then I look at that through the Google Calendar app on my phone, and I just don’t use other Google stuff that requires login very much, it turns out.

 

I’d already been writing blog posts like this in Byword using Markdown on the Mac; and Byword has a quite credible iPad app. So that part of the transition was easy: I’m using it to write this post, it’s great for that. (Or at least good: I’m a little worried that Byword doesn’t seem to be getting actively updated, so it might start bitrotting.) And I’m using Byword for some amount of other random text file editing as well; it works fine there too, maybe a little bit more annoying than I’d like switching between directories where I spend time, but I can live with that. (The files in question are in Dropbox; my guess is that I’ll move to iCloud Drive at some point over the next year, but who knows.)

I write shorter blog posts straight in the WordPress editor, and there I actually did run into an issue: when I’m there, I like to write in raw HTML, and the iPad insists on inserting curved quotes instead of straight quotes. Which is, of course, better most of the time, but not in that circumstance. Maybe I should even write short posts in Markdown; or maybe I should use the WordPress visual editor? Not sure.

Speaking of keys behaving differently on the iPad, I’m doing what everybody else is doing and remapping Caps Lock to Escape; I was worried that would clash with my fingers’ habits, because I have Caps Lock mapped to Control on my other keyboards, but it’s fine. I haven’t done anything else that would make me miss the function key row, so that’s also not a problem. The main thing that I miss is actually forward delete: it turns out that I use that surprisingly frequently in macOS (by typing fn-delete); ah well.

 

One idea that I had in the back of my head is that I might use this to remotely connect to my iMac; I haven’t tried that yet, though. But I have used it to ssh into the Linux server that hosts this blog; I haven’t done any super serious work there, though, but right now my take is that it works well enough but there’s probably some potential friction lurking?

I’d had a copy of Termius around, but for whatever reason I’d convinced myself that the free version wasn’t going to be good enough: I think I’d misread it as not supporting authentication via ssh keys, but actually that’s there in the free version. Anyways, the paid version was super expensive and had some network sharing of keys that I didn’t want to figure out whether I should trust or not. So I googled around and came across Prompt: it also has network sharing of keys, but they’re quite upfront about exactly how it works and why it’s safe, and it’s from Panic, which is a company that I trust.

Prompt isn’t great, though. I’m not sure exactly what I want out of an ssh client, but Prompt doesn’t have the feel to me of an app that’s trying to be great, it feels more like an experiment that Panic didn’t decide to invest in? The basics are there, and it’s largely fine, but it’s problematic for Emacs users, because it doesn’t pass through the Option key as a meta key, it instead treats it as a way of inserting non-ASCII characters. Which is bad when using Emacs, but also a problem when just using bash, because my fingers are used to using option commands for a fair amount of shell navigation. The escape key is, of course, there, but a lack of Option support feels like a pretty basic oversight in a terminal program?

So I should probably give Termius another try; and in retrospect I probably should have looked harder at Blink instead of just assuming that Panic would do a good job, Blink looks quite a bit more focused on being a quality ssh client / terminal application.

 

Anyways: current iPad Pros are great machines (even though the most recent update wasn’t even a speed bump update), and the Magic Keyboard is also great. Basically, for the price of a MacBook Air, you can get a mix-and-match computer that behaves like a laptop when that’s best, behaves like a tablet when that’s best, and that has a CPU that’s quite a bit more powerful than the CPU in the Air. There are usability plusses and minuses, but for me they’re turning out mostly plusses: I like using the iOS share sheet when getting stuff between apps, I like having the device in portrait mode when I’m just reading stuff. If I were doing serious programming on a laptop, then yeah, the iPad would almost certainly not be what I wanted. But that’s not how I use my laptop at home; so right now I’m thinking it’ll probably be a while before I get another macOS laptop for personal use…

changing my server upgrade strategy

May 24th, 2020

The server that hosts this blog is one that I administer; it runs Ubuntu, so I’d been in the habit of doing an OS upgrade every 6 months, as Ubuntu releases a new version. I’d do an upgrade in place; most of the time it would work smoothly, sometimes it would be less smooth but I’d be able to figure it out. (For example, the upgrade to Apache 2.4 brought in some pretty significant configuration differences.) But every once in a while something would go horribly wrong to the extent that it wouldn’t even boot after the upgrade or networking would be broken, and if I couldn’t figure it out, I’d have to build a new server from scratch, copying things over from the old server.

Upgrading in place had been starting to feel wrong, though. I’m willing to accept that this server is, to some extent, a pet instead of cattle, but still, that doesn’t mean that I want random packages and configuration accumulating. I’d been taking notes on those occasions when I did have to rebuild from scratch, and the last time I did that, I figured out the exact packages I needed to install instead of just blindly copying over the list from the previous server; so rebuilding isn’t a big unknown, though it does take more time than an in-place upgrade.

Anyways, when I went to upgrade from 19.04 to 19.10, networking broke completely, so it was time for another rebuild. And that got me thinking: I should just give up on the strategy of upgrading in place, it’s too error-prone, and leads to too much downtime. (I’ll talk about that a little below.) But I didn’t feel like rebuilding the server every 6 months; so I decided to get on the Ubuntu LTS train. In general, I like to do things incrementally, but I already had evidence that the incremental upgrades weren’t actually all that smoothly incremental in practice, so I figured doing one full rebuild every two years was a better use of my time.

Which raised the question of what to do about 19.10. It made me nervous, but I decided to skip it: if a bad security vulnerability showed up, I’d have to figure out whether to do an emergency rebuild or to hope that Ubuntu would backport the fix to 19.04, but I was optimistic that nothing horrible would appear in the three months until 20.04 appeared.

 

I like to do server maintenance on long weekends, so this weekend I rebuilt a server with 20.04. And it went really smoothly! My notes were good; the main thing that had changes since last time was that I’d started using Let’s Encrypt, so I had a new section to add to my notes, but it was super simple, I just had to add one directory to the list of directories that I had to copy over from the old host. (It’s a pretty short list: my home directory, the directory that contains websites, the mysql data directory, the Apache sites-available directory, and now the Let’s Encrypt directory.)

And, right from the beginning, some surprise benefits of the strategy showed up. There were some packages that I’d had pinned at old versions on my previous host, because something weird had happened in an upgrade; I don’t remember the exact history there, but I had more or less resigned myself to losing one bit of minor functionality, but the package was still there on 20.04 and worked fine. (It might have been in the Universe repository instead of the main one? But I needed that for something else anyways.)

Also, right from the beginning: much less down time. If I’m going to upgrade in place, then I need to stop the old server, take a snapshot just in case something goes wrong (which takes half an hour or so), then do the upgrade, then hope everything goes well. So there’s a noticeable and potentially unbounded amount of down time; honestly, the number of 9s for this server isn’t that high (since I stop it once a month to take a snapshot anyways), but still, I don’t like downtime. Whereas if I’m building a new server, then I can leave the old one running while I set things up on the new server; if I were getting constant comments on the blog or something, then syncing mysql over could be a little delicate, but I don’t, so I don’t have to worry about writing to the old mysql for an hour or two. (I just have to make sure to avoid reviewing Japanese vocabulary during that period.)

In the past, rebuilding the server had caused delays because of DNS propagation; if I’m thinking about it, I can turn down the TTL a day in advance, but still, kind of a pain. But Digital Ocean finally added floating IP support a few years back, and I’d turned it on a few upgrades ago. (Which actually turned out to be another thing that was improved by the rebuild – initially you had to do some magic configuration on your server for that to work, but Digital Ocean improved things so that was no longer required on new servers.) So, once I thought I had Apache working, I could just flip over the IP and try to hit the web pages; turned out it was broken, so I flipped the IP back while figuring things out, and flipped it again after I’d fixed the problem. (I’d gotten something wrong when copying files over: I’d even left myself a note saying “pay attention to this potential mistake”, I just hadn’t actually taken that note seriously…)

 

Anyways: took a few hours, but all things considered, it was quite smooth. And the floating IPs continued to be useful: e.g. once I had the new server working, I wanted to take an initial snapshot of it, and that’s fine: the old server was still running, I could point the IP back at the old one while taking the snapshot.

I guess if I wanted, I could go even further: Digital Ocean has an RDS analogue now, so I could switch to using that as my database. Or I could move over to AWS, just to be in a slightly more familiar setting? I have mixed feelings about Digital Ocean, but it’s been okay, though, and it’s possibly a better match for this server than AWS, though. (Especially now that they’ve fleshed things out a little more.)

Pleasant enough way to spend a morning, at any rate: good to keep my hands dirty with this sort of thing, and always nice when computer maintenance goes well.

kentucky route zero

May 10th, 2020

I didn’t play the first four episodes of Kentucky Route Zero when they came out: I generally try to avoid playing games on PC, and while I was willing to make an exception for Kentucky Route Zero, I figured I’d at least wait until all the episodes were released and hope for a console port. And, fortunately, the last episode and a console port arrived at the same time, so I played through it. (Doing one episode plus one interlude a week: I wanted to make it through reasonably promptly, but I wanted to leave a bit of a gap between episodes.)

It’s quite a game? Enough so that I’m having a hard time putting a finger on what I think of it, or perhaps more accurately how to think about it: I can’t just slot Kentucky Route Zero into an existing conceptual framework and use those expectations as a starting point. So I’ll just talk…

 

The first couple of episodes were a sort of pleasant meandering through a story: enough interactivity to take advantage of the medium, enough character moments to make me care, and enough magical realism to make it interesting. And then I reached the second interlude, talking about the precarious life associated to working at marginal jobs: and yeah, this game has something to say politically.

Which dovetailed rather well with what else is going on right now: I realized that I was accidentally playing three games each of which shines a rather direct light on the experience of living in a world with COVID. Death Stranding talks about the experience of being isolated, only connected by package delivery (and, honestly, I still can’t believe that that game came out when it did!); Animal Crossing is the shared escapism where we’re all spending time; and Kentucky Route Zero speaks to millions of people losing their jobs and the depression that’s suddenly arrived.

 

Which had me looking forward to playing the third and fourth episodes; I actually had mixed feelings about them, though. They went on just a little bit too long: not necessarily too long in any absolute sense, in fact I managed to finish each of them within an evening, but they took enough longer than the earlier two episodes that the back of my mind wanted them to end earlier than they did. And, in both of them, I ran into strange bugs (probably having to do with the controls of the console port?) that really made me want the episode to end.

And the way the third episode ended just didn’t make sense to me, with our protagonist suddenly having been forced into something that seemed more like slavery than a job just because somebody claimed he acted in a misleading way during a conversation. Like, I’m sure there are real-world scenarios where that makes sense, but in general, no, that’s not the way things work? And if you want to talk about being trapped in a job, there are a lot of other more plausible options to get there: for this story, medical debt and a need for insurance is just staring right at you as a possibility! (Medical care certainly is a situation where you can wander into a situation, sign some forms because you don’t feel that you have a choice, and all of a sudden end up in enourmous debt.) I dunno, maybe I’m missing something; I was listening to a podcast discussing the game that had a different enough take on what was going on there that I’m willing to believe that I did miss some context that would have helped the whole thing make more sense.

The fourth episode was disconcerting in some of the same ways (length, bugs), but also marked a shift towards an ensemble cast instead of a protagonist plus companions. Which was pretty interesting, conceptually? But the episode also felt to me like it was missing a problem-solving through line: the earlier episodes certainly left room for random encounters (with people, with locations), but the fourth episode felt like that’s all that was going on?

And then the person I’d thought of as the protagonist just left us, going away with his new employer. By which point I’d already mostly realized that he wasn’t he protagonist any more, so that was less jarring than it might have been; a relief to some extent, given my feelings about what had happened in the prior episode?

 

It took me a little while to decide what I thought about the fifth episode, but I ended up really liking it. It leaned even farther into the ensemble cast aspect of the game, but by now my attitude towards that had flipped: you see people coming together, you see the importance of groups and interactions.

And it gives a cooldown period at the end. That’s something that, in general, video games don’t handle well: plots lead to a big confrontation and then end almost immediately. That’s what really made Shenmue II stick with me: instead of ending with the big battle in Kowloon, or maybe that plus a scene of tearful farewells, it spends two full hours on a walk through the countryside.

Kentucky Route Zero doesn’t have the same sort of climactic battle as most narrative games, of course. Still, episode 4 does end with an important departure and reconfiguring of our team; and the fourth interlude is, if anything, more climactic, with a storm literally destroying buildings. And, on a quieter note, the fourth interlude also is an important transition in whom the game is about: we’ve seen the story shift from being about an individual to being about an individual with sidekicks to being about an ensemble, and the fourth interlude in retrospect marks the transition to being about communities.

Which all comes together in the fifth interlude. It actually has a candidate climax early on in it as well, with the team finally completing the delivery that the game has been working towards ever since the beginning; but that ends up just being one strand of what’s going on, and not one that particularly stands out. Instead, you see your cast of characters trying to figure out what they want to do next in their lives (and where and with whom to do that); you see the townspeople carrying on after the storm; you see the town as an actual place with its own history and goals instead of just a mythical destination. And there’s a rather lovely little ritual to cap the whole game off.

 

I dunno; I still don’t know what to make of this game. But I mean that in the most positive sense: I don’t know what to make of it not because I’m not sure that there’s something there, but rather because there’s so much there, so many threads, that I can’t weave them all together. I’m not sure if the game can, either, but that’s okay? Not everything has to be tied up into a neat answer; far too many games are simplistic in just that way, it’s very refreshing to see a game take such a different tack, and, ultimately to carry it off so fruitfully.

blogging less

April 23rd, 2020

I expect I’ll be blogging somewhat less here, at least for the next while. (Not that I blog a lot these days!) Damo Mitchell started up an Internal Arts Academy, providing online Nei Gong training. Which is very good timing: I’d been getting more interested in Nei Gong, and with the COVID lockdown, my in-person Tai Chi classes aren’t happening and I’m not playing board games over lunch most days. So I both have some amount of extra time to work on internal arts stuff in general and a slot in my schedule where I can practice daily even during the weekdays.

So the upshot is that, I’m going to spend a few hours a week watching course videos; some of that time is time that I would have spent at Tai Chi class, but some of it is probably time when I otherwise would have blogging. So if you see fewer posts here, that’s why.

I don’t expect to stop blogging entirely: I’ll keep up my habit of writing about games when I finish them, and I’ll still probably occasionally write here about other topics. But I imagine my frequency will be more like one post a month, and sometimes not even that.

learning something you don’t believe

April 12th, 2020

I’ve been doing Tai Chi for four and a half years now; and I’ve been doing Nei Gong (literally, “internal work”: Qi Gong and the like) over the last year. And it’s been super interesting; but also, especially as I dig more into the Nei Gong work, I keep on having to face concepts that I feel embarrassed to take seriously.

Qi is a good example: am I really supposed to think that there’s some substance energizing our bodies and present in the world around me, a substance that science is completely unaware of? That I can drink it in through the air, through my feet; that, if I do the latter, I’ll get rooted to the ground? It sounds ridiculous.

But there’s enough interesting stuff going on in my Nei Gong practice that I don’t want to stop the practice, either, and in fact I want to do it more seriously rather than less. So I’m left with an uncomfortable choice: do I try to do it but ignore all the bits that don’t fit with my pre-existing world view? Do I say “yup, I’ll just believe that Qi exists”? Do I try to maintain a split brain approach to this?

 

The latter of those is what I’ve been doing: my current attitude is “it’s more interesting to behave as if I believe in Qi”, while remaining neutral on the question of whether or not I actually do believe in Qi. (Or to behave as if I believe this whole system: Daoist Nei Gong, the theoretical concepts in Traditional Chinese Medicine, etc.) In other words, I try to suspend disbelief enough to take the system seriously, to figure out how to analyze various situations in terms of that system, and then I see where that leads me. If it leads me somewhere interesting (and not dangerous) then great!

It’s been ages since I’ve read Thomas Kuhn, but I think the notion of “paradigm” is useful here, especially Kuhn’s point that different paradigms are incommensurable. So I shouldn’t particularly try to fit, say, Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) concepts into a modern Western medicine view: instead, it’ll be much more useful (or at least more interesting!) for me to try to understand how TCM practitioners think about a certain situation, without constantly short-circuiting that evaluation by noting ways in which it falls short from a different point of view.

 

Of course, taken far enough, this leads to cult behavior: I don’t want to completely disconnect my critical facilities. (Though maybe “cult” isn’t actually quite the right word: any random thing that somebody comes up with isn’t a paradigm, it needs a somewhat broad and battle-tested set of practices and practitioners.) What I’m finding useful there is to take a more oblique approach: keep my critical facilities intact, but don’t apply them in places of maximal conflict between paradigms. Instead, apply them in much more prosaic situations, about which, say, modern Western science doesn’t have much to say. (Which, ironically, actually gives my critical facilities more of an exercise, because I don’t necessarily know what the answer to a question is supposed to be in advance!)

Take, for example, the question of Qi. If I try to force the question of “do I believe that there’s a substance called Qi running through my body?”, then that sets up a high stakes conflict in a way that I don’t currently find productive. Whereas if one of my Tai Chi teachers says “when you do the Peng move in the Eight Energies drill, then you’ll bring your Qi to your hands, and you’ll feel that as a tingling sensation in your palms”, then now we’ve reached something that I can poke at myself: do I in fact feel a tingling in my palms in that move in the drill? The answer is yes; and, further more, I get a similar feeling carrying out in other places in the form. (And that feeling connects to a more subtle feeling moving along the inside of my arms.)

So here I feel like I’m on firmer ground: yes, this action does reliably lead to certain physical sensations. And, by paying attention to those sensations, by noticing other moves when I get a similar sorts of feeling, and by listening to my teacher talk about Peng, I can at least start to understand the concept of Peng, coming to terms with that part of a Tai Chi paradigm. I still don’t know whether those feelings really come from a movement of Qi, but they’re not in conflict with a Qi-based explanation, and I can let that thought sit without it bothering me too much.

 

And the reason why I’m finding Nei Gong interesting is that that sort of things happens pretty often: a Nei Gong teacher will, say, start by saying something like “we want to gather Qi in the Dantian and then circulate the Qi up the Du meridian and down the Ren meridian”. Which involves lots of concepts that I could struggle against; but then the teacher will say “and to gather the Qi in your Dantian, figure out where your consciousness is interacting with your body, and gradually let that point of interaction sink; and if you do that for a bit, it’ll settle down in your lower abdomen, which will make your abdomen feel a little taut”.

So I try that, and, after a bit of experimenting, I think I understand what he’s saying about where my consciousness is interacting with my body; pretty high up, at first it would only sink a little, but after experimenting a while, it started to sink farther and more quickly. And, sure enough, my abdomen would feel more taut when I did that. (And some other, weirder, stuff would happen sometimes, like I’d feel like I was looking out through my eyes as if they were a high window on the wall.)

Again, who knows what’s going on physiologically, and who knows whether or not Qi exists. But by going through this exercise, I at least start to understand a little bit more about what it would mean to operate within that part of the Daoist Nei Gong paradigm.

 

Interesting stuff; turns out that, if you pay attention to your body in an appropriately directed way, you’ll find all sorts of surprising things happening, and ditto with your awareness. And, as long as I can keep up this cycle of “a teacher makes a relatively concrete physical / perceptual prediction about the outcome of a certain behavior, they link it to a conceptual framework, and I try out the behavior and get something plausibly like the predicted outcome”, then I’ll keep on giving it a try; and, by doing so, I’ll be able to understand this paradigm better from the inside.

I don’t want to do anything dangerous; but I should be able to avoid that. And if it means that I sound a bit silly when talking about this stuff, well, it won’t be the first time that happens, I can live with that…

i love hue

March 22nd, 2020

I Love Hue starts off as this super chill game about colors. You get presented with a rectangle full of colored squares; some of them are fixed in place, and you want to move the rest around so the whole thing makes a smooth color gradient. And it’s all very pleasant: more or less obvious what to do, though sometimes it takes a couple of guesses as to which shade of green goes in a specific place, a nice way to spend some time.

As the levels progress, it gets harder. There are fewer fixed squares; eventually the norm becomes for only the four corner squares to be fixed, with you having to interpolate the rest. Which is fine, that’s actually not inherently particularl hard, it just makes things a little more interesting.

 

What does start to get hard, though, are where the color palette shrinks. At the start, you’ll maybe have blue in one corner and yellow in another corner and purple in another; so the differences are clear. But then it starts getting quite a bit more subtle: maybe the whole board is in a blue to yellow to green range, with no reds showing up at all, for example.

And, at this point in the game, I realized that I actually don’t understand how color perception works. Like, the tiles that belong on the edge always felt brighter somehow than the tiles that are in the middle; I assume that’s a perceptual artifact rather than anything about the specific colors that the game chooses, but who knows? Also, my notion of color is very naive, modeled on a circle of red/orange/yellow/green/blue/purple combined with a lighter/darker continuum, but that’s only two dimensions, whereas color is actually more of a three-dimensional thing? (Looking up terms, I think “saturation” is the concept that I’m missing.)

 

And, eventually, the game morphs into a whole different sort of thing. Take this picture, for example:

This is no longer a chill game about rearranging squares, or even rearranging hexagons. (They add in triangles later on, which turns out to be extra challenging.) I think the left half is correct, but there’s one place I’m not sure of? And pretty clearly there’s something wrong in the upper right.

But there’s something more subtle wrong in other places. If you look at the middle column, for example: the one that’s the third from the bottom seems too dark compared to the one that’s second from the bottom. But it wasn’t at all clear to me what to do about that: when I tried to swap in other nearby colors, that bit seemed better but other bits seemed worse.

 

For that particular level, I gave up and restarted, and somehow it worked out better the second time. And I didn’t hit that sort of roadblock in all of those later levels.

But I did hit roadblocks in a bunch of them; sometimes situations like the above, where the whole level was across a narrow color spectrum, sometimes situations where the set of fixed tiles was chosen in a way that made it particularly hard to interpolate between them. (Or extrapolate from them, if they were on the middle instead of the edges.)

And it was an experience that I’m not used to. Interesting to grapple with color perception; interesting from a gameplay perspective, too, to uncover some non-atomic conceptual moves. (For example, if you hit a hard-to-analyze discontinuity like the one above, then a certain kind of oblique shift of a whole row of tiles ends up helping.)

 

Great game. Not the sort of game you’ll sit down with for hours, probably; but I enjoyed doing a puzzle or two most days for months. (Probably for about a year, actually.)

And now there’s a sequel out, playing around with shapes; I haven’t yet hit the part in that game where it starts to mess with me, and I don’t even know if the sequel goes as far, but it’s pleasant to be back to a chill game about sliding colored tiles around, too!

heaven’s vault

March 16th, 2020

At first, I was actually a little put off by Heaven’s Vault. I expected the game to mostly be about translation, with maybe a bit of clicking to select options, but somehow the controls ended up being surprisingly fiddly when I was first getting used to them? (Somehow I was always hitting the wrong button while browsing the timeline.) And then I was confronted more than once with dialogue choices where I didn’t like any of the options, and at least once with a dialogue choice where what my character ended up saying wasn’t at all what I intended.

Eventually, I got used to it, though: the game doesn’t have you play yourself, but I got used to the character I was playing, and that character started mellowing out a bit. And, of course, the character you play isn’t the hook for the game: it’s the translation mechanic.

 

And the translation is fun! It doesn’t feel like a realistic depiction in the slightest of figuring out a language, it gives you way too narrow a set of choices. But that’s okay, it’s a game, and it’s a pleasant puzzle to think about. And, from my point of view, well judged in difficulty: I usually had to think at least a little about choices, I got my translations right a significant majority of the time, but I got it wrong enough to keep me on my toes.

And there’s more depth there, if you want it. It’s basically a simplified ideographic writing system, so you can try to figure out what the meaning is of the different visual constituents of the words. The game doesn’t shove that at you super hard, but it’s there if you want to spend time thinking about that.

Though that’s also another area where the game’s interface could be significantly better. When you’re choosing the translation for a given word, the game shows you a collection of four related words, words whose components are similar. But if you want more than four comparisons, you’re out of luck. Or, more annoyingly, if it’s a word that you’ve seen before, but that the game either hasn’t told you is correct or has told you isn’t correct, there’s no way to see the previous phrases where you’ve seen the word (other than, I guess, tediously scrolling through every single phrase the game offers you): frustrating.

 

At any rate: a core mechanic that I like. And the basic plot is fine, and I enjoyed the character interactions more as the game progressed. There’s even a “chat with your companion while traveling” mechanic that reminded me a little bit of the last part of Shenmue II; not as good, and I have mixed opinions about the traveling in the game in general, but it did help in building connections.

But the flip side is that I was hoping for more than I saw…

what should i tweet?

March 8th, 2020

I have a fairly strict rule when tweeting: no retweets. I just scrolled through the last fifty tweets on my timeline: no unquoted retweets, two quote retweets, and I remember one of the latter because it felt odd when I posted it. And a similarly small number of tweets linking to external web pages, other than my own blog. So, basically, my timeline is just me.

The thing is, though: I follow people who retweet other stuff, who link to other stuff, and I enjoy that. (At least if they’re not basically tweeting out ads for their employers…) And I do share external links, I just do it on Tumblr instead of on Twitter. I even share tweets of cute animal pictures, I just do it on a channel in my work Slack.

 

So maybe that rule is silly? I certainly don’t have any reason to believe that people who follow me on Twitter are any less into cute animal pictures than my coworkers. And the Tumblr account made sense five or ten years ago, but I can’t imagine starting an account like that now.

The flip side, though, is that I kind of like having different accounts for different purposes. And one big side of the current setup is that it helps me try to avoid thinking of conversations on Twitter as being more important than they are: I really don’t have to try to have and broadcast an opinion on everything that shows up on that site.

 

I dunno; I’m still thinking this through. But don’t be shocked if I decide that it’s okay to retweet cute animal pictures, I really don’t have a good reason why those should show up on my work Slack…

shenmue 3

March 2nd, 2020

I’d given up hope that I’d ever see another Shenmue game; but then the Shenmue III Kickstarter happened, and here we are.

And, unsurprisingly but gratifyingly: Shenmue III is very much a Shenmue game. There are tweaks to the formula: martial arts practice is a little different, fighting is a little different, there’s an mild energy mechanic serving as a gentle money sink. But the core feel is very, very familiar. And also very, very unusual.

 

At its heart, Shenmue is a daily life simulator. A daily life simulator in the context of a martial artist who is trying to get revenge for the death of his father: but still, he has to do fill the hours of each day.

So Ryo gets up each morning. Is woken up by Shenhua, actually, the first half of the game takes place in the village at the end of Shenmue II. (For whatever reason, I found it amusing that, when Ryo returned to being woken up by the beep of your watch in the second half of the game, I discovered that Shenhua was waking Ryo up a little earlier than he’d normally set his watch for…) And then I’d have Ryo exchange pleasantries with Shenhua, and head out for his daily routines.

I’d start them by heading to the local dojo; Shenmue III added in some training minigames, Horse Stance and One-Inch Punch. So I’d do a round of each of those; and I felt surprisingly well represented by that, I actually try to spend 15–30 minutes a day standing in a slightly uncomfortable position (not as uncomfortable a position as Horse Stance, to be sure!), so yay to see that in games too. After that, I’d do some sparring to level up moves, and then have one real fight (to practice combat, and to increase my rank in the dojo), and I’d head into town.

In town, I’d usually put in an hour or so of work (chopping logs most of the time, a pleasant enough minigame, sometimes fishing but I didn’t like that minigame as much). I’d do a bit of shopping (food, mostly), maybe get some capsule toys to try to trade them for martial arts scrolls. And then I’d wander around, maybe chatting to people and maybe watching people practice Tai Chi (they modeled the first quarter or so of the main form I practice: again, representation!), and I’d try to make a bit of progress on the main plot every day. Which usually would take me through the afternoon; I’d probably chop some more wood on the way back home.

And then I’d head home to Shenhua, and talk to her. Evenings turned into basically a continuation of the walk at the end of Shenmue II: I’d ask her about some aspect of her life, she’d ask me about some aspect of my life.

 

And this is the most chill experience: but also an experience that’s very familiar from life but not from games, and a very human one. As I mentioned above, there are a couple of touch points that relate specifically to my life; but also, there’s an extremely familiar basic rhythm of getting up, doing some practicing, doing some work, trying to make progress on some bigger project, and having some real human contact mixed in.

Sure, I spend more time at work than Ryo does; sure, the bigger projects that I work on don’t have the drama of the project that he’s working on; and I’m nowhere near as serious a martial artist as he is. But, even with all of that, the contours are familiar, and familiar in ways that relate to how I find my life enriching.

 

The second part of the game is more of the same. You’re staying in a hotel, so you have to actually pay money for your room every day, but you’re quite used to making money by then. And everybody’s favorite part-time job, namely forklift racing, makes an appearance; yay.

You don’t have quite as many nice evenings with Shenhua; you get to talk to her sometimes, but not always. But the game makes up for that by letting you call your friends from previous games, to check in on how they’re doing. (And Ren shows up in person.) Which is super charming; my favorite is one of the conversations with Joy, where clearly neither of you is comfortable talking about yourself; adorable and familiar.

And you make friends in town, too; and this all comes together in a final sequence with your friends having your back as you storm a castle.

 

On the one hand, spending a noticeable amount of a game’s play time doing a minigame about standing in an uncomfortable position sounds ridiculous. But most video games, or at least most narrative action video games, have you spend much much more time doing things that don’t sound as ridiculous on the surface but actually are ridiculous. Fighting a standard enemy in an RPG or in Yakuza is only marginally more engaging (and actually may be less engaging than the “chopping wood” minigame in Shenmue III); the Shenmue series just forces you to confront that mindless behavior.

And I can imagine going multiple ways as you engage with that sort of question. Maybe keep games flooded with combat but make the combat interesting? Maybe get rid of the filler entirely, focusing on narrative highlights and focusing on combat to the extent that it supports that? Maybe say that one potential virtue of games is to give you a pleasant way to spend time without demanding too much of you, so a mixture of mindless combat and narrative bits is totally fine?

But I really like the answer that the Shenmue series gives, and that it’s, if anything, getting better at delivering. Our lives aren’t all a series of sparkling highlights, but that in no way means that our lives are bad: there’s real richness to be found in our lives nonetheless. Shenmue helps me see that: in the game, even in my non-game life.

 

Now to wait another couple of decades for Shenmue IV

moved off of itunes

February 29th, 2020

As I mentioned a couple of months ago, iTunes lost track of most of my music in the transition to Catalina, so it was time for me to find some other way to store my music. (With the criteria being that I wanted archival storage on my Mac and an easy way to keep copies of everything on my phone.) Unfortunately, the presence of iTunes has destroyed most of the other competitors in that space, but there has to be something, right?

I’d been hearing people talk about Plex for a while; mostly in the context of organizing and streaming video content, but presumably it works for music, too. And, indeed, it does, so that’s one possibility. For a while, it was the only serious possibility on my list, but then I ran across Vox: if I want to go music-only, then it seems like a possibility?

Both of those offer iPhone clients, but unfortunately they’re kind of expensive to do what I want. The Plex client won’t let you copy stuff to your phone unless you get a “Plex Pass”: $40/year, or $120 lifetime. And Vox makes you sign up for “Vox Premium” for that functionality, which is $50/year. I’m all for supporting good software, and actually those prices felt reasonable to me if I wanted to enable the full functionality that those premium plans enabled (basically, increased cloud streaming options); but it felt a little expensive to me if the only feature that I wanted was to copy music from my Mac to my iPhone while on my own WiFi.

For a while, I was wondering if I’d end up using VLC on my phone; I had a hard time believing that was a good idea, but it might be a reasonable initial step while I’m experimenting? And actually using Plex on the Mac and Vox on the phone seemed like it might be possible, too. But then I found Prism: an iPhone music client that includes Plex as one of the music sources, and that enables downloads for a one-time $5 fee. So that’s perfect: I can use Plex as an archive store for all of my media, and pair that with a music-focused client on the device that I actually use to listen to music, all at an extremely reasonable price.

 

Next step: create a clean copy of my music. It’s all there in the iTunes folder, but there are duplicate copies of purchased stuff there, because I redownloaded purchased music after iTunes lost track of most of it. So I copied my iTunes music library to a Music/Archive folder, looked for duplicates, and deleted them.

The criterion that I started with was: which directories contain a file whose name ends in “ 1.mp4”? That algorithm has both false positives and false negatives: some track names legitimately end in 1 (e.g. Art of the Fugue recordings typically contain a track “Contrapunctus 1”), and some of the duplicates were mp3s or were copy 2 instead of copy 1. So that involved manual work; tedious, and it’s certainly possible that I made mistakes, so I’m not going to delete the original files from my iTunes library. But it was a limited amount of work, just one and a half evenings.

The one annoyance there is that the names of some of the tracks had changed between the original and subsequent times I’d downloaded them from the iTunes store: Korean tracks in particular sometimes went from having English titles to Korean ones. (Or maybe vice-versa?) So for albums like that, I had to do a bit more manual work.

 

Once I was done with that, I copied the Music/Archive directory to Music/Plex. I wasn’t going to point Plex at the Archive directory: if there’s one thing I’ve learned over the last few years, it’s that I shouldn’t trust music software to not mess with my music files. Also, for all I knew, I’d want to run a similar experiment with Vox; I didn’t want to point both of them at the same directory. And music just isn’t that big: I have a decent-sized collection, but even so tripling the size of my music collection still leaves me with lots of space.

Then I downloaded Plex and pointed it at that directory. It thought for a while, but then everything showed up, and it looked nice! There were, unfortunately, still duplicates; when I poked into those, I realized that I’d missed the case where the album name changed between the first and second times that I’d downloaded the album. (Korean albums, again.) So I went through and removed the duplicates in both the Archive and Plex directory. Which, actually, pointed at one issue with Plex: it doesn’t have a native Mac client, it’s implemented as a web app, and navigating back from the single-album view to the all-albums view was quite a bit slower than I would have liked. And, after doing that a few times, Safari started giving me warnings about the amount of memory the page was using; looking in Activity Monitor, that page was using over a gig, I think I saw it go up to two gigs?

So that also made me happy with my choice to go with a third-party iOS client; probably the official iOS Plex client is better than how it works on the Mac, but that wasn’t a great first impression. Though actually other aspects of the transition gave me an actively good impression of Plex: in particular, I appreciated how it sorted the names of Japanese and Korean artists into the letter that corresponds to their name in the romanization of their name, instead of sticking all off them into a single “numbers and weird stuff” list at the end.

 

And then I launched Prism, pointed it at my collection, purchased the ability to download files, poked through the UI until I found an option to download everything (it wasn’t hard to find), and waited. Took a while, and I kept on waking up my phone to make sure it was making progress; which I think it really wasn’t doing while it was asleep, because it still had a lot of work to do when I woke up the next morning. But I don’t blame Prism for that, I bet iOS doesn’t even provide a mechanism that allows apps to download thousands of files in the background. A handful of them (I think 5?) didn’t download right the first time, presumably because of the app going to sleep at the wrong time, but I told it to download everything again, it grabbed those last files, and I was all set.

 

So: yay, I’ve ended up basically exactly where I wanted to be. And I also have an archive system set up, so that if I want to transition how I do this in five or ten years, I’ll be able to do that. And it means that I’m no longer tied to Spotify: if I decide that I want to switch back to Apple Music at some point in the future, I can do that without worrying that it’s going to mess up my music collection. (Which it did in multiple ways: not just the file modification stuff I linked to above, Apple Music also broke albums into multiple parts and removed the ability to fix metadata.)

The one gap in my flow is newly purchased music: it was kind of convenient to buy music on my phone and have it just show up everywhere? But I can deal with that, I just set up a once-a-month reminder to copy new music over to the new system. A small price to pay to get an archive system that I trust; and, if I want to stop paying that price, I can just stop buying music…

Though of course the new archive system isn’t complete: I probably have hundreds of albums only on CD. I know for a fact that some of those CDs are no longer readable, but presumably most of them still are; and it’s probably high time for me to digitize all of the ones that I can. So maybe I’ll start chipping away at that? But that’s a later thing, for now I’m going to enjoy the current state of affairs.

minit

February 28th, 2020

I’m behind on my blogging, unfortunately: I normally try to have no more than one game finished and unblogged, but right now I have four. So I can’t quite remember what I had to say about Minit; fortunately, I didn’t have a ton to say about it, so that’s not the worst thing.

It was a pleasant way to spend some time? It’s working in a good genre, adding in a good hook to that, executing well on both of those aspects, and not overstaying its welcome.

I guess the thing that struck me the most beyond the basic idea was how I was responding to it emotionally. Most of the time, the time limit was fine: mildly frustrating, but only very mildly. Because there was always something to do next after you died: so the bad news is that you died every minute, but the good news is that you almost always had an idea of what to do after that. And, as a corollary: the game is constantly giving you little wins, because by its very nature there’s always going to be some little success you can reach in 30-45 seconds, and while I didn’t actually make tangible progress every lifetime during my playthrough, I did maybe ever third or even every second lifetime, which is a very pleasant drip of accomplishments.

The downside is when you get a little stuck. When that happens, you just want to be able to spend a little bit more time exploring and tugging on threads; so having to start over every minute makes that harder and more annoying. And, more subtly, it actively works against deeper / more creative thought: it keeps you (or at least kept me) in a more surface level of hypothesis generation. Not that there are deep puzzles to solve in Minit or anything, but, as is the nature of puzzles, sometimes one of them will randomly take longer for you to hit on a solution.

But the loops aren’t anywhere near as bad as in Outer Wilds: having to spend 30 seconds to get back to where you were just isn’t that bad. And I only really got stuck once; and, fortunately, just as I was starting to get really frustrated with that, Ariel wandered by and had a useful idea. (Which makes me curious if this would be a good game for two people to play together; it was certainly useful in that situation, but then the flip side is that, with the time pressure, it might be annoying to have to deal with suggestions from somebody else about what to do next, if you’re already a little on edge then you might not have mental bandwidth to think about what somebody else is saying? Dunno.)

Anyways, good game, pleasant way to spend three hours or so.

physical experiences of meditation

February 13th, 2020

I’ve been meditating increasingly regularly over the last year or so; first doing standing meditation, but more recently doing seated meditation as well. And, of course, being the person I am, I’ve been reading books about meditation; there were some good book recommendations at the end of this Ezra Klein podcast with Richie Davidson, in particular.

One thing I realized after reading a few of those books, though, is that what they talk about doesn’t actually match what I’m finding striking about the experience of meditating. Specifically, they (and other books I’ve read on the subject in the past, if my memory is correct), talk about effects of meditation on your brain, of how it changes mental sensation; but what I’m noticing most are the physical sensations.

That’s maybe not so surprising when it comes to standing meditation; I actually started coming at that from a martial arts point of view, and the discussion there is more around sensing your balance, relaxing your body, and feeling rooted. But I’m finding physical sensations more striking than mental sensations even when doing seated meditation, or other forms that seem less explicitly physical than standing meditation.

 

For example, Damo Mitchell’s first book has an introductory meditation exercise where you’re either sitting or lying down and following your breath. This seems like a standard meditation exercise; yes, paying attention to breathing is paying attention to something physical, but it’s also a standard attention exercise. I was feeling lazy when I first gave this a try, so picked the option that had me lying on my back in bed: no pillow under my head, legs spread somewhat, arms spread somewhat with my palms up, and I stayed that way for 30 minutes.

And by far the most striking aspect of that experience was how it felt in my hands: I got a very strong tingling sensation in my palms, completely unlike any sensation I have when just lying down normally. (But not so unlike a sensation that I have when doing Tai Chi, though it was particularly strong in this context.) And the longer I meditated, the stronger it got; I spent 40 minutes doing this a few times, and the tingling sensation would head up my arms during those sessions. I’m curious whether people who don’t do Tai Chi would have a similar experience from this exercise; if you try it out, let me know!

That’s not a seated meditation practice; when I do seated meditation, the physical sensations are different, but still very much present. And, to me, the physical sensations are more interesting / noticeable than mental sensations; maybe that just means I’m not doing a good enough job focusing, but it doesn’t feel to me like that’s all that’s going on.

 

So what’s the deal here? Why are these books talking about mental changes when I’m feeling physical changes? Are there relevant differences between this batch of books that I’ve been reading on meditation versus the systems that I’ve been following (of which meditation is only one part: stuff like Tai Chi or Mitchell’s Daoist Nei Gong)?

For example, is it a difference between Western sources versus Eastern sources? Is it a difference between Buddhist approaches versus non-Buddhist approaches (Taoist-influenced ones in particular)? Is it a difference between non-Chinese approaches versus Chinese approaches?

My tentative conclusion is that, yes, actually all three of those splits are somewhat relevant. But I think the Chinese / non-Chinese split is the best route into what’s going on here.

 

Traditional Chinese medicine talks about a thing called “Qi”. Which, of course, I’ve been aware of for ages, you don’t have to go very far to hear about Qi, you’ve probably seen mention of Qi (and of meridians, channels that Qi is supposed to flow thlough), maybe in a description of acupuncture or something.

Hearing a bit more about it, though, there’s a whole theoretical system going on here. Qi, in particular, isn’t an isolated concept or substance or whatever: there are actually three related substances, namely Jing (“life essence”), Qi (“vital energy”), and Shen (“consciousness”, “spirit”). Jing is more on the physical end of things, Shen is more on the mental or mystical end of things; if you want to go further, you can even extend this to add a fourth element beyond Shen, namely Dao (“the way”).

And Traditional Chinese Medicine, or many schools of Taoist thought, go into lots of detail about this. Your body can turn Jing into Qi, Qi into Shen, Shen into Dao; there are specific places in body that are associated to those transformations (for example, a place in your abdomen called the “Lower Dantian” is very relevant for the Jing to Qi transition), and the meridians help those substances move throughout your body.

So Taoism has a theoretical framework that relates to these sorts of sensations: for example, it might say that the feelings I reported while lying down are caused by Yang Qi collecting at my Lao Gong (a particularly important set of acupuncture points in your palms), and then moving up my arms along one of my meridians. Or some of the feelings that I feel while sitting are related to Qi gathering in my Dantian; and I’ve felt feelings while standing that match discussions of the Yong Quan, Bai Hui, and Huiyin acupuncture points, as well as Jing at the bottom of my torso (and affecting my overall energy level) and Qi trying to move along my Du meridian. (And, currently, not making it very far, because the meridian is blocked at my Ming Men.)

To be clear, I’m not saying that any of that analysis is, say, an accurate description of physiological occurrences. (Though I’m also not saying that it isn’t that, either!) But I’m saying that these sensations that I’m being surprised by do match concepts and descriptions that Chinese sources talk about.

 

So that’s why I’m wondering about the Chinese / non-Chinese distinction as a possible explanation for this difference in emphasis. As for Western/non-Western: I think Western sources on meditation are coming at it from either an intellectual point of view or a mystical point of view, with neither of those having much to do with the body. (Western takes on Taoism mostly involve translating the Tao Te Ching over and over again, with a bit of Chuang Tzu mixed in; and there’s occasional pointing at a certain kind of Taoists as being weird alchemists who think that they can manufacture pills in their bodies that will make them immortal.)

And, as for Buddhists, the Buddha’s story involves him becoming enlightened after stopping physical mortification. And I feel like that story doesn’t point at a desire to take the body seriously? Like, first he starts off by trying to show that he can treat his body actively badly, then he decides that that’s not the issue, that he should just ignore this whole body thing. But neither approach says “your body could be an asset”. Or, if we think in terms of Jing / Qi / Shen / Dao, then Buddhism is interested in Shen and Dao but not Jing and Qi.

 

Having said that: Buddhists treat meditation very seriously, and also Buddhists aren’t the only Indian tradition out there. I don’t know almost anything about yoga, but I suspect that it has quite a bit in common with the Taoist Nei Gong stuff that I’m interested in.

So if you listen 7 minutes into this episode of the Lotus Underground podcast, for example, then you’ll hear a mention of Chakras (which sure sound to me like they’re related to the various Dan Tians and some of the other key acupuncture points) and Prana (which the podcaster says is the same as Qi), before getting into a discussion of a Buddhist sutra. As he says, “Buddhism is not really into the Chakras”, but he then launches into an analysis of a sutra named after one of the Chakras! So some of this physical stuff is present in Indian traditions, in Buddhist traditions.

And, as a bit of a side note: the Shaolin Temple is, of course, famous for its martial arts. But that temple is a Buddhist temple; and it’s supposed to have been founded by Bodhidharma, who brought Zen Buddhism to China. And Bodhidharma is supposed to have written the Tendon Changing Classic and the Marrow Washing Classic, both books on the physical side of transformation. No idea how much of that is real history versus stories told after the fact, but, in China, this stuff merges even more.

 

I read a book a month and a half ago called The Mind Illuminated; it’s a systematic guide to a form of Buddhist meditation called “Insight Meditation”. And I was really impressed by the book; I like systematic discussions, and I really do think that I’m going to carve out a significant amount of time at some point to try meditating the way the book presents.

But the book doesn’t talk about the body much: it wants you to focus on your breathing (it specifically recommends focusing on the tip of your nose while you breathe!), but the important part of that is as a tool for training your focus and observational skills, not as a gateway to anything like Qi.

Or it least most of the book doesn’t; but then I got to the chapter that talks about the transition between the sixth and seventh stages of the system outlined therein. And all of a sudden, I see a lot of familiar ideas: “energy currents moving through the body” (Qi), “involuntary body movements” (Zi Fa Gong), “energy moving up and down the spinal axis of the body” (the Du meridian), “a continuous circular movement between the core and extremities, and the base of the spine and the head” (the Du channel flowing into the Ren channel, making the Microcosmic Orbit, and then eventually out into your arms and legs, making the Macrocosmic Orbit). There’s even a diagram that looks like one of the advanced meridian diagrams (and which, incidentally, also maps to some extent to Silk Reeling Energy from Tai Chi, with some of the channels winding around your legs); the author says that “there is absolutely nothing in the human body that corresponds anatomically to these energy currents or the channels through which they seem to move”, which seems a little overconfident to me! And I could go on with the mappings here; over and over again, stuff that I’ve read about in Daoist Nei Gong books, and a fair amount of which corresponds to physical sensations that I’ve gotten at least a taste of.

 

So it seems like, if you go deep enough, you’ll see a lot of the same concepts. Yoga or Tai Chi starts with the body, Daoist Nei Gong starts with the body and Qi, Buddhist schools start with your mind. But the Buddhist path can pull in your body and Qi, Daoist Nei Gong explicitly ends up exploring consciousness and beyond, and I bet Yoga ends up talking about all of this as well.

Which certainly helps me be interested in this stuff: I don’t have to proceed from faith in a single system, or to be worried that, if I don’t pick the exact right system, I’m going to miss out on something important. Insead, I can be somewhat optimistic that there are basic experiences here that I can get access to via a range of routes. Probably some routes are faster than others, or better matches for me than others, but that’s okay, that’s a problem I’m very used to confronting.

Interesting stuff. And, of course, I shouldn’t spend too much time reading and thinking about it: I need to spend time practicing, and to work with teachers who can point at what I’m doing wrong and what direction might be a good one for me to explore next…

apple arcade notes

January 19th, 2020

Some notes on Apple Arcade games that I’ve played:

Guildlings

This is super good. The writing is charming and funny and moving, but also there’s really interesting rethinking of what it means to be an RPG. Directly addressing the “hero who saves the world” trope; rethinking combat / spell mechanics in interesting ways. And managing to work in emotions and emotional health into its core, mechanically as well as narratively.

Only downside is that it’s chapter based, and I’m still waiting on the second chapter. So, while I really enjoyed the three hours I spent with the game, I’d like to spend a lot more time with it…

Card of Darkness

This was maybe the game on the service that I was most looking forward to: I’m still playing Flipflop Solitaire regularly, which I think is a legitimately great game.

Unfortunately, Card of Darkness hasn’t grabbed me the same way. I’m willing to believe that I’ll like it more if I spend more time with it, but for now there have been other places where I preferred to spend my time.

Grindstone

Like, for example, with Grindstone. Took me a little while to warm up to this, but once I’d played for a couple of hours and gotten a couple of key pieces of equipment, I really like it. Very pleasant core mechanic, I think they do a good job balancing the game to make the levels feel you’re doing some thinking and are in danger while ultimately really being about drawing paths with your fingers in colorful ways.

Also nice to not have to worry about how a free-to-play mechanic would affect things.

Sayonara Wild Hearts

I was really expecting to enjoy this more; I’ve played through it once so far, and it was fine but not as special to me as it was to other people? I’ll find time to go through it a couple more times at some point, though.

Where Cards Fall

This game I’m more torn about than any other on the list. It has a really good puzzle mechanic, used to make some very well designed puzzles; but also more than any other game on this list, there are tons of little things that it does wrong? (Most of which feel like unforced errors.) It’s been a while since I’ve played it, but issues that I can remember:

  • If you click in the wrong place (or if the game misinterprets your interaction), then your character might move in ways that will cause you to have to spend a while getting back to the previous state; and moves are (usually) not interruptible, so even if you notice the problem quickly, there’s nothing you can do about it.
  • The puzzles depend on height and spacing, but the visuals don’t always make it easy to determine heights and spacing.
  • You don’t have a list of puzzles, so you don’t know if finishing the game will take a couple of hours or a couple of weeks.
  • Performance was usually fine (I’ve got an iPad Air 2), but then on a later level it suddenly became bad enough to be literally essentially unplayable. (I’d stretch my fingers to try to place a card, the game would spend about five seconds with the card vibrating between two different positions, and 75% of the time it would end up in a position that I didn’t want.)
  • The puzzles are interspersed with cut scenes, and the cut scenes are not only long enough to take up a significant portion of your time interacting with the game, they’re also oblique enough (non-verbal, in particular) that, fairly soon in, I had no idea what was going on in them and had no desire to follow their thread.

Which, as I write it out, doesn’t seem like so much? But it meant that I was constantly being annoyed at the game. Really good puzzles, though, so I kept on going until I hit performance issues that made it unplayable.

WHAT THE GOLF?

Amusing enough concept, but it didn’t really grab me; I probably played a couple dozen (short!) levels, and then I stopped.

Assemble with Care

From the makers of Monument Valley, and not as good; quite lightweight puzzle, quite straightforward narrative, and while it was pleasant and I was happy to have played it, it didn’t have the surprising charm of its predecessor.

Patterned

A puzzle game in the sense of jigsaw puzzles, except the pieces are made out of squares, so you’re placing them based on the pictures instead of the shapes. An entirely pleasant way to spend time (modulo some performance issues around the fringes); having played this makes me curious about the genre on the iPad. And I’m still going through the puzzles, it’s a quite solid way to spend five or ten minutes, without having to worry that I’ll get sucked into something large / tricky.

tint.

A color-based puzzle game. I went through the first book of puzzles; they were pleasant but pretty mindless. Then I started the second book and the difficulty level skyrocketed. And I stopped, but I might well come back, there’s definitely something there.

Overland

I wanted to like this, if for no other reason than that the developer sounded convincing on Designer Notes, but my basic conclusion is that this just isn’t the genre for me. If you like XCOM-style games, then you might enjoy Overland, I have no reason to believe it isn’t well done, but I bounced right off.

 

So that’s where I am now; still playing Grindstone and Patterned, and I really am going to give Sayonara Wild Hearts another shake. And I’ll drop everything and pick up Guildlings again when the next chapter is released. And I have another half-dozen games that I’ll give a try at some point, and I’d love to have suggestions for good games that I missed. Certainly enough reason for me to stay subscribed to Apple Arcade for now; not necessarily enough reason for me to tell other people they should subscribe, though?

Also, potentially a nudge to buy a new iPad: the games all mostly ran well enough on my iPad Air 2, but a couple of them clearly weren’t optimized with that in mind. (But hey, running at all well on a 5-year-old device is good!) We’ll see what iPads Apple releases this Spring…

tdd and deliberate practice

December 28th, 2019

A little while back, I wrote some about the pros and cons of deliberate practice, as per the book Range. Deliberate practice works well if you’re working on something with a clear goal, where you have fast and accurate feedback loops; but if you’re not working in a domain like that, then deliberate practice might not get you working in an effective direction.

So yay: that lets you know when deliberate practice is a good idea, when it isn’t. The thing is, though: having fast and accurate feedback isn’t an inherently immutable characteristic of a problem domain! Like, as medicine developed precise tests and forms of measurement, I would imagine that larger and larger portions of becoming an effective doctor became amenable to a deliberate practice approach.

 

In a domain that’s much more familiar to me, I feel like this shift is a big part of what’s going on with Test-Driven Development. If you’re approaching a programming question starting with the idea of “I want the software to do something like this, so I’m going type some code that feels like it should accomplish that, and then I’ll deploy it and poke around and hope that it does that thing (and also that it doesn’t crash)”, then you’re pretty far away from the sorts of characteristics where deliberate practice approaches are effective. The feedback loops in that scenario are long, and not particularly precise. (If you’re poking around through the UI of the software, it’s very easy to miss paths through the software, paths that could have unexpected behavior, paths that could crash.)

If you’re doing TDD, though, you’re doing something that’s different in at least two important ways: you’re phrasing your questions in a much more precise way, setting up the possibility of much more precise feedback; and you’re shortening your feedback cycles from minutes (or hours or days or longer) to seconds. So the feedback / learning / practice cycles start looking a lot more like the situations where a deliberate practice style approach works.

 

Don’t get me wrong, this doesn’t mean that TDD is a panacea. Even if you’re good at applying it, there are going to be questions that TDD won’t answer: maybe business metrics questions, maybe usability questions, maybe broader questions around architectural interaction. Brian Marick’s Testing Quadrants are one touchstone here; TDD is about the bottom left quadrant, and there are three other quadrants involved in testing, along with concerns that are broader than testing!

So, yes, exploratory testing is still a thing, it’s still extremely valuable, and it maps a lot more to the approaches described in Range than to a deliberate practice approach. But leave exploratory testing for bigger questions, questions where it’s harder to quickly get precise answers. The more you can design your programming processes so that as much learning as possible happens in short precise trustworthy cycles, the faster your learning as a whole will go.

spider-man

December 15th, 2019

I don’t play a lot of AAA games; there are certainly specific AAA series I like, and I do play my share of Nintendo games, but most of the big releases just don’t catch my eye. (Or at least don’t catch my eye enough for them successfully fight their way up my queue.) But I remembered thinking that Spider-Man sounded kind of neat when it came out last year; and so, when I found myself with a month to kill before Shenmue III came out, I decided to use Spidey to fill the gap.

And Spider-Man is a really good game! Partly really good in ways that show the virtues of AAA games; partly really good in executing on AAA design tropes in ways that make me actually kind of like them; and partly really good purely on its own merits.

 

The main potential virtue of AAA games is how they use the budget. Using it on conventionally good graphics (generally interpreted as having photorealism as your touchstone) is de rigeur; but you can also use it on having a large and detailed map, on having lavishly crafted set pieces, or (where appropriate) on licensing. The last random AAA game that I played was Forza Horizon 4; it had beautiful graphics, a great world to drive around in, and lots of licensing. (Not so many set pieces, it’s not that sort of thing.) And Spider-Man put its money in all four of those areas.

And, honestly, that’s great. I’m far from a connoisseur of the state of the art of human in-game character models, but the ones in Spider-Man looked as good as any game that I can think of that I’ve played? Or at least it looked as pleasantly realistic, as any game I’ve played: I’ve played lots of games that go for a more distinctive art style, and honestly I prefer that in general. But that’s not what Spider-Man is going for, and if a game decides to have a realistic-looking Peter Parker face instead of, say, taking the approach of Into the Spider-Verse, then go for it and do it well. Which this game certainly did.

As far as the map goes: it models Manhattan. I don’t really know how faithful the model is, because I’ve barely visited New York at all. But there are a ton of buildings there; when I started playing the game, my reaction was “wow, I bet people who live in New York would really get a kick out of going through the city like this”, and by the end of playing the game, I was enjoying the city too, the experience actually made me rather more favorably inclined towards New York.

As for the rest of what I listed; the set pieces are fine, pleasant but nothing that I feel will stick with me. And I don’t have any particular attachment to the Spider-Man license (I’m not a big superhero comic fan), though it seemed like they did a good job with the license and the presence of that license helped strengthen the game?

 

Another aspect of AAA games: if you want to sell a game to millions of people, you’re going to want the mechanics of gameplay to be something that isn’t too offputting. Spider-Man does that particularly well, I think? I enjoyed the combat even though combat isn’t particularly my thing; there’s a gentle level-up skill tree mechanism that feeds you new moves to try out without overwhelming you; and the side tasks often come with rewards for handling the combat in a specific way, encouraging you to branch out more instead of sticking exclusively with the same move. So, as the game goes along, you feel like more and more of a badass; but also the game is generous enough with health that failing and having to retry was rare.

But the game also gets the mechanics right in one way that is specific to this game, not a generic AAA thing at all: they nailed webslinging, so movement is a total joy. There’s a fast travel option, but it took me a while to use that option at all, and I never used it much: I was quite happy to spend a few minutes webslinging from one end of the map to the other.

 

And there’s one last AAA aspect of this game: the way there are side tasks cropping up all over the place. You unlock sections of the map by traveling to a tower in that section, and then there are lots of little tasks that show up on that section of the map. This gives you something to do while traveling across the map (which, as per the above, is something that you want to do!); and it lets you explore just being Spider-Man, outside of the context of the main plot.

There’s a lot of beating people up in these missions; too much, honestly, I wish they’d cut down on that. But, like I said above, the good aspect of the combat in this context is that the game actively encourages you to explore different combat moves. And there are other tasks that are more exploratory, usually involving helping people out; most of the time this translates mechanically into practicing your traversal skills, but not always. And there are some tasks that are flat out skill challenges.

Sometimes, when confronted by this sort of profusion of tasks in a game, I feel annoyed because my brain wants me to check stuff off but I’m not really enjoying that. And there was a little bit of that here, a few too many police alerts cropping up as you move around; but mostly I was really glad that these side tasks exist. The game’s main story plot is fine, I enjoyed going through it; but I liked just being Spider-Man more, and that’s what these tasks emphasized. So, for me, these tasks actively brought out something good about the game, they weren’t just padding.

 

Good game: I’m not going to spend most of my time with games like this, but it is neat to see what studios specializing in this sort of production can come up with.

looking for an itunes replacement

December 5th, 2019

I’d been thinking for a while that I should move away from iTunes: Apple’s music focus is now on streaming from a library that Apple controls, not on maintaining a library that you control. And, while they sort of support syncing your music with their cloud technology, they explicitly say that they feel free to serve up different files when syncing, they provide you no way to control metadata if Apple Music is turned on (and they get that metadata wrong, completely losing the integrity of albums), and they even rewrite the original files you have on disc. So the team is clearly no longer trying to solve the archival use case; iTunes is still usable for that as long as you’re not signed up for Apple Music, but the writing is on the wall, it’s time to look for another solution, from a team that is focused on that use case.

That’s what I’d been thinking for a while, but then this afternoon, on my train ride home, I noticed that my phone hadn’t downloaded some of my music. The albums that I was looking at were ones that I’d purchased through the iTunes store, so at first I assumed that they’d added some option to offload music for you, the same way that iOS has an option to offload unused apps. Seemed weird, I didn’t remember turning that on and I had a bunch of space available on my phone, but whatever.

 

When I got home, I checked my computer; songs were missing there as well. Had they added an option like that in the upgrade to Catalina (along with the change from iTunes to the Music app)? Fortunately, on the Mac, at least there’s an option to see all the music you’ve purchased from the iTunes music store that’s not on the computer, so I started re-downloading stuff.

Then I looked for the option in the settings to make sure it didn’t delete music; and I couldn’t find an option like that. Which raised a much more worrying possibility: had I hit a bug where the Music app was just deleting music? And, if there was such a bug, was it affecting music that I’d ripped from CDs? One search for Trilectic later (well, two, one on my phone and one on my Mac) and I had my answer: a good-sized chunk of my music library had disappeared, presumably during the Catalina upgrade.

At which point I started freaking out a bit, and wondering whether I still had a pre-Catalina backup around. I think the answer is “yes” – I’d actually just done a disk clone yesterday, so that one would have the problem, but I use alternating drives for my clones, and I think that the backup from the previous month was pre-Catalina? (I could also look in Backblaze, but I think they only keep stuff around for a month, so that wouldn’t be better than my older clone disk.) And, actually, one good side effect of the previous problems I had was that I’d made a copy of my full iTunes library while investigating that, which I think I still have around; it’s two and a half years old by now, but pretty much all of my purchases since then have been through iTunes, so it should contain all of my physical CDs and probably all of the stuff I’ve purchased from non-iTunes online sources.

Fortunately, before worrying too much, I looked on disk, and the old mp3/m4a files are still there. So it should just be the metadata that’s gotten messed up, the important data hasn’t been lost. (Though the stuff that I’ve re-downloaded from the iTunes store has now created duplicate copies of those songs, so I’ll have a bunch of stuff to de-duplicate when I resurrect the music from the disk! Sigh…)

 

The upshot of all of this is: I’m now actively looking for a different solution to store my music. Any recommendations? My requirements are pretty simple: 1) It should have a master library of music on my Mac, managed in a straightforward way in a separate location from iTunes. 2) I should be able to sync all of that music to some place on my iPhone. (I don’t want a solution that requires streaming from my Mac to my phone.)

And add yet another item to the list of serious Apple quality problems.

memory improvements

November 25th, 2019

A few years back (probably a decade back, by now?) I wrote some software to help me memorize Japanese vocabulary, by doing time-spaced repetition. And it was also an excuse to play around with Ruby and with Rails.

I’ve been using that software ever since: sometimes a little more diligently and sometimes a little less diligently, but always well enough to let me more-or-less keep up with things. But, in recent years, it had gotten to be a bit much, and I’d started falling behind in my reviews; some of that was because I’m not spending as much time on Japanese as I once was, but that didn’t feel like the whole reason to me. I might not have been reviewing quite as frequently as I had been, but I also wasn’t adding in new words nearly as frequently as I had been, so if anything I should have been being asked to review fewer words each day? But there were just some words that kept on coming back over and over, and doing so more often than felt necessary to me. So I finally decided that I should do something about that.

 

The basic assumption that I’d made was that I should space the review of each item along an exponential curve, but that different items needed different exponential curves. I’d start them off at an increase of 2.5, but I’d automatically adjust them if I got them wrong too often, with the most gradual increase using a factor of 1.3. And my goal was to get each item right 90% of the time; I implemented that by increasing the factor by .1 on a streak of 10 and decreasing it by .1 (unless I was already at the 1.3 limit) when I got it wrong.

The core idea still felt right, but it also seemed like the details of the automatic adjustment weren’t correct; in particular, too many words were getting stuck at the 1.3 factor.

 

Not sure if I’ve got the chronology right here, but the first thing I wanted to tackle was new words that quickly hit the 1.3 limit: it seemed like that was happening too often. I felt like part of the issue there was that maybe it took a little while for a word to get in my brain the first time; and part of the issue there was that I didn’t reliably make it through the the whole list of items to review every day, so it might take multiple days for me for me to get back to a word; that’s a problem if the algorithm says I should review it every day!

I ultimately made two tweaks there. One is that I simply wouldn’t count wrong answers if they were on a streak of 0. I think I was already doing that some of the time, but not for brand new vocabulary words? So this actually simplified my code, which is nice. (And it helped for unrelated reasons: idempotency helps a lot with error conditions.)

But also, I decided that, if I got a word right and then got it wrong the next time I saw the word, then I wouldn’t decrease the factor: in practice, that “correct” answer often meant that I more or less had the right idea but it wasn’t really in my short-term memory? And, again, the short streak repeats are vulnerable to problems if I’m not clearing things out every day.

With these two together, it felt like it took significantly longer for new items to get down to 1.3: it still sometimes happens, and it should, but before it seemed like words either put into a bucket of “words made out of kanji that I know well that fit together in an obvious way”, that would stay in the 2.2 – 2.5 range, and “words with something a little more unusual going down”, that would all crash down to 1.3. And now it seems like I’m getting more differentiation in that latter set, so I’m using more of the range between 1.3 and 2.2.

 

That helped with new words. But I felt I also had problems with words that had been around for a while: even once I had them basically calibrated, they’d mostly stay at the same difficulty rating but sometimes the multiplier would decrease, while the multiplier would never actually get higher.

Thinking about it some, I decided that I was applying the streak increase at the wrong time: I was applying it as soon as I hit a streak of 10. And, actually, it was worse than that: if the multiplier was changing from, say, 1.7 to 1.8, I treated the next gap as 1.811 instead of 1.710 * 1.8. So it was a big discontinuity in the review spacing.

I could imagine a few different ways to fix that, but I went with the easiest one: keep the multiplier the same until I get it wrong, only applying the streak bonus when I get a question wrong.

But, even with that, I felt like the multiplier was decreasing significantly more often than it was increasing, even for words that had been around long enough that I felt they should have stabilized. And, looking at the probability, I think I just got it wrong: there’s something intuitive in saying that, if your target is to get it wrong 10% of the time, then you should do something different on a streak of 10. But, the thing is, if a question is actually calibrated accurately, and if I have a 90% chance of getting it right every time I ask it, then I have a 61% chance of having my streak end before I hit 10, so the most common case is actually for my multiplier to decrease. And I only have a 12% chance to hit a streak of 20, which doesn’t come close to balancing that out.

For now, I’ve changed things so the streak bonus kicks in at 8; that way I have a 48% chance of having the multiplier decrease. Which, as I type it out, is still wrong? And I’m using 18 for when the multiplier increases, which is a 15% chance. So 48% chance of it decreasing by 1, 37% chance of it staying the same, 15% chance of it increasing; that’s not right. (Some portion of the increase is by more than .1, so it’s not quite as bad as that seems, but I think that’s negligible. Also, the math above doesn’t take into effect that getting it wrong right at the start is a no-op; that actually makes the 8 part seem pretty reasonable.) So: probably more tweaking to come.

I think the probability problem is more subtle than that, though: I don’t actually know what the correct multiplier is for any given vocabulary term. So what I’m really trying to do isn’t just to have it stay more or less stable when I have the multiplier right, what I’m instead trying to do is update my best guess based on priors and new observations. And I don’t really understand about the best way to go about that; makes me wish that I’d actually studied probability some, that I actually understood what the word “Bayesian” meant…

 

Anyways, things are getting better? I am sometimes seeing items hit a streak of 18, so items are slowly starting to move back up from a multiplier of 1.3. Which also points at another aspect of the probability question: maybe the important question isn’t whether, if we’re at the correct multiplier, we stay exactly on that multiplier: instead, the important question is more, if we get that multiplier wrong, we’ll course-correct and get it back to where it should be? Which, of course, isn’t just a probability question: it involves having a model that lets us predict our chances of getting an item wrong if we have our multiplier wrong. And I don’t actually have any idea what the answer is to that one? (Heck, I’m not even sure that an exponential spacing approach is correct in the first place…)

And this whole thing brings me to the last thing that I improved: more visibility into the underlying factors here, your current streak length and multiplier. That information was always accessible, but not easily so: I had an attitude in the back of my head that it was wrong to pay attention to it, that I should just answer the questions the algorithm throws at me without worrying about streaks and the like. So I didn’t make it easy to get at the streak numbers; but I’d periodically check on them anyways: in the past, just because I was curious, but now, because I was actively tuning the algorithm.

So I finally gave in and realized that, while I still think I don’t want the numbers to be in your face, I also don’t want them to be hard to find. The previous way of doing that was to hit the back button in my browser and then on the “show current item” link; but something in iOS’s behavior recently had made that very unreliable, where when I hit back it would show me the new item instead of the previous item. (It’s the same URL for both, representing “show me the current item to be quizzed on”.)

I ended up adding a link to the current page saying “show me the details for the last item I was quizzed on”. So the information isn’t in my face, but it’s just a click away when I want it. And it definitely helps; I’m not checking on it all the time or anything, but when I do want to check on that info, it’s nice to have it easily accessible.

 

Arguably the most interesting part of this process, actually, was getting some experience with a side of agile software development that I don’t normally see: acting as the Product Owner. (Or, to use the XP term, the Onsite Customer.) I mean, I was implementing the changes too, but that side of thing was easy; each change probably only took about half an hour of work, so the above is maybe three hours of programming total?

But it’s three hours of programming that really made a difference in my experience using the program. I’m not going to say that that kind of extreme is a normal part of programming: most changes to software do take more work than that. But I also kind of feel like it’s the case that there’s not necessarily that much connection between effort and business value, and that we undervalue changes that take less programming time and that make a quality of life difference for users.

Though there is a part of these changes that really did take time: I’ve been living with this software for years, so it’s taken a while to understand the consequences of the choices to its algorithms. That’s certainly more the case with this software than with a lot of kinds of software: the algorithm feeds me tasks at a days-to-weeks-to-months rhythm, so I’m just not going to be able to make a change, play around with it for a few minutes, and have an idea for how that change has played out and what to do next. But still, I am getting the sense that the rhythm of living with software and the rhythm of developing software are different, that the Product Owner side of things is informed by the former, and that it’s important to give the former time to breathe instead of prioritizing a constant implementation grind.

doing and not doing

October 30th, 2019

These days I try to do some meditation every day; some seated meditation, some standing meditation. Most days I spend about half an hour on this; occasionally it’ll be an hour a day or even a little more.

And, honestly, there were (are!) times when my reaction when thinking about this was: what on earth am I doing? I’m only awake for 16 hours a day; why would I want to spend a noticeable chunk of that doing nothing?

I wouldn’t have the same reaction if I were, say, going to a gym and working out. (At least I don’t think I would, it’s not like I ever actually go to a gym.) I guess part of that is that, in this hypothetical gym scenario, I’m actually moving, and even moving in ways that cause pain (though standing meditation can be pretty painful too!); and society has stories readily available saying how working out will improve your life, whereas stories around the benefits of meditation are less well entrenched.

I certainly wouldn’t have the same reaction if I were working at a job, or helping cook dinner, or walking Widget. Which makes sense: those are all situations where I’m doing something that helps somebody else, with fairly concrete effects. (Sometimes the effects at work are more concrete than other times, but there’s always a paycheck to mark the agreement that my presence is useful.)

I probably wouldn’t have the same reaction if I were, say, playing a game. I’m not doing anything grand for the universe there, but at least I’m giving myself some pleasure? And I’ll get a blog post out of it; or at least I will if I’m playing a new game, as opposed to playing yet another level of a puzzle game that I’ve known how to do well at for ages…

 

If I really didn’t think I would get anything out of meditation, I wouldn’t do it, of course. At the least, it’s (usually!) interesting to observe, and sometime actively pleasant. And I hope that it’ll eventually have bigger effects on my mind and/or body; I don’t know that for sure, but I’m curious enough to take a flyer? So it is like going to the gym, or learning Japanese, or something: hopefully it’ll lead somewhere, but who really knows.

Still, it’s kind of weird to spend time doing nothing. But maybe that itself is something that I should lean into, to not feel like I always need to fill space. To get better at enjoying just walking somewhere, instead of always be looking at my phone and/or listening to a podcast…