Friday, March 27, 2015

Friday Links!

Leading off this week, from Lance Shankles, an entirely wonderful three-part series on the development of Moonbase Commander, which is one of the most criminally under-appreciated games ever made: Man In The Moonbase: The Death and Life of the Best Game You Never Played.

Next, from Steven Kreuch, and this is an incredible trip in the wayback machine: scanned 1982 JCPenney Christmas catalog.

From Garret Rempel, and this is one of the finest images I've ever seen: B.C. Mountie in 'most Canadian photo ever' had no idea it would explode online.

From The Edwin Garcia Links Machine, and this is terrific (Grace Hopper, a total badass): The story of Grace Hopper (aka Amazing Grace). Also, and this will blow your mind (in every direction): “I Might Have Some Sensitive Files”. Next, and this is a terrific comic: ZEN PENCILS: 172. ISAAC ASIMOV: A lifetime of learning.

From C. Lee, and this is fascinating: The myopia boom: Short-sightedness is reaching epidemic proportions. Some scientists think they have found a reason why.

Here are two well-written, fascinating reads. First, a notorious ex-college basketball player, and what's happened to him since: The Troubled, Tormented, Surprisingly Lucky Life of Michael Graham. Next, and this is riveting but incredibly sad reading: The Scene of the Crime: A reporter’s journey to My Lai and the secrets of the past.

From 3Suns, and this is thoughtful and provocative: HATRED, MILTON, AND THE PROBLEM OF PLEASURE.

From Guy Byars, and this is an epic John Oliver rant: Last Week Tonight with John Oliver: The NCAA.

From Eric Higgins-Freese, and there are no rocket scientists in this clip: Pot Quiz - South by Southwest Edition.

This is an article about an amazing professional athlete: Ravens Lineman John Urschel Loves Math More Than You Love Anything.

From Jeff Fowler, and this is a mandatory Sports Gaming History read: John Madden hockey: How a lousy football game birthed a bastard and led to the greatest hockey game of all-time. Also and this is fantastic: Watch this excellent, historically accurate Star Wars anime short.

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Praise

When Eli 13.7 was still very young, I started seeing research about praise.

There was a common thread to all this research: give praise for effort, not talent.

The short version always went something like this: when you praise children for effort, they will attempt more difficult tasks, and be more likely to grind through the work necessary to succeed, than children who are praised for being "smart" or "talented". Kids who are told they're "smart" will tend to chose less difficult tasks, because they're afraid that if they don't succeed right away, then they won't be considered smart anymore. Kids who are praised for effort, in contrast, aren't discouraged if they don't succeed right away, and they seek out more difficult tasks.

That struck a chord with me, mostly because it's damned hard to be good at anything, and much harder to be great. No matter how much "talent" someone has, there's an incredible amount of work involved. I think I have some kind of aptitude for programming (hey, now--no laughing), but I worked very hard for five years and I'm STILL not anything but vaguely competent.

So right from the beginning, I never praised Eli for being smart. I praised preparation and process. He gets good grades not because he's smart, but because he's prepared (and he is--man, he's so much better at being prepared than I ever was). He is confident in hockey not because he's talented, but because he's he's earned confidence through thousands of hours of effort.

When he starts doing something new, and decides he wants to be good at it, he just works. And he doesn't look for constant praise as he works, because he's not working for praise. He works for himself.

Eli 13.7: not a coaster.

Last Friday, I linked to this article: How Not to Talk to Your Kids: The inverse power of praise. It's a fascinating article, and I highly recommend that you read it instead of my shorthand summary. I say that because the examples they provide are genuinely striking, and it reinforces that how we talk to our kids has a huge, absolutely huge impact on how they see themselves and what they think is important.

What I didn't expect after posting this link was to get a poignant and piercing e-mail from a reader who wishes to remain anonymous. I have always respected the clarity of his thinking, and even more so after reading this e-mail. Here's what he wrote:
I don’t want to spend too much time on this. I just wanted to say, I’m in the same IQ percentile as the kid in the article, and I had the same kind of childhood, though in a much less prestigious school. I just wanted to confirm: everything this article says is the absolute truth. I’m not a researcher, or a parent, I’m a product of this kind of reinforcement, and even today, at 32, I am still trying to unravel and understand all the damage it’s done to my life. I’ve been “gifted” or told I was gifted all my life. Everything came easily to me. School was a breeze. Most of college was boring and elementary. The only classes I could sink my teeth into were those that really engaged and challenged me.

In school we’re given lots of special treatment, constantly lauded for our intelligence. The effect of this on me was that I never made the mental connection between hard work and good results. I never needed it. I got good results with no effort at all. I never had to work hard at anything mentally. Now, as an adult, I flit from hobby to hobby, from interest to interest, interpreting a lack of immediate success as failure. I’m adequate at my job, but I don’t stand out. Aptitude was always what granted me success before, so it’s hard to understand that aptitude isn't the hammer to the nail of all life’s problems. That said, I can sit here, I can talk about this, I can see the problem. But that’s not the same as being able to solve it. It gets in your bones. It’s how you think. It’s part of who you are.

I've thought a lot about how my present difficulties might have been prevented, and the only thing I can think of, as unfair as it sounds, is that we should be held to a higher standard. If I’d had to work as hard as others to succeed earlier in life, it would've been doing me an immense favor. But it seems manifestly unfair. Even advocating it, I can see how unfair it seems. Still, I wish above almost anything else that it had been handled that way.

I haven’t read the entire article yet, so perhaps it touches on this, but if you’re interested as a parent, my advice to you is this: praise your child for their accomplishments, not their intelligence or other natural aptitudes. I am living proof that intellect is meaningless without drive and discipline. Not just intellect, any natural ability. They are all worthless. Yet our society exalts them, to the detriment of our children. Please believe me when I say, it is poison.

As I said in the beginning, it’s something I struggle with daily. It is the single, central conflict of my life. It makes me very happy that that article was written. I just wish more people understood the problem.

On a personal note, though, I never give up. Bit by bit, I try to gain the understanding I should've gained in childhood, applying myself to new problems, ignoring failure, trying to figure out how to turn effort into results. But sometimes it feels impossible to unlearn the things we learn as children. You have to change the way your mind works, change the way you think. Other people have goals in life like “earn this degree,” “get that job,” “write that book.” My goal is to get to a state where I’m able to achieve goals. If I ever do, my potential might be as limitless as I was always told it was. 

One of the things that I most appreciate about writing this blog, even after so many years, is that while I often reveal myself, many of you have revealed yourselves as well, and often at the most unexpected times.  

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Baldur's Gate (your correction of my mistake)

Embarrassingly, I'm apparently forgetting early gaming history.

Garth Pricer sent in this tremendously well-written correction of yesterday's post:
Obsidian did not make Baldur’s Gate. Obsidian did not exist at that time. Baldur’s Gate was the sophomore effort of a fledgling medical software company named Bioware, who had experienced modest success with their first gaming foray in the form of Shattered Steel. Bioware’s three doctor founders were RPG fans and planned to make an RPG named Infinity, but when offered the D&D license, they leapt at the chance. Baldur’s Gate was the result, and Infinity became the name of the engine instead. 

Both games were published by Interplay, the latter game under a newly formed division called Black Isle Studios, named after the Scottish island.  Feargus Urquhart, the director of Black Isle Studios (and the source of the name, because if it’s not Scottish it’s cr…), later went on to direct Black isle to make several more games using Bioware’s Infinity Engine, among them the Icewind Dale trilogy. An assistant designer on the 1st Icewind Dale game, then lead designer on the second, JE Sawyer made his name in the industry on those games. 

Drawing from elements of FFVII, Black Isle also released yet another Infinity Engine game with the D&D license, this time leveraging the rather unique Planescape setting. This game, Planescape Torment, remains a cult classic for its memorable writing and its vivid world-building. Chris Avellone was the lead designer.

Black Isle Studios is also known for another isometric RPG. While originally created with the GURPS license, this project had to shed the system when Steve Jackson objected to the violent content. Somehow it survived, and GURPS was replaced with a homebrew system called SPECIAL. Released as Fallout, this game was produced by Tim Cain and Brian Fargo (Interplay’s founder and the director of Wasteland). Tim Cain was also the lead programmer and one of the key designers. 

The Black Isle eventually sank, but Obsidian rose in its stead. The Pillars of Eternity team is assembled from many of the past Black Isle luminaries above, but aside from publisher Feargus, none of the Bioware crew are among them.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

End of Quarter Goodness

This is usually a big week for gaming, the first big week of the new year, and it's not letting us down this year.

If you want mainstream with an impeccable pedigree, you can go with Bloodborne (please note, as the Wikipedia page clearly spells out, that Bloodborne is "Not to be confused with blood-borne disease.").

Glad we cleared that up.

This is new game from the From Software geniuses responsible for Dark Souls and Demon's Souls--beautifully designed, fluid action games with a high degree of very satisfying difficulty. The game was released today, and already has a 93 rating on Metacritic (41 reviews). That makes it (easily) the highest rated Playstation 4 game ever released.

My only hesitation about picking this up is that I have lots of loose ends right now, and these games tend to be long and very consuming. Not sure I can do that right now.

There are three other games this week, though, that I want to mention.

First, the big one: Pillars of Eternity. It releases on Thursday, it's from Obsidian, and it looks very much like what I remember of Baldur's Gate (no surprise, since Obsidian made it, too). There aren't many old-school RPG's being made these days, so this is a welcome departure. Advance buzz is very, very positive.

Everyone knows about Pillars of Eternity, though. Here are two more games releasing this week that I backed on Kickstarter, and they both look excellent.

The first is Dyscourse, and it releases tomorrow. Here's a description from the game's website:
Dyscourse is an interactive choose-your-own adventure where you journey through a stylized world of choice and consequence. You play as Rita, an unfortunate art school grad turned barista, who is now stuck on a desert island with a crew of oddball travelers after a plane crash. That last choice you just made? It may end up being integral to your group’s survival, or it may lead you down a path to murder and cannibalism!

I find nothing off-putting in that description. At all. And the visual style of the game is beautiful. Take a look:


That is very, very striking. Steam link: Dyscourse.

The last game is Ironcast. RPS describes it as a "turn-based match-3 roguelite steampunk resource-management RPG". I've been waiting to have that done properly for a long time.

Seriously, I've been waiting.

There's a level of strategy in Ironcast far beyond the standard match-3 mechanic, and it also features permadeath. The RPS article describes it in more detail than I can, so hit that link and read all about it.

Ironcast comes out on Thursday.

I will definitely have impressions of Dyscourse and Ironcast, because they'll be exponentially more lightly covered than Bloodborne and Pillars of Eternity.

Monday, March 23, 2015

Important to Note: This Restaurant Does Not Serve Hamburgers

I was at a barbecue restaurant with Eli 13. 7 last week, and there was a little boy there with his family.

From what we could surmise, he was about four, his brother was roughly seven, and his little sister was in-between.

The boy's older brother got up from the table and went over to the condiments/drinks area. "Get a burger!" the boy yelled. "Get a burger!"

"Mom, he's making fun," said the sister.

"GET A BURGER!" the boy yelled.

"He just wants him to get a hamburger," the mom said.

"No!" the little boy said. "Get-a-burger." He put his finger in his nose. "I mean RIGHT HERE."

We laughed. We appreciate highbrow humor.


Make Better Decisions (parking lot edition)

I deeply regret not getting a picture of this, because it was both colorful and memorable.

I was driving through a Target parking last week after taking my mom to lunch for her birthday (85 and still kicking ass). In front of us was a short and fairly squat woman with curly dark hair, tights, and a light blue tennis skirt.

She was holding a giant medicine ball.

This ball was three times as big as a basketball. It was so big she could barely wrap her arms around it. It looked like a giant hacky-sack ball.

The woman suddenly threw (two-hand push) this ball as far in front of her as she could, and it was clearly a huge effort, because the ball's weight looked to be substantial.

Then she walked forward, picked the ball up, and did it again.

This was in a crowded section of parking lot, but she was completely oblivious to the cars. Squat. Lift. Throw. Chase. Repeat.

Friday, March 20, 2015

Friday Links!

From Steven Davis, and this is outstanding: Howard Blackburn: Hero Adventurer. Also, and this is unbelievable: PNWR Yoyo Contest 2015.

From The Edwin Garcia Links Machine, and this is excellent: Sticking to His Roots to Save a Culture from Extinction.

From Jim, and this is a nice way to spend a few minutes: Zombie-town USA.

From C. Lee, and this is tremendous: The Lutheran Insulter (Luther was quite good at it, as it turns out).

From Jonathan Arnold, and please keep this list in mind if necessary: 15 HIDEOUTS FOR THE WORLD’S NEXT GREAT SUPERVILLAIN.

From 3Suns, and this is extraordinarily useful for parents: How Not to Talk to Your Kids: The inverse power of praise. Next, and I've linked to it before, but it deserves another mention as an incredible learning resource: Khan Academy.

From Nate Carpenter, and this is fascinating: Hungry Slime Molds Reconstruct Ancient Road Networks.

From Frank Regan, and this is absolutely stunning: Carbon3D Unveils Breakthrough CLIP 3D Printing Technology, 25-100X Faster.

Here are two excellent reads from the New Yorker. First, a mesmerizing read about Gerry Adams and The Troubles: Where the Bodies Are Buried. Second, another Harper Lee story, this time about a book she worked on for decades: Harper Lee’s Abandoned True-Crime Novel.

Thursday, March 19, 2015

The Poets

I'm going to be out of pocket almost all day today, but I read Tarn's development blog for Dwarf Fortress this morning and thought you would enjoy it.

Dwarf Fortress is so detailed now that it truly belongs in a class by itself. Tarn and Zach will take minute aspects and drill until they reach a level of harmony with everything else in the world. In this case, it's the creative arts:
While toying around with the art book code and poem/etc. composition, I thought I'd see what happens to an entire form created by an artist mid-world-generation when the only way the form can be passed around is between teachers, students and troupe members. Most of these non-civ forms tend to stay within a single troupe, but sometimes they break out. For instance, in a 200 year small world, we had a human from a hamlet named Usmen decide to run away from home and study goblin poetry. I guess he was troubled by their society, because it wasn't too many years before he introduced a new form of poetry in the year 106: a poetic narrative intended to teach a moral lesson. He and his master Zom Frothhate joined up with a few more goblins and founded the Tan Flies, and Usmen taught the whole group the new poetic form. A hundred years later, forty years after Usmen died of old age, the eight current members of the Tan Flies are still teaching moral lessons to their goblin buddies. 

They aren't the only ones though -- back in 113, not long after moral poetry was introduced, one of the founding Tan Flies named Stasost Tongsdemons left the group to go study elven poetry under Narena Packedman, a renowned poet who had over twenty-five students and several major works over a century of activity. After a brief apprenticeship, Stasost went on to have five students of her own before becoming a noble ruling over some goblin pits in 131. Two of these students, Aslot Hatedtangle and Stasost Profaneace, were taught the moral lesson poetic form around the year 120. Stasost Profaneace is still alive, now traveling with the venerable Blockaded Horns troupe (founded in 35), though she has not yet successfully passed on the moral lesson form (her only apprentice to date was murdered). 

The other student of Tongsdemons, Aslot, was a one-armed murderous goblin farmer in the pits before becoming a poet at age one hundred eleven, studying under the future Lady for twelve years until she assumed rulership. Aslot was murdered in 162, but he had many students of his own and one of them, a human named Atek Housetactics was deemed worthy of the moral lesson form. Atek was born in 130, 24 years after the invention of moral lesson poetry, and learned the form in the year 150. After losing several apprentices to the perils of goblin living, Atek managed to keep the goblin Osta Wererock alive long enough to pass along the knowledge. They founded a troupe together called the Holy Points and are still performing. Several new members have joined up, so there's hope that moral lesson poetry will continue to spread.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Changes+

Boy, the NFL is really in full-blown spin mode: NFL doctor says CTE is being “over-exaggerated”.

Here, this is great:
“I think the problem of CTE although real is it’s being over-exaggerated and it’s being extrapolated to youth football and to high school football,” Dr. Joseph Maroon said on Tuesday’s NFL Total Access.

He then shared some statistics that were a bit confusing, to say the least.  I interpreted it to mean that 63 cases of CTE were found in youth football players over a 59-year period from 1954 through 2013, when 30-to-40 million kids played football.  It wasn’t clear what Dr. Maroon was actually saying about CTE in youth football, and if the NFL plans to try to sell that all is well with doctors on the NFL payroll, anything any NFL doctor says needs to always be clear.

“It’s a rare phenomenon,” Dr. Maroon then explained.  “We have no idea the incidence.  There are more injuries to kids from falling off of bikes, scooters, falling in playgrounds, than there are in youth football.  Again, it’s never been safer.  Can we improve?  Yes.  We have to do better all the time to make it safer.  But I think if a kid is physically able to do it and wants to do it, I think our job is to continue to make it safer.  But it’s much more dangerous riding a bike or a skateboard than playing youth football.”

There's so much good stuff in here that it's hard to even sort through it all.

My favorite is that 63 cases of CTE have been found in youth football players out of "30-to-40 million" players. Awesome. Hey, does anyone want to mention that--currently--CTE can only be diagnosed after death, and then only by analyzing brain tissue? That might be relevant. And that it was essentially never looked for until very recently, and then only in very specific situations?

Rule #1: If the facts are not on your side, then frame the facts in a deceptive way. Not outright dishonest, but deceptive.

Also, and this is fantastic, "it's much more dangerous riding a bike or a skateboard than playing youth football." Again, this is brilliant, because he's talking about all injuries, not specifically to head trauma.

I wonder how much money Mr. Maroon (who is at least a neurosurgeon, and highly regarded) receives from the NFL each year.

Refer back to Rule #1, please.

Also, Mike Florio goes further away from reality:
We’ve known about the condition known as “Chronic Traumatic Encephelopathy” for several years now.  From time to time, CTE takes center stage.  And then it fades into the background again.

That’s partially because the condition remains largely shrouded in mystery, especially as it relates to the symptoms and consequences of microscopic changes to brain tissue resulting in the accumulation of tau protein.  In an October 2013 item published at Deadspin, Dr. Matt McCarthy explained that there’s still no clear link between football and CTE, and more importantly between CTE and various cognitive problems that occur as football players age.

Again, more awesome. "the condition remains largely shrouded in mystery" sounds like it was taken directly from the playbook of tobacco companies, doesn't it? Remember how they claimed, for decades, that smoking didn't cause lung cancer because science couldn't specifically identify the mechanism by which it happened, even though there was an unimpeachable data-based link?

And again, Rule #1 gets used. CTE, based on the best available evidence, is caused by an accumulation of effects from both concussions and sub-concussive impacts. Does football have a gigantic number of these kinds of impacts? Yes. Is there an alarming number of ex-players whose brains have been shown to have CTE? Yes.

So how do you use Rule #1 in this situation? Raise the evidentiary threshold until it's above whatever current evidence exists, then say the evidence isn't clear. Genius!

And I have to say it's particularly well-done on Florio's part to quote something from a year and a half ago in a field where research is advancing incredibly rapidly, as well as using as an "authority" a doctor whose specialty is infectious diseases.

Isn't the stink coming off this incredible? That's why I think the NFL is panicking here. They seem to think that Borland's retirement is a far more substantial issue than I originally did.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Changes

One of the best young linebackers in the NFL, Chris Borland, retired today at the age of 24.

He retired because he was concerned about the long term effects of repetitive head trauma. This was a step he undertook proactively, unlike other plays who have essentially been forced to retire early on the recommendation of doctors.

I thought this was a courageous and difficult move.

In a larger sense, though, I didn't think this meant much, until I heard journalists closely associated with the NFL reacting with unnecessary intensity. Here are a few excerpts from Mike Florio:
Americans routinely assume far greater physical risks for far less money and fame than the risk/reward of playing in the NFL. Riding motorcycles without helmet, jumping out of airplanes, climbing rock walls, working as police officers, firefighters.

Well, that's completely nonsensical. All of those activities/professions involve physical risk, but they're not the focus. In football, for many positions, hitting and getting hit IS the job.

Florio wound up driving completely off the cliff (including a reference to a decapitated uncle--read the whole exchange here), but most interesting is why he went thermonuclear. It indicates to me that the NFL is deeply concerned about how Borland's retirement is perceived by people outside the league.

The real problem here, though, is not perception. It's that the problems around concussions can, at best, be slightly mitigated. None of them can be "fixed".

Why not? Well, here's why:
1. No real-time evaluation of concussions.
Until there's a real-time, conclusive test that correctly identifies 95% (at least) or more of concussed players, it's going to be impossible to manage on the sideline during games, no matter how many neurologists the league uses. The King-Devick test certainly shows promise, but it's not a panacea, even if the NFL were using it (they're not).
2. Improving helmet safety is extremely difficult.
There's head-on trauma, and there's rotational trauma. Adding padding to the helmet to improve absorption of head-on trauma makes the helmet heavier, which makes rotational trauma even worse. All kinds of things have been proposed (including magnets) to make helmets safer, but almost all of it is just speculation.

The bottom line is that it's incredibly difficult to protect someone's head when they collide with someone else at a high rate of speed and/or acceleration. It's such a complex issue that researchers can't even seem to agree on the testing protocol that would determine whether a helmet is safer.

I think the NFL can see, though, that they have to manage this effectively in a PR sense. The worst-case scenario for the NFL is that high schools start dropping football because they can't afford the insurance costs (which will rise steadily as more and more information information on repetitive head trauma becomes available). And the drumbeat to pay college football players is going to get much louder as people begin to better understand the kinds of long-term risks the players are taking.

There are a series of ripple effects that the NFL doesn't want, and they have to control perception of this issue.

They can't, though. This issue has escaped containment.

Monday, March 16, 2015

Clever Angles

I'm still playing Offworld Trading Company in Early Access, and mostly, it's because Soren Johnson has added a new mode.

The mode is the "Daily Challenge", and it's a single map, one round. I can play through the map in 20-30 minutes (sometimes less), and it's a perfect mode for jumping in, having fun, and going on about my day.

This is absolutely a terrific and fascinating game. What I mentioned previously about the end game being abrupt is still a sticky issue, but but I don't think it will be intractable. On the plus side, it's remarkably intense in a very positive way, and I'm still having loads of fun playing.

The second game I want to mention is Cities: Skylines.

Mod support has waned substantially in the last few years, because if a developer supports mods, they can't sell that same content to you via DLC. But this is a short-sighted view, and here's why. In the case of Cities: Skylines, the game shipped with full mod support.

Because of that support, there are already a ton of interesting mods available for the game.

Here's an example:


That's a superb rendition of, um, "Down-N-Out" burger. I've seen one of those buildings in real life, and it's a tremendous duplication. 

It's incredibly easy to put it into the game--again, full and convenient mod support--and it's just another little bit of reality that looks great in my city. 

The problem with releasing a game is that you can, in almost all cases, never duplicate the rush of publicity you get during the launch window. EA, as an example, had to consciously prime the publicity pump for Sim City after its release, because without them doing it, it wasn't going to happen. 

With mod support, though, Paradox gets free publicity and interesting content. Eurogamer and Kotaku have both mentioned the Down-N-Out mod today.

Free publicity. Free content. 

Mod support extends the launch window publicity honeymoon. Companies like Bethesda have mod support that has kept games like The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind in the news for over a decade. Sure, it's intermittent news, but the larger mods have also kept people buying the game long beyond the point where a non-modded game would have any interest.

You know what else? The mod makers become personally invested in the game. Support them, and they will act as evangelists for your game. That's very, very smart.

Okay, last note. The artist who made the Down-N-Out mod is a former Maxis employee (Bryan Shannon) who worked on Sim City and was laid off. So now he's making buildings for Cities: Skylines, and he launched a Patreon  to hopefully establish some level of financial support for his work. 

That's great. Shannon estimates that it takes 15-30 hours to create a building with this level of fidelity, and if a market exists to fund his work, it's another example of how mod support can create positive outcomes. 

This game is a happy story, and it's happy because Paradox didn't get greedy, and they weren't obsessed with control. 

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