So, there's this site where you can play some of the games I mentioned in the last post. (For free.)  This gives me a chance to playtest at least two of them: Hive and Zertz.

I started by focusing on Hive, since, as I mentioned, if I could only have one game from that list, this would be it.

I have to say, I'm really pleased with this game.  It fully meets my expectations as a quick game to pick up, learn, and play. After re-reading the strategy on Wikipedia (5 paragraphs), I managed to get to a skill-level where I could regularly beat the "Dumb Bot" or whatever it was called online.

Did I mention I'm really pleased with this game?  'Cause I totally am.  This is a classic. Really.  It's chess/go/poker-worthy. ...Well... maybe it doesn't have the depth of those games, but it's so much more intuitive than those games, it's still worthy of being mentioned in their ranks.

Yup.  It's just that good.  And I must have it.  ; ) And you must look into it!

...I also spectated on a few games of Zertz, and it really does look neat.  ...Much slower than Hive: lots more thought involved.  But still a nice mechanic, and a pleasant game. I'll try playing it next week.

The Wishlist of Games

These are the games, after considerable review, I would like to add to my collection. They might not all land on the "Top Shelf"... but I certainly think they have the potential. ...There were a lot of other games on this list a day ago, but I decided that, for many of them, I would never find players, they would take too long, or there would be something better to play instead, even if they looked interesting. Others look like they might have the staying-power to displace other games on the Top Shelf.  So, these are officially on my wishlist:

Abalone - Pushing marbles around on a board.  A simple pick-up game, elegant, and pretty.

Beyond Balderdash - I love the idea behind the game (fake definitions of obscure and obsolete words), and I think it would be a great alternative to Apples to Apples in an intelligent crowd.

Carcassonne: The City - Similar game-play to Carcassone, but it looks like it might be superior. That it comes in a nice box is a bonus.  ; )

Carcassonne: The Discovery - Ditto.  This one looks like it's actually simpler than Carcassonne-proper, yet with more interesting mechanics.

Galaxy Trucker - In short, this looks awesome. Build ships in a hurry, race them around the galaxy, and watch them fall to pieces.

Go - I've wanted to get into Go for a long, time.  It's one of those extremely elegant and deep games, even moreso than chess. I also like the association that Go has with (Computer/Math) Geekdom.  ; ) If I could only get two games on this list, this would be my second choice (read on).

Hex - ...This would really just be getting a fancy board to use with Go pieces.  It's kind of like an introduction to Go, easier for pickup-play with novices.

Hive - honestly, if I could only get one game on this list, it would be Hive.  It just looks perfect!  A few (really nice) pieces, no board, intricate game-play over simple rules. Good as a pickup game, with some additional depth for the long-haul.

Pylos - stacking marbles.  Simple, quick, and very pretty with its wooden pieces. You'll notice that "pretty" often trumps my other rules about not overlapping game types.  : )

Quarto! - Elegant wooden connect-four game with a few twists.  Seems to carry over some of the elements of Set, which I like, and it's pretty.  ; )

Quaridor - Another pretty wooden game, with the same idea as Hex, but on a square grid and using limited walls to block a single piece.

Race for the Galaxy - Just a card game, but it's a "closed system" (unlike collectible card games), with some neat options and quick game-play and deep imagaination.

Zertz - Another game in the "it's pretty" category, with a really cool mechanic to the game: the board shrinks as you play.

I doubt all of these will end up being personal favourites, but I'd really like to give them all a try.

Top Shelf Games

These are, literally, the games I keep on my top shelf: the games I reach for when guests arrive. The games I will probably never get rid of (until I find something that's truly superior). Games I would immediately replace if lost. These are my "bare minimum" games:

1kBWC: Anyone who's willing to play will get my support.  ; ) The fact that you play with a bucket of pencils and a stack of index cards just makes this perfectly elegant... and the imagination, humor, and creativity involved are ideal.

Apples to Apples: The de facto party game.  Almost always a good idea.  ...Not so great when there's a wide political difference between players, though: the last time we played, I won a trick with "Republicans" to match "Idiotic". The woman who judged that was sitting next to a hard-core Republican.  Ooops.

Carcassonne: The game I play the most, really. It's light, enjoyable, and pretty.

Cathedral: purely aesthetics for me. I have a nice wooden version of the game. It's a quick pickup kind of thing, good to play once or twice; just as good sitting on the table and looking nice.

Chess: It's rare that I'll convince someone to play, but I invariably enjoy it when I get the chance.

Penté: Okay, so I haven't played this one in probably a decade, but I like it.  Truth be told, I will take this off the shelf once I have go and Quarto!, however.

Puerto Rico: Okay, I haven't ever played this.  ; ) It looks enjoyable, if a bit on the heavy side for me. We'll see.

Quiddler: I don't like scrabble; I do like Quiddler. There down side on this game (tons of down-time) tends to be an advantage, since you can talk to everyone who's not currently taking a turn... so I put it in the "party game" category. It helps that it's very easy to learn.

Set: I love this game. I used to play it every day at lunch, and I'm still not at all sick of it. It just strikes me as so sublimely elegant... Nearly perfect.

Settlers of Catan: This is about as "heavy" a game as I can really stand... I really enjoy the mechanics, the map, and the game-play.

Ursuppe: (AKA "Primordial Soup") Okay, here's another one I haven't played yet.  But it looks brilliant! And it bugs the heck out of me that I can't find a group of people to try it out.  : )  I'm going to bring this (and Puerto Rico) to our Halloween party and force it on people, though.  ; )

Gaming Geek I Am Not

I love board games. If I had the opportunity, I would play board game at least three times a week.  (Well, maybe once a week, if I could convince people to role-play or do 1kBWC instead.)

I spend a lot of time this evening.  (Okay, ALL evening) at Board Game Geek looking through the categories. I ended up scribbling down the names of over 50 games that intrigued me.

As is my nature, the very next thing I did was whittle the list way down (to 12, plus 7 I'm undecided about).

See... I'm not a gaming geek. Not in the traditional, I-have-a-spare-room-dedicated-to-storing-games sense. I'm actually something of a gaming minimalist. How many games do I think is ideal to own?  Probably about 20. In my mind, if there's a game that's similar to but better than another, there's little reason to own it.  Even if it's "also really cool".

I presently own about 30 games.  Maybe 35.  Of those, I think 10 are actually worth playing... (the rest I keep around to keep feelings from being hurt). Okay, one of them (Puerto Rico) I haven't played yet and so maybe it'll be 11.  Or maybe that one will displace Settlers of Catan. ...I doubt it.

(Oh, and Go is notably missing from my collection of games. So maybe it should even be 12.)

I like a lot more games than that. I'd be entirely willing to play them! But if one of those 10-12 games were also in the house, I would quickly suggest we use one of those instead.

My snobbery knows no bounds!

Game Idea (Note to Shelf)


Include in the game a cellophane sheet, which is placed over the game map. Players place game-pieces on this sheet, but still using the underlying map.

Some game mechanics would allow the cellophane sheet to move, thus displacing all of the tiles on the board by an equal amount. This could knock some pieces into invalid places, change the scores of some players, and create tactical advantages.

A gimmick, sure.  But potentially an interesting one.

Yes, I have games on the brain this week.


Those who know me well are aware that I was active in the Indie RPG community. One of the more memorable activities I took part in back then was helping to playtest a variant of The Pool, called Snowball. (If you go to that site and download the playtests, you can read that I took part in The Green Man and Folded Magic.) A PDF for the game is also on Lulu.

The idea behind the game was fairly simple: scene by scene, play a game. Backwards. Memento style role-playing.

As the kiddies are saying these days, this idea was made of WIN.

It occurs to me that, given a multi-user blog, one could do something similar: round-robin writing of a story, in reverse. Due to the nature of blogs, this would "unfold" nicely, in that older posts would be later on the roll.

The "game" would begin with a round of Universalis, to establish a setting, story concepts, characters, and ostensible plot. However, I would limit this round severely: perhaps four elements per player, because half of the fun of Snowball was being surprised by what the other players added and what needed to be reconciled in the "previous" scene or scenes: for example, in one of the playtesting sessions, another character introduced a complication that my character's wing was broken. (I was playing a crow.)

When it is your turn to narrate, you write a short-ish description of what happens: a paragraph or two. When you're done, you use a "tag" on the post to "seed" the next narrator with a few words: the next narrator will have to incorporate that idea into the next (really, previous) scene. For example, one might leave a tag of "A Door", or "Love Interest"... just some element to make the process of narration a little more interesting/challenging.

Other rules--conventions, perhaps--might be agreed upon during play. For example, it might be reasonable to limit narrators to introducing no more than one character per entry.

And, of course, no narrator would be allowed to contradict the previous entry: their post would have to "flow" into the last post that was left, ending with a situation just as the next post begins.

...I believe there is a huge, untapped potential for Blogs as a gaming vehicle. But the mechanics for such games would have to be very, very different than normal RPGs or tabletops. Less ordered, for obvious reasons. Occasionally I roll a few ideas around on my tongue, but the "solution" hasn't yet hit me. For example, I'd love to come up with a viable way to let a game be played *across* blogs.

I'd like to try this, to get those juices flowing and try to imagine what other kinds of "mechanics" could make a blogging game work.

Games, Games, Games

I was recently watching a discussion about Halloween, when someone mentioned playing Call of Cthulhu for Halloween.  I had to mention a game (Betrayal), which took me to Game Geek.

I've been there before, mind you, but I was just noticing the mechanic property of their games. This is a slightly awkward concept to introduce to a website, but it has great potential. It would be nice to set a user preference to suggest "I don't like memory", and to get a list of games you haven't seen before, rank well on the site, and don't involve that mechanic.

Then I wondered if role-playing games could benefit from the same concept.  Or, even better, game masters.  Or individual games.

I wonder what set of mechanics would cover enough of each of those levels to help people identify the correct systems, groups, and games to play with?

YouTube Idea

...Add a one-click flag/tag named "slide show".

Allow a user preference saying "hide slideshows".

I don't want to see them.  : |

Ooh! Coo', Lay Lay!

Lately, I keep wondering if electronic music is really just the same ten or twelve songs, being re-written, over and over, endlessly seeking the most appropriate expression of their underlying themes.

It certainly seems that way some times. ...Though I suppose one could say that about almost all music.

With that in mind, I bring you a video of the "Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain":

PowerPoint Slam?

I would find it hard to believe that the concept of "PowerPoint Slam Poetry" hasn't been done.

And, indeed, here's an example:


Part of my "self-driven education" has been to study Zen. I'm so far glad to be doing so; I've learned a lot already in the first week of study.

My motivation for doing so was to have some semblance of authority when speaking on the subject. While my life has presented some modicum of exposure to Zen, I have not practiced it in earnest, nor have I had a legitimate teacher. I've read several books on the subject, but for the most part, they have covered practice, not the history and culture of Zen... and this struck me as relevant. I knew there were different "schools" of Zen, but not what characterized them or how they evolved. I knew Zen was related to Buddhism, but I didn't know exactly how. I knew many of the koan I appreciate mention a variety of specific "Zen masters" of the past, but not who they were or where their stories took place. These were the bits of information I was after.

Zen's connection to Buddhism is of particular interest to me. I'm not Buddhist, nor could I be, but I believe Zen has "gotten a few things right". I wondered if it was really wise to proceed to "steal ideas" from Zen, if its background is truly religious and mythological. ...It's not that I have strong disdain for Buddhism: I appreciate the story of Siddhartha Gautama, and believe that he (insomuch as we can believe his historical accuracy) had some wonderful things to say. But I don't believe in, say, reincarnation, or the idea that a Buddha can create entire worlds with a single thought. Or that women and men should live separate lives. : ) And the like. That is to say, I want nothing to do with the underlying mysticism.

So the deeper question I suppose I was asking was: is Zen itself mystical? In practice, it certainly seems to have its benefits. I've experienced a sense calm, heightened perception, and a general sense of "rightness" about the task of Zen meditation... aside from feeling like I looked a little silly. It helped me deal with some pretty serious pain and uncertainty. I also like that, with Zen, one ostensibly tends to have increased compassion, calm, and reason. Put another way: I tend to really like people who practice Zen. So as I approached this problem, I knew the questions I asked needed to avoid confirmation bias. That is, I need to ask questions to disprove Zen's utility, not to confirm it.

Perhaps a better-if-less-scientific question would be: what's the minimum set of Zen aspects that can impart these benefits (subjective as they may be)? Can they be employed out of the context of spiritualism?

Several things struck me about Zen's history this week:
  • During WWII, many Japanese Zen practitioners were active supporters of the war, especially against China. To my mind, this suggests Zen does not always impart "wisdom", "compassion", or "loving-kindness".
  • Part of Zen's teaching is to move away from duality. So it's somewhat ironic of me to chide them for contradicting themselves on the point of "transmission without doctrine". That is to say, Buddha's "Lotus Sermon", which is considered the birth of Zen, was a sermon given without words, to show that not all communication is linguistic and that the truth of the human condition must be directly experienced rather than spoken of. ...And yet a very large part of Zen practice is study of Buddhist scriptures. Hmmmn.
  • It strikes me that much of Zen is structured to impart rank and recognition to its practicioners. This also strikes me as counter-intuitive. Another part of Zen is the dissolution of ego, and it hardly seems appropriate to "graduate" among the ranks of Zen in light of that.
These are, perhaps, strawman arguments. Of course the most vocal population of Zen will have hogged the spotlight, and they will be the first that I discover when looking for evidence. Yet these discoveries do suggest to me, along with other evidence I shalln't go into, that--if there is a "truth" to Zen, or an underlying practice that best represents it--such a thing is not clear, even to those who have practiced for decades.

Based on this "hunch", I think there may be an underlying philosophy that I like, coupled with a few physical aspects of human biology (ie: the benefits of relaxation). As I suggested above, I would like to know what those are and "extract" them from Zen.

...More about this in the future.

(Calligraphy by Kanjuro Shibata XX "Enso", from the collection of Jordan Langelier.)

Are people lying in the polls?

Is McCain getting under-represented in the polls? Sounds ridiculous.

But I just read a thread where at least a dozen women say that they have been called and have lied, saying they are voting for Obama. Because they are "afraid of retribution".

Seriously? Seriously?!?

This has me worried, though. Seriously. What if there really are a significant number of people lying in the polls? What if Obama really doesn't have the lead that he seems to have?

I'm afraid.

[thanks to Joshua for pointing this out]

Responses to Skepchick Comments

Sorry, regular readers, but the aforementioned thread got really side-tracked, and I decided to move questions directed at me to this post, so avoid the clutter on the SkepChick site.

  • SicPreFixNo Gravatar // Oct 25, 2008 at 3:34 pm
    Are you saying that two identical types of behaviour acquire two very different meanings/definitions because of a power imbalance?

Yes. I don't believe it's proper to extract the behaviour from the context.
  • I can't help but feeling you are (perhaps) operating with a definition of the term sexist that is at odds with the definition as held by most dictionaries and maybe most people.
Yes, that is the case. I get my definition from feminists.
  • Are you proposing a sort of distaff Black Pantherism?
Of course not. Ad absurdum.
  • I'd be more than happy to hear/see a clarification, but, um, please don't call me names, okay?
No worries, SPF, I respect you. ; )
  • 153Reply to this comment russellsugden // Oct 25, 2008 at 3:55 pm
    @JRice: I think it is possible for women to be sexist. See Arial Levy's "Raunch Culture"
Excellent point, but slightly misleading. According to feminists, women cannot be sexist, but they can internalize sexism. There's a subtle distinction. If you don't understand, I'll clarify, but I think it's intuitive enough.
  • Also I think your maths for equality is flawed, as the power held by women collectively is a function multiple variables. You have begun with the conclusion that the sexes are of equal "worth" (which you don't define), you have assumed the populations of both sexes to be identical. You don't discriminate between potential power and power-in-action and so on and so on.
Well, of course. ; ) I was just using it as an analogy: when something is imbalanced, you must work to correct it. It doesn't fix itself.
  • 155Reply to this comment PHNo Gravatar // Oct 25, 2008 at 4:17 pm
    However, I don't actually think it's generally considered 'irony' or 'trying to be funny' to call someone else's opinion f^%$tarded.

This comment was lame on multiple levels. First, you're trying to brush aside the argument by calling out one insensitive jibe, which is lame. Second, you've "censored" FUCK but not TARD, and the really insulting aspect of that term is that is belittles retardation, which is another area where discrimination is rampant... so you're clearly sensitive to the wrong aspects... though that's probably in line with the (blissfully ignorant) sexist comments you've been making. Third, you're complaining because I've attacked someone's opinion? Opinions are always fair game. That's the point. I didn't call him an asshole. No. ...Though that's what I'm calling you now. Asshole. (I'm joking again.) : ) Fourth, I can't think of a case where "fucktarded" has been used where it wasn't meant to be funny. That's kind of the point of the word.
  • 158Reply to this comment ImaginalDisc // Oct 25, 2008 at 5:41 pm
    Isn't it simpler to define sexism as treating one sex as inferior to the other?
You could define sexism as "fucking a hole in a tree", if you really wanted to. But that's not how it's used in the context of feminism. ...And isn't that where the definition matters?

Rationalizing sexism based on who has more power, or on historical inertia is groundless.

How convenient for you to say so. In my book, ignoring power and historical inertia is not just groundless, but unconscionable.

You do not need to be a sexist to "balance" out male sexism.

The point is not to "balance out sexism", the point is to balance out power and privilege.


There's been another couple of comments on the thread which I want to address. I'm done with that post... it's gotten too cumbersome. ; ) (Any skepchick reading this? Perhaps pagination (50 per page, even) would be in order?) ...And the only people who seem to still be listening are the three or four people whom I'm arguing with about definitions.
The most eloquent of them is by the above-mentioned "asshole", who deserves a little more credit than I was giving him above. : ) (That comment irked me, probably because it forced me to write an apology! Heh.) He now writes:
what you’re calling sexism seems to be a very black-and-white one, where the power balance in an individual encounter is entirely irrelevant, and all that matters is the average power of one group in society compared to another.That is, if a woman who herself happened to be born with every privilege imaginable discriminated against a man who’d had innumerable disadvantages on the basis of his gender, you’d class that as ‘gender prejudice’, not sexism, and seemingly(?) think it wasn’t as wrong as sexism.
Well, I don't think that's what I've been saying, but that's certainly how people have been taking it. This argument really is ad absurdum. ...In particular, this isn't a case you'll ever see in reality.

For a start, I don’t think that’s what most people would understand by the word ’sexism’.
He hasn't been reading this post, but--yeah. That's what I said above, and gets talked about in the comments. It's a feminist's definition of sexism. Not all self-proclaimed feminists define it this way, but I think it's a very useful definition, and I will attempt to explain why in the rest of my remarks...

Also, it seems an unnecessary linguistic distinction to make, since if all you really want to say is “Sexism by women is less important than sexism by men”, you could just say that, and people could agree with you, or not.
This definition of "sexism" is really "prejudice". Re-phrased, “Gender prejudice by women is less important than prejudice by men”. And, yeah, I might say that's true. But it's not my point. Read on...

There’s no need to invent a new term in order to justify making a binary distinction between types of sexism, especially if that risks people viewing it as some sweeping-under-the-carpet exercise.
Here we go: I think it's very useful to redefine the term. There is already a term for what you're calling sexism: prejudice. Pre-judging, based on a generalization. The word fits, exactly like that, everywhere you and the others use the word "sexism".

Redefining sexism to mean "prejudice plus power" makes a very, very important distinction. It brings power into the equation. It helps illustrate the difference between two actions that will have two very different results. I think if you care at all about feminism, this is vital to understand. For me, it really shed a whole new light on minority rights, and it has done so much for my understanding of their disadvantages. It's a tool to help people like me (men) to examine and understand their privilege, and to try and avoid taking actions that might otherwise come across as harmless. In short, it's a first step toward solving the problem.
PH (the commenter I've just been quoting) strikes me as the person who might eventually "get this". I think his intentions are in the right place... but I think he's got a conceptual leap to make before he's on the same page. I hope the issue comes up for him a couple of more times over the next year, and he finally flips that particular switch.
Then there's I'm A Hedge, who's a commenter I really like. He's joined in the fray, and has this to say:
It would not be just to [punish] someone who happened to share a particular set of physical characteristics with the perpetrator.

Perhaps the disagreement here is whether we consider a person as an individual or as a member of a group. Justice applies to individuals.
I've spoken about this before, and think it's an important point: many people (most?) define feminism in the light of individuals. I think this is where the "sex-positive" feminists come from, in fact: they think that feminism means enhancing their personal power, and that sexism is when someone knocks them down because of their gender.

This is all well and good... for the person. But, for me, sexism and feminism are really social issues. Branches of sociology, not psychology, if you will. The approaches that you take to bolster an individual are very, very different than the approaches you take to bolster a portion of a population. Both are topics I'm wildly interested in. I think the personal approach is... well... simple (not easy, but simple). If that's how you want to think of these things: every issue in it's own little box, totally independant of the broader social constructs... I would probably agree with you on many issues. ...with one exception: blaming the victim. On that issue, I cannot agree. And I think this is something that comes up a lot. But that's for another post entirely. : )

I think it's much more useful, relevant, and important to put down the viewfinder and focus on society. ...That's absolutely what feminism is about, and what sexism derives from.

That said, I think it's close-minded to say justice must apply to individuals, and I'd like to hear some... uhhh... justification for that claim. : ) Why wouldn't you hold cultures to the same standards as individuals?

Oh, and for this post:
...perhaps must critically, it requires judging one sex as more or less deserving than the other, and assigning people worth based on their sex. No matter how you attempt to weasel around it that is sexism.
To coin a phrase, "my interest in your opinion has been fully explored", particularly on this topic. I can't help but feel ImaginalDick is getting so defensive because he's so easily empathizing with threats to men's power.

No No, the OTHER Obama

So it turns out there's a port city in Japan named Obama. (Literally, "Small Beach".) Obama is known for their fine lacquered chopsticks, Yamato-dynasty temples, agate accessories, and fishing, as well as the Research Center for Marine Bioresources at the Fukui Prefectural University.

You'll occasionally hear me talk about wanting to take a long vacation to visit the temples of Asia.  This would include Myotsu-ji Temple (which has some fancy gardens to match), which is located in Obama.

The city of Obama has been very excited about Barrack Obama's rise to political power, and have sent him numerous gifts.

[yes we can]

The Power of Equality

I wrote the following on a Skepchick thread, and thought it could be more broadly applied to several situations:

Let x = the “worth” of a woman, and y be the “worth” of a man. We’ll both agree, these should be equal, right? That is x = y. Great.

Now let’s say a is the power that women hold in society. And let’s make b the power that men hold in society. We want equality here, too. So, ideally:

ax = by
…But wait, if x = y, then a = b. But, again, I think we can agree that is not the case: women do not have equal power in our society. Alright, let’s do something about it:
(a +i)x = (b + j)y
…Where i is “what we’re doing to empower women” and j is “what we’re doing to empower men”.

More often than not, what I see people arguing on the internet is that i should equal j (usually, in the form of 0), and that things will all work themselves out in the end.

That math doesn't work.

The problem here is that people want to define "fair" as "equal treatment".  This is a mistake. It's a mistake because of the equation above: there cannot be "fairness" when the equation is already imbalanced.  Fairness means "appropriate treatment".  And what is approrpriate is not always (perhaps not even often) equal.

I Went to School Today, Oh Boy

Well, my first day of "school" wasn't stellar.

My Rails training this morning was fair, but it didn't feel like anything unusual: this is what I've been doing for a while.  Par for the course.

I started German late (I had to vote early this year, so I was off doing that), and I was distracted when I finally got to it.  Still, I suppose it's good to ease into a refresher (with Michel Thomas). Among many other things, I learned lieden means "to suffer", and Liede means "unfortunately".  This was interesting, because "Das tut mir Lied" is a common phrase, which I learned many years ago, meaning (roughly) "I'm sorry".  I have always strongly prefered more literal translations, and I had assumed in this case it was "that makes me sad/sorry".  Now I've discovered it is more accurately "that makes me suffer". ...And that is the kind of linguistic shit that I find awesome.

Knots went miserably.  I scrounged around any little scrap for rope I could use, but all I found were fraying synthetic left-overs from the tarp I'd tied to the cooler on the roof last year, and they promptly fell apart.  Fortunately, the knot I was focusing on today (I have a list of 19 I want to learn before I'm done) was very simple, and I think I've got it.

So I took the "extra" time to read up on Wikipedia.  I landed on Knot Theory, however, where I spent most of my time.  Interesting stuff, and not quite as intimidating as I suspected it might be.  Still, I'm not doing this for the math, so that was more of a... survey. Still fun, still cool, still interesting trivia that relates to knots.

Then I decided to hit the rest of teh intartubes, and found (perhaps unsurprisingly) some useful videos, including the knot I was learning today (Shake Hands).

I expect tomorrow will go more smoothly.


I decided to sign up for another experiment today.

I can't afford college, as the last post implies. This sucks on multiple levels, but the most fundamental is that, if I won the lottery tomorrow, I would almost certainly become a full-time student for life. Alas, I can't have that.

But I can have some of the experience.  I've decided to experiment with self-directed education.  College without the college.

I plan on spending three hours a week on each "subject", doing my damnedest to learn everything I can about it.  I'll pick five subjects at a time.

Last night, I wrote a list of all the skills I would like to learn before I die.  A bucket list for nerds, I suppose. Not all of them are really "collegian"... for example, I would like to study role-playing game design in earnest at some point.

To start with, I will be studying (I picked some relatively "easy" subjects to begin with):

  • German
  • Knot-tying
  • Zen
  • Drawing, and
  • Advanced Rails
I should say: I realize this isn't an original idea. I'm actually a little ashamed to be announcing this, because it's something I should have done long, long ago. Frankly, I couldn't tell you why I hadn't considered doing this before. I guess the idea just felt kind of silly. (South Harmon Institute of Technology, anyone?) On some levels, it is silly.  But I'm approaching it as an experiment: we shall see what kind of results it yields, and I will record my results. If it's something I find ineffective, I'll bail.

I begin tomorrow.


Tonight, I re-totaled the amount of debt I'm in.

"Bad Debt" totals 65% of my annual salary.  This is down from nearly 75% about a year ago (errr... using my current salary as a yardstick--otherwise it would be 115%), so we are working hard at getting out of this.  I'd like to say it's because we "never use credit cards anymore", but that's not true.  Just this month, we "had to" dip another $1100 in debt (mostly business expenses for my wife, but also a myriad of birthdays for which we got small gifts)... but it's short term (I have a paycheck coming in for that amount... whenever the government gets around to it).  We're just so far down because I'm being very aggressive about paying down the low balances when we have extra cash.  ...And I'm doing a lot of extra work to make that possible.  We are also currently living "within our means"... though that's hypocritical to say, with that much debt.

We also owe 20% of my salary for our car.  According to Blue Book, it's currently worth 65% of what we owe on it.  Sigh.

As for our house, we're also "deep in the hole".  I think it's worth 75% of what we owe on it.  And what we owe is 2.4 years of my salary.

So, in summary: eesh.  Things are improving, but... man, we were so far in the shitter to begin with, I'm still seriously worried.

(Sorry for the fuzzy-math.  I prefer using actual dollar values, but my wife has explicitly asked that I don't.)

Revealing My Personal Genome

As I've talked about before, I am generally not a privacy advocate. Today I put my science where my mouth is and pre-registered for the Personal Genome Project.

If they accept me as a subject, they will take a DNA sample from me and study it for various purposes, and, in theory, share it with the public.

If all goes according to plan, there will be about 100,000 subjects... so my own data will be rather buried.  But it's still out there.

That is all.

Autism and Jenny McCarthy

Vaccines do not cause Autism.

There have been a host of scientific studies demonstrating this.  A summary of thirty-three of them (I hope that's enough to convince you) can be found at the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia.

Not vaccinating your kids is a great way to do some real harm, on the other hand. The diseases we're vaccinating against can, in fact, be fatal.

Jenny McCarthy is perhaps the most outspoken/well-known advocate of the vaccination-autism theory.  I like Mrs. McCarthy.  She's well-spoken, she's funny, she's undeniably hot.  I find it very, very unfortunate that she's being so unreasonable on this subject. (She's not alone, of course.) I want Jenny McCarthy on my side.  ; )

My son has been diagnosed with Asperger's, which is "on the spectrum": a very, very mild form of autism. As such, I've had to give pause to ask why he's the way he is.  It seems that such diagnosis are on the rise: my son is in a special program at school for it, and he has six classmates with the same problems.  Does this suggest environmental causation?  I suspect as much, personally, though there is no compelling evidence that vaccination is the cause (and there's evidence that it's present long before vaccination, anyway).  I would personally suspect some kind of chemical interaction during gestation: something we haven't identified yet.  But not vaccines.  That theory just doesn't hold up to rational scrutiny.

Vaccinate your kids. Tell others to vaccinate theirs. Kids will die if we're not aggressive about this. ...And there is no scientific reason to fear it.

...Just thought I would take a moment to say as much.

Fucking Role-Playing Games

A friend of mine and I had a chat (email) about gaming.  It started roughly two days ago, and since then, I have been thinking of little else.

Role-playing has been a very strange obsession of mine, for my entire life. At once I find role-playing the best possible use of one's creativity, the ultimate hobby, and a waste of time in the grand scheme of things: it never really meets expectations, too many things can go wrong.

I'm also an unusual person, with very (very) particular tastes.  I want a role-playing game that's a compelling story, but not bogged down in either emotion or detail. I want epic combat, but not a risk of having my character killed.  I want variety in setting, but setting that meet my particular preferences. I want a system that facilitates good story-telling, not "realism", but at the same time, bars people from taking actions that are clearly impossible.

Worse, I want the other players in the group to have similar goals.  I want to play with a group of people who don't mind their characters being bested now and again, who realize that "character growth" can sometimes entail great loss (be that followers, favorite items, limbs or levels).  I want a party that occasionally runs from danger.  I want players to seriously consider the ramifications of attacking the duke because he's insulted them. I want players who aren't going to decide it's "in character" for them to leave the party because of a difference in opinion.  I want players who are willing to try different gaming systems, to find their strengths and discover what kinds of different stories they are capable of telling.

Role-playing could be such an ideal activity.  If I found the right group of people with the right attitude, I could easily do it three nights a week and not feel I were wasting my time.  But as I've ever experienced it, it's like mediocre sex: while you're kinda glad you did it, you can't help but feel like it could have been so much better. ...And you feel a little guilty about it, too.  : )

Economic Stats

I found a nice site with some economic charts.  I recommend perusing it.

But I didn't find what I was looking for.  Namely, a histogram of American income.

Ever seen one?

Scottish Percussionist

So, I was zipping around TED today, listening to the musical offerings, and stumbled on this lecture by a Scottish percussionist who went mostly deaf at the age of 12, but continued to pursue her life as a musician.

A) She's hot.
B) Her accent makes me hot...
C) Her skills are awesome, and
D) Her message is a good one.

Well worth the 30 minute playtime.  (The last 10 are her performing a piece.)

America's Financial Situation via Surfing

I don't "surf" much anymore. I read the stuff in my aggregator, and when I need to answer a particular question, I use the little search bar in Firefox to ping Google, Google Images, IMDB, or Wikipedia.

That's about all I do with the web, these days.

Occassionally... very occasionally, I'll see something interesting "advertised" on one of the sites I get to through the above means.  Today, it was that "Fungus Cannon" article, which pointed me to the most brilliant explanation of American financial crisis I've ever read. It is a very long article (I had to read it over the course of several spats), but it's great: detailed but explains everything in very clear terms.

And while I generally loathe long conversations in comments, I happened to catch a phrase about three comments down that really summed everything up for me:

I’m continually amazed at how much imaginary money exists in our economy.

Space-X: Coolest Video on the Web Right Now

Space-X has released a video of their first successful rocket launch.

While I have some mild trepidations about the commercialization of space, I think this is, overall, a positive thing.

Plus, the video is just really cool.

Fungus Cannon

[via Skepchick]


"You're a story-teller."

A friend of mine said that to me.  ...Quite some time ago, actually (a year, perhaps?), but it still sticks with me.  I'd never really made the connection before she said it, so it was important to me.

If you remember me from my youth, you'll know that I grew up convinced that I was going to be a fiction author: that I would have some lousy day-job as a crappy architect, but my real effort would go into after-hours authorship.  You'll also know that I abandoned that dream of writing somewhere mid-way through college, when I realized that writers have to read.  A lot. And I didn't have the stomach for it.

That may have been where it started, but lately my story-telling nature manifests itself in very different ways. ...And often, when it does, I think back to that friend of mine telling me I was story-teller.

For example, just moments ago I called my wife to ask her to pick up dog treats while she was out.  Simple enough.  ...But I turned it into a story, explaining how I'd found her chewing on one of our son's toys and how it occurred to me that perhaps some treats would be useful to have on-hand while she (my wife) was out of state this weekend.

Not "could you please pick up some dog-treats."

And there it is.  A subtle manifestation, perhaps, but indicative of a larger trend.

Electoral Battle-scars

I haven't been paying much attention to this presidential race.

I didn't vote in the primaries. I didn't watch the news around it, and still don't: I get enough from friends talking about it. I didn't watch the debates. I don't even really know who the Green candidate is (I believe it's a woman--I think she's black--and that she's supposedly pretty cool): I just haven't bothered looking.

I'm not entirely sure I want to.

I'm sorry, but I still have scars from four years ago.  I was devastated after the election. Out-and-out depressed. Came close to tears. Walked around in a funk for weeks.  I hadn't had an emotional blow that strong since 9/11. I just couldn't understand how anyone with a good conscience would support a regime like Bush's. I didn't think those results were possible in our "open society". It created, in my mind, an "us" and a "them", right here in my own country. It was frustrating enough that people were willing to ignore what was going on: many people actively supported it. So, part of me doesn't even want to look, doesn't want to get emotionally invested again. I felt betrayed by my countrymen.

Another part of me realizes that my vote is a foregone conclusion.  I'm not voting Obama, I'm voting Democrat.  I don't care who's on the local ticket, I'm voting Green there (where possible). The person is not as important to me as the political repercussions that come with the party the person is attached to. ...So why bother watching?

And another part of me, as I've addressed in previous posts, is disenchanted with American politics in its entirety.

Yes, I'll vote.  It won't mean much, but I would be loathe not to.  You've got petitions to sign?  Count on my name being on it, if the issue makes sense.

But I'm afraid that's about all the energy I have to give the election this year.

Optically Elusive: Rotating Grid

(Take two.)

Found on TED, here's a neat opitical illusion. When a solid grid is rotated rapidly, we perceive several small areas of rotating grids.

If you look closely, however, you will find that this is one solid, continuous grid.

Always remember the human mind is flawed.

Pressure of Polls

I got polled yesterday.  Two young people came up to my door, supporting "ACORN", and wanted to know whether I support affirmative action (I do, strongly).  Then they asked what I thought the two biggest problems facing America are.  ...No prompting other than that, free-form answer allowed.

I choked!  Instead of answering what I really think (loss of civil liberties and allowing a probable war criminal to lead our country), I answered that "I thought was right", namely: "The economy and Iraq".

One more reason why polls suck great big sweaty donkey balls.

I was pretty disappointed with myself, afterward.

Caption Me

This image of Biden was on a BBC article I happened to read while surfing:

...Choosing to refrain* from the easy question ("why the flattering picture of Palin and this horrible shot of Biden?"), I wondered: how should this be captioned?

Here are some suggestions:
  • Pull my finger!  OH!!!  Too late.
  • This... Is... SPARTA!!!
  • Look!  Russian Paratroopers!

* Okay, not so much "refrain" as "not focus on".  Heh.

Science! (Clinical Trials)

You know I'm a 100% "science guy".

Part of that, in my opinion, is being able to self-assess.  To say "nope, this isn't working", evaluate alternatives, and change... even if it's a deep, core change.

I see a problem with clinical trials.  (And, more broadly, the same logic could be applied to general science, but I leave that to the reader.)

There are a lot of possible therapies out there.  Billions of compounds, biological and otherwise, that have yet to be tested against tens of thousands of human (and livestock, and agriculture) ailments.

As we sciencey (that should SO be a word) people know, in order to conduct a trial with any kind of legitimacy, it must be done double-blind, randomized, and must have a sufficient sample size (depending on the rarity and uniformity of the condition, this should mean between several dozen and several thousand subjects).  Proper clinical trials are complex* and expensive. They are slow to start, difficult to recruit for, take a long time to run, take much longer for proper followups, and--perhaps worse than all of these things--are mired in political motivations and opinions.

There is no way to systematically and categorically test every drug for every potential use.  ...Even if you hone out the clear losers, there are still billions of possible trials today, and as we learn more, that number can only increase.

Thus, there needs to be discussion about which therapies get priority over others.  ...This is where the system is flawed: it is largely dictated by the superior capital of giant drug companies.  What they want to bring to market will surely get undue focus.  This is also to the detriment of "cheap" solutions (think exercise, relaxation techniques, dietary changes): there is nothing to "gain" (monitarily) from these trials, so there is a lack of funding for them.

Compounding the problem is the small trials that take place before the larger ones: they are doomed to failure if they don't produce positive results, so are particularly prone to fudging of numbers, or less rigorous techniques, or poor randomization.

In a nutshell, what I'm saying is that the selection process for the scientific method governing clinical trials is anything but objective, and much less than effective.  This is not an area where "free market mechanics" is properly applied: it's science, and there needs to be methodology to it.

* Not to appeal to authority, but I worked three years on programming software for clinical trials.