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A friend passed me a link similar to this one today. It's an article about some minor observing a wild otter too closely in an area where an otter — possibly ill, possibly even rabid — was already known to have attacked two people and a dog. The link includes a video of said otter charging and biting the person.

Interactions between wild animals and inexperienced or thoughtless people rarely end well. But any outcome, even a bad one, can bring lessons. These tragedies are often ready-made course material for the lesson that what you meant to do doesn't matter. You just wanted to be friendly. You just wanted to pet it. You just wanted a better look. You just wanted to feed it. But what you did was get bit, or sabotage the creature's ability to find its own food, or undermine the natural caution that kept it from getting shot, or magnify the likelihood of what happened to Freddy the Fox.

Actions have consequences. Reality doesn't give a flying fig what you wanted to happen or how much effort you put into prediction. You can't wash away blood with, "But I meant to help!" Consider all the possibilities before you act, especially if you're doing something unfamiliar. L'enfer est plein de bonnes volontés ou désirs.


Nov. 17th, 2010 11:23 pm
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"The very powerful and the very stupid have one thing in common – instead of altering their views to fit the facts, they alter the facts to fit their views. Which can be very uncomfortable if you happen to be one of the facts which needs altering."
Doctor Who, "The Face of Evil" (1977)

quarrel: Engraving of Thoth from the Luxor Temple. (thoth)

The internet makes it hard to make games hard. Walkthroughs, FAQs, and Q&A forums are only an Alt-Tab away. One of the biggest wikis in the world is dedicated to one game. Players are tempted to look up solutions at the slightest roadbump.

I have to admit something. I don't really like when players can just look up an answer. Much of that is projection. As a player, I know how satisfying it is to figure something out. So as a designer, I know I put a challenge there for a reason (which may very well be to give you the satisfaction of figuring something out). But I also know, as a human, how frustrating it is to be stuck on something you can't solve and how habit-forming it can be to take the easy way out. So I keep one eye open for ways to create challenges that don't permanently and completely halt your progress until you overcome them, but that you can't skip past with thirty seconds and a browser window either.

A Tale in the Desert is an MMORPG focused on the seemingly unrelated subjects of social competition and crafting. A major aspect of the game is reverse-engineering a wide assortment of harvesting and manufacturing mechanisms — when crops produce extra seeds, what governs mining yields, which combinations of culinary ingredients cook into useful stat-boosting meals, and so on. Obscure mechanics are a stand-in for the mysterious workings of the real world at the dawn of human history. Lack of formal documentation and the deliberate reconfiguring of fundamental rules every year and a half require players to make a coordinated effort just to figure out how most of the game works. It's a parallel to how primitive technologies formed and how knowledge of them spread.

So how does a game that relies on players sharing information avoid being trivialized by everyone looking up answers in a wiki? The main method, by far, is tying crafting to minigames that reward skill with more or better items. Gemcutting involves shaving slices off the ends and edges of a raw 3D gem embedded with complex random holes, looking for a usable solid shape somewhere in the interior. Glassmaking requires maintaining a furnace's temperature within a workable range by adjusting airflow and adding charcoal in realtime. A website can give strategy suggestions but not step-by-step solutions.

Another technique is random differences between characters that render universal solutions impossible. Paint mixing takes this approach. The core mechanics are the sort of thing that can just be looked up on a wiki and used by anyone. There are about a dozen standard pigment ingredients, each with fixed red/green/blue values in the 0 to 255 range. Combine enough pigments and you make paint with an RGB value that's a weighted average of its ingredients'. That's fine for colors with moderate RGB values, but it's mathematically impossible to make something like pure blue paint that way unless one of the pigments is pure (0, 0, 255) blue to begin with; you can't average a bunch of midrange values to get one on the edge.

That's where the clever part comes in. Some pairs of ingredients interact in additional ways. For example, mixing carrot juice (a light orange pigment) and cabbage juice (a dark purple pigment) might cause an unexpected rise or drop in green in addition to the predicted orange/purple blending. If you gathered enough data on your reactions and you weren't unlucky, you could devise a custom recipe that blended to a low red, low green, and high blue value and also accumulated several red and green penalties and blue bonuses. It would be your own personal pure blue recipe.

The result is interesting. Everyone can mix most of the game's possible paint colors, but only someone who experiments and takes detailed notes on his personal reactions can make all of them. He couldn't use someone else's work. That's a comfortable middle ground between everyone looking up all the answers and a global barrier to entry at square one. A person who knows his reactions may also discover he and he alone has an alternate method of mixing a common paint color from cheaper ingredients. That can be huge in a game with so much crafting and trading.

Variations in ingredient availability add a second layer of nonuniformity to paint recipes. Cabbage and carrot juice are easy pigments to make, but mushrooms grow only in temporary random patches between certain hours of the game's day/night cycle (and only two varieties out of dozens can be used as pigments), and powdered silver requires a silver mine (rare) and a barrel grinder (requires four to fifteen players working together to operate and a full replacement of all its oiled leather parts after each batch). And then there's red sand. Sand is literally cheaper than dirt in ATitD; if you're standing on it, you can pick up an arbitrarily large amount in zero time with no tools. But red sand only occurs in a single patch about 100' square in a game world dozens of miles to a side, and it's not weightless. Where a character lived, what his player liked to do (or what he was good at, which isn't the same thing), and how big his guild was could all make a prefab paint recipe useless or wastefully inefficient.

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"All the great designers are avid readers."

Chris Crawford
Virtools Swap-Meet interview
c. 1999

"It has taken me a long time to realize that I am talking not to ideally objective thinkers, but to Pleistocene hunter-gatherers trying their hardest to act like civilized people -- and only occasionally succeeding."

Chris Crawford
6 November 2010

"When dealing with people, let us remember we are not dealing with creatures of logic. We are dealing with creatures of emotion, creatures bristling with prejudices and motivated by pride and vanity."

Dale Carnegie
How to Win Friends and Influence People, Part One, Chapter One
October 1936

Ironically, Mr. Carnegie's book is exactly the sort of thing Mr. Crawford would never bother reading since he places no value on societal norms.

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It seems I'm not the only one who wants to break barriers to entry into difficult topics. There is an economics festival in Kilkenny, Ireland. The festival brings several economists and comedians together for a long weekend of lectures and Q&A sessions designed to make the topic approachable to laypeople.

Sadly, I can't verify whether their information is accurate and thorough, but if they've got their fact straight, and if mass-education effects like summits and wikis do more good than harm in general, I like that someone out there is trying something.

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Those are more or less the first half-dozen websites I found through Google searching on the question of whether the way banks lend money in the U.S. — that is, more than they actually have in the vault, up to a limit — somehow creates more money. They all say "yes", save for a couple isolated comments from random visitors.

Then I went to http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Money_supply on the advice of a knowledgeable friend and found something those sites didn't mention: there is more than one definition of "money". After that, I found the best explanation so far at http://www.khanacademy.org/?video=banking-1#Banking%20and%20Money , but I doubt I'd have kept looking if I didn't have an expert steer me in the right direction after I incorrectly concluded I'd found the correct answer.

I don't know if the authors of all the sites I found on my own were wrong, lying, mislead, or oversimplifying on purpose. I knew that economics, like all sciences, has its own vocabulary. Words like "demand" and "shortage" don't mean what they do in everyday English. I hadn't realized "money" was in the same category.

Is this a curse or a blessing? How many tens of thousands of dedicated, responsible citizens are doing their civic duty by voting and whatnot with no idea that they're doomed to random flailing since they can't trust what grade school-level words mean? Isn't that bad?

Or is it good that there's such a clever filter ingrained in the system to weed out the ignorant and the poseurs so the people who actually understand what's going on can interact with one another without intrusion? Barriers to entry can be good things. Maybe it's better for the country as a whole that there's the distraction of feels-good-but-ultimately-ineffective activism to occupy the don't-quite-get-it-yet crowd so they don't obstruct the people who understand the system.
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1. Equilibrium price is the price that gets items to sell exactly as fast as new ones are made. Since the most you can make is 10 sandwiches, find the price that makes 10 people per day want to buy a sandwich. That's $4.

2. Market value is the current competitive price on the open market. I haven't told you anything about the whole market in this example, so you can't answer this question.

3. You lose money at $0 and $1 since you can't recover costs, so you can reject those possibilities out of hand. Likewise, you lose money at $7 since you don't sell anything. If you run the remaining numbers, you should see that $5 is the best price. It nets you a total gain of $27. (Remember to make only eight sandwiches or you'll waste $2 making sandwiches that won't sell.)

4. This is the tricky one. First of all, it isn't an economics question. It's...I don't know. A political question? A moral question? Whatever the case, you can't answer it with economics, and you can't answer it at all until you decide what you mean by "ethical". Once you figure that out, there are several approaches you could take.

If you're trying to make the most money, sell for $5.

If you think it's wrong to charge more than a certain markup over how much your ingredients cost, sell for only $2 or $3.

If you're primarily trying to distribute sandwiches to as many people as possible and maximizing your profit is a secondary concern, sell for $4.

If you want to get sandwiches to as many people as possible at the lowest possible cost that doesn't run you out of business, sell for $2.

If you want to run a total charity, sell for $0.

One thing to keep in mind: in all these cases except the first, only ten people get sandwiches every day. You don't actually feed more people by selling your food for super-cheap.
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Let's say you run a sandwich shop. It costs you $1 in ingredients to make a sandwich, plus a flat $5 per day for rent and the lights. You're working alone and they're really fancy sandwiches, so you can only make 10 per day.

The number of sandwiches you can sell in a day depends on what you charge for them:


Questions! Any prices will be in whole dollars.

1. What is the equilibrium price for your sandwiches?

2. What is their market value?

3. What's the most profitable price you can ask?

4. What's the most ethical price you can ask?

Simple answers tomorrow!
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1. You can't just try anything you want and expect success or credit because you worked hard.

Some approaches to a problem simply work better than others. Some don't work at all. No amount of self-confidence or wishful thinking can change these facts. Insisting on a poor opening strategy in chess or Starcraft will produce only a chain of losses for as long as you stick with the game.

2. Don't fall into ruts.

There's an old saying in Starfleet Battles: "Use your tractors, dammit!" The phrase is a reminder to be familiar with all your available options instead of fixating on the few things you commonly do. Often an oddball technique will not be practical or effective, but a player who keeps them in mind fares better chances of winning.

3. Understand your goals.

Make sure you have an accurate view of what you're trying to accomplish, without assumptions, or you might misdirect your efforts and aim at the wrong thing. The canonical-to-the-point-of-overused example of this is Blackjack. The naive view of this game is that the goal is to get as close to 21 as possible. Not so. The real goal on a per-hand basis is to get more points than the dealer without going over 21. (The goal of the entire play session is to make as much money as possible, but since Blackjack is played against a single opponent following deterministic rules, you should try your best to win every single hand in isolation. That's not always the case in games such as poker.)

4. There is no single key to success. It's a mix of everything.

Inexperienced players who decide early in their studies that they've isolated the most important, and therefore only significant, aspect of a game invariably do poorly in serious competition.

5. It's all you. Success is your responsibility. Failure is your fault.

You can copy the techniques of two well-known players, gather advice from five of your friends, and read a dozen strategy blogs. You can try everything they said would assure victory and find their advice to be anywhere from somewhat lacking to dead wrong. It's still not their fault you lost. It's yours. You played. You chose to listen to them rather than listen to other sources or make more of your own discoveries. And you're the one who has to deal with the repercussions of losing.

6. Approaching a problem initially with a minimum amount of effort, with the expectation that you can simply apply yourself extra-hard later if it turns out to be necessary, is a horrible strategy.

The flaw lies in deluding yourself that you can pull out some last-ditch miracle by dint of sheer willpower, that anything is possible if you just try hard enough. But in any practical situation, there is a limit to how much skill, attention, and effort you can apply in a given time period. You cannot literally give 110%, by definition. If a task is so difficult to require near-100% effort from you to complete, you can accumulate an insurmountable deficit if you coast into your first approach.

Start before the beginning. Don't stop until the end.

7. If you want to win fair and square, you need to know how to cheat.

Notice I did not say "You need to cheat." I said "you need to know how". This may be a distasteful and depressing revelation to you, but some people in life are bad and break the rules. Tournament judges cannot watch every table constantly, just like the police can't have an officer in every dark alley. A game is a contest of skill. If you have more skill than your opponent, you should win most of the time. If he cheats, that rightful outcome is jeopardized. And if that seems egalitarian to you, consider this instead: your opponent might cheat by making an illegal move that puts him behind rather than ahead, or that puts you ahead, then call a judge a short time later and accuse you of cheating. There is the very real possibility you could find yourself forfeiting a round, getting kicked out of the tournament, or even being temporarily or permanently banned from future events, all because you didn't know how to cheat.

 If something questionable does go down, it'll be your word against your opponent's, and the judge can't (and shouldn't!) take you at your word just because you're a Boy Scout who loves his mother. If you know what to look for, you're more likely to be able to provide the judge with something concrete when you make your accusation. At the very least, your unsavory opponent might pick up on the fact you're watching him like a hawk and stay honest until next round. (Lest you think that's cynical, I should mention that locking your car doors doesn't make thieves break into appreciably fewer cars overall. It makes them break into other people's instead.)

8. It's not what the rules say. It's what the judge says.

Games will always have disputes that require adjudication. (See yesterday's post.) It is outright impossible to craft a set of rules that cover all possible situations and that are interpreted the exact same way by everyone. Those disputes require human intervention, which means the resolution is always arbitrary to some extent, depending on which definition you use.

9. Do things because you want to, not because you think other people expect you to do them.

Immature are the majority of opponents who beat you and deride you for being unskilled. It's delusional to think they'll respect you once you work your way through the ranks and become their equal or, heaven forbid, their superior. A far more likely outcome is that they will dismiss your success as the result of unethical practices or the abuse of imbalances inherent in the game that its designer failed to correct.

If you're striving for greatness to garner the praise of others, stop. Just stop. Spare yourself the wasted effort and future heartache.
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One early evening back when I was living in southern California, I treated myself to an early dinner at a Mimi's Cafe. By pure chance I found myself sitting near a women's-night-out party. It was clearly a social event, neither a birthday nor family-related.

They played a game as they waited for their larger-than-normal order to arrive. It wasn't a complex game. In fact, if you want to get technical, it wasn't a game at all. One person had a list of objects and point values. She read them off one by one — items like lipstick, a purse, a blank check — and everyone scored points based on whether they had that object with them. Things went well until the organizer got to "jewelry". It was worth something like five points per piece.

Someone asked, "Do earrings count as two?"

That's the moment I realized that the problems I had to deal with from rules lawyers and from unclear game rulebooks I'd written as clearly as I could were well and truly universal. Fully unambiguous rules and objective adjudication are unreachable ideals in the real world. I'd been convinced of that for years in my own line of work, but this was the first time I observed proof in the wild.

I have no reason to believe this lesson does not also apply to laws.
quarrel: Engraving of Thoth from the Luxor Temple. (knowledge)

Aesop tells a story about a disagreement.

The Wind and the Sun were disputing which was the stronger. Suddenly they saw a traveller coming down the road, and the Sun said, "I see a way to decide our dispute. Whichever of us can cause that traveller to take off his cloak shall be regarded as the stronger. You begin."

So the Sun retired behind a cloud, and the Wind began to blow as hard as it could upon the traveller. But the harder he blew the more closely did the traveller wrap his cloak round him, till at last the Wind had to give up in despair.

Then the Sun came out and shone in all his glory upon the traveller, who soon found it too hot to walk with his cloak on.

From this, we may derive three important lessons:

  1. Both the Wind and the Sun were screwing with the traveller. Specifically, they were trying to force him to do something he did not want to.
  2. One of them succeeded.
  3. The traveller never realized it.

Text from The Fables of Æsop edited by Joseph Jacobs.
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This is more or less the introductory footwork I, in my untrained condition, expect I'll need to do before I can begin discussing politics as anything approaching an equal:
  • Read the Declaration of Independence.
  • Read the Articles of Confederation.
  • Read the Constitution.
  • Read brief bios of all major contributors to all the above. At the minimum, cover how they grew up, what they did for a living, what they thought about politics, and why they chose the laws they did.
  • Read every other major work all those people are famous for, like Common Sense.
  • Assemble and memorize the various other federal government positions: cabinets, advisors, speakers, secretaries, etc. Cover what they do, how long they've been around, how they're filled, and who's in them now.
  • Read my state constitution.
  • Assemble and memorize my state's government positions as above.
  • Learn how the proposition system works in my state. Learn why it's used. Learn why some states don't (if they don't).
  • Learn economics:
    • macro vs. micro
    • Chicago school vs. Austrian school
    • Behavioral
    • Get familiar with the more famous economists and their theories. Hit Hayek, Keynes, Krugman & Friedman at the very least.
  • bonus points: memorize the territories
  • bonus bonus points: memorize which states aren't states

term limits

Nov. 3rd, 2010 11:19 pm
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I got an iPod Touch at work today, which was certainly an unexpected bonus. The first thing it wanted me to do was hook it to my desktop machine and update its software. That meant downloading and running iTunes. And that, since I never had iTunes on my workstation before, meant greeting a faceful of Terms of Service agreements preceded by the predictable directive that I must either agree to all of them or return my iPod to the store.

I expect that. What I didn't expect was how many agreements Apple required:

 iPod Software License Agreement 9,700 words
 Apple Privacy Policy 2,500 words
 iTunes Store, App Store, and iBookstore Terms of Sale 1,000 words
 iTunes Store Terms and Conditions 4,300 words
 App Store and iBookstore Terms and Conditions 6,500 words
 Apple Copyright Policy 200 words
 Google Maps/Google Earth Terms of Service 1,400 words
 Legal Notices for Google Maps/Google Earth and Google Maps/Google Earth APIs 2,500 words
 Google Terms of Service 4,200 words
 Google Privacy Policy 1,700 words
 YouTube Terms of Service 0 additional words (duplicated in the iPod TOS)
 YouTube Privacy Notice 1,400 words
 YouTube Community Guidelines 700 words

Grand total: approximately thirty-six thousand words. All so I can play Fruit Ninja. Really, Apple? Isn't that a bit much?
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Dr. Richard Bartle is about as old-school as computer game designers come. He was a co-creator of a groundbreaking multiplayer online RPG back in 1978. At a recent Game Developers Conference, Bartle gave a presentation on that game, his design role, and game design in general. You can find a rough transcript of his talk here, and here is the presentation itself.

One topic Bartle touches on, not once but twice, is the issue of why one should go into game design in the first place. In his opinion, it's just as nonsensical to want to create games because you enjoy playing them as it is to want to become a brewer because you like beer.

"If you want to do it for making money, why aren't you working at a bank? ... If you're doing it because you like playing the games, that gets back to the brewing argument. If you want to do it because you want to bring joy and help the world, work on a charity."

Bartle is a huge proponent of knowing why you're doing something, and furthermore knowing why you're doing it the way you are. To him, there's only one good "why" to be a game designer, and that's to say something.

Bartle and his partner Roy Trubshaw didn't create their game to make money or provide entertainment. They created an escapist fantasy world where upward mobility existed, everyone started at the bottom, and anyone could make it to the top if they had the right objectively-measurable skills, and they did this because they were displeased that their country exhibited none of these properties.

I can't get completely behind the good Doctor's idealism, though. His claim that there's no logical link between enjoying a good and wanting to know more about how it's made, perhaps investigate manufacturing it oneself -- that doesn't ring true. How likely is a person who dislikes beer to want to brew it? How likely is a beer-disliking brewer to be good at brewing?
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1. Undirected practice isn't terribly helpful. Doing something over and over does not guarantee improvement in real life like it does in World of Warcraft. You need guidance along with the effort. Yes, Steven King says write every day, but that's so you can finish a segment before your clear mental image of a scene or character interaction fades.

2. Like New Years' Resolutions, it's a gimmick. Sure, it might work to instill in you new habits, but if you were honestly interested in blogging, either A) you'd already be doing it, or B) you should start now, where "now" means "the day you read this" and not "when some total stranger on the Internet invents a fad you can jump on".

3. You're only doing it to assuage your embarrassment for having neither the guts nor skill to tackle poems or a novel.

4. The workload isn't natural. Blogging every day is rarely done except by those who do it professionally or as a full-time amateur. Instead of only posting when you have something to say, you'll be making up things to say when you need to post. That's unlikely to lead to interesting public posts.

5. Your friends will have a tough time keeping up with the sudden output surge from you and everyone else they follow. (See "fad" above.)