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shoulder positioning

October 9th, 2019

One thing that the Gokhale Method teaches you about is shoulder positioning; Gokhale has a shoulder roll technique to help you improve your positioning. It’s not one of their eight big steps, just a smaller technique that is a component of several of the bigger ones, but I was surprised how much of an effect it had on me, it’s one of the things that I’ve gotten most out of the method.

Gokhale’s claim is that your arms should hang from your shoulders closer to the back of your chest than to the front of your chest. Which is plausible enough, if you look at a skeleton? And, after doing her shoulder roll technique a few times a day (move your shoulder forward, then rotate it up and back, then relax and let it just drop down while it’s at the back) for a couple of weeks, sure enough, my shoulders got used to that new position.

But what I also noticed (and I think this is somewhere in Gokhale’s book, but mostly as an aside?), that my hand positioning changed as well: my hands were aligned parallel to the sides of my body instead of having the backs of my hands facing forward. And, somehow, that seemed more obviously natural to me: of course your hands should be parallel to your sides at rest.

 

This set off a whole cascade of questions. What in the past caused me to adopt this prior posture? What adjacent areas of my anatomy are relevant to this? Are there situations where you’d actually want your shoulders to be further forward? Are there other examples of more natural positions that I can find?

In terms of adjacent anatomy, the most relevant parts were, unsurprisingly, the top of my back and my neck. Basically, if I hunch forward, then my shoulders will come forward; and, when hunching, it’s also natural for my neck to be forward, and in fact my neck coming forward can cause the shoulder hunching. And this sort of hunching was naturally happening to me all the time in two situations that I found myself in.

One is when sitting at a computer and typing: my hands would be at a keyboard in front of me, instead of at my side, and I’d be looking at a screen, which might subconsciously cause me to move my head forward. And the other is when using a mobile phone, which would lead to my hands in front of me and my head forward so I can look down. I was doing that latter one an awful lot of the time when walking around; walking might in other circumstances cause my body to be moving relatively freely, but I was actively subverting that by the way I was holding my head and arms. And I’ll throw in a third context in there: I read a lot of books, and again I have my arms forward and my head down when doing that.

 

So yeah, no surprise that my arms had gotten used to being forward, and that that had affected my shoulders and my neck / head. And, looking around, I see tons of people hunched over and with necks stretched out; I suspect that this started getting a lot worse over the last twenty or thirty years as computers have become more popular, and became much much worse as mobile phones have taken over our lives.

It’s not an insuperable barrier. Gokhale has a technique for repositioning your head and neck, so I’m doing that, too, and she also addresses typing and book usage. So, these days, I’m aware of what’s going on and have trained myself to let my arms hang, counting on my forearms to bend my arms to let them access objects in front of me; I can type fine that way, my keyboard is just closer to my body than it had been. And, when reading, I can similarly hold a book with relaxed arms; the neck is harder, but if I look down with my eyes more then I can still read okay. Mobile phone usage is harder still; I have a grab bag of solutions there, but honestly the best one of them is to not use my phone as much, especially while walking!

 

I was starting Tai Chi at the same time as I read Gokhale’s book; and, sometimes, my teacher would say to round my back, so my shoulders would be forward. At first, this felt like mixed messages to me: my Tai Chi teacher says to round my back, but Gokhale says to keep my shoulders back?

After a bit (and talking this over with one of the other students), I realized that it wasn’t a mixed message at all. My teacher didn’t say to constantly round my back: he said to do that during certain specific moves. And those were moves where you’re doing a pushing motion. So yes, if you want to push at something in front of you, then your arms will be at front, your shoulders will be forward, and you’ll round your back: that’s actually your anatomy all working together! But, if you’re not pushing something in front of you, then you don’t want your arms in front of you, so you’ll have a different shoulder positioning.

 

The Gokhale Method training helped me (I believe) unlearn some habits that I’d gotten in, to let my body return to different positions as it relaxes more. This is something that happens in Tai Chi, too, and is a key part of the Lotus Nei Gong ideas. In particular, as I do more Tai Chi, shoulder positioning has become something that I explore when doing silk reeling; in several of the silk reeling exercises, I can observe when I’m moving my torso in a way that causes my arms to naturally fall forward. And that’s good! It’s not that it’s bad to have your arms forward: it’s a natural response to certain situations.

But when those situation become too common, it’s a problem: your shoulders end up adopting that forward position as the norm, other parts of your body do as well, and you end up tense and in pain. So I’m glad I became aware of what’s going on, and managed to unlearn that positioning as a bad default habit.

not so deliberate practice

October 2nd, 2019

I’ve read a couple of books on deliberate practice over the years; I was more or less convinced that there’s something important there, but I also have misgivings about it.

So it was interesting to read Range, to get a different take. Range acknowledges that deliberate practice does work, but it works best in certain specific domains, or even subdomains: e.g. it’s more important in golf than in many other sports, it’s more important in classical music than in other kinds of music.

One key domain differentiator is how feedback loops work. If you can get feedback that’s both quick and accurate, then deliberate practice can work very well: trying to drive a golf ball from a tee over and over again, trying to play specific passages in a piece of music that a composer has laid out for you. But if feedback cycles get longer, or if the accurate of the feedback is lower, then deliberate practice isn’t so effective: it’s hard to tell if you’re learning the right lessons.

Another factor that the book points out is that it’s important to find a fit between you and what you’re working on. Maybe you love music, so you want to play an instrument; but it can take a while to find out which instrument really clicks. And it’s better to spend a few years exploring and end up at the right instrument for you than to decide your instrument early at the expense of it not really feeling like a fit.

And the book also talks about the benefits of cross-fertilization. Ideas can come from anywhere, and the most impactful ones are disproportionately likely to come from unexpected directions.

 

It’s not an all or nothing, of course. Take learning guitar: there are lots of skills that fit the deliberate practice mold. Learning scales or doing chord transitions quickly and crisply are both unquestionably valuable skills to learn, and they have fast, accurate feedback loops.

But also: try out stuff. You have a huge number of musical genres available to you; even if you know what speaks to you, try out different genres, you’ll learn something from them. And try out different instruments, too: you’ll learn something about how songs are constructed from playing bass, you’ll learn something different from singing or playing drums or keys. And spend time both in more improvisational modes and playing composed music.

 

Nice to have some justification for my, uh, more scattershot approach to life and learning. Though, honestly, I don’t want to pretend that that really works out well for me: it’s not like being a (reasonably good) dilettante at music or learning some Tai Chi makes me a better programmer. Probably my mathematical background did help me in some oblique ways as a programmer, though, as does reading and thinking seriously about a fairly wide range of somewhat related books?

And, of course, as per my prior post, there’s more to life than becoming an expert, anyways.

erica

September 29th, 2019

I kind of waffled about whether I should write about Erica, but it’s on the list, so it gets a post.

And I do think it’s a good game. You’re watching filmed interactions most of the time, but the bits where you have to interact with the environment (even if they don’t involve a choice, as they usually don’t), or where you have to choose between responses, make a difference. It’s kind of a limiting case: how far can a game go with cut scenes, with only limited interaction and with no skill component (other than the fact that responses can time out), while still feeling meaningfully different from a movie? And the answer is: pretty far!

I guess it would be even farther in that direction if there weren’t choices that affect what you see. The existence of those choices is one aspect of the game that I didn’t probe so clearly: it’s a horror game, and that meant that Liesl didn’t feel like watching it while I was playing, or even being in the next room over. (And, honestly, it creeped me out some, too!) So I felt a little guilty about replaying it, since it would basically mean exiling her; I certainly wouldn’t have gone completionist, and the fact that I was shoehorning it into the middle of other games so I could talk about it with VGHVI folks also meant that I was playing it more provisionally than normal. But I probably would have played it a second time if it weren’t for that, and quite possibly a third. I’ll be interested to see what other folks have to report about the game.

Anyways, because of that: not much to say, about either the mechanics or the plot. Though I do recommend it (and who knows, maybe I’ll replay it at some point if Liesl is out of the house), what I saw did actually rather impress me.

my practice routine

September 23rd, 2019

Here’s my practice routine for Tai Chi and Nei Gong.

First, stuff I do every day. I use Streaks to help me with this: I don’t actually care about the streaks themselves, but I can use the help of daily reminders for this. And, once I started poking at Streaks’ settings, I really like how it lets you decide whether / when to get notifications from it and whether / when to turn on badge markers. So, for example, if there’s a specific task that I’m mostly likely to be able to find time to do either during a mid-afternoon work break or as I leave the office at the end of the day, then I might tell Streaks to notify me at 3pm and to put a red badge on the app icon at 5pm if I haven’t completed it that day.

My current set of daily activities:

 

Dantian Rotations

I do two rounds of 25 per day, at the train station while either waiting to get on the train or just after I get off. I got a lot of benefit of this when I first started; I feel like the benefits have leveled off, so I might stop? But it’s not like I’ve got anything better to do when waiting for the train.

Squats

Specifically, one batch of 5 squats, going down and up very slowly; if it gets easier, I go slower. (I do this one when getting ready for bed.) Or at least I should go slower: honestly, I haven’t been taking this one as seriously as I should. Still worth working on.

Meditation

I added this one relatively recently; seated meditation, sometimes focusing on breathing and sometimes doing a body scan to relax things, both from the instructions on Sung Breathing described in Damo Mitchell’s first book and again in a later one. On work days this is usually only 10 or 15 minutes before leaving for work, which honestly just isn’t much time; sometimes I do another 20 minutes when I get home, but not usually. On weekends I usually find time for a longer session, 30 or 40 minutes. I haven’t seen a lot of effect from this, but I feel like, if there’s one thing that I’m doing that has lots of evidence and tradition behind it, it’s meditation! (Though that doesn’t mean that 10 minutes is useful, even if it’s daily…)

Wu Ji

Specifically, the Lotus Nei Gong version. I’d been doing it three days a week for about half a year; I like what it does to my body, and I wanted to keep the intensity up, so I switched it to a daily thing more recently. 15 or 20 minutes most days, but longer sessions (30 minutes, working on lengthening that) three days a week. Helps with sinking (most oddly with my shoulder blades?), helps with relaxing, and I get these weird shoots of energy through my body all day after doing this.

 

So that’s the daily stuff. I think I’ll keep it all in there for now. I might add in some stretching; the Lotus Nei Gong folks recommend that, and my hamstrings in particular are quite tight. And if I had fewer constraints then I would do the Tai Chi first form every day, multiple repetitions of it; it’s hard to find time for that, though, especially now that I’m carving out time for Wu Ji, and I don’t have a great location for that at work either.

 

The next category of stuff is classes. Which, right now, means Tai Chi classes: if there were somebody in the area giving regular Lotus Nei Gong classes then I’d probably do that, but as it is my only option is multi-day seminars that happen a few times a year.

One class that I do is on Tuesdays. It’s a combined beginner / intermediate class, and I go to part of each: focusing on early postures in the second half of the beginner class, then doing Qi Gong and Silk Reeling in the part shared between both halves, and then going through the form once. I’d certainly get something out of staying for more of the intermediate class, reviewing those postures, but I also like going home and having dinner.

The other weekly class is the Saturday one: a longer Silk Reeling session, going through the form twice, doing some more review of some portion of the first form, then practicing some weapon, and then doing something else (for the last year and a half, that something else has been learning the Xin Jia form.) And once every three months or so, I get to lead Silk Reeling, which means that, the following week, I get one-on-one instruction from my teacher, which is super useful.

Once a month there’s an advanced class on Sundays: going through the second form, some applications, a different weapon, and some Xin Jia. (And, this year, also some Xingyi.)

 

And then there’s practice that’s less frequent than daily. On Sunday, I do more Tai Chi practice (unless it’s a week with a Sunday class): I go through the Lao Jia first form 5 times, the second form once, the Xin Jia first form once, and our current weapon a few times. If I want to get serious about learning the second form and the Xin Jia form, I should probably up those some, and I should probably add in more practice time for other weapons, so they’ll stick; for a while I was regularly reviewing Dao routines, and that helped.

And I do more Nei Gong three days a week: at lunch Tuesday and Thursdays, and at home on Sundays. (Sundays are a busy practice day! Which I’m still learning how to integrate into my habits…) I start off by doing some stretches, then I do a longer batch of Wu Ji (30 minutes on Tuesdays and Thursdays, and I’m pushing beyond that on Sundays), and finally I either go through the Ji Ben Qi Gong or the Five Animal Frolics. (Well, four of them, I never learned the fifth!)

 

Feels like I’m kind of reaching my limits in terms of time, at least without major changes? Though, who knows, I’ve found time to add Nei Gong into my days this year, I wasn’t doing any of that 8 months ago. If I really wanted to find more time, I guess the options are either to spend time during weekdays evenings practicing stuff instead of playing games / typing / hanging out with Liesl, or to spend all five weekday lunches practicing instead of playing board games with coworkers, or to work less instead of making money. And, right now, all of those options seem like they have downsides that are big enough that I’m comfortable with my choices.

The other issue is that I don’t have a regular weekly Nei Gong course available to me; so if I want more training there, I’ll have to go to seminars more often. There are local seminars available maybe five times a year; they usually last for about four days, two of which are weekends; so I both need to ask Liesl to take care of home stuff on weekends and to take some time off of work. Which I’m willing to do to some extent, but at least this year I haven’t been going to all of them; that feels like something that will change over the next year or two.

And another possibility would be to see if I could get private lessons from my Tai Chi teacher more often; I don’t feel like I’m putting in quite enough time for that to be worthwhile, though.

Or maybe I’ll decide to dial down all of this; I have a history of finding something, getting interested in it and taking it seriously for a while, and then dialing down my interest. I feel like I’m still in the upswing of that process, but given that I’ve been doing Tai Chi for four years now, it’s certainly not out of the question that I could start getting bored soon…

pokemon let’s go

September 12th, 2019

I’d never played a Pokemon RPG before. I’d seen a few episodes of the anime a couple of decades back, and I played Pokemon Go when it came out, but the main RPGs never made it to the top of the list of potential games for me to play. This summer, though, I had a bit of a lull between games and I was going on a trip so I wanted something I could bring with me; Pokemon Let’s Go looked adorable, so I figured I’d fill in that gap.

And it was adorable! (Especially since I grabbed the Eevee edition.) But also I feel like the series isn’t for me. Structurally, the game seems to be encouraging you to build up a diverse set of pokemon to be able to fight different matchups; but, if you really want to do that, you’re setting yourself up for a ton of grinding? And, to make matters worse, there are random variables involved, ones that are hidden most of the game.

So, if you’re me, you’ll eventually end up with a reasonably strong and reasonably diverse set of pokemon once you reach somewhere around the halfway point, and hope that they can carry you through the game without having to always get the matchups right. And they did carry me through fine; actually, as I went through the final third or so, I found myself overleveled more often than I had earlier, even though I’d been avoiding some portion of the encounters. So the game isn’t mean; but also has a design at its core that doesn’t particularly attract me.

 

Which isn’t to say that I didn’t enjoy playing Pokemon Let’s Go: I’m glad to have done so. It’s a pleasant lightweight RPG; more battle heavy than I’d like, but the battles are pleasant enough.

And it’s got character. Though, honestly, a little less character than I expected? Like in the encounters with Team Rocket, for example: my expectations for that were set by the anime, but Jessie and James don’t have nearly the same style in this game as they do in the anime. So maybe it’s not quite right to say that the game has character: the interactions are pretty bland, the music was hit and miss, but I liked the visual styling quite a bit.

 

But still, the game gave me something to do, and it didn’t overstay its welcome. And I’m glad to have filled in that gap in my background.

where i write

September 9th, 2019

An occasional reminder of the various places that I put stuff. This blog is for longer-form stuff; you know about it, since you’re here! I have a Twitter account, @davidcarlton, low volume. (Maybe one tweet a day on average?) I have a Tumblr that I use solely for links to stuff, malvasian links. (I cap it at 4 links a day, but it rarely gets that high.) And I have another blog, Malvasian Scenes, that started out as game play diary experiences, and now is once-a-week notes on Tai Chi / Nei Gong and once-a-month pictures from VGHVI Minecraft. I can’t imagine that that last one is of interest to much of anybody, the Tai Chi notes in particular are really just notes to myself.

(Speaking of the VGHVI, if you want to talk about video games once or twice a month and if you’ve had any contact with me at all, let me know and I’ll invite you to the VGHVI Discord.)

outer wilds

September 8th, 2019

Outer Wilds sounded like a really neat game. Heck, it still sounds like a neat game to me! A tiny solar system, and a ship to explore it; a mystery or two to seed your curiosity, growing as you explore the planets in the system; and then, after 22 minutes, the sun goes nova and you have to start over, keeping only the knowledge you’ve gained from previous loops. That sounds like a great concept; and, from what I’ve heard from people who have finished it, it can be very rewarding.

I wasn’t one of those people, though. Ultimately, I didn’t feel like I was spending nearly enough of my time uncovering mysteries, or at least banging my head against mysteries; that got frustrating. And, honestly, open-ended puzzle games are already frustrating enough; that’s part of what makes them good, because if you always know what to do next, then you’re not getting enough puzzle! But that also lowers my tolerance for other forms of frustration: I want to spend my time doing something potentially slightly unpleasant but ultimately rewarding in the form of banging my head against mysteries; having to spend my time in other unpleasant ways while I’m trying to reach my chosen unpleasantness makes that feel a lot worse.

 

The first form that this takes is traversal. You fly a ship, and it has to make its way through full 3D space, trying to land on or otherwise navigate moving objects at various orientations. There are a bunch of controls to help you handle that (it’s not just pointing a joystick and going); a reasonable map to the problem space, and one that could be fun. Except that it’s not the problem space that I’m interested in exploring: if what I want to do is “poke around in that region over there, in hopes that it sheds light on the current mystery that I’m exploring”, then I want to spend my time poking around, seeing what I can find and thinking about it, not doing fiddly execution stuff layered in front of the poking around.

And the other problem was the time loop. Or rather, the time loop combined with the changing / decaying nature of the environments combined with the lack of time manipulation ability combined with the difficulty of navigation. For example, there’s one world that has sand falling on it; as that sand rises, it makes it impossible to access certain areas. And, the first time that happened, that was actually kind of neat: I knew that there was an area that I wanted to get to on the other side of those passages filling up with sand, and figuring out how to get there under time pressure was a pleasant enough experience, so I didn’t mind the fact that I had to take two time loops to figure it out.

But then there were more mysteries past there; and they were also affected by the sand. So, if I wanted to explore this area during a given time loop, I had to re-navigate that initial area; then get to where I’d left off my exploration; then poke around some more, hoping to find some ideas of what to look at next; and then hope that I can look at that thing before that area fills up with sand. And if some section had filled up on sand, I’d have to wait until the next loop to explore that; so my choices are either to context switch and hope I can find something else worth exploring that isn’t in an area filled up with sand, or else to exit the current loop early, taking an immediate multi-minute penalty of getting back to that world and then going through the initial sand passages and getting to wherever I’d left off. And none of that is what I want to be doing.

So I stopped playing. I’m sure there’s a core to the game that I would really enjoy; I just wasn’t able to spend enough time in that core of the game.

 

Mostly, Outer Wilds gave me even more respect for Return of the Obra Dinn. In Obra Dinn, you’re banging your head against a mystery, trying to figure out what on earth happened on this ship, to uncover the fate of every single crew member and passenger. And that’s hard, there’s a lot there to bang your head against!

But the game knows that, and so that’s exactly what you spend your time doing: you’re spending the entire game staring at stuff and trying to figure out what that’s telling you. Usually staring at frozen scenes in the ship’s past, sometimes wandering around the ship in the present and trying to get a broader picture, sometimes looking at your notes and trying to make connections. However it manifests itself, the game is always focused on giving you the context to make progress in the puzzle.

I wish Outer Wilds had had that sort of focus on its mysteries.

returning to shenmue

August 26th, 2019

I was very glad that Shenmue and Shenmue II got a re-release in preparation for the forthcoming third game: I thought back on those two games incredibly fondly, but I didn’t actually remember so many details about them, and in particular I could use a plot refresher.

Maybe I was a little curious how well they would hold up, but honestly I wasn’t worried about that: in the past, when I’ve returned to old favorites, they’ve held up pretty well for me? And the specific ways in which the Shenmue games did well are still ways that I haven’t seen explored much in subsequent games; the Yakuza games have some similarities, especially in the care with which they treat their environments, but there are a lot of differences between the two series as well.

Having said that, I was a little taken aback at the start: old-style controls, and some of the graphics hadn’t aged well. (Though I liked the graphics more later, maybe the initial cut scenes were particularly rough or something?) But, once I got beyond that (and looked up how the controls worked, I miss paper manuals!): this is still Shenmue, and Shenmue is both great and unique.

 

At the time, there were very few games with environments that were crafted to the level of detail of those in Shenmue. Those detailed enviroments aren’t so uncommon today, and in fact I’m sure that there are lots of games out there with more objects in them, more places that you can stick your nose in.

Most of those games don’t treat those environments as living spaces, though: AAA games usually spend their crafting budgets on locations for elaborate set pieces. Not always: the city sections where the Yakuza games take place feel like characters on their own, and the Citadel and the ship in the Mass Effect games also feel lived-in. (Whereas the environments that Mass Effect missions take place in, elaborate as they are, are designed to funnel you through them instead of to make you feel at home in them.) And open-world games go in a somewhat different direction: huge amounts of space, space that you can return to, but also space that’s generally lacking in density.

But, even granted that, Shenmue is different: the spaces don’t just feel lived in, they’re spaces that you have to actually live in. Yes, there are the traditional game trappings of combat, of commerce, and of conversational unlocks; but it’s all embedded in a structure of daily life. And, to me, this turns out to make an unexpectedly large difference, and a difference that’s positive.

 

Take combat as an example. Most adventure games turn you into a killing machine, slaughtering by the thousands. And combat is very important in Shenmue: the whole plot is focused on martial arts, there’s a full fighting game mechanic there.

But you don’t actually fight all that often! This is completely different from Yakuza, a series that has people lying in wait for you multiple times on every city block: instead, Ryo can go for days in game without fighting enemies. Which would be a little weird if the game left it at that, but instead the game says: if you want to get good at fighting, you should put in the practice. So you can practice with one of your fellow students at the dojo, you can practice in vacant lots that are dotted through the environments.

 

That practicing mechanic could feel forced, and could run into level balancing mechanics, as so many RPGs do: part of throwing enemies at you constantly is to make sure that you get leveled up for the major battles, so you can feel like you’re progressing. With Shenmue, practicing is optional, so the game has to either make you not need to practice or make you want to practice.

Honestly, I suspect it does both: it’s not really clear to me how important it is to level up your various punches and kicks. But, at least for me, the daily life structure of the game makes it very natural to want to practice. Of course I’ll want to put in an hour at the dojo each day: my character is a serious martial artist, he would actually put in much more time than that! But also, it’s a game with a plot, so I’ll be wandering around town; I’ll spend some of that time talking to people, some of that time just poking my nose in places, and I’ll also usually advance the plot some each day.

But the plot advances usually take the form of “come to this location tomorrow and something will be there for you”. You can only do so much with the plot on any given day; so you’ve got time to kill, and it’s only natural to spend some of that time in a vacant lot, working on your technique!

 

And it’s also only natural to spend some of that time shopping. Not a lot of time shopping, though, because you only have so much money; you get an allowance, but that’s limited, so if you want to spend more, you need to earn it. Also, you’ll need to spend for plot-related reasons, not just for personal enjoyment.

Which is another one of the things that I both enjoyed and found realistic about the game was that it has you set a budget but where it feels natural to put most of that budget towards essentials and savings but some of it towards short-term pleasures. Like, yes, I have to make sure I can make my mortgage and utilities payments every month, and I want to put some money towards retirement savings, but it’s also nice to be able to go out to eat every once in a while? So it is in life; so it is in Shenmue.

So, in Shenmue, I have to get a job; and, in both the game and in life, the job is interesting enough. In real life, I’ll be happy enough to retire eventually, I’m not going to be one of these people who works forever, but I also do genuinely enjoy the challenges at work. And I don’t know that I would enjoy a game that was solely based on being a forklift operator, but it’s a fun way to spend parts of your day in Shenmue, there’s enough skill development there to be interesting, but I’m also happy to be finished at the end of each in-game work day.

 

Shenmue II has many of the same virtues; though, as the game went along, I realized that they played out in different ways, and in ways that didn’t work as well for me. You don’t have the same opportunities to practice your combat, for example; I’m not sure why you can’t practice in the vacant lots in Shenmue II, but that’s the way it is? (And, jumping ahead, towards the end of the game there are lots of arenas you can fight in if you want, but you’re forced to gamble, so you don’t want to do that unless you’re sure you can win.)

You still can earn money at a job in Shenmue II, but it’s one that I personally didn’t find as satisfying: you’re stacking crates through a button-pushing minigame, it feels much more artificial than forklift delivery, and there’s no reward for doing well. I literally never got credit for anything other than six crate deliveries the entire way through the game, no matter how badly or well I did. (I’m sure that if I’d intentionally screwed up, I could have gotten less money, but I would have had to work hard at it to screw up that badly, you can make a bunch of mistakes and still get credit for 6 deliveries.) And you can earn money through gambling, but the odds aren’t in your favor, and I wasn’t about to start save scumming.

I still enjoyed the environments, though; and on a personal level, it was nice to see so much Tai Chi, and even to have Ryo be surprised at the martial applications of Tai Chi and to have it explained that that’s because it’s Chen-style Tai Chi. And the plot is fine, too; a little less of a feeling of connection than the first game, perhaps, but that’s only natural since Ryo has uprooted himself, and he does make bonds in Hong Kong as well. So the core good feelings are still there.

 

Still, I was feeling that maybe some of the magic was missing in Shenmue II, that it wasn’t quite as good as either its predecessor or as my memories of the first time I played the sequel. But then I got to the final section of the game. And, yeah: I’d never seen anything like that before, I’ve never seen anything like that since.

Maybe the end of Shenmue II is the ur-walking simulator? Or rather, it’s a walking-and-talking simulator, because that’s all you’re doing: you spend two days walking from a harbor at the base of a river up the mountains to a village, accompanied most of the way by a girl who lives at the village. There are a few quicktime events, but mostly you’re just talking to each other while going along the path. And that conversation is perhaps the most natural conversation that I’ve ever seen in an adventure game or an RPG.

You’re not going through dialog trees and then waiting for the next set of trees to unlock, you just have a handful of topics to talk about at any give point. And these are topics that naturally flow out of the prior conversation: so, basically, what the game is doing is modeling being a human being who is good at being around other people, paying attention to what they’re saying and following up on their words and their interests. If that bores you, there’s an option indicating that you don’t have anything else to say, so you can probably cut the time in half and just quickly make it to the village.

But I was never even remotely tempted to take that option. It left me with a very similar feel to the daily rhythms of the first game: there’s enforced breathing space between plot points, but that breathing space doesn’t outstay its welcome, it’s just enough space to let you feel like a regular human being going through life instead of like a Video Game Hero. I don’t know that I would want a full game of Shenmue II conversation, but I’m sure glad to have experienced it here. I’m glad because of the uniqueness; I’m glad because I genuinely enjoyed it; and I’m glad because it gave a cooling down period after the climax of the game, to let the excitement of the final battle settle.

 

So that’s the first two Shenmue games. And, in a few months, I’ll get to play the third one! I was very excited about that prospect before the replay; and I’m just as excited after having revisited the first two games.

turned on https

August 13th, 2019

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

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

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

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

gender roles and divisions of labor

August 12th, 2019

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

persona 5

July 7th, 2019

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

childhood consciousness

June 16th, 2019

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

baba is you

May 23rd, 2019

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

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

 

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

luminary

May 19th, 2019

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

return of the obra dinn

May 13th, 2019

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

ps4 remote play

April 28th, 2019

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

foot pain

April 18th, 2019

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

hexcells

April 11th, 2019

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

gris

March 28th, 2019

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

small steps, shorter posts

March 26th, 2019

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

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

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