July 2012

So, I was playing Skyrim the other night, was mixing it up with some necromancers in a cave, and the computer turned itself off.  This has happened before; I think the fog in the caves overtax the processor and it overheats.  I tried again, and just as I was either smoking or getting smoked by the Draugr Overlord, it crashed again.  And wouldn’t reboot.  Damn.

I let it cool down overnight.  Next day it wouldn’t boot at all– it just issued plaintive beeps.  Damn.  I hauled it to Best Buy.

And then… well, I don’t have that much income.  But it costs $70 for them just to look at your computer, plus probably they’d have to replace the motherboard (it’s gone out twice on this computer) and I’d lose all my data anyway (if it’s recoverable, they charge like $90 just to save a copy).  Plus, who wants a computer that can’t play Skyrim?  So I looked at new computers.

The computer is great, the camera sucks

Apparently a lot has changed in four years.  Traditional desktops are almost out, and they’re smaller anyway.  And not too expensive: this one is more powerful than the old computer (quad core, 8G RAM, 1T disk space, Radeon HD6530D graphics card) and cost less, $500.

Speaking of money, did you know Geek Squad will charge your grandma $100 a year for ongoing tech support?  I suppose when I’m 90 I’ll be wishing I had kids to get my damn neurimplant rebooted.

The big disadvantage, of course, is that I lost any data that I hadn’t backed up.   I’ve got Warwarpath saved, fortunately.  And game saves that were in Documents as of a month or two back.  I lost a beautiful page on politics, however, plus the URL of the most useful source for it.  (Back up your computer frequently, kids!)  Plus a hundred Steam games need to be downloaded again.

I noticed that Second Life runs better than I’ve ever seen it, and TF2 seemed smoother too.  I’m curious how other graphics-intensive games will look, and I should be able to retry a few games that wouldn’t run on the old system: Divinity II, Velvet Assassin, Riddick.  (Riddick ran once and never again.)

Plus, I think it was worth it to get a new system without Windows 8.

The proof copy of Advanced Language Construction arrived today!  When I was doing the LCK two years ago, it took about two weeks to get it; this one arrived in six days.  Amazon is getting frighteningly efficient.

What’s next?  I’ve started proofing the proof, which will take a couple days.  Then I make corrections.  Two more readers are perusing the same text, so I’ll have a few more corrections to make.  Then, another proof copy, hopefully the final one.  So I expect the book will be available in mid-August.

It reads pretty smoothly, thanks to the platoon of readers who’ve gone over it.  (Embarrassingly, I still find errors.  But one reason for the proof is that errors stand out much more in print, especially things like font mismatches.)

One thing I learned from the LCK is that many readers are acutely conscious of typography, so I’ve paid much more attention to that this time around.  ALC will be hyphenated, with single spaces after periods, which helps eliminate uneven text and annoying little bits of white space.

LCK’s body text was Century Schooltext, with Gentium for oddball characters.  This isn’t the best combination, but fortunately there are now better ones.  I like Linux Libertine for all citations and glosses.  As an experiment, I printed one chapter with the body text in Libertine too.  Sigh: I haven’t entirely decided.  It looks fine, and I really like having everything in one font.  But Century Schoolbook is a little larger (at the same point size, 11) and friendlier.  On the other hand, Libertine handily won the little poll I ran at the ZBB.  I wonder if I can set it to 11.5 points…

OK, I was curious where Arkham City managed to fit an entire naval shipyard when Harley needed one.  It’s basically in the far south, within the restricted zone (with an opening to the water in that direction).

Here’s the door as you see it in AC:

Nothin’ here but a Riddler trophy.

And here’s the same spot in Harley Quinn’s Revenge:

Batman took the time to go home and change capes

By the way, while we’re looking at the innards of Arkham City, did you ever wonder what’s behind those castle-like walls in Strange’s inner keep? This:

Are those ice cream trucks?? Probably not.

Pretty much just parking for Tyger’s fleet of helicopters.  (You can also get a glimpse of the surface when you’re going up the elevator.  Under the pavement, of course, is Wonder City.  Don’t land those helicopters too hard!)

I picked up a couple games during the Steam summer sale, but mostly grabbed a bunch of DLC.  One of these was Harley Quinn’s Revenge, for Batman: Arkham City.

(By the way, if you get it through Steam, note that the game doesn’t register that you have it until you log into Windows Live.  You download and install it there.  This is annoying but at least it’s over quickly.)

She’s kinda hot when she’s mad

It’s pretty good.  It’s well, very Arkhamy; I swear they turned the lights down, making the place more lugubrious than ever.

You start as Robin, which is less painful than I expected.  (If you’re only a moderate fanboy, this is not the original Robin, who’s become Nightwing.  This is a new Robin.)  This is mostly because he has some new gadgets, so it’s slightly different getting around (indeed, there’s one hazard that has to be avoided differently depending on who you’re playing).  The gadgets are actually different from the ones in the Robin map pack, which is just as well.

Robin actually has to rescue Batman, who kinda foolishly got into a trap.  Batman was pretty much a dick to Robin in the main game, and this continues… indeed, it’s pretty much lampshaded.

I just read a bunch of reviews, and they were all rather disappointed.  But then, they probably paid full price for it.  I think the best way to think of it is that it adds a new building to Arkham City (it’s a shipyard, not part of the steel mill, as some reviewers thought).  So it’s comparable in complexity and challenge to one of the other buildings in AC… not to the whole city.  It’s not gonna be an open-ended, multi-mission thing.  It’s fun to put on the thick boots and face down more thugs and their insane leader for a couple of hours, but it’s not a sequel.

This was the logical story to do after Arkham City, but some of the wit and darkness of the main game are missing.  Harley is understandably going through a bad time, and dressing her thugs in striking red and black outfits is undoubtedly an important first step in dealing with her grief as well as holding her turf in the giant prison; but though she’s a little smarter here than in AC, she doesn’t really match the main villains of the main game.

I found there was one really difficult fight in it.  In the final fight, Batman faces something like a dozen robots, which count as armored thugs… plus Harley is sniping at you.  After a few tries, I got through this– just barely– with a combination of stun + beatdown, plus the electric gadget (4-4).  You can easily get mobbed by the other robots, so mash that block key. (Select text to reveal.)

Edit: I also wanted to say that at two hours or so, it’s pretty short.

Also, where did Harley get all the dye and makeup to redo the look of Joker’s thugs?  In AC the idea was that Hugo Strange was providing arms and presumably other resources.  But he and Tyger are gone, so the logistics must be problematic.  Silly question, I know, but in AC the designers made a point of designing Joker/Penguin/Twoface thug outfits in a way that suggested they were handmade.  (E.g., Twoface’s thugs just burned half of their uniforms; Penguin’s spray-painted a penguin on theirs.)  Oh well, I guess we just figure there was a chemical factory in Joker’s sector.

Here’s an interesting review of Half-Life 2 episodes 1 and 2.  I think it does a pretty good job of capturing what works and what doesn’t in the two episodes, and explaining why I never had the impulse to replay ep 1.

I also agree that the climax to ep 2 sucks.  I could never finish it, in fact– it depends entirely on being able to aim those stupid stickybombs onto striders, then shooting them, then racing to the next strider.  Even with the ability to save, it was just impossible.

On the other hand, exploring the antlion den is weird and interesting– it gives the sense of alienness that ep 1 didn’t really deliver.  And the section where you work your way through an enormous factory is an interesting set of challenges, and I think he’s right that they tie it together spatially in a very clever way.

The one hole in his theory of progress at Valve, I think, is that HL2 is more fun than either episode.  I’ve played HL2 multiple times… there’s really no puzzle to it anymore, it’s just relaxing sometimes to play a good known game.  It’s also a master class in how to make a shooter just varied enough.  The shooting-Combine-enemies sections are nicely broken up by cutscenes, vehicle sections, and the very different feel of Ravenholm and Nova Prospekt.  The second City 17 section is a bit tedious, but the Citadel bit ends on a high note.

I wonder if the real reason for the delay is not the difficulty of continuing the narrative, or modernizing it, but Valve’s unusual internal structure.  People basically choose what project they want to work on, an idea which undoubtedly generates excitement and commitment, but probably isn’t as good for steady progress.  If everybody prefers to work on TF2, L4D2, and Dota, then there just won’t be the manpower for episode 3.

I’ll understand if you don’t take this question seriously; I realize it sounds kind of silly, but I promise that I would not waste your time with a frivolous question.

What I wonder is, how does a person know if he or she is stupid? It seems like the more a person knows, the more they realize they don’t know— and, conversely, with decreased knowledge comes a weaker sense of one’s limitations. For all I know, I could be a complete idiot, and never realize it because I’m too stupid to do so.

—Tim Klausewitz

No need to apologize; it’s a good question and lets me bring in the Dunning-Kruger effect, which allows us to detect and kill replicants.  Er, which tells us that while competent people are pretty good at estimating how competent they are, incompetent people wildly overestimate their skills.  E.g. in tests of four skills, those scoring in the bottom quartile (thus, averaging at the 12.5 percentile) estimated that they were in the 62nd percentile (i.e. well above average).

So the bad news is, yes, if you’re stupid you probably don’t know it.  But then the good news is, if you really wonder, you’re probably not.

I suspect you know how well you do on tests and your job.  I was always one of the top kids in my class, through high school; then I went to a good university where everyone was smart, and that cured me of any worries that I was a genius.  For what the real geniuses are like, I recommend Richard Feynman’s memoir, “Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman”.  Not only is it fun to read, it shows how a smart person approaches the world, and shows how he compared himself to even smarter people, such as Niels Bohr and Einstein.

To some extent, intelligence isn’t even the main thing.  As momentum is mass times velocity, I think great minds have a quality that’s used with intelligence and multiplies it.  Or several different qualities.  Some people just have so much energy that they can crack a problem by direct hard work.  Some are particularly gifted at finding lateral solutions.  Some partner with someone else whose strengths and limitations complement theirs.  So even if you conclude that you’re no genius, that doesn’t necessarily mean you’re limited.

Students of drawing are sometimes told to try timed sketches. This is particularly easy with these websites, so I gave it a whirl. Graphite nudity ahead.



Did you know this is a good defensive posture? I didn’t!

Well, by the time you see this, the Kickstarter will probably be over.  It’s OK, it made its target.

I heard about this earlier– oh, Neal Stephenson is making a swordfighting game, that’s nice.  But I checked it out tonight, and it looks like it’ll be awesome.  It’s going to use a motion controller, starting with the Razer Hydra, which is $99.  I may do my own Kickstarter to be able to afford one.  They want to make it controllable by mouse/keyboard as well, but they judge, correctly I think, that this is the one application that actually needs fine motion control.

But they really had me when they talked about basing the system on the longsword combat described in the Fior di Battaglia of about 1420.  When researching the PCK, I looked a little at swordfighting– enough to know that most people’s ideas about it are terribly wrong, and that much of our real knowledge comes from a few medieval and Renaissance manuals such as this one.  So it was evident that Stephenson knows his stuff.

Interestingly, the actual mechanics translate well into a game situation.  You generally start in one of a small number of defensive stances.  Each stance allows certain attacks, and these in turn invite certain counter-attacks.  It makes a rich strategic system which nicely tracks with computer animation.  (If you want, you’ll be able to stand any way you want, and swing the sword around according to gut instinct.  You’ll get chopped up, of course.)

Getting the UI to model the fight in a satisfying way should be tricky, but it seems like they understand the challenges and I’m eager to see what they come up with.

I posted this link on my Facebook page, and one of my friends commented:

“This was written in 2000. In the wake of the sub-prime mortgage fiasco,
TARP, the looming collapse of the euro, staggering debt and inverted-
pyramid demographics throughout the first world, I wonder if he still stands by this analysis?”

and I thought… why not ask you?


Sure, why not?  I assume he means the predictions at the end; as they’re intended to look up to a century in advance, not much can happen in ten years to throw them off.

Of course, the first one (that Republicans would find they like governing) looks the worst.  It’s somewhat baffling why the Repubs get crazier and crazier.  Traditional political science says that two-party winner-take-all systems produce fairly similar moderate parties, and that’s what we had for most of the 20th century.  But now the GOP goes more off the deep end every year.

The usual cure is to lose elections, but it takes several in a row. But the problem today is that the voters have short memories.  The Republicans did their best to destroy the country, and lost accordingly in ’06 and ’08.  Two years wasn’t enough to clean up their mess, but the voters gave them another chance in 2010.  Maybe this cycle will continue for awhile; but demographics are against them.  The Republicans can’t keep alienating women, blacks, Hispanics, gays, lesbians, and the young forever.

Your friend’s list is pretty miscellaneous, but let’s go over it briefly:

  • Subprime mortgages: The damage done by deregulation is basically over.   We don’t have the housing bubble as a problem any more; our problem is the ongoing recession.  And half the country doesn’t want the recession to end, because omigod Obama would be reelected.
  • Bush’s TARP: no one likes the idea of a bailout, but this one saved us from a depression and the taxpayers got their money back.  The alternatives would have been worse.
  • The euro crisis is mostly notable for showing that the European right is just as self-destructive as the American right.  Large currency unions are a bad idea; ours only works because we have an ongoing commitment to support weaker regions.  The Europeans will either have to give it up, or actually decide to make it work (by making the same kind of commitment).  Chances are they’ll do neither by November.
  • Staggering debt: nonsense.  We’re in a liquidity trap; government debt is not the problem.  And debt has been far higher (as a percentage of GNP) before.
  • Aging populations: for the US, there’s no reason we should face a problem anytime soon.  Japan does, because it foolishly doesn’t allow much immigration.  We can allow as much as we like.

If you look at the daily paper, the world is always going to hell.  If you look at the history books, things have been steadily improving for two centuries.  Sometimes we rationally avoid a crisis (the Horse Poop Apocalypse one might have expected in 1900 was averted by the invention of the automobile).  Sometimes we make the worst choices, have the catastrophe, and learn our lesson.

On the other hand, since I wrote that essay, I’ve also written an sf novel whose future history assumes that in the next century we keep making the wrong decisions and cause a global collapse.  So my sanguinity has its limits.



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