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baba is you

May 23rd, 2019

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

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


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


May 19th, 2019

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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

return of the obra dinn

May 13th, 2019

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


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

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


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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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


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

ps4 remote play

April 28th, 2019

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

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

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


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

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


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

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

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

foot pain

April 18th, 2019

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

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

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


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

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


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

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


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

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

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


April 11th, 2019

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


March 28th, 2019

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

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


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

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

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


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

small steps, shorter posts

March 26th, 2019

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

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

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

hollow knight

March 21st, 2019

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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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


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

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


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

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


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

brothers: a tale of two sons

March 14th, 2019

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

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

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

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


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

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


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

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

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


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

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


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

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


attending my first lotus nei gong course

February 21st, 2019

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

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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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

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

software kill switches

February 10th, 2019

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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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


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

card quest

February 6th, 2019

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

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


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

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

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


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

traveling to india

February 3rd, 2019

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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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


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

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

how to learn

January 15th, 2019

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

early 2019 tai chi update

January 10th, 2019

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

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

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


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

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


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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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.