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when to think about what

June 12th, 2024

I gave a talk at work recently riffing on Test-Driven Development, Getting Things Done, and what they have in common, and I think it went pretty well? So I got permission to distribute the slides externally; I put in pretty thorough speaker’s notes, so hopefully they make sense without the recording.

Anyways, here are the slides: When To Think About What.

genshin impact

May 7th, 2024

Genshin Impact was our March VGHVI game, and I was happy to give it a try. The game had caught my eye when it first came out: I liked the art style, and it apparently took some level of inspiration from Breath of the Wild. I’m dubious about free-to-play games but this didn’t sound like the most exploitative one of those, so maybe that’s okay. None of that pushed it over the line for me to start playing it on my own, but I was glad to have an excuse to dip into the game for a bit.

And I’m not unhappy to have dipped into it; and maybe if I had more time and less money, I might dip into it noticeably more? But, as it turns out: not the game for me. The free-to-play stuff isn’t horrible but does make the game slightly worse; the plot is aggressively generic and threadbare; and while the moment to moment gameplay and the overall world structure are both pleasant enough, they’re not particularly an active hook for me. I actually think there might be something in the way combat is put together that I would find somewhat interesting if I dug into it more, but I’m not curious enough about that for me to keep playing.

 

One way in which the free-to-play design makes it feel a little odd is how the leveling curves manifest themselves. If a game has a core plotline, I’m used to it being possible to follow that plotline’s missions more or less directly one after another, though it’s not a bad idea to do some amount of side quests. With Genshin Impact, though, once I made it past the first few hours (maybe a third or half the way through the intro plotline), I hit some dungeon sections that required my characters to be noticeably higher than they were.

I’d unlocked some side quests as well, so my first assumption was that the game was nudging me to do those. And I like side quests, so I was happy to be nudged. But even when I did those, I was still underleveled. (Or maybe only just barely leveled enough, I can’t quite remember the details any more, but something felt off at any rate.) At first I thought: am I really supposed to grind by fighting random overworld monsters or something? That doesn’t sound pleasant.

But it turns out that something else was going on, and that something else was more interesting. I’d been leveling up so far just by accumulating experience like in tons of other games; but also on the level up screen, there’s this option for using items to gain experience. I’d been ignoring those because they hadn’t previously been necessary, and I’d kind of assumed that was some sort of bad free-to-play pay-to-win thing; but actually I’d accumulated a lot of those items, and it didn’t feel like the sort of thing that free-to-play games sometimes do where they give you a lot of rare items / currency at the start but then dial down the frequency of those drops a ton to get you hooked.

 

Instead, I think what’s going on here is: the game wants you to unlock extra characters. And those unlocks are a big part of where the game wants you to spend money. But once you’ve gotten a new character, the game design problem that arises is: how do you get that character leveled up enough to play with the rest of your party? And Genshin Impact has what I think is a pretty elegant solution to that problem: it gives you experience partly in the form of plain old experience points that apply immediately and partly in the form of items that can be converted to experience points at some time in the future. And I suspect (but haven’t verified) that, once you get past the beginning, most of the experience you get actually comes in the form of the items rather than the raw experience points. So, sure enough, I had way more than enough experience point items to level up my current party to be able to go into those next set of dungeons.

The system is actually a little more complicated than that: there’s a different kind of item you need to be able to go from level 20 to 21, or from 40 to 41, etc. I think that’s also related to the same problem: they probably structure areas to have you spend a decent amount of time at level 20, a decent amount of time at level 40, etc. And, once you’ve spent some time in the level 20 area, it’s not hard to get enough of the experience point items to get new characters all the way up to level 20; so you can do that and then stop there, knowing that the game is fine with you sitting at that level for a while? I’m not completely sure, because I stopped playing before I’d done more than dip my toes into the beyond-level–20 area of things; it’s possible that those gates are also a monetization thing, I don’t have a feel yet for how hard it is to get the items that let you cross through those gates. But I’m willing to believe that it’s another part of their solution to the tension between traditional leveling curves and wanting players to be able to add new characters in their party.

 

Speaking of new characters: I did a couple of pulls on the new character loot box, and got a few more people to add into my party. Didn’t change things too much, though? I looked at a character tier guide; one of them is actually supposed to be a quite good character (presumably an intentional good drop by the game), but I wouldn’t have necessarily guessed that.

So I read through the guide a little bit more; my conclusion is that, when you start going deep into the game, combat turns into a completely different thing, with passive effects having a huge impact and in general with advanced effects firing off a lot. This is potentially pretty interesting; I don’t know whether or not I would find the higher level combat more enjoyable than the combat at the level that I’m playing at, but I’m curious how it morphs from one to the other.

But I wasn’t curious enough to keep on playing: I’d put in enough time to have something to say in the discussion, but I needed to get back to Baldur’s Gate 3. Happy enough to have played the game, but the plot construction and moment-to-moment gameplay weren’t something that I enjoyed enough for it to beat out a good non-free-to-play game.

Though Genshin Impact did actually catch Liesl’s eye a bit; she’s going through various Final Fantasy 7 games now, but I wouldn’t be completely shocked if she picks up Genshin Impact at some point this year. So who knows, maybe I’ll be ambiently exposed to it some more; I wouldn’t mind having that happen.

music, tai chi, and learning

April 29th, 2024

Music

A year or so ago, I decided that I’d feel better if I was spending more time with music; so I started practing piano on a decently regular basis. I’d already been occasionally sitting down at the piano, pulling out a book of music, and trying to play through a few pieces (show tunes, usually); I liked that, it’s fun dipping into music, but it’s also fun (and rewarding) to go deeper.

So I decided to start at the beginning of Well-Tempered Clavier I. It’s music that I like; I enjoy and am good at playing fugues; having the preludes there forces me to not spend all of my time on fugues; and it’s something that’s familiar but that I haven’t seriously worked on for three and a half? four? decades.

 

This got me thinking about what I might mean when I say that I’m learning to play a piece of music. There are a few different stages that I might be at in that process:

  • Stage 0: Just Playing Around. In this stage, I’m actually not trying to learn to play a given piece of music: I’m just randomly pulling some sheet music off of the stack on the top of my piano and trying to play my way through a piece, without particularly worrying about actually getting it right.
  • Stage 1: Getting the Basics in Place. In this stage, I’m going through a given piece regularly (multiple times over the course of weeks or months), stopping at places where I’m really falling apart and isolating and repeating those bits until I more or less get them into my fingers.
  • Stage 2: Getting the Details Reliably Right. In this stage, I’m significantly raising my quality bar compared to Stage 1: getting a single note wrong or with the timing noticeably off is enough to get me to stop and work on that section some more.
  • Stage 3: Improving my Artistry. In this stage, I’m thinking much more about questions of phrasing and articulation, the broader structures in the piece, and so forth.

 

The reason why I’m writing this down is that, if I’m not careful, I’ll avoid Stage 2. I’ll play through on a piece of music, most of it will sound decent, but there will be some notes that I flat out miss or where the timing is off. And I’ll notice that, but there will be something in my brain that says “that mistake wasn’t a big deal” or “well, I should be able to play that right, I’m sure if I were to play it again it would be fine, so why stop now?”, and I keep on playing.

And it’s bad for me to listen to that specific voice in my brain! I’m not a total stickler for perfection: sometimes I just want to play through a piece of music without worrying about it too much, sometimes I just don’t have the energy to seriously work on a piece, sometimes a piece is at (or past) the limits of what my fingers can currently do. But, a lot of the time, when I listen to that voice, I’m not doing so for any principled reason: I’m just fooling myself.

In particular, whenever I think “I should be able to play that right”, I really need to face up to the fact that my evidence for that is generally not particularly strong! And, even if I were to play the notes correctly next time I go through that piece, I’d probably feel shaky while doing that, which isn’t a good foundation to build deeper musicality on.

So, if I’m serious about learning a given piece, what I should actually do is stop every time I get a note wrong, or even every time that I feel lucky that I got a note right, and go over that section repeatedly until I’ve figured out how I want my fingers to approach it and until I feel better about it. Sure, maybe play through the whole piece once at the beginning and/or end of my practice session, just to get a feel for where I’m at with it, and to get the pleasure out of listening to it, but if I’m serious about working on a specific piece of music, then I should act serious!

For whatever reason, I don’t have the same mental block when it comes to Stage 3. I enjoy working on the artistry of a piece of music in a way that I don’t really enjoy working on the notes; and I think it’s probably more immediately rewarding to work on the artistic aspects of a section? Whereas, if I’m working on the notes in a Stage 2 way, then it’s pretty frequent that I’ll bang my fingers against it ten or twenty times, at the end of that I’ll be playing it better but I’ll still feel shakier than I would like, and not super confident that I won’t regress the next time I practice.

 

This relates to another question I have: right now I don’t spend any time working on artificial drills (e.g. practicing scales), and I suspect that that’s a mistake? When I’ve been taking lessons from a music teacher, they’ve had me spend time on drills, and I’m certainly very glad that scales are decently well embedded in my fingers. It’s possible that I’ve gotten all that I need to out of that, but that seems pretty unlikely!

 

Tai Chi

I also spend a decent amount of time working on Tai Chi. And, actually, there’s a decently close analogy between the way I play piano and the way I do Tai Chi. When playing piano, I’m playing by myself, instead of as part of an ensemble, and I’m working on individual pieces of music where every note is written down, instead of improvising. And, in the main Tai Chi class I take, we’re mostly learning fixed individual forms, instead of doing partner work and/or free-form work. I’m not saying that that’s a better (or worse) way to do music or Tai Chi compared to other options — honestly, I would benefit from spending more time in other formats in both arts — but still, there is a direct analogy.

And, of course, that analogy extends to the stages with which I’m practicing a given Tai Chi form. If I’m at Stage 0 with a particular form then I’ll follow along with that form in class but I won’t even try to practice it at home. My Stage 1 forms are forms that I’m practicing at home but I’m not surprised if I feel like I’m doing something wrong in one of the moves, or if I have to stop for a bit to try to remember one part of the sequence. My Stage 2 forms are ones where I’m trying to get the details right, e.g. so that, if I were called on in class to perform them, I’d feel fine about that. And my Stage 3 forms are ones where I’m trying to go deep into them and figure out what that form is teaching me about the insides of my body.

 

The way the stages play out for me in Tai Chi is pretty different than in music. For a while, I didn’t distinguish clearly between Stage 0 and Stage 1: if we were doing a form in class, then I’d try to practice it at home and learn it as well. But that ran into problems: usually the first time I was learning a form in class, I’d have a hard time keeping up and actually getting to where I can do the whole thing at home. (With Tai Chi, I don’t have sheet music that I can look at while I’m going through a form!)

And, even if I did manage to keep up, we’d finish up that form and start a new one; now the time I’d budgeted for practice at home was consumed by the new form. While I’d occasionally go back and go through the earlier form, it didn’t take too many months before I’d realize that the earlier form had fallen out of my memory. So I’d have to wait a couple of years until that form came around again in class and hope that it would stick better the next time.

I’m doing better at that aspect of learning now, fortunately. I don’t try to learn more than two new forms at any give time: if my teacher is teaching more than two forms that are new to me at a given time, then I consciously treat the extra ones as Stage 0 instead of Stage 1. (Sometimes I even skip that part of class entirely.) I’ve got videos saved of all of the forms that I’m learning, which makes me more resilient to weeks when I have to miss class or where I hit a part of a form that I find particularly difficult. And I’m fairly well disciplined about running through every form I know at least once a week; I won’t say I manage that every week, but I manage it often enough that I’m doing a pretty good job of keeping the forms in my body, and of noticing when I’m starting to lose them and going back to videos to figure out the big gaps, so I can preserve my Stage 1 knowledge.

 

So that’s how Stages 0 and 1 play out for me in Tai Chi: make sure I have the scaffolding in place to bring a given form from Stage 0 to Stage 1 while we’re covering it in place, and make sure that I’m putting it the reps to keep it in Stage 1 during the time periods where we aren’t going through the reps. Stages 2 and 3 layer on more difficulties: when I’m playing a piece of music while looking at a score, I have a pretty good chance of noticing if I play the wrong note, whereas with Tai Chi, I can be completely unaware of problems like that! It’s not an unsolvable problem — I can spend time watching videos and being particularly aware of places where the performer does a move in a different way than I am, for example — but it does add a layer of difficulty. And I just don’t have well developed sensibilities for what it means to perform Tai Chi artistically, and for that matter I’m not convinced that performing Tai Chi artistically is the right goal for Stage 3?

Fortunately, my teacher is hugely helpful with those difficulties. For years, there was basically only one form (the Lao Jia first form) that I was really trying to get past Stage 1, and my teacher would give me detailed feedback on my form once every three months or so. His feedback is a mixture of Stage 2 (e.g. my left hand should go up more at the end of some specific posture) and Stage 3 (e.g. I should be more conscious of how I treat the space between postures), he does a great job of pointing out Stage 2 corrections that I wasn’t aware of and of giving me Stage 3 ideas that I’m ready to start grappling with and that will keep me busy for the next three months.

My Lao Jia first form has finally gotten good enough that I’m ready to dip my toes into Stage 2 and even Stage 3 considerations for other forms; still a long way to go, and I still need help, but I’m starting to make broader progress along that path. I’m even teaching a course this summer that’s all about some Stage 3 concerns that I feel like I understand well enough to be able to try expressing them to other people.

 

I mentioned at the end of my discussion of music that I suspect I should probably spend more time on isolated exercises; with Tai Chi I’m quite sure that I should, and in fact I am.

Part of the reason for this is that I’ve decided that, for me, Stage 3 considerations in Tai Chi aren’t so much about how something seems to an outside observer, they way they are in music: they’re about what I’m learning about the insides of my body. And sure, Tai Chi forms are a great road for understanding that; but isolated exercises, repeating a single movement for five minutes or standing in a static posture for 30 minutes, can be at least as useful in that regard. (It’s kind of amazing how the insides of your body and your perception of the insides of your body can change over the course of 30 minutes holding a static posture!)

And reason for this is that, over the last four or five years, I’ve added in Nei Gong (with a different teacher) to my practice routine; Nei Gong is a form of internal work that is more explicitly focused on internal transformation (“nei” means “internal” or “inside”), and the exercises that it uses to that end are much more isolated than Tai Chi forms. That’s given me quite a bit of exposure to isolated exercises, and I’ve seen the benefits of that kind of focus; so I want to get those benefits for my Tai Chi as well.

And, to be sure, my Tai Chi teacher has us spend quite a lot of time on isolated exercises as well: in his introductory course, he devotes almost half the class time to isolated exercises. So it’s an important part of his class syllabus, and I’ve got quite a few exercises that I can and do spend time on in that domain.

 

Generalizing

So what are the takeaways here, for music or Tai Chi or other areas that I’m trying to improve at? A few stabs at generalizing the above:

Pay attention to when you’re overloaded

This relates to the difference between Stage 0 and Stage 1: for Stage 0 stuff, I’m messing around with no commitment, whereas for Stage 1, I’m putting in sustained effort. Both are fine things to do; just don’t get so constantly excited by shiny stuff that you decide you’re going to learn everything, when you don’t actually have time (or want to make time) to do that, you’ll just get frustrated and burned out.

Raise your standards

If you’re serious about learning something, then don’t make a habit of settling for good enough: instead, periodically try to get things really right. Basically, operate in a Stage 2 mode instead of a Stage 1 mode; or, for that matter, a Stage 1 instead of a Stage 0 mode.

Go deeper

Don’t just follow the basic rules for whatever you’re learning: figure out what’s behind those rules, what’s missing from what those rules. This is Stage 3 versus Stage 2; maybe it manifests itself as improving your taste / artistic sensibilities, maybe it manifests itself as understanding underlying concepts, either way it’s important.

Effective practice sometimes looks quite different from the finished project

This might show itself as the difference between Stage 0 and Stage 2: constantly stopping to try to get a detail right instead of playing through an entire piece of music. Or it might look like spending time on isolated exercises (e.g. scales) that don’t look much like what you’re trying to learn (playing pieces of music). Either way, the most effective way to get better at doing X isn’t always (or even usually) to do X from start to finish: it’s often to dig into components of X (maybe parts of X, maybe skills that feed into X) and to focus on your capabilities at those components.

magic research

February 25th, 2024

A month or two back, I ran across a mention of the game Magic Research; my replaying of Kittens Game had reminded me that I like clicker games, and Magic Research looked interesting, so I decided to give it a try.

And it’s good! It’s no Kittens Game, but it’s solid, and there’s stuff in there that was new to me. As is unsurprising given the name, there’s a lot of spell stuff going on: so while you do have buildings that produce various materials (wood, stone, etc.), you also have a magic level (in fact a bunch of different levels, corresponding to different schools of magic), and that has you casting spells; sometimes those spells also produce materials, sometimes those spells make your buildings more efficient, etc. Which would get unmanageable pretty quickly if you had to cast those spells all the time; but hey, you’re in charge of a school, so you’ve got a bunch of apprentices around to put to work casting spells on regular intervals for you, to keep your buildings working at peak efficiency.

 

And then there’s the combat aspect of Magic Research. I guess the term here is “auto battler”; that’s not a genre that I’ve played any games in, so I don’t how how much Magic Research is like other games in that genre. But at any rate you’re off exploring dungeons while you’re running the school, defeating monsters and getting items. Which works well in the clicker genre, certainly: it’s another way to gradually acquire resources over time, and it lends itself to crafting items to improve your ability to explore dungeons, so it also adds in a resource sink. And it motivates some of the schools of magic: there’s an Evocation school for offensive spells and a Protection school for defensive spells, etc.

Each level of the dungeon has a boss; those battles are tough enough that you probably want to monitor the battle and cast your attack spells yourself. This is the one part of the game that doesn’t feel like a clicker game, but that’s fine: it gives you something to pay a little more attention to every so often in a way that remains in conversation with clicker mechanics. And also, one aspect of this sort of clicker game is where the walls are going to be; just hitting a wall because it’ll take a week to gather enough material for one more building gets old after a while, so it’s nice that, in Magic Research, the walls take the form of bosses that you can’t beat even after trying out a few strategies against them.

 

Which brings us to rebirth mechanics. In Magic Research, it’s themed via retirement, which works well. But then the question is: what will be different next time? And, to that end, the game has mixed in some plot elements: there are various events that happen, sometimes randomly (once you’ve satisfied certain conditions), and sometimes based on triggering certain specific events (e.g. defeating some of the tougher bosses). When you hit those plot elements, you generally don’t just get narration, you get something that affects gameplay, e.g. by making it easier to produce some kind of resource or to store some kinds of resources or level up in one of the schools of magic. And some of those gameplay changes take effect immediately, but some of them only take effect on retirement; so generally each time you retire, you’ll have unlocked a handful of different changes that will speed up your next run. (And the plot elements also give an overall goal / arc to the game, to try to win a big magic tournament.)

Also, on each run, you pick a school of magic to specialize in; you can level up faster in that school, but also, when you retire, the game looks at your overall collection of maximum level you’ve reached in the various schools, and gives you a production boost based on that. So that gives you an accellerant to help you make it a little farther on subsequent runs; and also it’s designed in a way that gives you an active incentive to change schools every time you retire, which makes the different runs feel a little less repetitive.

 

So: solid game. Some mechanics that I’d seen before that I liked; some mechanics that I either hadn’t seen in the genre or hadn’t seen at all, and I liked those mechanics too and thought they worked well in the genre. Respectful of my time: it ate up a little more of my time while playing it than I was comfortable with, but that’s the way the genre works, and it was totally manageable in this case. And the game didn’t outstay its welcome; I don’t remember exactly how long I spent on it, but if I had to guess I’d say two weeks, I’m pretty sure it wasn’t as much as a month.

working on my energy levels

February 18th, 2024

(Warning: this is a long post, even by my standards.)

For several years (a decade?) now, my energy levels during the day have been pretty bad. A few years back, I decided to try to do something about it. Things still aren’t completely fixed, but they’re significantly better, and I also have a better understanding of what’s going on, so I figured it was time for a post about it.

 

At first, I had two hypotheses: that allergies were making me tired, and that my bad sleep was also making me tired. (I was waking up maybe four times on average over the course of the night, and not always falling right back to sleep either.) I also talked it over with my GP; she tested to see if my thyroid level was off (it turned out to be fine), and talked about sleep apnea (but I was kind of actively in denial about wanting to even think about that path, CPAP machines didn’t sound pleasant to me).

Getting my allergies under control seemed like a good idea, at any rate, so I went to see an allergist. First I tried one with the medical group that my GP is at, but I got annoyed enough by him scheduling expensive and ineffective tests and the cavalier attitude of the billing office towards those expenses. So I looked around, and found an independent allergist who was in-network.

I initially kind of slow rolled the allergy treatments; my allergist put me on new drugs, which helped, but not enough. So, a year or so later, I started also getting allergy shots; that helped more.

 

My sleep was pretty bad, though, and I was starting to come around to the idea that I had sleep apnea. In particular, sometimes when I wake up in the middle of the night, I was kind of jerked out of sleep; it sounded entirely plausible to me that sleep apnea would lead to that symptom. One of the things that I like about my allergist is that she really likes going deep into problems; one direction that she went in was that yes, my nose was constricted in part by allergies, but my nose’s geometry wasn’t helping things, and that could indeed lead to sleep apnea. And another direction that she discussed was environmental factors: dealing with my carpets, in particular.

I can’t remember the timing of all of this, but she eventually convinced me to have nose surgery to correct a deviated septum and reduce an internal structure inside my nose. (I think the turbinates?) Which helped some with my sleep but didn’t completely fix the problem. She also got me to vacuum my bedroom carpet weekly with a high-quality vacuum cleaner, and to improve our dust mite mitigation strategies around our bedding; that made a difference, too. (Dust mites are my main environmental allergy, I have what I think is an unusually strong recation to them.) I also noticed that, at the start of the winter, I was much more allergic overnight and when waking up, which I blamed on the heating coming on, so we’ve started getting our air ducts cleaned out once a year, which also helps. (We were already regularly cleaning our furnace filter.)

She kept on pushing me to do more with the carpets; eventually, at her urging, we replaced our bedroom carpets with hardwood floors. That actually ended up not making a noticeable difference in my allergies, I think the shots and the other mitigation strategies had made enough of a difference that that wasn’t necessary; but I really liked the look and the feel of the new floors, so I’m entirely happy to have done it even if it didn’t help with that specific issue.

As a result of all of the above, my sleep apnea is, I believe, completely gone: it’s been ages since since I’ve been startled awake. My allergies are noticeable but entirely manageable; I’m still getting allergy shots, but I’m down to doing those once every four weeks, so it’s not too bad an imposition on my life.

 

So that’s one victory; yay. Unfortunately, I was still quite a bit more tired during the day than I would have liked, and while my sleep was better, it still wasn’t great. And I said above that it’s been ages since I’ve been startled awake; that’s true now, but it wasn’t entirely true even after I was starting to get my sleep apnea under control, because sometimes I’d get startled awake by acid in my throat. And I’d also get woken up by having to pee (yay getting old?), by worrying (fortunately not a frequent issue these days), and sometimes for no obvious reason.

I mentioned some of this to my allergist; she thought that maybe the acid problem was related to meat digestion, and gave me some drug samples that might help. I thought that sounded plausible, but also I’d been curious about acupuncture / Traditional Chinese Medicine (a.k.a. TCM) for a while, both because that’s the sort of thing that you hear about when you spend enough time doing Tai Chi and Qi Gong and because a family member had had good experience with acupuncture. So I figured I’d try out TCM treatment next, and leave the digestion stuff as a later potential idea to try.

I went to the same TCM doctor that the aforementioned family member had gone to; his diagnosis was that I had Liver Heat and weak Kidney Qi. I also mentioned some other random problems that I had, e.g. a limited range of motion in my right big toe; he said that that was caused by tightness elsewhere in my body, related to back problems that I’d had earlier. (I thought of my back as being basically fine, it’s not causing the same sort of active problems it was a decade back, but I also wasn’t shocked that there were still some areas for improvement there.)

And wow, his diagnosis of the toe thing was definitely correct. In retrospect, I’m kind of annoyed at a foot doctor I saw a couple of decades ago who diagnosed me with Hallux Limitus and told me to wear insoles, without telling me (and I assume without realizing) that my foot problems were a symptom of a problem elsewhere in my body! I don’t know if I had a bad foot doctor or if foot doctors these days are better about that sort of connection or if Western medicine promotes a sort of specialization that misses that kind of thing; at any rate, score one for TCM there.

Anyways, my TCM doctor started off by focusing on the Liver Heat issues, via acupuncture and herbs. And my sleep got better: I fairly quickly went from waking up three or four times a night to waking up two times a night. So that was a noticeable improvement; but there was still work to do on the sleep front, both in terms of the number of times I was waking up and in terms for how long it took me to fall back asleep after waking up in the middle of the night.

 

For a few years now, I’ve doing something called “Nei Gong”, which translates to something like “internal work” or “internal skill”, and which is sort of Qi Gong combined with meditation and physical activities that are vaguely reminiscent of yoga. I got curious about it after reading some books by Damo Mitchell, and so I took some classes from teachers in his Lotus Nei Gong school. And a year or so after I started doing that, he opened up an online school called the Internal Arts Academy (IAA) which takes students systematically through Nei Gong processes.

One of the reasons why I bring that up here is that some of the Qi Gong sets in the IAA program talk about Liver Qi and Kidney Qi as well. (They mostly call it Wood Qi and Water Qi, but it’s the same thing.) Also, generally, after an exercise set, the program recommends a brief cooling down set of movements, designed to get energy down your body instead of stuck up in your head.

So I started experimenting with the Wood-related exercises, and the cooling down sets; and in fact some of those were very similar, which is certainly not a coincidence. I put the wood exercises into my rotation more frequently, and I did the cooling down exercises for longer, sometimes for quite a bit longer.

And towards the end of a particularly long session one day, I realized that a certain specific sort of tingling in my head had gone away. That night I slept better than normal; experimenting with this more, if I did a long enough session of those cooling down exercises then the tingling would go away and I’d fall asleep more quickly at the start of the night, wake up less, and go back to sleep less when I did wake up. Fortunately, I didn’t have to spend vast amounts of time doing those cooling down exercises: once I got that tingling under control with a few forceful sessions, then the regular cooling down exercises that he recommends were generally enough as long as I performed them thoughtfully instead of perfunctorily.

And it was also important for me not to do the wrong sorts of activities in bed or late in the evening. Reading books is fine; some kinds of puzzle games are fine but some are dangerous. Regular video games are fine during the evening (and I never played them in bed), but this was during my recent Kittens Game phase, and that game has enough open loops that I needed to stop playing it half an hour or so before going to bed, an hour or so before going to sleep; I also strictly avoided looking at it in the middle of the night when I did wake up.

With all of this, my sleep got noticeably better. I remember one night where I went to sleep, didn’t wake up until the alarm clock went off; this was honestly disconcerting, and I realized that it had been years (a decade? probably longer…) since the last time that had happened. Unfortunately sleeping through the entire night is still extremely rare for me, but these days waking up once approximately six hours into my sleep and then falling back to sleep almost immediately is decently common. (Or at least was before getting a new puppy threw a wrench in my sleep…)

 

One other thing happened that might (or might not) be linked to this Liver-related treatment: at one random doctor’s visit, I got weighed and my weight was 10 pounds lighter than normal, which is definitely outside of my normal variance. I didn’t actually own a scale so I didn’t have much data about that; I bought one, the measurement wasn’t a fluke, and in fact my weight kept on going down until it stabilized at 25 pounds lighter than I was.

Some of this might have been behavioral on my part: I started trying to do a better job of paying attention to signals that my body was sending as to whether or not it was hungry, and not eating as much when I wasn’t hungry. So I’m not sure how much the weight loss was caused by me behaving differently, how much it was caused by my body being less hungry than it was before, and how much was caused by some other metabolism change in my body (e.g. from the Nei Gong changes in my body); I’ll take it, at any rate, I wasn’t particularly worried about my prior weight but all things being equal my new weight is better than my old weight.

And I bring that up in part because there’s another food-related thing connected to these issues that I discovered relatively recently: my sleep is surprisingly related to my food consumption at dinner. (Or at least it was a surprise to me!) Specifically, if I either eat a large dinner or a late dinner, then I generally sleep worse, where by “large” I mean “the size my dinners used to normally be” and by “late” I mean “the time when I used to eat dinner”: now I want to have dinner on the table by 7:30, and even that is pushing it. That was completely unexpected, and makes me wonder how long I’ve been been reacting to food timing / portion sizes in this way: is it another side-effect of metabolism changes, or what?

At any rate, score one for my allergist to suggest that some of my remaining sleep issues might have something to do with food; I don’t know that this specifically was one thing that she had in mind, but she was poking at a useful area. I can’t say I’m entirely thrilled with discovering this, I like sometimes going out for a decently large dinner, but still, understanding is good and it’s not too hard to adjust to this for the significant majority of days where we eat at home. And, if I’m going to have to make food-related changes, I’m glad it was these instead of something like removing gluten. (I experimented with that for a couple of months during this, but that had no effect.)

 

So yay, with all of that, my sleep was actually pretty well under control. The thing was, I was still tired! Less tired than I had been, but I still wasn’t at top energy levels during the day, and sometimes I’d still feel like I needed to take a nap during the day. (Less often than before, admittedly.)

Which wasn’t a huge surprise from a TCM point of view: the sleep stuff was associated to the Liver Heat problems that my TCM doctor diagnosed me with, but there was another half to his diagnosis, deficient Kidney Qi. So my doctor switched the herbal mixture he was giving me, and I think switched some other details of the treatment that were less clear to me. In particular, he spent more time talking about my back, especially my lower back; he felt like some blockages there were causing problems, and while he’d already given me one back exercise (in addition to a neck exercise to help with the sleep problem), he gave me a couple more exercises to do every day.

 

My Nei Gong practice started running up against problems with my energy levels, too. For the last few years, I’ve been working part time; I’d hoped to spend a good chunk of my days off doing Nei Gong and Tai Chi, but while I did do those more, I just didn’t have the energy most days to put in the hours that I wanted. (Sometimes it manifested itself as low motivation, too, but I think that was related to energy rather than a more deep seated “I was fooling myself when I thought I would want to spend time on this” potential issue.) Often I’d flat out start to fall asleep during seated exercises; and during standing exercises, it was hard to keep going as long as I felt like I should be able to. Experimenting, it helped if I didn’t eat breakfast before doing my Nei Gong, but it didn’t help enough.

And then I went to a nine-day Nei Gong workshop, about something called the Microcosmic Orbit. Mostly that went well, actually: I certainly can imagine having more energy, there were some days where I wasn’t participating as fully as would be ideal, but also doing Nei Gong for 9 days is legitimately hard work even if you don’t have fatigue problems. So yay, that was a good sign; and I did actually manage to get my Microcosmic Orbit going on the last couple of days of the workshop.

There was one lecture during the workshop that seemed potentially relevant to me: Damo talked about how, if you hold your body in a way where you’re sinking in on yourself, then that can hurt your Spleen Qi in a way that hurts your energy levels, whereas if you actively expand your body then that will grow your Spleen Qi and energy. This is related to a concept called “bones up, flesh down” that he and other teachers had talked about in the past but that I wasn’t very good at putting into practice; fortunately, he had a different take on bones up, flesh down that I found easier to carry out. (For other Internal Arts Academy folks, that talk was recorded: it’s the Errors in Qigong video from the Maryland 2022 set.)

It actually seems decently plausible that, to some extent, Nei Gong had been hurting my energy levels, because of that mechanism? I certainly hadn’t seen evidence that Nei Gong was giving me more energy; I’m not completely convinced that it had been making my energy levels worse, but it might have been.

 

So I was pretty optimistic after the workshop; but I didn’t stay optimistic for long. Outside of the workshop setting, I couldn’t keep the Microcosmic Orbit going; so, while the workshop showed that it was something I was capable of doing, at my current state of training, I clearly needed to be putting in more time than I was managing in a non-workshop context. And my fatigue levels weren’t particularly better, either.

Thinking about it for a while, I decided I should take a back-to-basics approach to Nei Gong: rather than banging my head against the Orbit, I should spend time on more foundational exercises. And also I should spend time on Qi-building exercises: in particular, there were exercise sets that Damo recommended for building Kidney Qi and for building Spleen Qi, both of which seemed relevant to me. So I stopped doing new lessons in the Nei Gong course: I made just to find time to do each of those Qi-building exercises for 40 minutes twice each week and I spent the rest of my Nei Gong practice time on foundational exercises.

I liked those two exercises; I’m not 100% sure how much they helped my energy levels, but they might have, and I’m pretty sure that the Spleen Qi set helped build connections in my body that were useful for both Nei Gong and Tai Chi. (It led to me feeling a sort of stretchy, elastic feeling inside of my body.) And spending time on foundational stuff instead of pushing forward in the course definitely felt right.

I also went to a few (three?) in-person three-day Nei Gong workshops that winter with local teachers. And those were surprisingly interesting and effective: in particular, both teachers had us working on building out space inside of our arms and our shoulder joints; not the most pleasant experience, but the experience of feeling my arms expand on their own from the inside was pretty interesting, and I really did manage to build space inside my shoulder joints in tangible ways and with tangible effects. That sort of practice was something that I hadn’t been doing enough of on my own, and I certainly wouldn’t have been able to to do it as well without that instruction, so that was extremely useful. (And it was nice to feel like I was making progress in Nei Gong, too.)

At some point around here, I started spending some time squatting with my feet flat on the ground. This is a normal way to rest and hang out for many people in many parts of the world, but it’s not something I (or most other Americans) can do; when I first tried it, I felt like I was constantly struggling to stay upright, and I could only last a couple of minutes. But, it turns out, that if I kept at it and if I stopped struggling and let my body relax, it was actually able to hold itself up when I was squatting like that; and, as part of that adjustment process, it was a really strong stretch on my lower back, because the more I relaxed, the more my pelvis was stabilizing me by being a weight at the bottom of my spine. That seemed useful; and, the more I did it, the more comfortable it felt, and the back stretch remained but transitioned from something that felt so strong as to be a little scary to something that felt like it was just being helpful at keeping my back open. So I still do it, and not just as an exercise: squatting like that is the most comfortable way for me to hang out when waiting for the train, for example.

 

At any rate, my health stayed in that state for a while: my sleep was pretty good, my energy levels weren’t good but were manageable, and I was making progress with Nei Gong. I kept on going to acupuncture; some weeks were better than other weeks, maybe there was a slight improvement trajectory, but I didn’t reach any sort of step change.

I also started gently moving my Nei Gong out of Qi building mode and more into other sorts of internal conditioning. I gradually started doing out some of the pre-Microcosmic Orbit lessons again; and I even slowly started going through new lessons (e.g. one on Ping Heng Gong, a way of connecting with the environment). And since my TCM doctor kept on focusing on my spine, I did an hour-long Spinal Dao Yin once every week or two that felt particularly effective to me; here’s the link for Internal Arts Academy folks.

In the fall, I went to another in-person workshop with a local teacher; this one covered the first of the Dragon Dao Yin exercises. Those exercises are focused on your spine, stretching and purging them in various different ways; I’d gone through video lessons on them before, so I knew the basic moves, but I picked up a lot of pointers from being taught them in person. And, in particular, those pointers had me doing the exercise in question in a much more forceful way than I had been doing before; it only covered one of the four Dragons, but once I had my eyes opened to that, it gave me ideas for how to approach the other exercises differently. (Not just stretching more forcefully, it got me more aware of connections in my body as well.)

So, when I got back from that workshop, I spent more time working on the Dragons: it was interesting and useful from a Nei Gong point of view, and my TCM doctor was still talking about spine blockages and misalignment, so I figured it couldn’t hurt from that point of view either. Also, the teacher in that workshop spent some time talking about an exercise called Spine Waves; I’d actually been doing Spine Waves fairly regularly already, but I started doing them for a five minute or so chunk every day instead of mixing them in sporadically in shorter bits.

With all of this attention I was paying to my spine, I realized that my lower back positioning wasn’t quite right. When I did a Gokhale course a few years back, the instructor pointed out that I was arching my stomach forward; I’d significantly improved my habits in that regard, but I was still arching a little bit. So I started working on getting my lower spine positioned properly; it turns out that, if I got it just right, then I’d actually feel like the rest of my spine was being actively lifted. (I think there’s maybe some sort of tensegrity thing going on that’s enabled by the proper positioning, as long as your spine is in good enough shape in other ways?) And my Nei Gong felt better when I got that positioning right, too.

 

This all seemed like good ideas, but still, no big change in my energy levels. My TCM doctor said that my Kidney Qi levels were getting closer to being where he wanted them to be, but still weren’t there; but also my improvement had slowed, and I didn’t really like spending most of an afternoon doing that every Friday. So I switched my TCM appointments to every other week instead of every week.

And then, one Saturday morning, I woke up with a ton more energy than I had. It was actually kind of disconcerting, but in a good way: this is what it feels like to not just be low-level tired? I really like this! Exploring how I felt a little more, there was still a bit of the habitual tiredness there somewhere in my head, so there was still room for improvement, but wow, things were a lot better.

That was just before Christmas, so I had a couple of four-day weekends coming up. And my brain and body decided to respond to this by doing a lot more Nei Gong and Tai Chi than I normally did; so yes, my hypothesis that these were things that I really did want to spend a decent amount of time on was correct, I just only wanted to do that if I had the energy to do that.

So that was a great week and a half. Unfortunately, my energy levels started dipping back down; at the end of the second week, I was feeling a lot closer to my previous more-tired-than-I-would-have-liked levels (admittedly potentially caused by bad sleep one night) than to my recent improved levels. I had an acupuncture session then; my doctor was actually really impressed by my Kidney Qi levels, so things looked better from his point of view as well; and things got a little better after that? Though my Kidney Qi levels were noticeably iffier at my next appointment after that one, two weeks later.

 

So, the good news was: it’s possible for things to get better, even dramatically so. The bad news was that the improvement wasn’t going to magically sustain itself, and I didn’t actually know what had triggered the improvement!

The best hypothesis that I had was that I’d been working on my spine in a few different ways over the last few months; so maybe that had gotten my spine into better shape? And then I guess a TCM treatment one Friday (maybe the acupuncture part of the treatment, but I think it’s at least as plausible that it was my doctor doing some fine-treatment manipulation on my spine after the acupuncture) pushed things over the edge to get things lined up properly. And then, once things were lined up, my body could generate more energy. (Or, alternately, that it could get energy it was already generating to more of my body.)

So I kept at the spinal exercises. And I also tried paying more attention to how energy was flowing where in my body; I noticed that, when I was doing Wu Ji, which is the fundamental standing exercise in the Lotus Nei Gong system, that I’d feel energized at the base of my skull (where the spine enters my skull), which is one of the places where my feeling of tiredness had previous been localized at. Maybe Wu Ji had always been having that effect, but I don’t think so; so one hypothesis that is consistent with these observations is that the various Kidney Qi building exercises that I’d been doing (the Kidney Hui Chun, but also some of the Microcosmic Orbit prep work exercises that I’d been spending time on) had been building that up, but it had been stuck in my lower abdomen; but then when I freed up my spine, it started to make its way up my spine.

And yes, I realize that, to those of you who don’t do Qi Gong / Nei Gong, that probably sounds like ridiculous mysticism. And I’m not even going to argue with you there! All I really know is that my energy levels sucked, but they were getting better, that I could feel some tingling and/or decrease of fatigue in various parts of my body that felt to me like they were correlated to those improved energy levels in ways that weren’t a coincidence, and that I’d been doing some other exercises (both for my spine and for my abdomen) that might or might not be correlated to all of this. And yes, using TCM and Nei Gong ideas, I could come up with a story that wove all of that together; but I also didn’t have strong enough experimental evidence to really know what was a coincidence and was was a causal link, especially if you’re the sort of person who doesn’t have any particular reason to believe in TCM or Nei Gong ideas.

At any rate, where this is currently, a month and a half after those first signs of improvement, is: things are better than they were, but I definitely have my ups and downs, with the downs pretty similar to my previous kind of bad normal state, and I still haven’t gotten back to that holiday state. I’m still sticking with my hypothesis that my spine is very relevant to what’s going on, and I think I can point to linkages between it and some of my ups and downs in energy levels.

And some of the previous issues are still occasionally popping up. I realized that my sleep had gotten worse again; not horrible, but it was more common than not that I’d wake up maybe three times in the middle of the night? A few focused sessions of one of the cooling down exercises seem to have helped with that, fortunately, so I just have to make sure to mix those in sometimes when my sleep is off. Also, weirdly, I’ve lost a little more weight; we’ll see how long this stretch of losing weight lasts, it doesn’t necessarily seem quite as persistent as my earlier one.

 

In case any of this resonates with other people, I guess I’ll put in a few notes about stuff that might be useful more generally. First, let me be clear: my fatigue issues aren’t / weren’t nearly as bad as some situations I’ve seen and/or heard about. And I don’t have any reason to believe that what’s going on with me is related to any of the common causes of hard-to-kick fatigue: e.g. this was happening to me before COVID, so it’s not Long COVID, I have no reason to believe that it’s Lyme Disease either, or Chronic Fatigue Syndrome.

Anyways:

  • If you have noticeable allergies, maybe look into that. The right medicine can help, shots can help, environmental improvements (e.g. dust mitigation strategies) can help.
  • It’s useful to figure out what gets your brain active in unproductive ways and to avoid those in bed / near bed time. I’m not a no-screens person, reading novels on my iPad seems totally fine, and there are even some puzzle games that are fine, but games with open loops are bad.
  • Food seems to affect my sleep in ways that were unexpected, at least to me. Maybe that’s the case for other people as well? So play around with the timing of eating, the quantity of eating, and specific types of food.
  • Having said all of that, fatigue isn’t necessarily particularly related to sleep.
  • If you’ve talked to Western doctors and they’re not coming up with useful suggestions, maybe try a Traditional Chinese Medicine doctor? It’s unlikely to hurt, it might actually help, and TCM analytical categories divide up the world differently (and more coarsely, I think) than Western medicine, which means that TCM doctors might spot different connections.
  • My current theory is that my spine is weirdly relevant to my fatigue issues; not sure how broadly that’s the case, but it wouldn’t necessarily hurt to poke at that if you’ve got fatigue problems? Paying close attention to spinal alignment helped, I think; the Gokhale Foundations Course was extremely helpful for getting me started, and in retrospect I wish I’d pushed farther on getting my alignments really solid instead of getting them pretty close and declaring victory.
  • Also exercises for stretching and opening up your spine are useful; the Gokhale exercises for that actually didn’t help me so much, but they might help other people? But I do like Spine Waves and squatting with my feet flat on the ground for that. Though I’ve also thrown a bunch of other random exercises at my spine, hopefully you can find ones that work for you. Find a collection of exercises that you don’t mind spending ten or fifteen minutes a day on and that make your back feel warm when doing them once you’ve been doing them for a week or so.

And, if you happen to be a Nei Gong person:

  • If you’re waking up more than you’d like while sleeping or having a hard time falling asleep, try doing closing down or the Wood Wu Xing for ten minutes straight a few times. (Not necessarily right before bed, it works fine as part of your practice during the day too.)
  • Don’t neglect your Dao Yins and other body opening techniques. I was just reminded this weekend that Coiling Snake does good things to my spine, I’m going to spend the next couple of weeks focusing on that, I think!
  • Don’t accidentally collapse your body while sinking: expand internally, and pay attention to Bones Up Flesh Down.
  • Don’t rush through the lessons: listen to signs where your body might be telling you that you need to work more on your foundations.
  • The Water and Earth Hui Chuns are useful if you’re feeling depleted.

I do think that Nei Gong has a potential to be a double-edged sword for people with fatigue issues. I think that, ultimately, Nei Gong probably turning into something that’s actively helping me, but I think it’s also potentially the case that it might have been making my fatigue worse for a while. And it’s taken a decent amount of focus, persistence, and instruction to get it to where I think it’s helping, there are a lot of ways to do Nei Gong wrong. Also, if you’re tired, then it’s hard to do Nei Gong!

Still, I’m very glad for non-health-related reasons that I’m doing Nei Gong, so if you’re curious about that sort of thing, then I definitely recommend giving it a try. Just do it because you want to do Nei Gong, don’t come in with too much hope that it’ll necessarily help with some specific problem you have.

lies of p and dave the diver

January 7th, 2024

Two more games this time that I started but didn’t finish; both played because of VGHVI discussions, both pleasant games that I might have finished in other circumstances, but also both games that wouldn’t have been at the top of my list otherwise and where that placement in my list was correct.

 

Lies of P was our December game. Part of me thinks that I should know better than to try another Soulslike, but hey, this one’s a Bloodbornelike, and I’ve never actually played Bloodborne. And podcasters seem to like Lies of P quite of bit; of course, game podcasters like Soulslikes a lot more than I do, but still.

Anyways, it was available on Game Pass, so I figured I’d give it a try. And it was fun, I probably enjoyed it more than any other Soulslike that I’ve played so far? I was only expecting to go through a couple of levels, but I enjoyed those just fine; and I was still waiting for Baldur’s Gate 3 to come out on Xbox, so I had some time to kill, so I kept on going.

Having said that, I eventually ran into a boss that I didn’t want to deal with. It wasn’t a horrible boss, but I did need to move on to the next VGHVI game, so I figured I’d let that boss be my excuse to stop playing. If I wanted to find something to complain about, I’d say that there’s a large enough gap between regular enemies and bosses that the regular enemies aren’t great training for bosses; that some items are still limited enough that I don’t feel great using them against bosses (charges for that cube thing in particular), and that there’s a curious lack of hilts in the game if you’re taking a balanced approach. And of course there’s all the Soulslike opaqueness in the systems; but I can deal with that okay these days.

So, if I were to want to make a push to finish a Soulslike, this would be a good candidate. But I still don’t see a reason why I should do that; clearly not the genre for me.

 

The January VGHVI game was Dave the Diver. That one I wasn’t worried about not enjoying; and indeed, it was a pleasant mixture of genres. I liked the core loop of fishing and running a restaurant; I liked the light plot bits mixed in; I liked the random challenges the game threw at you.

They started to throw more stuff at you, managing both a fish farm and a vegetable farm. I’m not sure what I think about that, but it also doesn’t seem to be something that will take up a huge amount of time. And I encountered a sea people village; seems like a source of minigames and fetch quests.

With all of that, the game was getting a little busy? I was in chapter 3 out of 7; I felt like the game was starting to lose the virtues of its core loop a bit, and honestly the core loop is fine but not super engrossing or anything. So I wasn’t sure that I would want to take the time to finish Dave the Diver; even setting Baldur’s Gate 3 aside, there are a handful of other games that I really would like to get around to. (Bomb Rush Cyberfunk, Cocoon, Chants of Sennaar; and I missed doing my yearly play of a Yakuza game, and the next part of the Final Fantasy 7 remake is showing up soon! Hmm, maybe I should play Chants of Sennaar on the trip instead…)

And then Baldur’s Gate 3 finally got released for Xbox; that pushed me off the fence and had me stop Dave the Diver. I actually do expect to come back to it, though: I’m taking a trip in April, and I think Dave the Diver is probably my best choice for a game to play then. So I will pick it back up eventually; I might even finish it, we’ll see. Liesl is playing through it as well, so I should have a sense by then what the later levels are like so I can get an idea of how far I want to push into the game.

 

Part of me feels a little frazzled, jumping between games like this. But one of my hopes with Game Pass was that I’d be experimenting with more stuff? Though actually my issue isn’t really that I don’t have enough random games I want to play: it’s that VGHVI discussions are having me play games that are a little further down the list than I’d like, and that I expect Baldur’s Gate 3 to take up my time for way too long. But the next stretch of VGHVI games will have fewer that interrupt my other playing; and I’m enjoying Baldur’s Gate 3 fine but not necessarily so much that I feel compelled to do every single quest. So maybe I’ll be able to get through that game more quickly than I’d thought, we’ll see.

And also I’m just not feeling like playing games quite as much as I had been? Which is for good reasons: I’m wanting to spend more time doing Nei Gong and Tai Chi and playing piano, which are all things I feel good about doing!

frostpunk

December 31st, 2023

Earlier this year, we had a VGHVI discussion of Against the Storm. That game is Windows-only, so I couldn’t play it, but the discussion and a let’s play that I watched got me thinking that I probably would enjoy playing Against the Storm if it were available on console. And, during that discussion, Frostpunk came up; I started watching a let’s play of that game as well, and thought it was interesting enough that I ended up sticking with the let’s play through the game’s entire first mission.

So I was happy when we chose Frostpunk as our game to discuss in November – it’s available on Xbox Game Pass, and I was happy to have an excuse to give it a try. I figured that I’d just play through one mission; but I enjoyed it enough that I decided to play a second mission, and ended up going through all the non-DLC missions.

 

So yeah: a solid game. It’s a city builder survival game in frozen (and getting more and more frozen) wasteland. So you’re gathering resources, through both exploration and production; you’re making sure that you’ve got food and heat and medical care to keep people more or less healthy; you’re researching new technologies to keep your production curve ahead of the oncoming problems; and you’re enacting laws to manage people’s response to problems. It’s all well done; I was very very close to the edge of failure in my first playthrough of the initial mission, which felt like what I would want out of a game like this.

What impressed me more, though, was how the game explored its design space. I was expecting the second mission to be a lot like the first mission, just with a different set of events, and maybe a bit harder but that would be okay because I’d have a basic understanding of how the mechanics work. But that’s actually not what the designers did: the second scenario changed your population in a way that basically made a third or so of the buildings inaccessible (because you don’t have the right kind of people to operate them), and also removed the mechanic where you’d periodically discover new people during your exploration. So that meant that I had to explore different paths to accomplish my needs (e.g. because the building I’d been depending on for food in my first run was no longer available), and also I had to manage keeping my city ahead of the technology and resource curve needed to survive the increasingly cold temperatures without having an expanding population that would let me build and staff more production buildings.

And the other missions changed things up in similar ways: forcing me to explore different aspects of the possibility space, or expanding the possibility space in well thought-out ways. I appreciated that; I actually wouldn’t have minded if the game had repeated itself more, but what they actually did was more interesting. (I’m the sort of player who is prone to falling into a rut by sticking with the same strategy over and over in a given game.) Enough so that I was a little sad when I hit the end of the missions that were included in the base game; I thought about getting the DLC, but my game backlog was unusually long so I decided that it was time to move to a different game.

 

I’ve got quibbles with Frostpunk: while in general I think it did a good job with its tutorialization, there were some situations where I simply did not know how to accomplish some task that it was asking me to do, because they’d buried it some place I didn’t normally look. And I think they expected some of their moral choices to be weightier than they felt to me; call me callous, but if I were to find myself in the middle of an apocalyptic frozen wasteland, I would tell kids to help out instead of wringing my hands about child labor.

But none of that was enough to cause any particular problems in my enjoyment of the game. (And lord knows that most other video games do a lot worse at addressing morality.) Definitely glad I played it, and it’s probably a genre I would enjoy dipping into more. Probably also a PC-centric genre, so who knows how many such games will be available for me, but I was glad that VGHVI discussions gave me an excuse to play this one. And, for that matter, that Game Pass exists and makes it easier for me to try out games in genres that I’m not used to.

the legend of zelda: tears of the kingdom

December 24th, 2023

I was surprisingly nonplussed by The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom while going through the tutorial island. The first tutorial shrine was fine; it gave me a power that let me move stuff around, which seemed useful enough, and to stick things together, which sounded fine as long as I wasn’t constantly having to build large structures? I was more dubious about power I got in the second tutorial shrine, though: it let me fuse stuff to my weapons to make them stronger or to change their functionality. And I didn’t really see how having to fuse stuff to strengthen my weapons was an improvement over just having the weapon strength already balanced in a way that worked well to fight enemies; I wasn’t particularly in a mood to be experimenting with weapon powers to do weird stuff, either.

Traveling to the third tutorial shrine didn’t improve my mood: the environment wasn’t pleasant to travel through in the way that Breath of the Wild was, my encounter with some enemies didn’t do anything to allay my worries about the fuse power, and the ways in which I had to assemble stuff from the environment were okay I guess but not something that I wanted to be constantly encountering. Still, I made it through the rest of the tutorial island, and, after watching some narrative, reached the mainland.

 

I landed in Hyrule Field not too far from the central town, so I headed towards town. Which also wasn’t great, in a different way. The first problem was that Hyrule Field is actually one of the most boring parts of the map: there’s just not enough variance in terrain and height for the remarkable charms of the Breath of the Wild map to manifest themselves here. And the second problem was that I walked past this big hole that was surrounded by ground that would hurt me if I walked on it; the hole wasn’t particularly inviting, and I wasn’t thrilled by the idea of a Zelda map where ground that damages you was a key mechanic.

Not a big deal, though; and I made it to the central town, got some pointers as to what was going on and what I should be doing, got a map of my surroundings, and got my glider. Which is exactly what I want: improved navigation possibilities plus a bit of guidance as to where to go next.

If I’m remembering correctly, one of the initial nudges sent me back to that hole; I jumped down it, and it was fine but not great? The hole didn’t lead to a cave, this was a whole underground layer of the map that’s the same size as the ground layer. But it’s darker; you unlock the map (simultaneously lighting it up) in much smaller chunks; there’s dangerous ground all over the place; and there are these walls that are tall enough and/or covered enough with dangerous ground that I actually wasn’t sure if the underground area was all (or mostly) connected up or if it was a bunch of isolated separate areas that each had their own entrance hole.

So: not wonderful, though the flow of seeing a lightroot in the distance, traveling towards it and having to navigate the darkness as you get there, and then getting to the lightroot and lighting up / mapping a decent-sized chunk of your surroundings is a flow that has something to recommend it. But I missed the joys of traveling the land, and enemy encounters got on my nerves even more here than up above. (I’d decided that I’d deal with my annoyance with weapons fusion and how that affected combat by mostly avoiding enemies; a little harder down here, but still entirely workable.)

 

Once I got past that, though (and some more intro stuff, like the initial sync up with the team at the castle): wow, Breath of the Wild was a great great game, and basically all of that goodness is here too. I’d pick my next quest and start heading in that direction; but while doing that, I’d see something a off of the side of my track that caught my eye and I’d head over to it. And I’d do that over and over again, and, well, I’d make it to where I was going by the end of the evening, but in the meantime I’d probably have solved five shrines, turned on one sky tower, helped a wandering signpost person prop up his signs four times, found a stable, and three koroks.

And that is all so much fun. The shrine puzzles are really solid; I wasn’t necessarily super sold on gluing stuff together while wandering through the world, but put me in a shrine where I have to do that and I’m happy. So I was becoming a fan of that ability, and of the that lets you rise through the ceiling. (Not so much of the other two abilities, though; I’ve played through the whole game now and I’m still not a particular fan of either fusing or reversing objects in time, though I’m much more at peace with fusing than I was initially.) The signpost person was a pleasantly absurd addition to the puzzles the game throws at you, too.

It’s not just that traveling through Tears of the Kingdom is fun, though: it’s that it’s pleasant going through the world; life-affirming, even. I felt at home, at peace, like I was taking a walk through nature when playing Breath of the Wild, and that setting is powerful enough that it can easily support another game.

 

I could give more of a travelogue, but honestly, we’ve now arrived at the core of my feelings about Tears of the Kingdom. It’s Breath of the Wild with a different mix of special powers, and with a sky layer and an underground layer added to the map.

And that means that the core experience is still flat-out wonderful. I spend most of my time on the ground layer of the map; it absolutely had not grown old. The new powers were fine, even good; I liked some more than others, but honestly the powers in Breath of the Wild weren’t fabulous either, there’s nothing special about being able to conjure bombs out of think air!

If Tears of the Kingdom had leaned harder into having you constantly constructing stuff from items at hand, then I wouldn’t have liked that so much, because it’s simply not what I want out of a Zelda game. (No judgment there, if it is your thing then great, in other contexts it might even be my thing too, but not here.) But the game didn’t force me to go deeper with that than I wanted; and the powers worked very well for shrine puzzles. I actually appreciated the way the powers played out in shrines: even when the set of items is limited enough that there’s one clear path to a solution (which isn’t always the case), there’s enough roughness in how items glue together for the solutions to feel surprising and personal.

That’s all good; but there are also these two other layers to the map. And neither one has a tenth of the joy that the ground level has. Sky islands don’t even try to have an organic feel, and they’re way too small to give you room to explore and be surprised at what’s over the next hill. The underground area is too dark; and even when you have it lit up, it’s much less satisfying than the ground layer on a pure traversal mechanics level, on the metric of quantity of surprises that you find, and on the level of how organic it (doesn’t) feel.

 

So, to me, Tears of the Kingdom is no Breath of the Wild. I mean, that’s not true: a third of the map and probably eighty percent of my time spent was on something that literally is Breath of the Wild! But Tears of the Kingdom took two big swings beyond that: the new powers, and the new map layers. The new powers were a success (though not as wild a success for me as they were for some people); the new map layers were honestly just fine or even good compared to the standards of a regular video game, but compared to Breath of the Wild, they were a noticeable downgrade.

Still a wonderful game, though.

two things i like about capitalism

December 17th, 2023

Another blog post in the category of “stuff that I probably should not blog about”, but it’s been bouncing around in my head. So: here are two things that I like about capitalism.

 

The first one: I like the way capitalism acknowledges risk up front. Over the years, I’ve gotten more and more convinced that predicting what’s going to be important for society is really really hard, but also that the value that comes from working on the right things is really really high.

Capitalism cuts straight through the prediction problem: don’t try to pick winners on a structural level. Instead, let individuals / companies try to do that by putting their money where their mouth is. Make it worth their while by letting people who guess right keep profits off of stuff that’s valuable but hard to predict. If you do that, most individual attempts will fail; that’s totally fine, having enough attempts that succeed is what’s important.

 

The second one: I like it that capitalism has a simple rule for how to get permission to do something. Right now, in California and much of the company, we need a lot more housing and a lot more clean energy infrastructure. But, in many instances, the way you get permission to do that is gather together the land / money, then submit a proposal to some committee, then wait to see which of your neighbors (or random people elsewhere) complains to that committee, then hope that you can modify the proposal in a way that causes the committee to approve it, then wait for people to file a lawsuit claiming that you missed some part of the process, then wait for that lawsuit to make it through the system, etc.

And by the time that’s all done, it’s years later, the cost of your project has probably significantly increased, and the housing / clean energy benefits have probably significantly decreased. And that’s bad! Maybe the process has resulted in a noticeable improvement to the project in some way; if so, yay, but even when that that’s the case, the time cost and uncertainty cost of the process is not good. And, an awful lot of the time, the altered proposal is worse than the original proposal rather than better. (The bootleggers and baptists concept is relevant here.)

So I really like the simplicity of the rules that the capitalist answer provides: if you’ve got the money and the property rights, you can do it. I’m not saying it’s the best simple rule, but the fact that it gives a quick, clear thumbs up / thumbs down is very much in its favor.

 

This is where this post could get a lot longer: there are a lot of ways in which what I’ve written could be misinterpreted, and so I could add defensive wording that would triple the length of this post. But I don’t think that sort of defensive writing is particularly healthy; and, fortunately, this blog has very few readers, so I think the benefits of adding in defensive writing would be few. So I’ll skip that.

Or rather, I’ll skip that except to try to be a little more explicit about the limits of what I’m saying. I’m not making grand totalizing claims here; in particular, I am not saying that I believe that these two solutions are perfect solutions to these problems.

What I am saying is:

  • I think these are two problems are important. (And it took me a while to appreciate their importance.)
  • I think these solutions to these problems have virtues that are worth trying to learn from.

breaking a bone in my hand

December 7th, 2023

I broke a bone in my hand at the start of August. I was out jogging during my lunch break at work, and I tripped somehow; I’m not actually sure what happened, maybe there was some uneven sidewalk pavement, or something? At any rate, my toe got caught and my whole body pivoted around it, converting my forward momentum into downward momentum. I stuck out my hands to brace the fall; probably a good idea, given that, even with my arm absorbing some of the momentum, I still face planted pretty hard.

At the time, I honestly wasn’t sure what state I was in. My face and arms were scraped up; my legs weren’t in too bad a shape, fortunately. My glasses were holding together but they had a fair amount of blood on them, so I took them off. I was still able to walk and there wasn’t anything causing me to scream in pain, so I decided to walk back to the office and do a more thorough evaluation there.

I must have looked like I was in pretty bad shape (no surprise, given that I already knew I had blood on my face and arms), given my coworkers’ reactions; I wish I’d thought to take a picture of myself before cleaning it off, but, well, I was distracted. At any rate, with the help of coworkers, I got the blood cleaned off and got bandaids on some of the worst bits.

 

I still wasn’t completely sure what shape I was in. At first I was afraid that I might have broken my nose, my hand, and/or my glasses; but actually my glasses were surprisingly usable, and I didn’t feel any bones moving in weird ways in my nose and my hand, so maybe they were okay? (I looked at my glasses more carefully later, and there were a few small scratches, but nothing that interfered with my vision in a really noticeable way; yay Warby Parker, I guess their glasses are pretty solid! Also my Apple Watch was quite visibly scratched up; totally usable, but it made me glad that I was already planning to replace it this year.)

But, on the other hand, maybe my hand and/or nose weren’t okay; I’d gone through enough that I figured I should get things checked out. It didn’t seem serious enough to go to the emergency room, so I called Liesl and asked her to pick me up and take me to the urgent care center at my doctor’s office.

 

I was still feeling not horrible, so once I was checked in, I was pretty confident that she didn’t need to wait for me. It took maybe an hour for them to see me; by then, the adrenaline had definitely worn off. And, with the adrenaline wearing off, my nose still didn’t feel too bad, but I was starting to get a little more suspicious about my hand.

They cleaned things up, took a look, and bandaged me. And the doctor agreed that my nose seemed fine, but he also thought that my hand needed more looking at, so he had x-rays taken. The x-rays confirmed that there was a broken bone; it was in the bone that’s on the outside of my left palm (basically the part of my pinky that’s inside my palm), and was a clean break. So he put on a splint, wrapping my hand and immobilizing my hand and fingers.

And then Liesl came to pick me up, and we went to the drug store to pick up a whole bunch of bandages, so I could replace them regularly. (Or rather, so Liesl could replace them regularly! I was very glad to have her looking after me.)

 

I went to an actual hand doctor four days later; he took a look and agreed with the diagnosis. Clean break, shouldn’t actually take too long to heal. The splint got replaced with something a little less intrusive, only immobilizing the pinky and ring finger, and that second splint was possible to remove when showering. (For the first splint, I left it on and wrapped it in a plastic bag when showering.)

By then, the rest of the abrasions had almost completely healed; there had been a quite noticeble amount of blood initially but it seems like it all came from a bunch of relatively shallow surface scratches. And Liesl was great about helping me deal with wrapping things back up every morning, of course.

Having three fingers free with the smaller splint was nice, too: it made typing and driving easier. Or at least mostly made them easier: the splint on the outside two fingers was decently long, and it was curved just enough to be annoying: when typing, I had to tilt my hand a bit to avoid having the splint hit keys, and if I put my hand on its normal position when driving then the splint would activate my turn signal. Still, totally workable.

I didn’t think Tai Chi was workable at this point, though. And most of my Nei Gong exercises weren’t workable either, because they had me move my fingers / hand / wrist in ways that aren’t particularly compatible with the splint, and that in some cases might put undesired stress on my hand. But some of them were totally fine (e.g. exercises that focus solely on breathing or concentration); and, honestly, I hadn’t been spending as much time on that sort of exercise as I’d like, so I kind of appreciated having an excuse to focus on those for a month!

 

Two and a half weeks later, I went back for a follow-up appointment. I got a clean bill of health; and they switched me to a brace that left all of my fingers free. It’s actually not 100% obvious to me exactly what the role of that brace was: it did cover the place where the bone broke, but it’s not like there was tons of padding right there or anything. It had a piece of metal which prevented me from moving my wrist very much; I guess that was its main purpose?

Certainly that was a big improvement: it made typing and driving easier, partly because I could move all of my fingers and partly because the splint wasn’t hitting random things. And I started doing Tai Chi again, at least in part; I couldn’t do all of the silk reeling exercises, and there were bits of our main form that I either couldn’t quite do or had to do with quite a bit less force than normal. But ultimately, that form was still doable, as were some (but not all) of the weapons forms. Nei Gong was still about as restricted as before, though: not being able to bend my wrist really restricted the set of exercises I could do there.

I took off the brace a couple of times a day to do stretching exercises. I could definitely tell that my wrist was less mobile than it had been; in particular, I couldn’t rotate my left hand side to side (on the plane of my palm) nearly as far as I could rotate my right palm, and it hurt when I tried to push it. I’m still not entirely sure what was causing the restrictions there – the place that hurt wasn’t right where the broken bone was, I don’t think anything was shifting there – but there was a clear effect.

 

Four weeks later, I went back again; I got another set of x-rays, they were clean, so I was okayed to have the brace off most of the time. They warned me that the break still wasn’t completely healed, and in particular that I’d be at greater risk of re-breaking the bone at that location for another four weeks or so, but it also wasn’t so fragile that it needed to be coddled all the time. I decided to wear the brace while walking Velvet, in case I got tugged in a weird way, but other than that I left it off.

The nurse also made some comment like “you’ve probably already been leaving it off some of the time already”, and honestly, I wish I had; the restricted range of motion was kind of annoying, in a way that felt like I’d gone too far in terms of immobilizing it and having bits of my hand seize up in bad ways? Having said that, it had only been a couple of months, so presumably I could undo the effects by stretching it regularly.

And I increased my activities still more. I tried out push hands in my Tai Chi class; that was a mistake the first week, but a couple of weeks later it felt okay for me to do that, at least for a few minutes. And I started getting a little more forceful in the movements that I’d toned down. I was also able to basically go back to doing my normal set of Nei Gong exercises.

I also started practicing piano for the first time since breaking my hand. And I will say: before going through this, I didn’t realize how much playing piano involves rotating your hands along the plane of your palms. It makes total sense in retrospect – if both hands are playing keys near the center of your body, then they’ll both have to rotate, after all – but it’s just never something I’d thought about.

That definitely hurt some, as did the contortions that my fingers had to go through to play various phrases. But, ultimately, that’s actually an example of the kind of range of motion that I really want to recover, and it didn’t feel like I was re-injuring myself; so I tried to practice piano every day, but with a mindset of doing it in order to regain mobility, instead of doing it in order to actually improve my ability to play pieces musically. And I think it helped.

 

Now it’s a little over two months since I got the brace off, and things are pretty much back to normal. Not entirely: if I push my hands to the limit, I still feel like my left hand isn’t the way it was before. (But the flip side is that I don’t actually know what its range of motion was before!) And if I do single hand push hands with my left hand, it aches a bit; nothing that’s strongly dissuading me or anything, but it’s still there.

Honestly, though: if you’re going to break a bone in your body, this is about as easy as it can be. I broke a non-critical bone in my non-dominant hand, but my hand was usable enough that I could work by the next week, I could use all of my fingers a couple of weeks after that, and I didn’t even have a brace less than two months after breaking things. And that seems fine: in terms of potential and actual road blocks in my life, this was a pretty small road block.

One change is that it’s made me gun-shy enough about jogging that I’ve stopped doing that. And part of me is glad, because I didn’t actually enjoy jogging, but my lungs (and heart too, I guess?) really did benefit from the exercise, I think, it’s a different form of exercise than any other that I do.

Most of me says that this is silly and that I should get back to jogging: it was a fluke, I shouldn’t let that throw me. But there’s also a part of me that says that maybe it wasn’t entirely a fluke; bad luck, sure, but not that bad? The possible issues there might have been that I just wasn’t paying attention to what I was doing, or that I actually was stumbling a little more than is comfortable.

If so, part of the reason for not paying attention is that maybe I get too distracted by devices; I definitely wasn’t checking my phone when I fell, but still, maybe my phone or watch distracted me? (I was listening to a podcast, but that should be okay.) But also my pants were fitting badly (I’ve lost twenty five pounds over the last year, and I was waiting until my weight stabilized before replacing my panst), and that actually was distracting me at that time. (Since then, I’ve bought pants that fit better.) So, hopefully if I can just be present a little more when jogging, including actively paying attention to pavement irregularities, then I shouldn’t get too distracted.

Then there’s potential clumsiness. I feel like I might actually have been stumbling more than I historically had been? If that’s true and I had to guess as to why, my first guess would be tiredness; I’ve been noticeably more tired than I would like over the last few years, and while that’s been improving, I still have work to do. And in particular over the summer we got a puppy, and while she’s a great puppy, that definitely interfered noticeably with my sleep for several months.

So I’ll keep on monitoring the situation; and maybe I’ll get back to jogging at some point? Or maybe I’ll find another way to get similar health benefits; swimming would probably be an even idea, but that would require actively finding time in a way that jogging doesn’t so good luck with that. Not committing to anything one way or another right now, there are other things that are a higher priority for me right now.

returning to kittens game

November 19th, 2023

Earlier this year, I played Crank and The Barnacle Goose Experiment. And, as I noted at the time:

Ultimately, I think the lesson here is that what I really want is more Kittens Game.

So I dived back into Kittens Game. And, you know what: it’s an amazingly good game. You can see the spreadsheet there right beneath the surface; but it’s a really good spreadsheet!

 

Just the first run experience felt super well done. It would gradually lead you from material to material, from concept to concept. Over and over you’d hit the end of some particular leveling curve, but you’d realize that, in making that progress, a new leveling curve was available for you. Maybe an obvious one (starting from a new building or a new kind of metal, for example), but fairly frequently you’d get access to a new game tab, introducing you to a whole new concept.

Eventually, the curves would run out: most ways of advancing would be shut off, and the only way to get enough storage to reopen them would take multiple days, or even multiple weeks to build. And then you do your first reset; and you start over, but with each building producing slightly more quickly or providing slightly more storage. Which starts to get at what makes Kittens Game special: it’s not just about artfully designed growth curves, it’s about getting an appreciation for how those growth curves change as you play with the parameters. Yes, exponential growth beats out linear growth, but the constant factors in those equations have an effect! (With extra spice coming from the low-degree polynomials that are sprinkled into the mechanics.)

So, the second time through, you’re making progress more quickly; it’s still not a quick game, it’ll take weeks, but eventually you’ll make it to the moon and be able to start mining unobtanium. And that in turn unlocks upgrades called “metaphysics”; some of those decrease the base of the exponents. So, after resetting a second time and starting your third run through the game, you’ll start to be able to produce quite a bit more quickly, because of the extra buildings that you’ll be able to build from a given amount of a material. And, in turn, you’ll be able to make it farther into space.

 

That’s about the level of mechanisms that I’d explored the last time I played the game. But I went farther this time, and I’m glad I did. In particular, the game lets you take on various challenges: these have you restart the game with some aspect of the play space either walled off or made much more difficult to use. And playing that way provides yet another way that the game lets you understand the impact of the different systems: how they play out, how they interact, how the scaling factors have an effect.

And, of course, completing those challenges gives benefits as well. So that’s yet another mechanism that enables you to appreciate different aspects of the growth curves in the game.

 

I made it farther, but I didn’t make it to the end game exploration that the wiki talks about. Part of that is that I hit one part of the growth curve that wasn’t to my taste; I asked for advice on the Discord and got some advice for how to make faster progress, which helped, but it was still a bit of a slog.

And, in particular, even the faster version was a slog in a way that required way too much action from me. The thing about clicker games is that, well, they require clicking. Which is fun if you’re in the mood; but eventually the require less clicking and more waiting; that’s good in a different, more mellow way, because it lets you check in every hour or so while mostly doing something else.

Just operating in that last mood does require discipline: for example, I found that, if I spent too much time thinking about the game, it actually messed with my sleep, so eventually I adopted a rule that I would stop playing the game an hour before bedtime, and if I woke up in the middle of the night, I wouldn’t check on it, even if I probably had unlocked buildings. So, for all of its virtues, I can’t unconditionally recommend Kittens Game: it really does require care to have it not take over your life in an uncomfortable way.

And I’d already started to wonder if I’d reached a point where it wasn’t quite worth it: the problem with those growth curves speeding up as you improve them in various different ways is that you spend more time clicking and less time waiting! Clicking instead of waiting for 5 minutes is good, because it gives you something to do during those 5 minutes; clicking instead of waiting for an hour is maybe not so good, though, because there’s lots of other things you can do with a free hour. So, as the waiting decreased, Kittens Game would take over evenings that I had budgeted for doing something other than playing video games.

 

In particular, when I reached the place that I mentioned above where I asked the Discord for help, the answer was: reset the game every couple of hours. And, indeed, I could make progress that way; but that meant that I was contantly in the “frequent clicking” part of the growth curve.

I tried that for a while, and it was fun in its own way. (And fun in a different way from my previous experiences with the game: yet another texture that the game revealed to me.) But it was messing with my life, and it was still taking long enough that I’d be stuck in that phase for a while.

I could have shifted back to the way I’d been making progress before I’d asked for help; that would have been better for my game / life balance, but the earlier method really was a lot slower, it honestly might have taken me a year to get to the next part of the game’s design space that way. I could repeat challenges to push on some of the relevant curves; I did that for a while, it helped (and was interesting), but it didn’t really make enough progress to resolve my dilemma.

 

So I stopped. Which is fine; that happens with games that don’t have clear ending points. There’s nothing magical about the so-called “end game” in Kittens Game, after all, it’s just where the growth mechanism peter out in the current stage of development, it’s not like it’s some big narrative conclusion or anything.

And I’m definitely glad I spent the time with Kittens Game that I did: in its own way, it’s absolutely one of the best games I played this year. And it’s good in a such a different way from other non-clicker games I’ve played; and Kittens Game is a much much better clicker game than any other one I’ve played other than Universal Paperclips. (Which I definitely appreciate more now than when I first played it.)

teaching silk reeling

October 29th, 2023

I’ve been thinking about Silk Reeling for years now; and, if anything, I got even more interested in the topic during COVID, because Silk Reeling really helped my body deal with the fact that I wasn’t regularly walking to and from the train station. That got my analytical brain thinking some more about the exercises, building on the ideas that I’d written down in my earlier set of notes; I went deeper on some of of those concepts, and I also found some other lenses that I thought were useful ways to approach the exercises. I ended up picking one of those lenses, spending a couple of months going through the Silk Reeling Exercises and the Tai Chi form with tha lens in mind, and seeing what I noticed and whether / how it changed my practice.

And I think doing so really helped my Tai Chi get better? It helped me get better in touch with my body, too, and change how it works; which is, after all, the main reason why I’m doing Tai Chi, I’m not doing it just because the form is pretty.

 

Eventually some of these lenses got stuck in my brain: they seemed to be reliably useful to me, I’d gotten and was continuing to get a lot out of focusing on them. So I figured I should try to find out if they helped other people too. I’d also recently gotten the first level of teaching certification from my Tai Chi teacher; I felt like I should put it to use, but I also don’t really feel like teaching a standard intro Tai Chi course, that kind of course isn’t particularly my thing and there are enough other of his students who do that around here.

I started writing down these “silk reeling principles”, with the idea of turning it into a website. And also, while I was at it, I was writing down notes on each of the individual silk reeling exercises, subtle points on each one that had taken me a while to notice and/or get right.

It was slow, but I made some progress on this? I’ve got markdown files sitting around for each of my principles, so the basic ideas are out of my head, at least. I still haven’t made it very far with writing down notes on the individual exercises, but it’s a start.

 

Of course, having private notes doesn’t do anybody else any good. So I still need to put together some sort of script that turns the set of markdown files into a set of HTML files; conceptually easy enough, I just need to do it.

Part of the reason why I haven’t done it is that I’m too busy and/or not focused enough. But also part of the reason is that, realistically, I’m not sure that publishing those notes on a web site would do anybody any good? These exercises are pretty specific to my teacher, so the audience that would potentially benefit from my notes is pretty small. And, in general, my fellow students aren’t particularly focused on learning via reading, or on theory. So I might literally be writing something that zero people would end up interested in!

That’s not necessarily a reason not to do it: for one thing, I could be wrong, maybe more people would get something out of it, and, for another thing, writing notes down is useful to get ideas straight in my head even if nobody else reads the notes. But still, I should probably think a bit more as to what I was doing and why.

 

As I was thinking about this more, I started thinking more and more about this in terms of notes for a class. Which might be a better fit for my fellow students? I think they like a more concrete, in-person approach; my approach is still more theory-based than most of them prefer, I think, but that’s probably a manageable difference.

So I decided I’d try it as a course. I’d ended up with five main principles, so it should work fine as a five-session course. (For the record, my current list of principles is: Pay Attention to Your Body; Sink into Your Kua; Open and Close Your Kua; Pay Attention to Your Dantian; Lines of Connection.)

The principles are only useful if you actually try them out in practice; the easiest way to encourage that to happen is to put my class right before one of the regular Saturday classes, since we go through the whole silk reeling set at the start of the Saturday classes. And I can also work in some of my ideas about fine points of individual exercises, too. If I do all of that, maybe it’s a coherent “intermediate silk reeling” class; I can pitch it at people who know all the exercises, who potentially know them well enough to start leading the exercise set at the beginning of the Saturday classes, but who are getting some of the fine points wrong.

 

I sent out a message about this to the group chat for the class, and also mentioned it in class. I got some people who nodded and said that it sounded like an interesting idea, but nobody who actually committed to coming. But I’ve had that sort of experience enough to know that the next step is to be more clear about what I want to have happen; so, the next Saturday, I showed up early to class and talked to some of the people who regularly show up early and who I thought would probably get something out of my course. And when I asked those specific people directly in person, I got three of them to agree to show up 30 minutes early next Saturday to give it a try. And that in turn gave me confidence to tell the group chat that this really would be starting next week.

Four or five people came the first week; enough to make me happy, and they were actively participating in the class, which was great. But also it’s a small enough number that I was worried that only two people would show up the following week; fortunately, something like seven people showed up. Which was about the level that I stayed at for the remaining weeks; so people were voting with their feet and time to say that the course was valuable, which was great!

I also had a few people say that they wanted to come, but the timing didn’t work for them. And I was offering it at one specific Saturday class, but my teacher actually offers two Saturday classes in different locations; so there’s probably some number of people who might be interested but just weren’t going to come down to Sunnyvale for the class. Which means that there’s potentially a decent sized audience available if I want to offer the course again, as long as I’m flexible about timing / location.

 

Offering the course again is an opportunity to iterate: some things worked well, some things didn’t work so well. I’d been thinking that, in each class, I’d both be able to talk about a principle and also talk about some fine points of one or two of the individual exercises. Sometimes it worked out that way (though only one other exercise, never two), but sometimes I didn’t have time to talk about any other exercise beyond what I was using specifically to illustrate the principle for that class. And even when there was time for an extra exercise, it didn’t really fit in well with the flow of the class.

So I think I should just lean into what the course is about. It’s not about stuff like “in this specific exercise, you should kick with the side of your foot instead of the toes of your foot”, it’s more about stuff that you can use to inform many or even all of the individual exercises and when you’re doing the form. That’s what the class is best at, that’s probably something that I’m unusually good at. And I think that, for the intermediate-level students who are the main audience for the class, it reinforces a couple of meta-points that I have in mind: you shouldn’t just focus on getting the surface level moves right, you should dig beneath the surface of the moves (and of your body!); and also if you have some basic concepts in place, then there’s a lot that you can investigate on your own.

In terms of timing, next time I’ll do it once a month on a Sunday instead of trying to combine it with the Saturday class, and I’ll do it further up the peninsula. That should open it up to a wider rande of potential participants; and also one week per principle is way too short, one class a month is a significantly better cadence. (I honestly think that you should probably live with each principle for a couple of months.)

 

There’s one other covert goal that I have in mind: by now I’m decently senior among my teacher’s students, but there are a bunch of other students who are as senior or more senior than I am. And I bet that a lot of them have stuff like this to talk about too: for example, many of them teach Tai Chi classes to beginners, and I bet they’ve got some points that they like to focus on in their classes.

So it would be great if we could come together and show off ideas to each other. (C.f. the concepts of “Communities of Practice” and “Collaborative Circles”.) What I would really love is if, after these classes, we started going out to lunch together and talking about Tai Chi, and then if other people volunteered to present their own ideas once I’d finish my five principle set. No idea if that’s plausible or not, but I’d like to at least set up a context where that has a chance of happening.

I don’t have any immediate plans for the next class; it feels like a 2024 thing, probably a post-rainy-season 2024 thing? But hopefully it will happen at some point.

powerwash simulator, bastion, and venba

October 15th, 2023

Some notes on games I spent a few hours on recently:

 

I heard a surprising number of mentions of PowerWash Simulator on the Waypoint podcast, as a chill relaxing game, and it was available on Game Pass, so I figured I’d give it a try.

Or at least my memory is that it was described as a relaxing game, but I might be misremembering; I won’t exactly say it was stressful but I also didn’t find it all that chill? Too much time spent looking for spots to get complete coverage on one part of what you’re washing, and also navigating around took more time than I would have liked; my guess is that it controls better with keyboard and mouse rather than controller?

And my guess is also that the main plus of the game is that it will be happy to pat you on the head and tell you that you’ve done a good job. Which can be nice! But that wasn’t what I was particularly looking for, so I stopped after an hour or so.

 

Bastion was our VGHVI game for September, so I replayed it. It was interesting to return to it after having played Hades; the two games have, unsurprisingly, a lot in common, but, also unsurprisingly, I liked the studio’s later game quite a bit more.

And my feelings about Bastion were pretty similar to what I felt about it when I first played it a little over a decade ago: it feels like it’s probably doing things that I would like, but somehow I didn’t feel like digging into it enough to really come to an opinion about it? So I honestly have no idea whethere it’s saying anything interesting about the themes in the game or if it’s just gesturing at ideas without much substance.

It encourages you to loop through the game again after playing it; I feel like that’s the intended experience, and that I would have gotten more out of it on the second and subsequent loops. Partly because I’d be able to re-evaluate early bits of the plot and settings in light of later events; but also because I’d be able to play the game more on autopilot, and pay more attention to aspects of the game beyond the combat. Which, I think, the designers are aware of: in particular, a decent amount of the narration happens while you’re navigating through the world and (probably) fighting, and so it’s natural for the player to not be paying close attention to that the first time? An interesting choice.

But, for whatever reason, I decided not to loop through it again. Probably if I’d made the choice myself to revist the game, I would have done a second loop, but as it was I was mostly getting it out of the way for discussion before moving on to something I was more interested in.

This looping structure is also in conversation with the structure in Hades; in the newer game, the loops are shorter (especially at the start), and so of course you’re going to go through at least a few of the loops? Which, as a corollary, means that each loop in Hades reveals much less of what’s going on; those two factors combine to make it natural to keep on going for several loops instead of stopping after one. (And, to be sure, Hades gives you lots of other reasons to keep going; the loops are worked into pretty much every aspect of the game.)

Anyways, happy enough to have returned briefly to Bastion, I had a pleasant time and we had a good discussion, but I definitely didn’t dig deeply enough into the game to be able to really think about it.

 

Venba is a game about growing up as an Indian immigrant in Canada. Basically a visual novel; there’s a cooking mini game, which the game uses to tell the story.

And it’s really lovely! Not sure if I would have played it if it weren’t on Game Pass, but it was there, and I’d heard that it was both quite pleasant and short, so I gave it a try. Moving story, I enjoyed the cooking game and I thought it worked well in context. I don’t have aton to say about it or anything, just that I’m glad that it exists and that I gave it a try. And that I’m glad that Game Pass exists and makes it easier for folks to try out games like this.

changing podcast clients

October 1st, 2023

I spend a lot of time listening to podcasts; honestly, if I had to name a single most important app on my phone, I’d probably pick the podcast app I use? Which, for most of a decade, has been Castro. Originally I started using it because I really liked their visual design; and then they added a queue-focused design that did a very good job of managing how I decide what podcasts to listen to.

Basically: I subscribe to a bunch of podcasts. Some of them I want to listen to every episode ASAP; some of them I want to listen to eventually but don’t care about when; some I want to make a decision on each new episode whether or not I want to listen to it; and occasionally I’ll run into an episode of a podcast that I’m not subscribed to that I want to listen to. And Castro had a flow that handled all of those well, sending new episodes to a podcast and letting me decide whether I wanted to put them on a queue. (Or, for podcasts in the first two classes, I can bypass the inbox entirely.) And then I tell it to just play whatever’s next in the queue; and if I change my mind, I can fiddle with the queue easily, the UI for that is good too and pleasant to look at.

And Castro did other things well, too. My favorite little detail was the way they added extra functionality to the tab switching buttons at the bottom. If you’re not on the search tab and you tap the search button, then you get switched to the search tab. But if you’re already on the search tab, then it acts as a back button, bringing you back from a single episode of a podcast that you’ve been searching for to the list of all episodes for that podcast to the list of all search results to the search bar, even clearing out your prior search term for you. It sounds like a small thing but it was a really natural flow, enough so to make me actively happy every time I tapped that button, and then other apps started feel broken when they didn’t do the same thing. (I’ve started seeing it in other apps, but it’s still not a universal idiom, and most other apps don’t implement it as well.)

 

Unfortunately, Castro started stagnating a couple of years ago. It was a two-person app; eventually they sold to a company, and then they (at least one of the developers, maybe both, I can’t remember) left that company to go elsewhere. So the rate of changes slowed down; I was actually fine with that, the functionality was good, but what I didn’t like is the way bugs stayed around. There’s one bug in particular that I would see multiple times every day; it was just a fit-and-finish bug, but still, it’s the sort of thing that makes me wonder if anybody working at the company actually uses Castro and, if they do, if they actually care about fit and finish.

That was getting me annoyed, but what was actively bad was that I ran into situations where Castro stopped reliably updating podcasts. Something somewhere would remind me of a podcast, I’d think “hmm, I haven’t seen a new episode of that podcast for a while”, and then I’d go to that podcast in Castro, pull on the list of episodes, and five episodes would appear all of a sudden. To their credit, it’s great that pull-to-refresh causes a signal to be sent to their backend infrastructure to give it a kick; but still, my podcast player’s number one job is to let me listen to episodes of podcasts, and if it can’t do that reliably, that’s a regular problem.

(Side note: basically all podcast players have now switched to this sort of architecture, where crawling is done server side instead of client side. And I wish they hadn’t: it means that they’re now structurally vulnerable to problems with the server infrastructure or having their servers blacklisted, whereas if it’s done from my phone, all that it depends on is whether my phone can do HTTP requests. The latency is good for popular podcasts, but much worse for unpopular podcasts; and in the client-side world, I could just tell it to refresh all the feeds right before leaving the house or the office and that would be good enough? So personally I wish that podcast clients hadn’t made that switch; or, at the least, that they’d stuck with client-side fetching for private podcasts.)

Also, over the last couple of years I’d run into some use cases where the single queue wasn’t working so well. There were some podcasts that I only wanted to listen to during acupuncture (because I always fall asleep during acupuncture, so I wanted podcasts that I would enjoy but wouldn’t mind if I miss significant chunks of episodes); and there are a couple of podcasts that I’m listening to that do a chapter-by-chapter breakdown of The Book of the New Sun that I listen to episodes of as I finish chapters of the book. So, in both cases, I want to have a few episodes stashed somewhere, but I don’t want to have them in the regular queue. And Castro didn’t have great affordances for that.

 

Anyways, one of those times when I discovered Castro hadn’t refreshed a podcast was the straw that broke the camel’s back; so I decided to look into other podcast clients. The ones I’d heard the most about were Pocket Casts and Overcast; I figured I should give Apple Podcasts a try too, I remembered reading some articles about a major revamp that it had gone through a year or two ago.

Apple Podcasts turned out to be easy to rule out: when I did some searching to jog my memory about the changes, I ran into a bunch of articles saying that its server side podcast feed fetching infrastructure was super unreliable. Which is exactly what I didn’t want; maybe it’s gotten better since those articles were written, but I just do not want to spend time worrying about that, especially since I wasn’t hearing any active reason why Apple Podcasts was better than Pocket Casts or Overcast.

But Pocket Casts and Overcast both seemed entirely plausible. So I installed both of them and ported over my podcast subscriptions; that way I could get the feel for the new episode triage flow for both of them, and I’d be able to see if one of them was noticeably slower at getting new episodes or was dropping them entirely. And I spent a few weeks actually listening to podcasts on one of them (instead of just triaging episodes), and then a few weeks listening on the other one.

 

Pocket Casts seemed pretty solid. It was less queue focused than Castro, but ultimately there’s an Up Next queue which works fine. And its triage mechanisms are good: you can mark podcasts to automatically go into the queue, or there’s a New Releases filter that shows the most recent episodes across all podcasts, making it easy to see new episodes and to click into them to read descriptions. And you can even do triage just from the New Releases filter without clicking into episodes, because swiping right on the episode pulls up options to enqueue it and swiping left pulls up options to archive it. (Pro tip: in the settings there’s an option to control whether “queue first” or “queue last” takes one fewer press.) And you can even do triage straight from notifications, without going into the app at all: long pressing on the notification gives you options for queueing first, queueing last, and archiving.

So triaging is pretty easy. Having said that, Pocket Casts doesn’t have you always staring at your Up Next queue the same way Castro does. Which, at first, kind of bothered me, and there’s one aspect of the way the Up Next UI works that I think is not great. But, ultimately, I decided that that difference in approach that would be fine difference once my habits adjusted: Pocket Casts is more interested in filters than in queues, and filters work too.

In particular, the filters handled the Acupuncture and New Sun cases just fine. (Once I realized that I could star the next New Sun podcast episodes to listen to and configure a filter to pay attention to that.) And actually I could even use filters to act like different parts of my Castro queue – the New Releases filter lets me look at recent stuff, and I created another filter that showed all unarchived episodes from within the last month, with oldest first; that basically matches my queue, aside from the top-priority-listen-to-immediately podcasts. Once I did that, I moved away from putting everything in my Up Next queue; so now it has 5–10 episodes instead of 20–40, which honestly feels healthier. (It won’t work if I start to get a month behind in my podcast listening, but if that happens, I’ve got bigger problems!)

So: not perfect, but quite good. Probably the biggest flaw is that Pocket Casts seemed to be draining my battery a decent amount; aside from that, it’s a little hard to edit filters after creating them (it’s possible, they just split the UI in a weird way), there’s one thing about the Up Next interface I don’t like (clicking on an episode plays it immediately), I wish filters were a little more configurable, and if you add a new private podcast feed then it takes an hour or so for Pocket Casts to be able to deal with it, and the UX isn’t great during that hour. But that’s all totally manageable. And the new episode detection was rock solid, which is important. There were also some little things I liked: e.g. various parts of the chrome change color based on the podcast art, which is a nice little touch, especially in the watch app.

So, all in all, Pocket Casts felt like a noticeable upgrade over Castro. It did better on the bottom of the hierarchy of podcast needs, and arguably a little better on stuff higher up as well.

 

Overcast seemed good, too. It has multiple queues, and handles them better than any other app: it’s the only one that properly handles the “podcasts for acupuncture” case properly where it lets me go through a different set of episodes without making me touch my main queue at all.

I was pretty disturbed when I ran into a couple of instances of podcasts where new episodes were showing up in Pocket Casts but not Overcast: is this going to be a repeat of what I’d seen with Castro? But I emailed the developer and he had good answers to both of those: one was a Substack podcast, they were blocking his crawler, he was already aware of that and was talking to them about it, and it got fixed a couple of days later. And the other was a situation where I was using an old version of a feed; I’m not sure why it worked okay in other clients, but at any rate once I used https instead of http, it worked fine. And also Overcast lets you pull-to-refresh locally (well, mostly locally), so it has a short term workaround for feeds that you know to be broken, which I appreciated.

So I ended up actually being decently confident in Overcast’s feed crawling abilities. (And yay for developers responding quickly.) But, after using the app for a few weeks, I kept on being slightly annoyed by friction in the way Overcast handles triaging new episodes. The list of recent episodes in the app only shows you the podcasts, not the actual episodes, so just by glancing at it I wasn’t always sure if I’d triaged a given episode; and going from the podcast name to the episode notes took me more clicks (or long presses or something, I can’t remember) than I’d like. Also, as far as I can tell there’s no way to mark a podcast to always be added next to the queue, so triaging was more exposed in Overcast than I would have liked. It wasn’t unmanageable or anything: I ended up with a flow where I triaged by going from notifications to episode notes to adding it to the queue, and that was okay. But it was clearly a step down from triaging in either Castro or Pocket Casts; and, ultimately, I decided that it was more important to me than Pocket Casts’s battery usage.

 

So I’ve been exclusively using Pocket Casts for a month or two now, and I’m still happy with that decision. Having said that, both of those apps are good, I can easily imagine other people preferring Overcast. And, honestly, Castro is good too: feeds only get stuck maybe a couple of times a year, the other bugs that were slightly annoying me were really just cosmetic, I think Castro handles podcast chapters better than the other two apps, I like the way it lets you download the audio from Youtube videos so you can treat them as podcasts, and if you do all your podcast listening off of a single queue, then Castro handles the single queue case better than those other apps. I still think it was time for me to move away from Castro and I’m worried that it’s probably not getting actively maintained any more, but there’s also a reason why I used it very happily for so many years.

the case of the golden idol

September 17th, 2023

I don’t have anything deep to say about The Case of the Golden Idol, but it’s a very good game. It’s a puzzle game where each puzzle involves figuring out a murder, both who did it and the context behind the murder; each murder has you presented with some scenes that you can navigate through (typically representing different rooms in a house), with objects and people that you can click on to figure out what they’re holding. You’re not represented by an avatar, you’re just an abstract observer trying to piece things together, so there’s no talking to suspects or anything like that; but many of the objects in the scene and in people’s possessions include written notes, giving you an idea for how these people ended up where they are.

That’s half of the UI; the other half is the solution screen, which is presented as as some groups of fill-in-the-blank puzzles, using words that you’ve run across when poking around through the rooms. Part of the screen is, of course, the solution; that generally takes the form of a paragraph rather than just “X killed Y”, so you have to give some context and motivation. And another part of the screen is basic facts; the most common of those has you assigning names to the various people that you see in the scenes. Typically there are a couple of other panels as well, asking you to piece together some other intermediate deductions.

 

And it works really well! The solution screen does a good job of mirroring your thoughts as you navigate through the rooms. First, you’re just trying to get a sense of what’s going on: so you start encountering people, you read through a few documents, you get a sense for what the key concepts are in this murder. And that knowledge is reflected by more and more words becoming available for you to plug in on the solution screen. So, once you’ve clicked on everything, you’ve gotten all of the words, you probably know who most of the people are, and you have a sense of what to take a second look at to figure out who the remaining people are.

You enter the names you know and then figure out the last few; and the game tells you whether or not you’ve gotten all of the names correct. Then you move on to one of the other intermediate puzzles, and work on it. And by the time you’ve done all of those, you’ve looked at all the bits of writing and evidence enough times that you probably have a pretty good idea how the murder itself went down. You enter that, the game validates that (or tells you you’re wrong; and, if you’re wrong, if you were close or not close), and you feel happy.

This all adds up to a very nice bit of scaffolding for your thinking progress. And for discussion: Liesl and I ended up playing it together, so we’d talk about what we understood, what we didn’t understand, what our theories were, all in the context of that solution screen. Once we got past the first two or three puzzles, there was enough to think about that having each other there to bounce ideas off of each other was pleasant and (especially in the later puzzles) useful.

 

The puzzles are connected, with each one taking place a few days (or, eventually, years) after the previous one, with significant overlap in their casts of characters and motivations. So, as you go through the puzzles, you’re piecing together a larger picture of what’s going on. That might help you solve the individual puzzles, but each one does actually stand alone as a puzzle, until you get to the last one; that one ties together strands from its predecessors, so you end up jumping back to the earlier scenes to remind yourself of some bit of information or other.

And it’s a pretty neat story, and one that works well as a puzzle game; the twists and turns kept on pleasantly surprising me, even through to the solution of the final puzzle.

 

So, yay. Good puzzles, in a format that is new and that works well. Pleasant plot. And even though it’s a solo game by format, it works well to talk about and solve with somebody else.

tradeoffs arising from the use of generative models

September 3rd, 2023

Since the discussion around the effects of generative models doesn’t seem to be going away, I figured I’d give in and write about my point of view of this stuff. Specifically, I wanted to talk about how I see some of the tradeoffs involved.

 

Midjourney responding to the prompt “humans protesting against robots in 19th century britain impressionist style”

The first is the question of how much to worry about people being automated out of work. Which is not great; many artists, writers, and programmers quite reasonably feel threatened by that!

I’m not going to discount that worry, but it’s also not obvious to me that making it easy to produce art / writing / code is going to reduce the demand for artists / writers / coders. If something becomes easier to do, then its cost becomes lower, and so the demand for it increases. And sometimes that increased demand increases the total market enough to increase employment in that market; and not just employment of people doing whatever job in firms in those areas, but of people working specifically on the very jobs where automation is increasing.

Take programming as an example: it’s constantly getting more and more automated. If you go back to the middle of last century, people had to program by flipping switches to enter binary code into a machine. Then assemblers and linkers came along to allow programmers to think in terms of machine instructions and to let the computers turn those instructions into binary. Then higher level programming languages and compilers and interpreters came along to let people address the computer in a way that wasn’t native to the computer (and those languages went through decades of evolution). And, as programming languages were spreading, they were accompanied by the spread of libraries, frameworks, and services, and tooling to make it easier to work with all of this.

So huge amounts of labor have been automated away. But this doesn’t mean that programming jobs have shrunk correspondingly, or anything close to that; instead, the result has been software taking over more and more of the economy, with jobs growing accordingly!

Stable Diffusion responding to the prompt “humans protesting against robots in 19th century britain impressionist style”

I’m not going to say that that trend is necessarily going to continue as generative models help more people program more efficiently; but I guess my default assumption is that it will? And I’m also not sure that the market for other areas where generative models are having an effect will expand in the same way, but I also don’t see a reason to assume that they won’t.

For example, I saw some people make statements along the lines of “you should never use generative models to produce visual art, if you want a drawing in something you’re making, you should pay an artist for it”. But there are lots of people who never use custom art, whether because of financial reasons or time constraints; if some of them start using computer-generated art, then the market is larger. At least it’ll be larger in terms of the amount of new art being created; whether that will increase or decrease the amount of money spent on art, and whether it will increase or decrease the amount of money paid to human artists, isn’t particularly clear. But, again, I don’t see why the answer to either of those is “decrease”: in particular, once somebody gets used to having custom art, they might end up being unhappy with the quality of computer-generated art and being interested in paying a human at least some of the time.

 

Four Midjourney responses to the prompt “hipster robot drinking coffee in a library cafe while listening to jazz records”

So that’s the most optimistic spin on the effects of generative models on humans who do similar work. But of course, not all automation has that kind of effect; that doesn’t mean that it’s bad, though! We’ve increased the efficiency of food production many fold over the decades, and, as a result; many many fewer people now work on farms than did a century ago. Which is a good thing: it means that there’s a much larger quantity and variety of food available now than there was a century ago. And tons of jobs are still available in the economy, they’re just different jobs; personally I’d rather work as a programmer (a job that didn’t exist a century ago) than as a farm worker.

As examples of how this might play out in game production: when listening to interviews with voice actors, one thing that they regularly bring up is that some of what they do is physically strenuous and even dangerous, with barks being brought up as an example of the latter. So if we could automate the production of barks, that probably would be a good thing? AAA games in general take much longer to produce these days than in previous decades, and one culprit that I’ve repeatedly heard cited is the difficulty of producing art to the resolution standard that modern consoles and graphics cards allow; if generative models can reduce the effort required there (or, for that matter, the programming effort required for modern games), then that’s a good thing, I would think? Or if small teams were able to start shrinking the visual / audio gap between their games and AAA games, that sounds like a plus as well. And that sounds like a plus to me even if it means that there are smaller armies of artists or programmers employed in the game industry; ultimately, to me, the game industry matters to me because of the games rather than as a jobs project.

Stable Diffusion responding to the prompt “hipster robot drinking coffee in a library cafe while listening to jazz records”

I don’t want to completely discount the issue of people being put out of work by automation. But also there’s nothing sacred about the exact division of money going to people in different jobs, new jobs appear all the time and job categories shrink all the time, and that’s okay? (I would actually say that it’s an actively good thing, an economy where job categories stay the same size is a stagnant one.) And, right now, the employment levels in the United States are amazing high and have been that way for a while, even in the face of inflation and interest rate hikes that would normally push us in the other direction; it seems like an odd time to be too doomerist about employment levels.

 

Midjourney responding to the prompt “robot painting a dog while surrounded by books”. Not sure what happened to the robot…

Then there’s the moral case, with artists and authors saying that generative models are stealing their art by using it for training purposes. And I’m going to be blunt here: my moral position is pretty much the opposite of that one.

Part of the reason is that my position on copyright is actually pretty far out of the norm, in a permissive direction. My attitude is that, in general, growing the commons is good and creating a monopoly is bad; so, as a corollary I’m pretty dubious about copyrights and patents in general. Ultimately I think that copyrights and patents are a good idea, but while I can see the moral case for them, my main reason for supporting them is a pragmatic one, and it’s basically the same one as stated in the United States Constitution:

To promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries

I think we get more art by giving artists a monopoly over their works in the form of copyright; but I also think that monopoly should be limited (and in particular I’m strongly against the repeated extension of copyright terms that we’ve had over the last century), and I’m also strongly on the side of allowing derivative works.

Stable Diffusion responding to the prompt “robot painting a dog while surrounded by books”

But, even if we set aside my unusual positions on this matter, I still think the obvious position to start from is to say that we should allow computers that are producing new works to be able to use old works to the same extent that we would allow humans who are producing new works to be able to use old works. And, in that light, the analogue of the statement “we shouldn’t let generative models train on works created by human creators without those creators permission” translates into “we shouldn’t let humans be inspired from works created by other human creators without those other creators’ permission”. Personally, I think that last statement is ridiculous, and if treated seriously would be a huge threat to art.

So yeah, plagiarism isn’t great. Plagiarism isn’t great when done by humans; and if somebody uses generative models to end up with work that we would call plagiarized if it were generated by a human, then fine, call the computer generated work plagiarized as well, and penalize it similarly. But the vast, vast majority of work coming out of these generative models doesn’t fall into that bucket.

And, in particular, producing work in the style of an artist isn’t plagiarism. It’s not plagiarism when done by a human (and it’s also not uncommon when done by a human!); it’s not plagiarism when done by a computer.

 

I haven’t used the term “AI” anywhere in this post, and that’s intentional. It’s a term that can be used in too many different ways and with too many overtones; when thinking about stuff like this, I find that it just gets in my way. I have no idea to what extent generative models are an important stepping stone towards an artificial general intelligence; and I’m willing to believe that AGIs do raise potential problems that are worth taking seriously. (Though, honestly, I’m not convinced by AGI doomerism, either; I just don’t feel that I have anything approaching an informed opinion about it.)

But, when it comes to generative models, my attitude is much more straightforward. In general, automation is good for society as a whole, because it produces more stuff and because it lets us level up the kinds of tasks that we take on as a society. Frequently, automation doesn’t even have a negative effect on people whose jobs are being automated. (There are more bank tellers now than before automated teller machines were invented!)

And part of putting works of art out into the commons is that other people will be affected by those works of art, which might mean that they’ll want to have more art that is similar to your art; that’s a good thing rather than a bad thing.

notes on incident response

August 28th, 2023

When you’re on call to help run an online service and you get paged, then the page might go a few different ways. Maybe the alert is something that you’re familiar with; so you take the standard steps, you take a note to bring it up in the next retrospective in hopes that your team can decrease its frequency, and then you go back to whatever you were doing. Sometimes the alert is something odder, or the standard steps don’t work; then you dig into the logs, figure out what’s going on and how bad it is, and, after a bit of looking, you get a handle on the issue and the system goes to normal.

But sometimes that alert is a sign of something rather different. There’s a serious problem appearing that’s already starting to affect your users and where the effects could grow if you don’t get on top of it immediately. You don’t really understand what’s going on and you feel like you’re starting to lose control: an outage is brewing. I want to talk about that third situation here.

The short version of this post is: in these outage or potential outage situations, your psychology is probably working against you. The tradeoffs in an outage situation are different from a normal on-call situation and from normal non-on-call work; instead of having one or two people digging deeply into a problem, you want a team of people looking at the problem broadly. And that in turn creates a need for coordination; take that coordination role seriously as well.

 

Normally, when you’re working as an engineer, you’re trying to understand something and deal with it as efficiently as possible. You’ve got a guess as to what’s probably going on in a given situation and what to do. So you spend some time following where that guess leads, making sure that that guess is the right one. If it is, great; if not, you try out other possibilities. If you get really stuck, you’ll ask a team member for help, but you don’t want to interrupt them unless you really need to: they have work to do as well, after all, and if it’s outside of regular work hours, then they have lives to lead. So you dot your i’s and cross your t’s before asking for help.

In an outage or potential outage situation, however, almost all of that is wrong. There’s a core that remains relevant: you don’t want to make things worse, so you certainly need some level of care. But, given that constraint, your goal should be to get the situation under control as quickly as possible: fixing the problem is a higher priority than completely understanding the situation, it’s a higher priority than not bothering other people. (Don’t get me wrong: understanding is good! But, as long as you can fix the situation safely, then it’s okay if the understanding happens after the fact.)

Part of the implication here is that, in an outage situation, you should be willing to take remediative actions even when you don’t have a clear linkage between those actions and the cause of the outage. For example, if a relevant service was recently upgraded, then try downgrading it; if some feature flags were recently flipped, try setting them back to their prior state. This isn’t always the right course of action: if the service is one where upgrades are problematic for some reason, then there might be a noticeable risk that downgrading it will make things worse. But, in the normal happy case where downgrades are fast and safe, then you might want to just go ahead and do that: it almost certainly won’t make the situation worse, and it might make the situation better.

So part of the answer is that, in these uncertain situations, you want to do safe but speculative actions more often than you would otherwise. But an even bigger part of the answer is that a straight line approach of having one person dig into their best idea of what’s going on is not going to be the quickest way to reach a solution: instead, you want to take a set-based approach.

 

In our story above, the on-call is digging into their best guess as to what’s causing the problem. And that’s a good thing to do, no question! But they probably have a second and third guess as to what might be relevant; it would be great if somebody else could be looking at those possibilities as well. And, as I mentioned above, you might have some speculative remediation activities that somebody should try out. (“Have you tried turning it off and on again?”) But if the problem is mysterious enough, then none of that will work: so ideally you’d also be digging into the logs to see what unexpected bits of evidence are lurking in them, and you’ll also want to look at recently deployed changes and recent feature flags to see if they provide any clues. And there’s probably somebody in your organization who’s been around a while and has seen all sorts of things, who is unusually good at figuring out what’s going on when the system is behaving strangely; it would be great if that person were here to help.

That’s a lot of different things to try! (Which is why we call this a set-based approach: you’ve got a set of actions to undertake, and you’d like to perform as many of them in parallel as possible.) So, in this outage / impending outage situation, you need to shift out of a mindset of “the on-call will deal with this” to “we need a bunch of people looking at things and digging into different possibilities”; doing so will dramatically shrink the resolution time. And this, in turn, changes the problem into one of group problem solving and coordination.

 

Coordinating a group is hard work, and one that requires specialized skills. You could ask the on-call to switch into that coordination mode; but that kind of mindset shift is hard. So, at my current job, we have a separate rotation for this (a rotation of senior engineers and managers pulled from different engineering teams), called the “Incident Response Coordinator” (IRC) rotation. The IRC’s job is to help coordinate the response to incidents that are already serious or are showing signs that they will get serious, with the goal of getting the incident resolved safely as quickly as possible.

A big part of their job is to implement the set-based approach. Find an appropriate group of people to work on the problem; at first, maybe it’s just the on-call and the secondary, but by the time the IRC is involved, it’s usually pretty clear that we want more people to get involved. So one of the things that the IRC is doing is notifying other team members that they should join in if available, and giving those people a summary of the problem and a pointer to the Zoom meeting where people are gathering. And once they’ve gathered, make sure that they’re digging into different aspects of the problem.

Another part of the IRC’s job is to shield those people from distractions while making sure that necessary tasks get taken care of. The on-call and most of the other people working on the problem are trying to focus on understanding the problem and digging into one aspect or another of what’s going on; but if the incident is turning into an outage, then there are other things that somebody needs to do. (We should post on the status page to let users know of the issue and to keep them updated, we should check with support to get a sense of the impact and to help them answer questions coming in from users, etc.) And maybe there are other things that could be done to shield the people who are digging into the issue; for example, maybe the on call needs to spend their time really digging into some aspect of the problem but is being interrupted by a flood of alerts; if that’s the case, can we find somebody else on the team who can temporarily hold the pager?

A third part of their duties is to make sure that the flow of the response looks right. The IRC should never be actually working directly on solving the problem: in fact, if the IRC is somebody whose domain expertise would be particularly useful with the incident in question, then they should find somebody else to wear the IRC hat instead! But the IRC can make sure that the group of people working on the problem is expanding appropriately (expanding from a few team members to the whole team that owns the service in question to adjacent teams to random other engineers who are particularly good problem solvers); and the IRC can make sure that people aren’t getting so wrapped up in trying to understand the problem that they aren’t putting in potential fixes in place. (Also, as a side note: once a potential fix is in place, people should switch to trying to figure out how we can validate the fix as quickly as possible and, if the signals that we’re looking for show positive signs, how we can turn up the dials to have the fix take effect as quickly as possible. Don’t just let the autoscaler add a few nodes: double the cluster size, and if that helps, double it again!)

 

For really complex problems, I also like to have the IRC manage a list of actions and hypotheses that we’re tracking. Every time somebody comes up with an idea of some sort, stick it on the list; if somebody is at loose ends, have them grab an item off the list and put their initials next to it; once they’re done looking into it, cross it off (and add more items that are discovered as part of their investigation).

Also, make sure that we’ve got some level of notes as to what we’ve come up with. During the outage, what’s important is to solve the problem, not to understand every aspect of the problem, but the next day the team is going to want to start digging in deeper to figure out what was really going on so they can put in further safeguards for the problem in the future. So the IRC should make sure that key observations are written down somewhere, to help with that further investigation.

 

Done well, this can make a real difference: it can turn a multi-hour outage into one that lasts less than an hour or even into one that barely qualifies as an outage at all. But doing this right takes effort and skill. You need to recognize that individual engineers’ instincts will lead them to behave in ways that aren’t optimized for quickly bringing the problem to resolution; you need to instead bring in a group of people who are all working on different aspects of the problem in parallel; and you need to focus on the metric of safely resolving the situation as quickly as possible.

touching my toes

August 13th, 2023

My body is decently flexible in some way; but my hamstrings aren’t one of those ways, it’s been decades since I’ve been able to touch my toes. (At least when standing; I could barely touch the toes on one foot if sitting with only one leg extended.) Which didn’t seem like the greatest thing, and once I started doing Tai Chi and Nei Gong, it felt like something to work on.

Of course, it doesn’t help that I spend lots of time sitting down; my body is just adapting to what I’ve been asking it to do! So the first step is probably to do that less. My watch is happy to let me know when I’ve been sitting down for a full hour; I’d been thinking of that as a reminder that I should get up and walk around (which I mostly ignored, to be honest), but what if I instead think of that as a reminder to try to touch my toes instead? If I do that enough, then presumably my hamstrings will get less tight and I’ll be able to touch my toes.

 

I did that for several months; I don’t know if it was as long as a year, but I think it might have been. And: it totally did not work! I won’t swear that I didn’t make any progress at all, but, if I did make any progress, it was a really miniscule amount.

Honestly, though, I don’t know that I was taking this idea all that seriously: I wasn’t worrying too much if I was in the middle of something else when my watch told me to stand up, and I also wasn’t proactively stretching during hours in which my watch had already given me credit for standing. So I figured I’d keep going, but I’d take this idea more seriously: after all, if I stretch enough, my body has to get more flexible, right, so I must not have been stretching enough?

 

I kept on going; maybe things were getting a bit better? But then, one time, I noticed: I’d been mostly paying attention to the tightness behind my knees, but if I relax the area around my butt, sometimes I can get more bend there. Which probably isn’t so relevant if my goal is just to get my hamstring looser, but touching my toes is probably useful for other reasons? Or, even if it’s not actually useful, it’s still something I’d like to be able to do!

After playing around with this a bit more, it turned out to be pretty repeatable. I’d relax a bit and wiggle my butt some, and I’d be able to bend over a noticeable amount more. And if I kept on going, I could usually get a second extra bend. And, once I got to that stage, I could touch my toes!

 

I played around with how this felt. There’s a line that goes up my legs, over my butt, and up my back; I feel like I’m managing to disconnect from that line to some extent and rotating the rest of my body underneath it. Also, when I bend over enough, the location where I feel tightness the most changes: instead of being behind my knees, it’s more towards the inside of my thighs, fairly high up; not sure what’s going on there. And that higher up tightness is less annoying than tightness behind my knees, so if I bend over more, it actually becomes more pleasant and easier to maintain the stretch.

I can keep going once I reach my toes, too. I can touch the floor; and frequently, I can bend my fingers and make it to around my first knuckle. The bend doesn’t keep on going forever: I can’t put my hands flat or the floor or anything, and honestly my back is still depressingly close to parallel with the floor, so I clearly still have work to do. But, if I go down far enough, I do start to feel like the weight of my head is helping tug at me, and my lower back is opening up a bit; it would certainly be good if I could continue that improvement.

 

So: yay for pushing on with this, and yay for figuring out something about how my body works. I’m curious if I could have done this years ago, or if the way Nei Gong is affecting the layers of my body is important in letting my body move as I relax and wiggle. So if any of you try this out, let me know how it goes!

updating my hoa’s ccrs

July 23rd, 2023

I’ve been on the board of the HOA of the townhouse complex that I live in for the last three years; and we just passed a new set of governing documents. And there was enough going on there that I figure I might as well write down some notes on it.

 

When we first considered buying here, we looked at the CCRs. (And the Bylaws.) There was a decent amount of stuff there that made me roll my eyes (no clotheslines in your back yard? drapes must be white or off-white?), but ultimately, there weren’t any deal breakers. (In particular, they allowed us to have dogs, which wasn’t the case for all of the HOAs we looked at.) And we liked and could afford the house, so we bought here; it’s been a good choice.

Over the years, issues with the CCRs have come up occasionally. The maintenance responsibilities aren’t super clear; one board paid a lawyer to give an opinion about what the HOA was responsible for, and that gave us some clearer guidelines, but it was still too vague: having the responsibilities depend on on knowing what qualifies as “trim” wasn’t great. But they were manageable, and passing a new set of CCRs seemed like a pain, so nobody did anything about it.

 

That changed five years ago: one board member felt motivated to change things, found a lawyer, and produced a first draft. At least I assume that process was mostly motivated by the feelings of that one board member: I wasn’t normally attending board meetings so I don’t know what discussion happened there, and the board didn’t actually tell people about it in advance. (I’m basically the only person who has served as a board member who treats communication with everybody as a priority…)

And, when I saw that draft, I was not impressed. There were a several sections that felt like that person’s hobbyhorses, and I didn’t agree with most of those hobbyhorses. It was structured in a really bizarre way, with a lot of stuff being listed both in the CCRs (which requires a very difficult vote to change) and in the rules and regulations (which future boards can change on their own), which made no sense to me; I don’t know how that happened. (And some of those items really did not belong in the CCRs.) And there was stuff that probably came from the standard template that that lawyer used that traded in one set of things that made me roll my eyes for another set.

So I complained about that version. Nothing much happened with it the rest of that year, and then that person left the board; the next board did a decent job of trying to understand points of contention in that draft and seeing if they could turn it into something that had a plausible chance of passing in a vote, but that was difficult, and they gave up after a couple of meetings.

 

I came on the board pretty soon after that; I can’t remember the exact timing, but either the next year or one year later, I think? At any rate, the first year I was on the board (during my current stint, I’d been on the board once before), our liaison on our property management company every once in a while would say to us “your CCRs are really out of date, state law has changed a bunch”, and I would nod and agree, but we had a decently large crisis around our fire alarm system, and of course COVID was happening, so I had other priorities that year.

And I also had other priorities the start of the following year, but one of the things that came up then was a lot more annoying than it should have been because the CCRs were unclear about who was responsible for what. So eventually, when things calmed down, I figured that, yeah, I had enough breathing room and this was important enough that I’d start looking into getting the CCRs changed. (There were two other people on the board, but neither of them was likely to take the lead in a big project, so if it was going to happen, I would have to spearhead it.)

We decided to start from scratch: in my opinion, the draft from the earlier attempt was unusable, and it had been long enough that my assumption was that, even if we’d wanted to edit it, probably the lawyer would have charged us more like we were starting from scratch. So I searched for lawyers; we ended up going with one that our property management liaison recommended, and I’ve very glad we did, he’s been very good to work with.

 

At this point, my questions were: Is updating our CCRs even possible? How much work was this going to take? What are my goals in this process? And what should I do to increase the chances of meeting my goals?

Taking those in order: for this to be possible, we need more than half the owners in the complex to vote yes on it. (Not just more than half of a quorum: more than half of the owners have to turn in a yes ballot, not turning in a ballot for this is the same as voting no.) Which is a pretty high barrier: it takes some amount of nagging to just get people to turn in the vote for board members every year, even though the HOA can’t function without a board.

But what I was more worried about was that the CCRs (or Bylaws, I can’t remember) have this clause that says that changes to the CCRs require approval from half the mortgage lenders, and the idea that half of them would provide approval for a CCR rule change felt very far-fetched to me.

Fortunately, our lawyer explained that this wasn’t nearly as bad as it seems: yes, mortgage lenders almost never respond, but there’s case law that says that we can treat their lack of response as a yes, as long as we wait 30 days. So mortgage lenders approval turns out to be the easy part, I just need to focus on finding 13 (out of 24) yes votes from the owners. And the lawyer’s process seemed pretty straightforward: he has a questionnaire that we’re supposed to fill out, he’ll plug that into his standard template (including specific rules that we ask for), there’s one round of reviews, and then he’ll prepare the materials for a vote, talk to mortgage lenders, and talk to the city.

 

I spent a while thinking about my goals: there’s a fair amount that I don’t like about the existing CCRs and would like to change, after all. But watching how the process had gone in the earlier attempt and seeing what the practical problems with the current CCRs had been, I decided that my first priority wasn’t actually to fix all of my pet peeves. What I really wanted was to have the maintenance responsibilities be clear (and I didn’t even care too much about the specifics of what owners were responsible for and what the HOA was responsible for: I mostly wanted clear rules), and the management company’s point that stuff should be up to date with current law made sense to me. And I cared about both of those more than I cared about fixing my pet peeves.

So, when I looked at those priorities, and I combined those with how the previous attempt fell apart because contentious changes were proposed and with the difficulty of getting votes at all, my main lesson was: I should try to avoid contentious topics, even if they’re about changes that I would like to see. There are 24 units in the HOA, and maybe I can convince 16 people to turn in a ballot if I work hard at it (but it will require work!); so I can only afford 3 no votes. And the more people argue, the greater the chance that we’ll have more than 3 no votes and/or that people will just feel uncertain about the process and will decide to not turn in a ballot at all.

Putting that all together, the story that I decided to tell folks was that our main goal here was to modernize the current CCRs. And we would explicitly try to avoid making changes to contentious areas of the CCRs: that meant that people with opinions on the CCRs (including me) would end up unhappy compared to their ideal result, but the new CCRs would hopefully still feel like an improvement over the old CCRs to almost everybody. And this also seemed like a goal that is compatible with our lawyer’s process (and in particular with the fact that we basically have one chance to ask for revisions on the draft): that goal should help limit the argument and gives a relatively clear criterion that we can use to make decisions about issues that do come up with the initial draft.

That seemed like a good approach pragmatically, but I also like it philosophically. If we want to, say, have an argument about changes to how people are allowed to rent out their units (which is one issue that came up in the last attempt), then that discussion will be a lot easier to have if we’re only having that discussion, instead of mixing it with a huge number of other changes. So what I would like us to happen is for us to modernize the CCRs (which, unfortunately, basically requires a complete rewrite), and then, in future years, we could have targeted votes on other more focused changes, changes that would only affect one or two paragraphs of the CCRs. That seems like a pretty healthy way to make changes.

 

So, with that in mind, the process was this:

1) Make sure that everybody knows that we’re talking about changing the CCRs, that our main goal is to modernize them while avoiding contentious changes, and that people will have two opportunities to provide feedback.

2) Fill out the questionnaire that our lawyer sent. (That was the first board meeting where people would have an opportunity to provide feedback.)

3) Once we got the draft, send it out to everybody, and schedule a board meeting to discuss changes to the first draft. (That’s the second opportunity for people to provide feedback.)

4) Get the second draft, schedule a vote, try to convince people to vote yes.

5) Get the mortage approval, and send it to the city.

Which was an amount and nature of work that I was willing to sign up for.

 

The questionnaire board meeting went pretty well. Two non-board-member owners attended; one quite reasonable person who didn’t have a strong opinion about the rewrite (but who supported it and our goal), and one person who was more opinionated, and who had been a major source of recent requests to the board. (And who was also the person who had been a driving force in the previous attempt to change the CCRs.) That person had reasonable enough stuff to say about questionnaire items, so the discussion was fine; and then she brought up something specific that she wanted in the new CCRs.

That specific proposed item sounded like a quite bad idea to me; so, after letting her talk for five minutes or so and not seeing the item get any particular traction from other participants, I checked with the other board members and made sure that they didn’t want to proceed with discussing the item, and then I said that she were moving on. She was annoyed (but not actively rude or anything) and left the meeting; it went smoothly after that, and we ended up with responses prepared for the questionnaire in a little less than two hours.

 

When we got to the draft, I read it a bunch and prepared a list of items that I wanted us to discuss and probably change, the other board members read it some, and one owner (not one mentioned above) prepared a pretty detailed list of changes. I thanked her and invited her to attend the board meeting about the changes, but she said that she wouldn’t do that, she didn’t do well in that kind of live discussion environment; so I said I’d bring her changes to the meeting.

And we went through all of the items that people had brought up. (I think the only non-board-member owner who attended was the aforementioned supportive person.) We came up with what seemed to me to be a reasonable set of requests to send back to the lawyer; again, it took just one board meeting and less than two hours, which was great.

I e-mailed the owner who had submited a list of changes after the meeting, basically saying “we talked about your changes, we agreed with you on these changes, we discussed the other ones but decided to not go along with your other proposed changes, and (for the ones that were larger) here’s our reasoning why we went a different way”. I was pretty happy with how that interaction had gone; I felt like we’d improved the CCRs based on her feedback, and she seemed to appreciate that.

 

So yay: we’d gone through the comment period without any big disagreements, it seemed like we were on a good track? Then two things happened. One is that one other owner emailed in comments on the draft; he did this maybe half a month after the board meeting where we were going to talk about that sort of thing, six weeks or so after we’d sent out that draft. I asked him if he really wanted us to schedule a board member for us to go over his comments; he said no, but he hoped we would make the changes he wanted anyways. Which is kind of a nonstarter!

Reading through his changes, I actually would have been happy to go along with several of them (though certainly not all of them) if they’d come up in the review period that we’d broadcasted; but they didn’t. The thing is, though, one of them did seem like it was pointing out something important that we missed (and, to his credit, he particularly emphasized that one); so I did talk that one over with the lawyer and the lawyer agreed that the clause in question wasn’t actually useful.

The other thing that came up was that our HOA liaison had one issue that he particularly wanted us to have addressed in the revised CCRs. This one at least did get brought up in a board meeting, just not the one that had been intended for that purpose; we went through a couple of rounds of email exchanges with the lawyer, but ended up not doing anything with that change.

 

So, after that, we were ready for the vote. It had gone pretty smoothly so far, I was optimistic that the vote would go well, but who knows. So we sent out the ballots, and I sent an email to everybody talking about our goals for this, the process so far, and the importance of voting.

I got some supportive emails; but also the same two people who had commented on the first draft sent out emails saying talking about what they were unhappy with about the proposed CCRs, and one of their spouses and one unrelated owner also sent a brief email supporting the concerns that those two raised. Both of them were taking the tack “we shouldn’t be voting on this now, we should do another round of changes”; I kind of rolled my eyes at that, we had a process for talking about changes, one of the two basically ignored the process and the other two just threw proposed changes over the fence while refusing to participate in the discussion? I’m not saying that the process was perfect, but if their goal had really been to get a better process leading to better CCRs, then maybe bring that up earlier instead of waiting until we’ve already sent out the vote?

Anyways, for both of them I took a pretty similar tack. Yes, the CCRs aren’t perfect, but I think they’re good enough; if we want to make it better, what I’ll propose is that we approve these broad changes and then have a subsequent vote on targeted changes that are important to people; and for the specific changes that you’ve called out as most important, here (in the least inflammatory language I could come up with) is why I either disagreed with your proposed change or why I didn’t think this topic is important enough to hold up the entire process for. (E.g. I’d do stuff like point out bits of state law that meant that a specific concern was already addressed by state law.)

 

I was kind of nervous after that. Clearly I had two, probably three no votes; and I could count on maybe 8 people to vote yes. But that leaves a whole bunch of people that I didn’t have evidence about; if almost all of them vote no or don’t vote at all, then it wouldn’t pass. (My earlier estimate was that I could get 16 out of 24 people to vote at all, so three no votes already uses up my entire buffer!)

At least there weren’t too many people who were openly complaining. So I figured that I wouldn’t worry about people being against it, but that I would worry some about people not voting at all. (Whether because they weren’t sure if it was a good idea or because they just didn’t get around to voting.)

And that seemed like something I could have an effect on. (My guess that 16 people would vote is just a guess, after all.) I obviously can’t learn how people vote before all the votes are opened, but our management organization was willing to tell me who had submitted votes. So I got the list of people who hadn’t yet submitted a vote, skipped the people who I either had reason to believe would vote no or whom I didn’t get along with on a personal level, and I emailed each the rest of the people encouraging them to vote. I didn’t actually encourage them to vote yes: I just encouraged them to turn in a ballot, and said I’d be happy to answer any questions they had.

 

And all of this seemed to work – 19 of the 24 households voted, and 16 of those households voted yes! Yay for that, always nice when things turn out well.

I did email people saying “if people were serious about wanting to make improvements to the draft CCRs, I’d be happy to make time in the next board meeting to discuss proposed further amendments”. And I got zero uptake on that offer; so yeah, I don’t think those two people really wanted to work to make the new CCRs the best they could be, probably what they really wanted was to stick with the old CCRs and were just trying to accomplish that while still trying to seem like they were participating in the process.

 

Anyways, I guess the lessons that I took out of this are:

  • Figure out what’s most important to you, and make sure to prioritize that.
  • Figure out what failure mode you’re most worried about, and make sure to prioritize that.

For the first of those, what I most wanted was to get modernized CCRs passed; I cared about that more than any particular change that I would have liked. And for the second, I was most worried about people just not voting at all: so I wanted to try to avoid having enough arguments that people weren’t sure which way to vote, and also I wanted to avoid people just not getting around to voting.

And that, in turn, meant that I tried to avoid controversy as much as possible, and to frame the new CCRs as sticking to the original CCRs as much as possible on controversial topics. That seemed like a message that I could defend while sounding as reasonable as possible, which would hopefully avoid the most argumentative negative scenarios? And also the second point meant that I should spend time pushing people actually send in their ballot; my personality is such that I normally don’t do that sort of thing, but this seemed like a situation where I should make an exception.

 

Glad my process worked; and glad that I won’t have to spend any more time thinking / worrying about this.

notes on three games

May 21st, 2023

Some notes on games I’ve played recently where I don’t have enough to say to fill up a full blog post:

Tokyo Mirage Sessions ♯FE

A few months back, I was in the mood to play something joyful. And I knew that I’d be going on a trip soon, which argued for that game being on the Switch. And it had been a few years since I’d played Tokyo Mirage Sessions; not all that many years, actually, especially given how rarely I replay games, but still, it felt my mood.

And I still love that game. The music is great, the style is great, the interactions are frequently adorable but also have their heart in the right place in ways that I don’t always see, the combat matches spectacle with a bit but not too much thinking in a way that works much better for me than most RPGs.

Having said that: there are aspects of the game I’m not thrilled with. Barry is kind of creepy; the end-of-battle camera is way too fond of Tsubasa’s breasts and Eleonora’s butt; it drags on in the last quarter or so; seeing Itsuki in his street clothes is making me think I should find something to wear instead of a hoodie when I want a light jacket. So I was happy to have replayed it, but also happy to have it end.

Still one of my favorite games.

Hi-Fi Rush

I was really excited when I saw Hi-Fi Rush. The graphics reminded me of Jet Set Radio, which is in own way one of my favorite games of all time; Hi-Fi Rush is a game that seems to take music seriously; and the initial buzz seemed good. So I was pretty sure that I’d like it, and quite possibly I’d like it a lot.

I did not, in fact, like it a lot, or very much at all. The music is nowhere near as good as that of Jet Set Radio; I could say that that’s maybe partly due to genre difference preferences, except that the music from Jet Set Radio isn’t from genres that I normally listen to? And Hi-Fi Rush is also way too earnest; probably that would be fine if I didn’t have Jet Set Radio in mind but, well, I did.

I spent a couple of hours today going through the start of Jet Set Radio just making sure that I wasn’t remembering it through rose-colored glasses. And it is definitely the case that there are aspects of the gameplay of Jet Set Radio that are not great, especially by current standards. But it’s also the case that that flaw is swamped by the game’s music and style, which remain excellent.

So I didn’t finish Hi-Fi Rush; quite rare for me, but there it was. What I really should be looking forward to is Bomb Rush Cyberfunk (and in fact I think I was probably conflating the two games); hopefully that one won’t be a similar disappointment, given that Bomb Rush really is trying to effectively be a new Jet Set Radio.

Wo Long

I actually think that I finish more games than I should. Not so much because I normally don’t enjoy the time I spend with games: Hi-Fi Rush was a pretty rare exception where the game was actively dragging on me, I’m usually pretty good at sensing out in advance whether or not I’ll like a game. But I suspect that also pushes me in a slightly risk-averse direction: I’d probably do better if I started twice as many games as I do and only finished a third of them?

I hadn’t subscribed to Game Pass: it wasn’t clear to me how much money it would actually save me, even if it costs more to buy games I’m happy to support developers, and I don’t want to have my game playing choices overly influenced by whether or not the game is in Game Pass. Having said that, if I’m going to experiment more, then having access to a pool of games that I can try out for free certainly seems like a good idea.

And I’d even been planning to subscribe to Game Pass for my next game after Hi-Fi Rush; in retrospect, I wish I’d subscribed one game earlier, but such is life. Because, for whatever reason, I was curious about Wo Long, so I wanted to give it a try, but it’s a soulslike, and my experience with Elden Ring meant that I would have been surprised if I enjoyed Wo Long enough to finish it or ever come particularly close to finishing it. But Wo Long was on Game Pass; and my experience with Elden Ring also made it quite plausible that I’d enjoy it enough to play for 10 hours or so. And if I bounced off even sooner than that, that’s fine too, if I’m not paying for it.

And it turned out basically as I expected. I think I actually kind of liked the fact that it wasn’t an open world game: that meant that I had structured situations to confront, and ones that I should plausibly be able to defeat. And that’s the way it worked: going through the body of each level was fine, and then I’d hit a boss, and that would take longer but not forever. (An hour plus or minus a factor of two, maybe?) And the combat was okay; I wasn’t awful at parrying in the game, having boss battles that were all about pattern learning and parrying wasn’t so bad.

But still, soulslikes just aren’t my thing. I can more or less deal with the difficulty (or at least I could for the first few levels of Wo Long), but it’s not a sort of challenge that I find rewarding. I don’t enjoy the leveling up system; this time I looked up a build to give me more guidance, but that didn’t help much. I still don’t think that corpse runs are all that great a mechanic.

And the bits that Wo Long added didn’t help my enjoyment. I played around with the magic system and got zero benefit from it in boss battles; though it was amusing to see the five element cycle that I’m used to from Nei Gong! And I think the game’s system of having a secondary leveling system within each level actually makes the game worse, because it holds out a benefit of an easier experience in the tougher parts of levels that you can only repeatedly reach by replaying decent-sized chunks of the level before whatever battle you would want to take advantage of that extra strength in. (Which would take enough time that I never seriously considered doing that.)

So, if I’d bought the game, I would have been annoyed! But I didn’t, so it was totally fine; I played through most of five missions, I had a decent time with those missions, but I realized that I wasn’t enjoying the boss of the fifth mission enough to spend another evening making it through that battle, and I stopped. We’ll see how much Game Pass affects my playing in the future, but I was happy with my choice of it in this instance.