March 2012


Though scammers are despicable, there’s something fascinating about a good scam.  Or  a bad scam that nonetheless often works.  So I was interested, when we were looking for apartments in the last few weeks, to twice run into the Craigslist Apartment Scam.

My wife found a juicy-sounding apartment and asked if it was available.  We got this reply:

Thanks for your swift response regarding my property,the house is currently
vacant and it is available for move in.

The rent fee is $900 per month and the security deposit is $700,Utilities 
like washer,dryer,gas,electricity,Dishwasher,Electric Stove, Fridge are 
included in the rental fee and pets are allowed,i am a Construction 
engineer and i am currently out of the Country to Head a construction 
project in West Africa and my stay here will be for 5 years so i would 
love a Long term lease.

I want you to drive by the property and view the exterior and i assure you 
that you will love it,as soon as you have done that get back to me ASAP 
so we can proceed further.

Address of the house: [**] N Marion Street #1, Oak Park IL 60302

RENTALS APPLICATION
FIRST NAME:__________________
MIDDLE NAME: _________________
LAST NAME: __________________
PROFESSION: ________________
HOME PHONE (____) __________
(CELL)PHONE (____) __________
(WORK)PHONE (____) __________
KIDS _____ (YES/NO), HOW MANY ________
PRESENT ADDRESS: _____________________
CITY: _______________
STATE: ______________
ZIP CODE:
____________
HOW LONG DO YOU INTEND STAYING? ____________
WHEN DO YOU INTEND MOVING IN? ______________
HOW SOON CAN YOU HAVE THE DEPOSIT PAYMENT SENT
 TO ME___________________________
HOW SOON DO YOU WANT TO RECEIVE THE KEYS AND DOCUMENTS OF THE

HOUSE___________________________

Await your response with the filled Rental Application form.
You can also reach me at [**] or [**] 
Thanks
[**]

The fascinating thing is that though the scam is obvious, it’s only subtly outrageous.  The address is real, and Googling it, I find that it actually was offered for rental recently— but at a price of $1650.  (The story deepens: I also found another scam listing of the exact same unit, for $1150— this time including such incredible amenities as a sauna AND jacuzzi which are not present in the real listing.)

(You can count the scam signals yourself, but I’ll point out a minor but very telling one for an Oak Park resident: the ad mentions generous utilities but not parking.  Ads for non-scam housing here always mention the parking situation.)

Another ad yielded the exact same e-mail, while yet another elicited a similar one but the same damn address.  (The original ads didn’t list the location.)  I’ll just quote the sob story part:

Thanks for your email. The house is still available. I decided to rent the 
house because we are going to spend more time here in West Africa, about 
4 years... Let me start by introducing myself.I must confess that I am very 
very new in this landlord business. However, My name is [**]. I 
own the house located at ([**] N Marion Street #1, Oak Park IL 60302). Due 
to my job as a missionary with the General Board of Global Ministries of 
the United Methodist Church International, I am presently serving as Area 
Financial Executive (AFE) with the United Methodist Church in Lagos, 
West Africa.I am responsible for receiving distribution of funds for 
various UMC projects in West Africa , and all related works with other 
mission personnel. my current home is in the vineyard of the Lord in 
BENIN West Africa.I spent less time in the States so I could not get a 
hold on any Realtor to handle this rent issue, although it was when I knew 
how long we are going to stay in Africa that I decided to rent out 
the house. However, the initial plan was to sale out the House. which I 
tried, but sometimes the agents inflates the prize and it takes longer to 
sell. because of this reason and more we need a responsible person (With 
good credit) that can take very good care of it as we are not after the 
money , but want it to be clean and for you to take it as if it were yours.

Wow, you gotta trust a church person, right?

Sadly, this scammer has given in to the temptation to overwrite, and the result is a story that’s far less believable.  The Construction engineer who was out of the Country I could almost buy, but not the poor woman who owns a house but is unable to find someone who can sell it.

If anyone is not quite grasping how the scam works, the clue is in the hints about quickly sending a security deposit.  We didn’t respond to these so we don’t know how Mr. or Mrs. [**] proceed further, but the idea is that they get you to send the security deposit, and then disappear.  I don’t know someone agrees to send money for an apartment they haven’t actually been inside, but if only one in a hundred people are that dumb, they’re in business.  (Public service announcement: If you are that dumb, don’t do that.)

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I’ve read all the Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality there is, currently chapter 79.  I think it has, as gamers say, levelling problems.  For the first half or so, Harry runs into real challenges and real challengers.  And then, for the most part, he’s already invincible.

Yudkowsky should have realized something was up when he made Harry so powerful in Quirrell’s battle magic training wars that he had to give up 1/3 of his army to his two opponents.  That is, even two opponents can’t compete with Harry any more.  He’s out-levelled them.  That means it’s now a superhero story, and it gets old fast to read about a superhero wasting enemies that are beneath him.

There’s a long section where he tries to focus on Hermione, who decides she wants to be a heroine rather than a sidekick.  It may be trying to make a meta-narrative point, but that too is not as clever as it sounds; it amounts to saying that an author makes some chracters succeed and not others, which is a boring insight about art and not an insight at all about the rest of life.  Yudkowsky comes close to making fun of Hermione, but what I wanted to see what her levelling up along with Harry.

The thread seems to have been lost a bit, too.  There’s an intense, well done set piece involving a raid on Azkaban, and then Hermione’s escapades, but these are almost entirely action sequences parallel, in fact, to the ones in the original book.  That is, there’s little about the methods of rationality any more.

There’s also a fairly sharp critique of  Dumbledore as someone who is too ready to live with small evils for the sake of the larger war.  When Harry sees an injustice he wants to shove the pedal to the metal and do whatever it takes to fix it; he has no patience with any reasons for going slow.  That isn’t rationality, it’s bull-headedness.  Few real-world problems can be solved merely by bursts of toughness and heroism.  Bullying really gets under Yudkowsky’s skin, for instance– he objects to both Snape (for being a bully) and Dumbledore (for not stopping the bullies).  But his answer comes down to “intimidation by the powerful”.  And sure, it’s great when the powerful take the problem seriously and beat up the bullies.  But when the powerful move on to some other challenge, what happens then?  Bullies are extremely good at waiting for the moments the big boys aren’t paying attention.  Thinking that intimidation will solve all your problems is what gets you into Vietnams and Iraqs.

Hmm, all that came out more negative than I thought it would.  I still stayed up late reading this stuff, and the last chapters are a new plot arc that seems very promising.

As part of the LCK2, I’ve updated the Sound Change Applier.  Like gen, it’s written in Javascript for portability.

A summary of the changes (for details see the help page):

  • Supports Unicode
  • Spaces are treated as word boundaries
  • Supports epenthesis (adding new phonemes)
  • Supports metathesis (reversing the target string)
  • Nonce categories (useful if they’re just for one rule)
  • Extended category substitution
  • Gemination and degemination
  • A gloss can be added that isn’t changed by the rules
  • Rules can be written in the form c→g/V_V
  • Rewrite rules allow you to use digraphs, or long category name

As usual, there’s a bug in IE, which I’m looking at now. Would you believe, in the year 2012, IE doesn’t support s[i] to get s.charAt(i).

Be careful now, the following link can corrode your time.   Yes, worse than TV Tropes.  I’ve been staying up way too late the last few nights reading it.  Here it is: Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality,by Eliezer Yudkowsky.  You’ve been warned.

It’s a retelling of the Harry Potter story… if Harry was a prodigy of rationality, filled with near-adult understanding of logic and science, and possessing both the brilliance and impish wit of Richard Feynman.

Harry doesn’t live with the mediocre Dursleys… in this universe Petunia married an Oxford biochemist, and Harry is quite happy with his parents.  He goes to Hogwarts and, naturally, is Sorted into… Ravenclaw, along with Hermione.  And he despises Ron Weasley and befriends Draco Malfoy, and considers becoming a Dark Lord…

It most reminds me of an old sf novella, “In Hiding” by Wilmar Shiras, about a small group of hyperintelligent children.  Very few stories get across the sensation of what it’s like to be very intelligent, but these do.  (Which is a mystery… maybe few really smart people write stories?)

The book takes the opportunity to give lightning tours of all sorts of issues of rationality, from the elementary scientific method to Bayesian probability to timeless quantum mechanics, all in the context of Harry attempting to confront a universe that turns out to work very differently from what he’d imagined.  He’s shocked, but also delighted: a scientist loves a good puzzle.  Plus he’d like to fuse magic and science and become a god.  And help everyone else become one, too.

Not surprisingly, perhaps, though the Hogwarts characters he meets are based on Rowling’s, they’re all rather smarter, and though Harry overturns many of their expectations they are up to the challenge.  So far his most important mentor has been Prof. Quirrell (who’s rather a dolt in Rowling’s version).

Describing it, it seems like it shouldn’t work.  But Yudkowsky is really a hell of a writer.  Though his passion is rationality and his prose is never lyrical, he’s very good at getting into the minds of various different characters, and above all at one of the things beginning writers (especially those with A Message) fail to master: making the antagonists into worthy rivals.

Yudkowsky uses the four Houses as symbols of whole personalities: Gryffindor is for would-be heroes; Ravenclaw for the studious; Hufflepuff for the friendly and hard-working; Slytherin for the ambitious strivers.  His Harry is torn between Ravenclaw and Slytherin– though he has good thoughts about all four.  It’s not hard to make Ravenclaw into an attractive portrait; it’s a heaven for geeks.  What’s more interesting is that he makes an excellent case for Slytherin.  It’s not just for nasty people and Dark Lords.

This is best seen by contrasting his and Rowling’s treatment of Draco Malfoy.  Draco is described as what a nice young boy would be like if he had Darth Vader as a doting father.  He’s prejudiced, yes, but he’s quite smart, and he’s been well trained in leadership and diplomacy; he has near-instinctive social skills that geekish Harry can barely understand.  And he has some valid reasons to distrust Dumbledore and the Gryffindors.  Harry can see that he could go bad, and he makes it one of his many missions to get him past his prejudices and to choose good.

Rowling’s Draco is simply a little bully, fated to be ever the foiled foil to heroic, unstoppable Harry.  Rowling is not without moral depth– after all, the main lesson of Book One is not to take unpleasantness and greasy black hair as signs of Evil– but Draco is ultimately a pathetic figure, a near-meaningless pawn for Voldemort.  There isn’t really anything her Harry could learn from him.

Yudkowsky’s version of rationality can be bracingly close to Slytherin cunning.  Harry likes plotting; he understands the appeal, the fun, of making other people do things, and with plenty of experience of being smarter than everyone around him, he sees the appeal of looking down on the rest of the world.  But he has a strong sense of justice too, and won’t countenance sadism, abuse, or death.

It’s tempting to say that Yudkowsky’s vision is actually more compelling than Rowling’s– that he makes a more interesting Harry, certainly a more interesting Draco and Slytherin, and more realistic versions of most of the magic.  (The Sorting Hat, for instance, can talk not because it’s really sentient, but because it borrows intelligence from the mind of the child it’s on.)

But that’s not really right.  Rowling is I think more inventive; she after all created this whole sprawling, fascinating, amusing and horrifying world, as well as these compelling characters.  And her approach to magic is in its own way as much an act of deconstruction as Yudkowsky’s.  If magic really worked like this, of course it would replace technology, and be used all day long in a thousand creative ways.  And things like the anti-Muggle sentiments and the house elves show a modern horror of old medieval ways.  The annoying kind of magic is that of too many novels and video games: epic fantasy minus Christianity, minus medieval technology, but plus magic, dragons, and dwarves.  Magic is effectively free energy, and it would transform medieval society as much as science did.

Anyway, there’s lots more to say, but I’d really like to go read Chapter 51.  And if you’re the type of person who likes my blog, you should go and read Chapter 1.

I was reading a book by Margaret Atwood on science fiction, and she mentioned Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World as a kind of also-ran dystopia that happens to be more likely than its rival 1984.  That is, 1984 gets all the attention, but since the 1960s it’s been hard to be seriously worried about a global communist takeover.  BNW is the other side of the coin, the capitalist dystopia, and it doesn’t look unlikely at all.

The book

A refresher if, like me, you haven’t read it since high school.  This is the one where you gestate in bottles: parenthood is abolished, and five different castes are made by careful manipulation of the fetal environment.  Near-perfect conformity and stability is ensured by hypnopedic instructions– which are (Huxley says) useless for actual education, but great for instilling moral views.  Everyone is highly promiscuous, solitude is discouraged, frivolous consumption is the basis of economics, and everyone is happy… if you’re temporarily not happy you take soma, a euphoric drug without side effects.  Religion has been replaced by idolatry of Henry Ford, with community sing-alongs that end in orgies.

You need an outsider to explore a -topia, and Huxley supplies one in the form of John the Savage, the child of an Englishwoman who’s been raised by American Indians out in New Mexico.  John was an outsider in the pueblo, because he was white, and he’s an outsider in “civilization”, because he finds it trivial and dehumanizing, and because it’s lost Shakespeare.

The tone is very different from 1984; Orwell was genuinely angry about communism, and his book is a tragedy.  Huxley’s tone is light but fierce satire; his characters are vivid but caricatured, and though John’s story ends badly it’s hard to entirely sympathize with him.  He doesn’t fit in, but he doesn’t try, either.  He makes what could generously be called an attempt to revolt– he throws the soma pills of a bunch of Deltas out the window– but really, as political action goes that’s pathetic.

For a mainstream writer attempting sf, I think Huxley does remarkably well.  He’s a little too fond of the word “surrogate”, but he begins with an excellent set piece– a tour of the baby factory– and he’s adept at adding details that make the world come alive.  Even after 80 years it holds up scientifically and socially.  The satire is remarkably undated.

Mustapha’s challenge

In some ways the most intriguing character is not John, nor the mild dissidents he hangs out with, but the World Controller, Mustapha Mond.  Mond was a dissident himself, you see; he was a physicist, doing science a little too well: new things and new ideas threaten stability.  He was offered a choice of exile to an island– where he could pursue his studies– or a path to Controllership.

Mond thus understands John quite well; he has even read Shakespeare, as he has a stock of forbidden books.  And Huxley gives him a very fair chance to explain and defend his society.  And he makes a good case!  John is reduced to demanding the right to be unhappy.  Mond expands on this:

“Not to mention the right to grow old and ugly and impotent; the right to have syphilis and cancer; the right to have too little to eat; the right to be lousy; the right to live in constant apprehension of what may happen tomorrow; the right to catch typhoid; the right to be tortured by unspeakable pains of every kind.”  There was a long silence.

“I claim them all,” said the Savage at last.

Mustapha Mond shrugged his shoulders.  “You’re welcome,” he said.

But all the Savage can offer to accompany his defiance is suicide.  Mond deserves a better answer.  Mond’s world is peaceful, stable, and specifically designed for human happiness.  What’s wrong with that?

Why not BNW?

Well, it’s totalitarian, of course.  But half of that is satire.  As Huxley himself said, Orwell’s imagined rulers were sadists, and overachievers.  You don’t need brute force to stay in power; it works much better to distract people with things they like.  Even John can’t claim that the natives of this BNW want a different system.

BNW is pretty much a satire of America– which is why it’s still relevant.  It’s a capitalist consumer society whose chief value is personal fulfillment.  If that’s wrong, we’re already well along the dystopian path.

John’s reaction is that of a prissy intellectual with a spiritual bent.  He recoils at the easy sex, at the cheap entertainment, at the dismissal of God, at the lack of challenges that might make us noble and heroic.  But the premodern culture that provided those things was frankly horrible.

I considered this problem in designing the Incatena.  Doesn’t widespread misery and evil produce a higher class of human being, the sort who can struggle against them?  Well, I’m not sure it does.  Misery usually just produces miserable human beings, and in prodigious quantities.  And even if we do want some heroes, should we really aim at a society with widespread misery and evil?  The people who worry about modern softness rarely leave our society to go live in the jungle.

The horrible thing about BNW’s dystopia isn’t the materialism, or the drugs, or the sex.  It’s applying the assembly line mentality to human beings– treating them as, literally, manufactured parts.  But this is the one part of Huxley’s vision that seems outdated.  We don’t need a caste of conditioned, identical “Epsilon Semi-Morons”.  In Huxley’s day setting a third of the population to work on the land didn’t seem unreasonable; today it’s absurd.  Let machines do the mindless work; let humans do interesting work.  Maybe that’s creating web pages or marketing or being a chef or texturing video games or analyzing data or designing clothes… it may be frivolous but it will require a fairly high level of intelligence.

To put it another way: Mond underestimates human potential, but his values are not evil, as Big Brother’s are.  He doesn’t want to stamp on the face of humanity forever; he wants peace, prosperity, and happiness.  It’s a very bourgeois vision, yes, but to despise the bourgeoisie is priggish. (Marxists used to have a neat trick of despising the bourgeois on behalf of the proletariat but really from the perspective of the idle intellectual.  But we no longer have to plan on society consisting of a majority of menial workers.  Elevate them into the bourgeoisie and then, if you like, worry about elevating their taste in art.)

Or another another way: I can enjoy BNW as satire without endorsing the satirist’s implied alternatives.  Huxley was genuinely interested in spirituality, and felt that the modern world was too quick to throw it all out.  But I think spirituality is something you have to achieve on your own anyway.  It may conflict with modern life, but it conflicted with premodern life too.  When you have organized religions that 90% of the population theoretically accepts, you have widespread hypocrisy, clerical venality, and out-and-out persecution anyway.

In any case, I’m not too worried that life will get so soft that we’ll all turn into coddled Eloi.  Living standards can be improved, but it does seem like we are never out of problems to work on.

I finished Deus Ex: Human Revolution.  After a bad beginning, I found myself hankering for some Deus Ex action and, well, it turns out there’s only about 41 hours of it total, so I’m done.  It’s a pretty good game, with some flaws.

On the plus side: there’s usually multiple ways to do something.  You can shoot your way through, or you can try to sneak by, or you can knock people out.  There’s opportunities to use almost all of the augmentations, and you’re rarely forced to use a particular one.

You should get the robot control aug, because then you can do this:

My friend the turret

If you want to compare notes, here’s what I ended up doing:

  • This was on the medium level, Give Me a Challenge.
  • Did a lot of hacking: level 4, all the hacking stealth upgrades, got to the turrets, never messed with Fortity, barely used Stop or Nuke.
  • Got all the fun augments: lift weights, punch through walls, no-damage falls, invisibility, jump.  Ended up with typhoon & the ones removing electricity/gas damage mostly to fight bosses.
  • Didn’t bother with stealth & sprint augments, extra energy bars, aiming stuff.
  • Mostly used sniper rifle, tranq/stun guns, 10 mm pistol (surprisingly lethal when upgraded).  Laser rifle is great for final two bosses.
  • Talked Sandoval out of suicide; let Zelazny go; saved Malik.
  • As for the final choice, I went with Sarif.  After playing as a superhero, it didn’t make much sense to try to hit the brakes on augmentation.  Sarif is still an asshole, though.

The main negative: stealth is really really unforgiving.  I got tired of skulking around, moving an inch forward to get a better look or move toward someone, and getting shot to death.  Or running into one last unexpected guard.  Or forgetting that flashing red lights could be a mine.  Or just alarming a passel of enemies, spoiling a good sneak.

I messed up often enough in the Batman games, but in general you can sneak much easier there: there are more back routes, you can escape suddenly, and it’s a lot easier to get thugs alone.  And there’s half a dozen ways to take someone down.  In DEHR all you get is the takedown-from-behind, and it’s rationed.  I have a lot of patience (I spent approximately 12 hours as Catwoman in vents at the top of Wonder Tower), but I mostly ended up using cover to shoot dudes.

The inventory system is not on my friends list.  I kind of get the reasoning behind making players mess with inventory: you force making choices, and you make scrounging for ammo meaningful.  But inventory wrangling is not a lot of fun, and running out of space is obnoxious.  Plus I never knew what I’d be needing next, so I’d conserve stuff as much as possible… I ended the game with a mess of unused ordinance.  There’s a reason Mass Effect 2 threw out almost all of the inventory management of ME1.

The social analyzer stuff is an interesting though not really successful attempt to deepen dialogs.  I like the idea of deducing personality types… on the other hand, if you fail a conversation, repeating it is tedious and generally makes me reach for a walkthrough.

I don’t like most boss fights… I got killed a lot till I studied tactics online, after which most of the fights were probably too easy (but I was too relieved to be bothered by that).  You don’t get to use any stealth, though that was normally the case in Batman too.  (Dr. Freeze was an exception.)

One of many nice vistas

As for the story… well, I could have done without the Illuminati.  Massive conspiracies are cheesy and this one was particularly unnecessary– there was plenty of motivation for the major characters, and each of them would have been more interesting without the conspiracy stuff.

The actual augmentation stuff… well, as I said before, the battle was lost when someone invented eyeglasses.  I completely lack whatever geek gene goes crazy for the idea of replacing your body parts with metal and plastic, I find the Singularity to be bonkers, and I’m not sure the writers realize that if everyone is augmented, then augmented is the new normal.  But I don’t think we’re playing God, and Adam’s final monologue about getting past morality made no sense.

If you’re wavering, I think it’s worth picking up… just persist past the horrible tutorial and the somewhat mediocre first city hub, Detroit.  It’s much more fun once you have a few augments; also the other cities are all better done.

Fascinating article from an actual soldier about how soldiers are presented in video games.  Soldiers in games are heroes… men of few words, maybe, but noble.

Imagine a war game where you could only move at a slow walking pace. Imagine Skyrim when your inventory is too full, except you can’t drop any of it. This war game has a prone button like Call of Duty, but your character takes 2-3 seconds to change position. Every time you press it, the animation gets slower because your character becomes more and more tired.

Every mission is set in the same level. They each take 12 hours to complete. Sometimes, absolutely nothing happens. Other times, your lead guy gets blown up and you spend the next hour or so casevac’ing [ed note: casualty evacuating] him while under fire.

Other missions involve you being under fire for the entire patrol. You never see the enemy, just fire at the long grass in front of you as you crawl slowly to some cover. If you get up, you will be cut down within seconds, so this process takes hours. When you reach the enemy compound, if the enemy haven’t run away, dropped their weapons, and are pretending to be farmers, or if you haven’t called in enough ordnance to flatten Mexico, you will kill them in the most horrible way imaginable. That is your incentive.

Only a violent sociopath would play this game.

Though I have to admit that when I first read this, my first reaction was that it’d be pretty cool to have a mechanic where you get slower as your character tires out.

Second thought: if you actually want amorality in a war game, there’s Far Cry 2.  You basically do pointless, violent missions for one or both morally dead factions in a civil war.  (Even so, I might have finished it, except for the damn malaria pill missions.   You have to stop what you’re doing every half hour or so and spend substantial time on another mission, to pick up a pill.)