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hollow knight

March 21st, 2019

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

brothers: a tale of two sons

March 14th, 2019

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

Oof.

attending my first lotus nei gong course

February 21st, 2019

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

software kill switches

February 10th, 2019

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

card quest

February 6th, 2019

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

traveling to india

February 3rd, 2019

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

how to learn

January 15th, 2019

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

early 2019 tai chi update

January 10th, 2019

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

alphabear 2

December 27th, 2018

So: Alphabear 2. It had been a while since the original Alphabear, I enjoyed it, so I might as well revisit it?

And the gameplay mechanics are the same, and are pleasant. The only difference I noticed there was my reaction to them: I was hoping I could play Alphabear 2 while wandering around and listening to podcasts, but it tickles the verbal part of my brain too much, so that didn’t work too well. (Which would have been the same with the original, of course, I guess I’d just played it more at home?)

 

But then there’s everything that surrounds the core gameplay. You go through this story mode, accumulating bears; there’s a gatcha mechanic to level them up and to collect new ones, and a separate school mechanic to level them up in a slow but more predictable way. And, at some point, I hit the wall on the story mode: my bears weren’t high enough level.

Which highlighted the absurdity of leveling mechanics: it’s not like I wasn’t playing well enough in some absolute sense, it’s just that my bears didn’t have high enough numbers to match the numbers on the curve they’d put for the story mode. And, of course, a battle between underlying numbers is something that’s there in pretty much every RPG; the differences here are that the curves are designed to make you wait a lot instead of make you feel better and better, and there’s not enough story and other variety to pull you along in the face of numerical annoyances.

 

The thing is, if all that I cared about was the mechanics, the game would be fine: there are more than enough non-story challenges in the game to keep me entertained if that had been what I’d wanted to spend time on? And it’s not like I gave up on the game immediately; but, ultimately, I don’t like the core mechanic enough to really immerse myself in it, and the leveling curve left a bad taste in my mouth.

Not a surprise; it’s what free-to-play games do, even ones that have a “pay to remove the ads” option: they’re not about one-time payments. And that generally leads to gameplay decisions that make me like the game a little less.

Though there’s the underlying issue here of how exposed the core mechanic is: I actually see that as a generally good thing, but it makes me appreciate games that have an even more solid core mechanic. Maybe Alphabear is that for some people, but for me, even setting aside the free-to-play issues, it turned out that I’d really rather fill those free moments by playing Flipflop Solitaire

ipad desires

December 24th, 2018

The iPad has been, in its own way, probably my favorite computing device ever since it came out: a sheet of paper that magically displays whatever you want it to. I’ve been on an iPad Air 2 for three years now; so it’s a reasonable time to think about buying a new one, and this year’s models looked really good!

Good enough to to think about them as a laptop replacement: the chip in it is more powerful than the chip in the laptop that I’m typing this on, and that laptop is way overpowered for how I use it. And I have both an iMac and a Macbook Pro at home; there were reasons why I ended up with that setup, but those reasons are mostly historical, and going forward either a Macbook Pro plus a monitor or else an iMac plus some sort of auxiliary device that can ssh or remote desktop into the iMac makes a lot more sense.

 

A lot of what I use the laptop for is stuff that I could already do as well or better on an iPad: reading blog posts, reading e-mail, etc. If I were doing serious programming at home on a regular basis, then that would be a reason to keep around a reasonably powerful laptop as my primary home device, but I don’t program at home all that often; I certainly want a machine available for times when I do that, but that’s one of the reasons why the iMac is there. But I do write blog posts; and I’m not in the habit of doing that on an iPad.

The thing is, though, I suspect that there are many ways in which I would prefer to write blog posts on an iPad: that’s a situation where I just want a sheet of paper to type in, and the iPad is great at being a sheet of paper! I’m writing this in a Byword window floating in the middle of an empty desktop (I hide all other apps while writing); having Byword fill up an iPad-sized screen sounds great.

 

So I brought along my iPad and a keyboard when I was on a recent trip; I used the iPad to write one blog post. (I used the iOS version of Byword, which I also turn out to rather like.) And there were a lot of things that I liked about that setup: in particular, the visual ergonomics were great. I also used the iPad for some other stuff that I normally use my laptop for, e.g. keeping the list of books I’m reading up to date (which involves sshing into a remote Linux server); the iPad was fine for that, and what problems I had were, I think, mostly problems with the keyboard I was using and/or the ssh client, they seemed eminently solvable.

The one issue I had was that I far prefer to use my iPad in portrait mode, and in particular portrait feels like a much better fit for writing than landscape: I don’t want to have to move my eyes much from side to side, whereas being able to see more lines at once seems like a fine idea. (There’s a reason why books are presented in portrait mode, after all!) And the keyboard that I was using felt noticeably more top-heavy in portrait mode than in landscape mode. And that was while I was using it at a table; but, when I’m at home, I type sitting in a chair in the den, hanging out with my family. That keyboard would have been really annoying to use in that situation.

That keyboard was one that I’d bought with a previous iPad model, so it wasn’t even a good fit for the iPad Air 2, and of course keyboard technology has changed over the years. So I did some poking around, to see if there were iPad keyboards that are actually stable in a lap, and to see if any of them are stable in portrait position. It looks like there are some that might work in my lap in landscape mode (including Apple’s keyboard case for their most recent iPad Pros); a few of the options (e.g. the Studio Neat Canopy) might be usable in portrait, but I sure couldn’t count on it. (I e-mailed the Studio Neat folks, their answer was maybe?) And so it’s easy to envision the iPad switch from something that’s my favorite computing device to something that I like less than a laptop because it doesn’t feel solid while I’m typing on it.

 

At which point I realized that I was being ridiculous. I don’t actually have a problem here that I’m solving: yes, I suspect that there’s a mythical future computing device that I would prefer for my evening at-home use over this laptop, but this laptop is just fine, in fact it’s considerable better than just fine! And yeah, the new iPads look great, they have amazing CPUs and their Apple Pencil support is a big step forward in this generation; but I don’t need a better CPU, and I don’t draw or do anything else that would make an Apple Pencil at all useful for me. I can imagine wanting to learn how to draw at some point in the future, but that time is not now.

And, also: the iPad Air 2 is a pretty great device as well! My first two iPads were the original model and the iPad 3; I really enjoyed both of them, but I was also quite ready to replace both of them when better models came around, they were noticeably slow and a little heavier than I would have liked. Whereas I don’t feel that way at all with the iPad Air 2, despite its age; every once in a while (when reading comics or PDFs), I wish that the screen were slightly larger, so that’s a real plus for the latest models, but that’s about the only concrete way in which I see the latest models making a real difference for me. And that’s definitely not a difference that’s worth a thousand dollars.

 

So, ultimately: I’m just getting pulled along by gadget lust, the desire for the latest shiny thing. And I shouldn’t let that blind me to the fact that I really like my current iPad and I actually also quite like my current laptop; I should just continue to enjoy using them!

And yeah, at some point my laptop and iPad break; and I’ll probably use that as an excuse to try out the iPad-for-work lifestyle. And, who knows, maybe one of these portrait-in-my-lap solutions will work; or, if not maybe Apple’s latest attempt will be good, or Brydge will continue to improve, and I’ll continue to type in landscape mode. And maybe I’ll even decide to start drawing or something?

But no need to rush out and buy the latest shiny gadget, even if I think it’s a quite good shiny gadget.

forza horizon 4

December 20th, 2018

I used to play driving games a fair amount: they were never my genre of choice or anything, but I found them soothing. I’d gotten out of the habit over the last few years, but I’d been hearing good things about various Forza games for a few years; so when I finished playing through Shenmue, I decided I’d follow up that game’s forklift racing by spending time with Forza Horizon 4.

At first, I kept on comparing Forza Horizon 4 to Burnout Paradise: open-world driving games that provide you with races as ways to get from point A to point B, that are happy to encourage you to explore the map (both on and off-road) in other ways, and that take care with the in-game radio stations. And, honestly, Forza didn’t do so well in that comparison: in particular, the more I played Burnout Paradise the more time I spent trying to build trick chains as I drove around, and while Forza Horizon 4 has a similar trick chain mechanic available to you, the game and its environments simply aren’t focused on tricks in the same way.

Not that trick chains are the only primary mechanic for Burnout Paradise: racing and crashing are key to the game as well, as is plain old exploration. Whereas racing, exploration, and tricks are all there in Forza Horizon 4, but there’s more of a priority order: it felt to me like the game is primarily about the racing, secondarily about the exploration (or maybe exploration and collecting), and the tricks are significantly lower in priority.

 

Which is fine! After all, if I want to play a racing game, then I might as well spend time actually, you know, racing. And a big part of what I like about racing games is focusing and getting better at both the mechanics and the tracks.

It turned out, though, that I was quite bad at the races. And, also, the AI opponents felt a little funny to me: they always all did a solid job of basically following the correct lines around corners (and, incidentally, I appreciated the game for showing those lines!); while I, not to put a too fine point on it, didn’t. So my AI opponents would end up fairly tightly clumped, I’d be way behind them, and whatever differences that were leading to some of the AI cars being at the front of the pack and some at the end felt qualitatively different from what was causing me to lag behind.

It started getting better with offroad races: following the line didn’t matter nearly as much there, so I wasn’t at nearly as much of a disadvantage. And, actually, I had an asymmetric advantage: if you approach tight curves close behind your opponents and you take an inside route at an overly high speed, then you’ll slide into your opponents, using them to brake and guide you around whe curve while knocking them out of the way, letting you pass several cars at once. A lot of me thinks the game should punish this strategy more, but for whatever reason it doesn’t, and the AI never adapts that strategy itself. At any rate, with that combination of looseness and intentional collisions, I switched over to usually winning offroad races.

 

Road races were still giving me more trouble; so I started replaying some three-lap races. That way, I could memorize the tracks and practice the same corners over and over again; and after an evening doing that, I switched from basically not knowing what how to corner effectively to frequently being able to hit corners well. And, correspondingly, I went from always coming in last or near last in road races to usually at least being in the middle of the pack and sometimes (rarely at that point, but then more and more often over the subsequent weeks) actually winning.

And, like I said above, one of the things I like about racing games is the focus that they engender. So I was starting to get that out of Forza.

 

There was still a ton of other things to do beyond the races. The world is pretty amazing, there’s stuff to explore everywhere, and the game does a good job of nudging you to look in different areas. And there are also story missions, which are a change of pace tonally and which give you driving challenges that feel a little different from the races.

And, as I mentioned above, there’s also the radio. Which I was actually a little bit disappointed in initially: the pop tracks didn’t grab me, and the classical selection was super boring. But eventually a few of the songs got their hooks into me as well, I was just a little slow to come along.

 

Forza Horizon 4 is, ultimately, a very good game. It feels maybe a little overpolished to me, and as much as an achievement that quality of open-world racing game is, I might actually be a little more in the mood for a track-based racing game? (Or maybe it’s the Burnout Paradise comparison lurking again: always hard if the comparison in my head is against one of the best games of its decade.) But I’m certainly glad to have spent the time with it that I did, and it’s also a reminder that racing a genre that I do enjoy, and that I haven’t spent enough time with over the last several years.

notes on silk-reeling exercises

December 16th, 2018

I’ve been learning Tai Chi for a little over three years now; and, as part of his classes, my teacher also teaches us Silk-Reeling Exercises. They’re not as flashy as the form, but I’ve gotten a lot out of them: both from how they feel on their own and how they help me isolate aspects of the form.

So I figured I’d write down some of the things I’ve been thinking about when I go through the exercises. I offer no warranty as to whether I’m actually approaching the exercises correctly: I’m actually a little nervous to be writing this just after reading Chen Xiaowang talk about how it can be harmful if you focus on the wrong thing! Hopefully if more advanced students read this, they’ll point out areas where I’m slipping up.

I’m not going to focus on individual exercises (with one exception); instead, I’m going to talk about aspects that are applicable across many of the exercises. And I’m going to list too much to actively keep in your head at any one time: what I’ve done is try to focus on one of these aspects for maybe a couple of months until I feel like I’ve got it at least partially internalized, at which point it goes into the background. (And then it pops out again when I notice that I’m getting that aspect wrong!) And, as I start internalizing more aspects, I start uncovering new ones to think about; I’m all ears for suggestions for other things I should be thinking about next during the exercises.

 

Tense and Relax

Most of the time, in a given exercise, you get tenser in one part of the exercise and you relax in another part. For example, when doing Elbow Rotation, you tense when your elbows are going up and out, and relax when they’re going down and in; a similar thing happens with the Hand Maneuvers.

Tense doesn’t mean stiff; relaxed doesn’t mean floppy. It’s more about how your energy is extending and then settling. (Or gathering?) Though I guess there are some places where relaxing has a somewhat different tenor: e.g. letting your arms fall as you relax them during Chest and Abdomen Folding, or paying attention to how your arms shift if you keep your shoulders relaxed during Spine Stretch?

A related concept: opening and closing. Especially during the first few exercises, you’re opening and closing your chest as you tense and relax.

Align Your Knees with Your Feet

Your knees should basically always be pointing in the same direction as your feet. This is very important to reduce the chance of knee problems: if you don’t do this you’ll put extra strain on your knees as forces are going in the wrong direction.

So sneak a look down every once in a while: if you’re rotating to the left, for example, make sure that your right knee is still lined up with your right foot, that it’s not starting to lean left. The way you generally accomplish this is to make sure that your kua stays open; I’ll talk about that more in a bit.

Turn Your Waist

When you turn your waist, that doesn’t necessarily mean that you have to turn your hips. Some turning of your hips is fine, though usually your hips turn less than your waist; but if the turning makes it as far down as your knees, then that’s bad: your knees will go out of alignment.

So be conscious of whether you’re turning your waist, your hips, or your knees; in particular, when doing Waist Turning with Punching, focus on turning your waist rather than your hips.

Sink into Your Kua

Your kua is where your thigh meets your hip; and, basically, whenever you move your legs without moving your feet, think about whether you should sink into the kua on the side that you’re moving towards.

In particular, if you feel a twinge in your knees, that could be a sign that you’re sinking into your knees rather than into your kua. (It could, of course, also be a sign that your knees are out of alignment!) I used to do this a lot during Knee Rotation; my knees feel a lot better now that I’m sinking into my kua more. And sinking into your kua has benefits other than reducing knee strain, to be sure: I’ll talk about that a little more below.

Loose Connection between Top and Bottom

The above items all point at the connection between the top and bottom of your body. Say, for example, that you’re doing Shoulder Rotation. It’s not going to be isolated to your shoulder: you’re going to want to open and close your chest as you turn, tensing and relaxing. And, as you open, your torso will want to turn and move back on the side where you’re moving your shoulder; this is good!

But you don’t want that to translate directly into turning all the way down your body: your knees should remain stable, and you also want to keep your torso upright, instead of tilting it. So, if you want to keep your torso upright as you move your shoulder and chest back, then you’ll have to move your hips back to stay underneath your torso; you do this by sinking into your kua on your back leg. And you’re turning your torso while doing this; most of the turning should be absorbed by your waist, with your hips only turning by a relatively small angle.

When doing upper-body movements like this, I think of my hips as traveling on a track between having my weight on my left leg and on my right leg; my torso is going up in a line from my hips (as opposed to being tilted), turning significantly more, and my thighs are acting like shock absorbers, with the kua doing most of the work. So the two halves of my body are connected, but the motion changes from more circular on the top to more linear on the bottom: there’s still some amount of spiral motion everywhere, but its character changes.

Dantian Movement

When doing the various silk reeling exercises, I found it interesting to pay attention to what my dantian was doing. I wasn’t so much using my dantian to guide the rest of my body as seeing how movements in the rest of my body were reflected in my dantian.

For example, when doing Shoulder Rotations, listen to your dantian, and think about how it moves differently when you’re only rotating one shoulder versus when you’re rotating both shoulders on the same side versus how you’re rotating both shoulders alternating.

Ground Connection

You always want to feel connected with the ground; and, when you start paying attention to this, it can be surprisingly visceral. And you want to maintain this connection when shifting your weight from one foot to the other: it’s very easy to loose the connection and get uproooted when doing that. Especially if the weight shift corresponds to a movement that’s rotating upwards: e.g. when shifting weight during Shoulder Rotation, it’s easy to get uprooted when your shoulder rotates along the top, whereas it’s much easier to maintain a ground connection during the bottom half of the rotation.

I think the key to maintaining the ground connection in those circumstances is peng energy: with peng, you’re expanding upwards, but you’re also sinking while doing so, inflating in both directions. So if you can sink into your front foot and actively push from that foot, then you can maintain the ground connection while rotating up and back. I’m not sure what all is going on, though; but, fortunately, the ground connection is a visceral enough feeling that you can use it as feedback when experimenting.

(It’s hard to pay continuous attention to, though! Like I said at the beginning, I’m usually only actively focusing on one of the aspects that I’ve listed here at any given time, the others are more in the back of my mind.)

Energy Flow

This is a concept that I don’t feel like I understand at all well yet: it’s the main thing that I’m trying to experiment with and get a feel for right now. The initial experience that made me think there’s something here that I should pay attention to happened this summer: I’d done a six-hour workshop on Sunday, and then the next Tuesday, when I was doing the Silk-Reeling Exercises, it felt to me like there was some sort of flow actively moving around in my body, almost like something was sloshing around inside of me. (I think it showed up most strongly when doing the double-shoulder Shoulder Rotations; I like that exercise!)

I haven’t actually felt the flow that strongly since then; this is probably a sign that I’m not doing intensive Tai Chi practice frequently enough! But I do now feel weaker versions of it if I’m listening.

There’s also more static feelings of energy. I’ve been feeling tingling in my fingers when doing Tai Chi for a couple of years now; over the last few months, as I’ve been focusing more on relaxing and opening up my kua, I’m feeling sustained warmth between my dantian and kua. I’m actually not sure if these are all manifestations of the same form of energy or not; there’s a lot I need to figure out.

 

The above aspects are applicable to pretty much all of the Silk-Reeling Exercises: I might use individual exercises as examples, but the concepts are general. But I did want to put in an exhortation to do one of the exercises, namely:

Dantian Rotation

Earlier this year, I decided that I’d do some Dantian Rotations while waiting for the train on the way into work. (Or, if I got to the train station a little late, I’d do them when I got off of the train.) So I started off by doing 15 rotations every morning, and pretty soon I bumped it up to 20 rotations every morning.

And I think it made a big difference to my Tai Chi practice; and, for me, doing 15 or 20 rotations in a single session is qualitatively completely different from doing 6 rotations. (These days I’m actually doing three separate groups of 25 rotations at different times of the day, but that’s not having a big step change: the big change was starting to do 15 a day in a single session.)

Concretely, what happened was, after doing this for a bit, I’d start to feel sensations moving across other parts of my body. When doing the sideways vertical circles at the start, for example, I’d feel movement across my shoulders, and I’d even feel movement across the back of my skull. If I’m paying attention, I can feel those sensations a little bit when doing 6 rotations, but it’s a lot easier to feel them if I’m doing 15 or 20 rotations.

And I noticed my form changing in subtle ways, too: I don’t know for sure that this is related to my doing Dantian Rotations, but I’m pretty sure it is. Concretely, at the end of Grab and Tuck in the Robe, you’re supposed to turn in your left foot a little bit at the end, and when doing Dantian Change, you’re supposed to turn in your right foot a little bit at the end.

That had felt pretty academic to me, but, all of a sudden, my feet started doing that on their own: when moving my arm across the top of my body like that, it became the most natural thing in the world to have my opposite foot move in a way that weakly echoed my arm’s movement. I don’t really understand what’s going on here, but I’m pretty sure that repeatedly doing Dantian Rotations helped me feel connections between movements in the center of my body and movements in outer parts of my body, and that in turn is causing more of my body to move in concert with each other.

So I would recommend giving that a try: find a time in the day when you regularly have a five minute gap, and spend it doing Dantian Rotations. Don’t worry about doing Dantian Rotations perfectly: it’s actually one of the Silk-Reeling Exercises that I’m still most unsure of the best way to do it. But I was getting benefits from it even during a time when (in retrospect) I’m pretty sure I was getting some of the details of it wrong.

 

I hope people find this interesting, maybe even useful; if I’m saying things that are confusing, please let me know and I’ll try to clarify! And I’m quite sure that there are things that I’m saying here that aren’t quite right, and that there are other aspects of Silk-Reeling Exercises that I should be paying attention to that I’m not thinking of; I’d love to hear more ideas along these lines.

apple watch first impressions

December 3rd, 2018

I didn’t have any interest in the Apple Watch when it first came out: I don’t get a lot of notifications on my phone, so I’m not going to buy a device just to shift them to my wrist, and I don’t have any desire in having a device that nags me to exercise more. (Not that I’m against exercising, but I can make my own decisions in that regard.)

Since Miranda went off to college, though, I’m getting (and sending) more text messages; and it sounded like Apple had done a particularly good job in general with their latest model of the watch? (Even some of the health improvements sounded like they might be useful.) So I got one; 44mm aluminum non-cellular.

And I like it! It’s not a transformational device, I certainly get more out of my phone and my iPad, but I’m glad I got it, and I’ve enjoyed it in ways that I didn’t expect.

 

An example of something that surprised me: using it to control what I’m listening to. Yes, it’s trivial to do that with my phone, the controls are almost always right there on my lock screen. But I spend too much time with my phone in my pocket; and, if I take it out to fiddle with it to control audio, I have a bad habit of continuing to look at my phone. Whereas, with my watch I don’t have that temptation.

And also: the volume controls are better on the watch! Turning a knob is a better user interface for volume control than a pair of buttons, and it also allows for finer control gradations. (I’m not sure why Apple uses as large volume jumps on phone button presses as it does, but it’s annoying.) And the knob feels good, too. So there’s a Marie Kondo thing going on here: to my surprise, using the digital crown as a volume knob does actually bring me joy in its own tiny way.

 

As to what I expected to get out of it: I do prefer using the watch for notifications. Part of that is not having to pull my phone out of my pocket; probably more important is that the notifications are silent but I notice them significantly more reliably than I notice my phone when it’s in silent mode. And, as an unexpected bonus: the handwriting detection works much better than I expected, so if I want to respond to a text message with a single word (which is a not-all-that-uncommon use case), I can do that from my watch without pulling out my phone.

And then there’s the health stuff. As expected, I don’t care about the move / exercise rings, but I wasn’t surprised to find that the stand rings is actually mildly useful. For a while, the nagging about the move / exercise rings was annoying, but it turns out that there’s a good amount of control over the exercise notifications, so I could turn off the notifications telling me to go for a walk to close my rings while still leaving on the stand notifications.

At first I was mostly bemused by the way it treats the exercise ring: one feature of this watch is that it’s supposed to detect workouts, but it almost never does that for me, even though I’ll spend an hour or two praticing Tai Chi and I go on decent length walks multiple times a day.

But then I visited Miranda and went up and down hills, and all of a sudden it was noticing that I was going on walks; and, actually, I was also noticing that that was feeling different from my walks at home, even though my walks at home are much longer. So the watch is in fact pointing out that I’m not doing much in the way of aerobic exercise: I’m moving a lot, and Tai Chi actually does get me sweating, but there is something that’s missing.

So maybe I should change that a bit? E.g. when I’m walking with Widget, I probably just want to go at whatever pace works for both of us; but when I’m walking to the train station in the morning, why not walk faster? I’m not going to take up jogging — I tried that for several years a decade or so back, and it just didn’t work for me — but I probably am missing something by always walking slowly, even if I do spend an hour or two a day doing that walking.

 

On a similar note to the stand reminders, the watch also periodically reminds me to spend a minute relaxing and focusing on my breath. And I like that, it’s something that I actually do want to spend a little more time doing; it’s probably more useful to me than the stand reminders? The timing of the reminders is a little random, they’re not particularly likely to show up right when I have a moment to relax, but still, I appreciate the prompt.

I’ve started using the watch to set timers, and I prefer that over setting timers on my phone. It’s particularly useful when doing standing meditation: I want a 20 minute timer so I’ve got a concrete goal, but I also don’t want a sound jarring me out of it; a vibration on my wrist works nicely for that. For a while, I was setting the timers by just raising my wrist to my mouth and saying “set a timer for 20 minutes”, but that doesn’t work super reliably; it was neat when it did work, though!

I’ve installed the watch apps for most of the phone apps that I have that come with watch apps, but they don’t add much. The Castro one is fine, but the only reason I use it is because it comes up automatically; the default playback controls would be fine if that app didn’t exist at all. The Streaks app is quite unreliable, so I’ve stopped using it: streak completions just don’t reliably make it from my watch to my phone.

I was going to call out the Duo app, but it’s not a separate app, it looks like it’s just a fancy way of showing Duo notifications on the watch; whatever it is, though, I definitely like being able to approve 2FA requests from my wrist instead of having to pull out my phone! And, continuing with authentication, I also like being able to log into computers just by sitting down in front of them with my watch on; one of the computers I use regularly has touch ID, which is similar and a little faster / more reliable, but the other ones don’t. (Though I’m not 100% at peace with the security model of watch unlocks; I haven’t thought about it super hard, though…)

 

I was thinking I’d play around with different bands, but the first one I bought was the Hibiscus Sport Loop, and I really liked it, so I stuck with it. It’s been getting dingy, though; I should look up the washing instructions, but that’s also a reminder that I should branch out and have a little bit of fun?

I’ve been wearing the White Sport Loop that came with the watch for the last two days, and I liked both the look and feel of that a lot more than I expected; I should put it in the rotation, and maybe get a more colorful Sport Loop? And I’ll probably get one of the metal ones, too; the last time I had a regular watch, it had a metal link bracelet, and I remember liking the feel of that, so I’m thinking I’ll probably get one of Apple’s Link Bracelets?

Which is a pretty expensive, but I’m liking the watch enough that I assume I’ll be wearing it and upgraded models indefinitely? And Apple has now kept watch band compatability through one size transition, so it should last for years. Not completely sure, though: it’s a lot of money, maybe I should explore third-party options, or just go with the Milanese? Or maybe I should explore third-party options just to be able to switch things up, no need to wear the same band every day…

ipad game roundup

November 26th, 2018

Some iPad games I played recently:

Paperbark

A lovely art style, and lovely sound design. And I like the idea of having a world that appears as you walk around in it. The gameplay beyond that concept didn’t grab me, though. (Or, for that matter, the learning aspects: it’s an openly didactic game.) And, similarly, the art didn’t quite come together, despite the beauty of the approach.

Florence

I wish I’d blogged about this sooner after playing it: it’s a slice of life story with interaction used in effective ways, and that’s a design space that I should probably spend more time thinking about and exploring. And I suspect that I had a thought or two about it after playing, though nothing too deep; that was two and a half months ago, though. At any rate: definitely my favorite of the four games here, and the only one that I actively recommend.

Donut County

You’d think that more games would have imitated Katamari Damacy’s mechanics, but this is the only one that I’m aware of. And the main thing that I learned from Donut County is how fragile the Katamari magic is: Donut County seems close in many ways, but adds up to something much less.

Rymdkapsel

This game caught my eye when it first came out but I never got around to playing it back then; but I recently learned that it was by the same developer as Holedown, so I tried it out when I was on a trip earlier this month. Alas, continuing the theme of this post: Rymdkapsel is no Holedown. Holedown had slight timing issues, but those were around the fringes: with Rymdkapsel, though, you spend a full hour making just a few dozen decisions. I suspect that there would actually be a pretty interesting learning curve here if the game were just sped up five or ten times, but it’s not, and the presentation, as lovely as it is in its own way, isn’t enough to make up for that.

goals and deliberate practice

November 23rd, 2018

I read Peak a few months back: it talks about using deliberate practice to develop expertise. Basically, you have to put in your time, but you also have to be putting in your time in the right way: always stretching yourself, instead of coasting (making things too easy) or flailing (making things too hard). Or, for that matter, instead of doing something that’s difficult but not difficult in a way that is most useful for the learning goal at hand. (The book ultimately also tells to you find a coach who knows what they’re doing…)

On the one hand, books like this are a useful reminder: I feel like I can usually tell when I’m stretching myself and when I’m not, and that’s an important distinction to keep in mind. But, on the other hand, there are some assumptions potentially lurking there that I’m not entirely comfortable with.

 

A lot of these discussions talk about what you need to do is to be great at something. And that might be important if you think you’re pursuing your vocation (though it might be overrated even then!), but, most of the time, when I’m learning something, being great at it isn’t my goal.

Take Tai Chi, for example. I’ve been learning it over the last three years, I am taking it seriously, and I am trying to get better. But my goal isn’t to become a Tai Chi master: not now, not even over the next decade or two. I have a full time job, I have a family, I have other interests; I don’t even practice Tai Chi every day (though I can imagine that changing; and actually there are some isolated exercises I do every day now), and on days when I do practice, I only practice for an hour or two.

If I really wanted to become an expert, it feels to me that treating it basically like a full-time job would be table stakes. And I’m not doing that, or coming anywhere near doing that: I’m trying to get better, but, well, not I’m not trying all that hard! Which is fine, it’s a conscious choice; but also, even though I’m reading a book about expertise, I don’t actually have to try to become an expert in everything, or even everything that I try to practice deliberately.

 

But, stepping back further, I don’t always have to practice deliberately! For this one, I’ll use guitar as the example: I do put in a few hours of guitar practice a week, and I would like to get better at it. (Though, as with Tai Chi, I’m not coming anywhere near putting in the hours and effort necessary to become an expert.)

Sometimes I do try to deliberately practice guitar. But I also just enjoy playing, and I enjoy interactively listening to music. And that’s okay, too? It is, again, probably good not to be under any illusion: yes, I would improve faster at guitar if I practiced differently. But that’s not necessarily the metric that’s important to me: it’s okay to enjoy things, too!

 

On that last note, one thing I actually have noticed is that, when I buckle down and focus on playing a small section of a song on guitar, I enjoy the process a lot more than I expect. So, even if I’m just trying to enjoy myself, deliberate practice can still be worth it? That’s also related to something that I’ve noticed about doing Tai Chi: I like how the concentration that it induces feels in my brain.

I dunno. I mean, the idea of deliberate practice is definitely important. I just don’t like the narrative that links it too closely to becoming an expert…

holedown

November 17th, 2018

Holedown is a lovely little ball-bouncing game. Blocks come up from the bottom of the screen; rather than being individual squares, though, they’re somewhat more irregularly shaped (think Tetris pieces, but with more variation); frequently with space between them, frequently right next to each other. You shoot a stream of balls down at them, and they bounce around; each block has a number on it, which goes down each time a ball hits a block, the number goes down 1, and if it hits zero, the block vanishes.

Blocks come in two different types: fixed ones and resting ones. Fixed ones only disappear if the count hits zero; resting ones can be destroyed the same way, but they also get destroyed if all of the fixed blocks they’re on top of (either directly or through a chain of resting blocks) get destroyed. So, if you can get your stream of balls to bounce halfway down the screen to where it hits a fixed block, then, by destroying that block, you might clear out a large chunk of the top half of the screen.

After that stream of balls stops bouncing around, the remaining blocks move up one; if they hit the top of the screen, your game is over. Also, the numbers on new blocks get higher, so they’re harder to destroy; counterbalancing that, the number of balls in your stream increases (more slowly than the numbers on the blocks, but quickly enough to make a difference), though if you play long enough, you’ll eventually hit a cap. (But the numbers on the blocks don’t get capped, so the game gets harder and harder at that point.)

 

That’s the basic idea (and a core idea that’s not unique to this game, it’s a mini-genre); and Holedown turns out to be a really well executed instance of this idea. The visuals are unassumingly charming; the sounds do a great job of giving a bouncy feel; the animations of blocks being hit or disappearing provide constant low-key fun. And there are other more subtle signs of care in the interactions: e.g. when you lift your finger from the screen to launch the shot, it’s almost always the case that your contact point with the screen changes as you lift it, but the game is very good at figuring out what the angle was from the contact point right before you started lifting and using that instead of the final contact point.

And the underlying systems are equally well thought out. Randomness is a key to doing games like this well: you want lots of randomness to provide variety, to increase the range of situations that you have to respond to. But you don’t want the randomness to feel unfair, like you hit a situation that nobody could deal with (at least until you hit the cap on the size of the stream of balls, because after that it’s only a matter of time before it gets too hard); and you want scope to get better by improving your skills at dealing with that randomness.

 

Some sources of randomness, and similar areas where you can increase your skill:

  • The irregular shape of the blocks.
  • The positioning of blocks in relationship to each other: are there spaces you can slip balls through, are there two blocks near each other with a space between them where you can get a ball bouncing back and forth repeatedly, is there a whole row of blocks with no gaps that you’ll have to drill away at, etc.
  • The two types of blocks, and the strategies that evolve from that: do you always want to target the top block (lower risk, but too low a reward to be right in general) or do you want to target the lower blocks (with an increased risk of getting your angles wrong, but with potential benefits of setting up massive cascade effects)?
  • The curved corners of the blocks, and the difficulty of prediction that arises from that. (According to a podcast interview with the developer, they’re not actually modeled as curves in the physics model, but there’s enough variation to be interesting; after listening to that, I was curious to see what it would feel like if the physics modeling matched the visuals, would that make it too hard to predict?)
  • The fact that, if you clear out too much of the top of the screen, then the screen will move up multiple rows at once, adding in risk to balance out the potential of big plays. (Including the risk that you don’t know what the shape will be of the new blocks that arrive: will they have lots of gaps or will they all be stuck in a row?)

 

That last point turns out, for me, to be the key to how I feel about the game in the long run. There are actually two different modes in the game: at first, you’re going through specific challenges (reach a certain depth, basically), with pretty serious constraints on the number of balls you can have in place, and with an added mechanic to let you learn level ups. So that’s fun as a teaching tool for the game, and fixed-scope challenges are certainly pleasant to overcome. But, after a few hours, you’ll make it through all of those challenges and earn all the level ups; at that point, you’re in an infinite mode, that always starts with 32-ball streams and where you can never get more than 99 balls. So, there, the challenge is whether you can make it up to 99 balls and then how long you can stay at that level.

And the mechanic of having the screen move up a bunch if you clear out too much is key to the infinite mode. Something like that is absolutely necessary to make the game interesting: otherwise you’d spend way too much time in a mode where only a couple of lines of blocks were present, because once enough blocks appeared, chances are that that would give you enough scope to bounce balls through a gap to reach underneath them and bounce around repeatedly, clearing things out. And that would be boring.

The flip side, though, is that encouraging conservative play, of not always trying to destroy as many balls as possible, is also a little boring. Of the two potential problems arising from how to handle screen movement mechanically, it’s the better problem to have, because it does give you an added option in how to play tactically and hence another opportunity for skill development. But still: so much of the game does such a great job of making it fun to have balls bounce around a lot that it’s a pity to see that worked against in this instance.

 

I’d assumed that the developer thought of the infinite mode as the core of the game and the earlier steps as tutorials, but, according to that podcast interview, that’s not the case: his goal was to make the experience of those fixed levels a very satisfying experience (which it is!), and the infinite mode is a bonus.

And this shows: the infinite mode is where the question above becomes important, and while the game’s solution is fine, I suspect there’s something lurking out there that could be a little better?

Also, the arc of a session in the infinite mode is not quite as good as it could be: there’s the initial wonder as to whether you’ll be able to survive at the start at all (which I usually can but which I fail at a not-insignificant portion of time), then there’s a fairly long period where you get more balls and where the game gets noticeably easier (I still die in this period sometimes, probably most of the time, but any individual portion of it is not going to be too bad), and then you hit the 99 ball cap and there’s a question of how long it will take to come up against a randomly generated hard-to-deal-with configuration that outstrips your skill.

And that’s a fine arc, though having the middle part be easier than the beginning is a little unusual; the problem is that the most rewarding part of that arc is where you’re at the 99 ball cap, and it takes a while (I haven’t measured, but I feel like 10–20 minutes? Certainly a long time for an arcadey game) to get there. So the learning cycle is curtailed, because you don’t get nudges to adjust your strategy / improve your skill in response to failure as frequently as I’d like. (And, also, individual sessions get a little long for a game that could otherwise be an iPhone play-in-spare-moments game.)

 

Anyways: very solid game at its core, with really good production values. It doesn’t quite reach evergreen status for me, but it’s very close indeed.

suffering, craving, and fairness

November 7th, 2018

There are a lot of annoying drivers on the road. People who drive too slowly, blocking your lane; people who drive at the exact same speed right next to each other, preventing anybody else from passing them; people who cut you off, muscling their way into your lane; people who tailgate (and, worse, people who tailgate, and then, when you move over, don’t actually pull ahead of you!); people who drive much faster than everybody else on the road, cutting in and out of different lanes.

Having said that, I don’t get annoyed at other drivers at much as I used to. Part of that is getting older and mellower; part of it, though, is that it doesn’t do me any good to get angry at other drivers. It doesn’t do me any good emotionally, and it also doesn’t do me any good as a driver.

So, these days, I try to see other drivers as context. There’s nothing I can do to affect their behavior; so I should just give up on worrying about that, and instead focus on understanding better what’s happening around me, to predict events, and to figure out how to put myself in the best situation I can given that context.

(It’s not actually true that there’s nothing I can do to affect other drivers’ behavior: mostly other drivers are doing their own thing, but my driving does affect theirs. But, again, trying to understand other drivers, including how they might react to me, is the most effective way to try to reach a good outcome.)

 

The first Noble Truth says that life is suffering, or at least that there’s a lot of suffering involved in life. The second Noble Truth says that craving is the origin of suffering; the third Noble Truth talks about the cessation of craving. And, finally, the fourth Noble Truth gives some pointers how to achieve that cessation.

It’s kind of a ridiculous example, but: to me, that driving example points at how I interpret those truths. It’s almost tautological, but the reason why I get annoyed when driving is that I wish other drivers would behave differently; if I can get over that and cause that craving to cease, then driving is fine. Or even interesting: getting over being annoyed at other drivers doesn’t mean that I have to be checked out. Instead, I can take the fourth truth’s advice to behave with the right mindfulness (or have the right intention and right action, or have the right concentration – take your choice!) then I can turn this into a positive experience.

 

The first truth says that aging is suffering, illness is suffering; unfortunately, I’ve seen more of that (some in myself, more in various family members) over the last few years than I would like. And it seems kind of callous to make an analogy between illness and the driving situation above, or to say that the suffering related to disease arises from craving: when I was in agony from problems with a disk in my back, I certainly had some cravings relevant to that situation, but the cravings weren’t the source of the pain!

But, of course, direct physical pain isn’t the only form of suffering that arises from disease: there’s the suffering of not knowing how your disease is going to play out and worrying about that, there’s the suffering of having a pretty good idea of how your disease is going to play out and worrying about that, there’s the suffering of fighting against medical bureaucracies, there’s the suffering of worrying about follow-on effects (on your family, on your job, on your finances), there’s the suffering of wishing you’d behaved differently in the past, there’s the suffering of being angry at the random chance that’s led you to this situation.

Not to minimize the seriousness and reasonableness of any of these worries: but you’ll be better off the less you focus on the worries, the closer you get to a clear-headed acknowledgement of the contingencies of the situation, and let that guide your actions and feelings. Which is a lot easier to type than to actually do, of course; again, the fourth truth gives guidance for that, but, well, it’s a long path. Sometimes I think I’m getting better (and I even feel like there are certain physical sensations in my head that correspond to this improvement, a sort of flatness in the upper rear portion of my brain); but I’m still more than capable of responding with annoyance and anger to situations, even though I can also recognize that that anger is actively getting in the way of my desire to steer those situations to certain outcomes.

 

One of the sources of suffering arising from illness is that it so rarely feels fair; and sometimes it seems to me that a focus on fairness is sweeping the country. You can, I think, even see this in language: I’ll now frequently hear people respond to a sentence with the single word “fair”, whereas I don’t think that was common ten or even five years ago.

The 2016 election certainly brought fairness to the fore: it seems like nobody in the country feels like they and groups that they’re part of are being treated fairly, and it showed just how starkly different people’s opinions are about what fairness means. Also, the erosion of norms bore on the question of fairness in another way: it’s painfully clear how much behavioral latitude the law and power structures allow, and the bad and even evil that can arise when people use that latitude to go far beyond what is fair.

But, as per the above, focusing on that fairness is craving that leads to suffering. Being unhappy that I (or some group that I identify with) am being treated unfairly isn’t going to change anything: it’s just a net increasing in suffering.

 

Except that, as the political example points out (and as the medical example points out as well, for that matter): suffering is a motivator. I said that being unhappy with unfairness isn’t going to change anything, but it’s also true that accepting unfairness also isn’t going to change anything. If you think that change in some area would be good, then change in the direction you seek is probably more likely to occur if you actually do something; so, to the extent that a lack of craving translates into passive acceptance, the lack of craving is less likely to correlate with good outcomes.

Does this mean that I think Buddhists are wrong in their analysis? Not necessarily, for a few reasons. One is that, over and over again, it feels to me like suffering linked to my response to situations doesn’t clearly lead to me changing my behavior in ways that have benefits further down the line; and I’ve seen not a few situations where that sort of suffering feels like it’s nudging me towards counterproductive behavior, e.g. towards a strategy of denial. And another is that this blog post hasn’t arisen from a deep study of Buddhism: the Buddhist bits here are based on some vague memories, a bit of googling, and a bit of Wikipedia reading. So I can’t imagine that Buddhism doesn’t have answers to these questions, and answers that are better thought out than I can produce in a bit of thinking and typing.

And, in particular, there’s some sort of analytical subtlety that I don’t yet have a grasp on. Above, I wrote “If you think that change in some area would be good”; when I originally typed that, though, it said something like “If you want change in some area”. But the word “want” feels inappropriately liked with craving; I wanted a phrasing that steps away from that linkage. Or, when I was thinking about this earlier, part of me was going to put the Buddhist point of view as leading towards just accepting whatever happens and not trying to change anything; maybe the word “trying” is wrong in that sentence, but you can always engage in a range of actions, and saying that the ones that are closest to the status quo are neutral ones while ones more distant from the status quo are linked to craving is, I think, analytically incorrect: I don’t see a priori why quieting down craving should push your actions in the direction of the status quo.

I don’t feel like I have a good analysis of this tension: the counterpoint is that it seems to me like taking an action is related to making a choice of what action to take is related to making an evaluation of which action is better is related to wanting a better outcome is related to craving. But I’m not convinced by every step in that chain; and I am convinced that too much craving can make it harder to reach good outcomes. I’m not sure if reducing craving is always the best approach, though, and I suspect that there are distinctions that I’m missing that would clarify this analysis.

Hard stuff: figuring out how to analyze it, but, most of all, figuring out how to calm down and step back.

limbo and inside

October 14th, 2018

I really was not expecting my initial reaction to Limbo to be how soothing it is. But there’s something about the game (its color palette, or rather palette of greys, in particular) that made it immediately feel calming to me, like walking through a quiet evening.

Limbo is not actually like walking through a quiet evening; oddly enough, though, that feeling of calmness more or less remained even as I started getting repeatedly impaled by a shadowy spider creature. I won’t say that I always felt calm during the game, but when I wasn’t, it was probably mostly the times when I was banging my head against puzzles? I was certainly surprised
how persistent the atmospheric feeling was.

 

Inside was not nearly as calming as Limbo: the perils of using actual colors. Though that wasn’t the only difference between the two games’s presentations, to be sure: in particular, I found the 3-D environments which you could only interact with in a 2-D manner to be slightly distracting? And being chased by dogs and people bothered me more than being attacked by mechanical spiders. The puzzles were just as good, though.

What actually struck me most about Inside was near the end, rather than the beginning: the part when you become a big fleshy blob rolling through the environments, smashing windows and in general causing chaos. That was surprisingly cathartic, and that catharsis is something that I miss in most games’ arcs. I’m used to games that bring the action to a fever pitch with a final boss fight, and then end almost immediately after that; but that doesn’t leave you enough time to wind down and enjoy your victory. With Inside, though, the capstone puzzle sequence is before you become a blob; and, after becoming a blob, you’re left with a noticeable amount of time (not a long period, but enough) to roll around, enjoy your new power, and only have a few isolated puzzles to deal with. A nice release of tension, leading to a relaxing end as you, uh, decompose on a hillside next to the water?

code animism

September 30th, 2018

I’ve been infatuated with The Nature of Order and KonMari for a while, in part for the same reason: their emphasis on direct perception. I spend a lot of time in my head, which leads to over-theorizing and over-analyzing; a question like “does this feel more alive?” or “does this bring me joy?” can cut through that sort of analysis, helping me avoid being misled by it.

Though it’s not the only thing that was attracting me to that question from The Nature of Order: it holds out (or at least I interpreted it as holding out) insight into the hidden nature of things. And, well, I have a soft spot for mysticism. It’s also why I loved mathematics: seeing hidden patterns that help explain isolated observations at a more fundamental level.

 

I read some Plato when I was younger, and was at least somewhat enamored by the theory of Forms. Not that I ever thought about it too seriously, but it had the same type of pull: an idea that there was some sort of deeper truth out there, if only we could see it. I still don’t think about Platonism too seriously, but these days, I think of Platonism as actively dangerous. (And I think of it as useless, for that matter, but that’s a separate discussion.)

The main reason why I think of it as dangerous is that, to the extent that many objects can be seen as imperfect images of a single pure Form, that supports active harm. I honestly can’t remember the details well enough to know if Plato supported the concept of a single Form of a human, but if so, the idea that there’s an ideal conceptual human that all actual humans could be compared against and found wanting to the extent that they match that Form is a horrible one. Even if Plato didn’t think that example of a Form would be valid, Wikipedia does assure me that there’s a single Form of the Good, which is almost as scary.

 

Both Alexander and Kondo avoid that problem (whether it’s a real problem in Plato or a perceived problem in my strawman version of Plato!), and do so in different ways. Alexander is constantly asking you to think about local situations: he’s constantly asking where the life is in specific situations, and what choices would further enhance that life or detract from it. So, in the context of building, the nature of its life might be affected by the landscape (the contours of the land, the trees that grow nearby, how sunlight hits the building site); it might be affected by surrounding buildings, and by the spaces between surrounding buildings; it might be affected by the people who will be using the new building, their needs, desires, and visions; and decisions at a later stage in building construction might be affected by decisions during an earlier stage. Alexander does have general rules for how life manifests itself and how you can evolve a context to increase its life, but the details of how that play out are extremely situational.

Kondo, in contrast, goes all-in on one specific aspect of non-universality: she asks what it means to you for something to bring joy. Again, she has some general principles (throwing away a whole bunch of stuff, recommendations for how to organize what remains), but her fundamental question is an extremely personal and individual one. So Alexander wants you to take everything into account, while Kondo wants you to take one person’s feelings into account; but neither of them wants you to focus on some sort of abstract representation of how things should be.

 

I read a handful of books on Shinto a few years back; and Alexander was part of the reason why. Because, if you take seriously the idea that it makes sense to talk about whether objects, buildings, and so forth are more or less alive, then that raises the question of whether or not it makes sense to think that there might be spirits of some sort in a lot more places than I’m used think of them as being. (Or maybe, in a lot more places than I’m culturally supported in thinking of them as being; in a lot of the spaces where I spend time, it seems a lot more socially acceptable to discount even the concept of consciousness than to, say, take the notion of a soul seriously, let alone to apply that concept to non-humans! But I digress.)

And if you’re going to ask that question, then it makes sense to try to learn a bit about situations where people have asked that question in the past; and Shinto is one such tradition that comes to mind. I can’t say that I got a whole lot out of those particular books, unfortunately, though I probably will reread one of them. In retrospect, I guess it’s not too surprising that reading books in English is probably not the best way to try to get real insight into Shinto…

 

I work professionally as a programmer. Alexander’s ideas on patterns have had some influence on programming (though not really in their full Pattern Language form); his ideas from The Nature of Order haven’t had significant influence on programming, as far as I’m aware. But it does seem to me like they should apply in some form, though the details will certainly play out differently in programming than in architecture.

I was going to say that one difference is that programming raises the possibility of writing code from a clean slate, while in architecture the site and surroundings are always there. And there’s something to that; but, when programming, your actions are always shaped by the context: the context of your tools (programming languages, hardware, etc.), the social context (potential users, your fellow programmers, etc.), and so forth.

Still, the abstract nature of programming does make it even more uncomfortable to take seriously Alexander’s notion of seeing life in objects than it is to take seriously that notion in, say, houses. I mean, from one point of view it’s not obvious why arrangements of atoms should be capable of being alive than arrangements of programming language tokens, but still: we’re used to the former and have lots of existence proofs. Though maybe the software case isn’t actually that far from the Turkish carpet case

 

I periodically see discussion about whether we like focusing on the word “craft” when discussing the creation of software. This is usually in response to the Software Craftsmanship movement; and there are obvious criticisms of that movement (starting with the second syllable of the second word), and more subtle ones. Sarah Mei in particular has thought a lot about this, here are two examples, and Jessica Kerr’s stunning Origins of Opera talk addresses the issue as well.

So, even though I’ve been drawn towards the notion of software as craft, those critiques make me realize that I should think more about what associations the term “craft” has, which of those associations I like, which I don’t, and what important aspects of software development are missing from those associations. (Maybe it’s time for AR⊗TA to reappear, to help broaden and question those associations!)

I think, ultimately, the association that I like is that craft says that details matter. And that’s important to me, and it probably says something about my temperament; though big abstract ideas matter to me as well, so who knows.

One nice thing about the Nature of Order approach (or the Pattern Language approach before it) is that it tells you to pay attention to all scales. So, yeah, the details matter, but the broad strokes matter, and the levels in between matter. And, as per The Process of Creating Life, this applies to the dynamics, not just to a static snapshot of the situation. And, to get an outcome that really takes into account the full context, you have to talk to people. A lot.

 

I’m meandering more than normal here: there’s something going on that could, I think, be important to me but that I haven’t spent enough of my life really diving into. And I suspect that there’s a pretty clear entry point for me: diving into the details of sections of code, listening to what those details are telling me and trying to get the code feel as right as possible. I don’t think that’s a general route into this concept that I’m groping at, and I think other people would have different entry points, at different scales and different interactions; hopefully I’d be somewhat aware of those scales as well, and hopefully as I got happier with the smaller scales I’d find it easier to listen to the larger scales.

Which, of course, raises the question: why am I not doing this already? And I am, a little; but not as much as I should be. Maybe that means that I should spend more time programming out of work; maybe that means I should change what I’m doing at work.

I guess it does make sense that this can be a little hard to navigate at work? If I just say “I want to understand the nature of code better”, it’s not clear why anybody’s response should be a particularly positive one. There might still be a path in there — I can phrase it as an attack on technical debt, for example — but a more obvious route would be to work this philosophy into programming that I’m doing at work for other reasons. (And, actually, maybe the problem is that I’m not doing quite enough programming these days: I’m staying an individual contributor, but individual contributions can come in lots of forms.)

Ultimately, honestly, what matters is whether or not I treat the idea seriously. If I do, nobody is going to tell me that I shouldn’t spend more time following my nose programming. And, if I don’t, this is just words.

hellblade: senua’s sacrifice

August 29th, 2018

Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice got notice for its portrayal of psychosis: Senua, the protagonist, hears voices, and sees things that other people don’t. The developers apparently took this seriously, consulting with mental health professionals and integrating the symptoms and themes into the game.

This sort of treatment is, honestly, something that I’m temperamentally not particularly well set up to appreciate. Because there’s another interpretation for what Senua is hearing and seeing: that she’s in contact with the supernatural. And my default when confronted with the fantastical in art is to accept those fantastical elements at face value, even when they’re mixed in with non-fantastic elements. So, sure, I could treat Totoro as a story about two girls who are overwhelmed with worry about losing their mother and who hence retreat into their imagination; but not only do I instead assume that it’s portraying a world where giant smiling panda-like creatures and catbuses actually exist, it didn’t even cross my mind that another interpretation was possible until I heard people discuss such an interpretation on a podcast, a decade after I first watched the movie.

And the world of Hellblade is a lot more supernatural than that of Totoro: it’s thoroughly embedded in a context of Norse mythology, which means that gods, spirits, and supernatural creatures are entirely to be expected. Senua crosses over into the realm of one of the gods right at the beginning of the game; so my first inclination is (or at least would be if I hadn’t heard about the game in advance) would be to treat unusual experiences as standard parts of the in-game world.

 

There are in-game arguments to support mental health interpretations, though. Senua’s father was abusive; and she’s seen horrific amounts of death, from both disease and violence. And, whatever the interpretation of the visions, it’s an ability that Senua shared with her mother, and one that many of her townspeople were apparently not particularly comfortable with with either woman. So there were environmental factors that could have contributed to mental health problems; and for that matter sometimes people have mental health problems even without environmental factors coming into play.

If I were pinned down, I’d probably come down on an interpretation where Senua really is experiencing a divine world, where she has been having visions for years that were showing her parts of that world, but where she nonetheless has real mental health problems. (With the voices being good candidates for manifestations of those problems.) Which is an interpretation that makes me favorably inclined towards the game for a couple of reasons.

One is an issue of representation. I’ve had mental health problems in the past, lots of other people I know also have, so why shouldn’t those show up in games? And not just in games that are about mental health: just as it’s bad to have a game industry that defaults to male protagonists or white protagonists or straight protagonists, it’s bad for the industry to default to protagonists without mental health issues (or, for that matter, physical health issues). It’s bad because it limits who sees themselves represented; and it’s bad because that’s not the way life is, life is a lot richer than an artificially limited presentation is able to depict.

And the other reason is that, looked at through any sort of morality that isn’t framed in game conventions, games (or at least games based on violent combat) present a dystopian hellscape. They’re filled with constant slaughter; your protagonist is expected to treat this as something normal and even a source of pride (indeed, generally your protagonist’s self-conception is supposed to be a hero who is saving the world, or at least their local portion of it). If I ran into somebody acting like a video game protagonist in the real world, my reaction would be to back away first slowly and then (once out of sight) very quickly; and if I’d had first-hand experience of something like what game protagonists experience, then I’d probably be woken up screaming from PTSD for years to come. So yeah, there’s something to be said for the honesty of a game with a protagonists whose violent experiences have left a mark.

 

The representation argument also says that games with mentally ill protagonists shouldn’t always be (or always be analyzed, for that matter) as being about mental illness. And, fortunately, Hellblade does very well on that regard!

It’s partly a horror game; a genre that I don’t spend time on but that I respect in the abstract. (I’ve played the first and fourth Resident Evil games, Eternal Darkness, and, uh, not much else?) Hellblade has gotten me thinking that I should spend more time in that genre: I don’t particularly enjoy being scared, but the horror aspect of Hellblade meant that the flow of the game was less over-weighted towards mechanics, with the environment, the plot, the non-combat aspects of your enemies, and your heightened perception of the experience taking a larger role. And spending more time with games that accomplish that is all to the good.

Not that traditional mechanics weren’t there. There’s combat; I’m not a fighting devotee, it seemed okay mechanically? And, much more unusually for me, the fighting was okay quantity-wise as well: you weren’t constantly wading through enemies, but when you encountered them, they had reasons to be their, either for plot-based reasons or to scare you. And there were a couple of different puzzle mechanics; environmental puzzles, but puzzles that had you looking around and seeing shapes more than puzzles that had you finding keys to put into locks. Nice change of pace from environmental puzzles in other games; but also a nice change of pace within the game itself, with you (usually) being able to mostly temporarily retreat from wondering what’s coming around the corner to, instead, wondering if you’ll see a certain shape if you look around in the right way.

And I liked the plot, too: a woman fighting through the underworld to rescue her love (and a rather metal woman, at that, with her love’s skull attached to her belt!), weaving in struggles with the gods, references to her previous life and the struggles and joys she’d experienced therein, and periodic byte-sized lore dumps of Norse mythology that gave another lens on Senua’s story.

 

The game it didn’t overstay its welcome, either: it told the story that it wanted to tell, and then it was done. So: a well-executed story, with a couple of well-executed mechanics, in an interesting environment, with a protagonist having attributes that you don’t normally see, with an overlay of horror to heighten your attention on the experience. I’m impressed; I’d like to see more games that learn from how Hellblade selected and arranged elements into a rather lovely package.