Last night I had an amazing game of Heroes of the Storm.  Like most good Moba stories, it’s the story of a comeback. (When you roll the other team, it may be a well-played game, but it’s not a story.) Here’s the situation 11 minutes in; we are the red team.

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It was grim. They were two levels ahead, and were fighting at our core. (You lose the game when your core is destroyed.)

This is the Dragonshire map. The clever bit of HOTS, the thing that makes games last 15-20 minutes rather than League’s 40-60 minutes, is that each map has an accelerant, something that you can fight over that gives you enormous power. Here it’s a statue of a Dragon Knight which will come to life and fight for you if you can control two temples at opposite sides of the map. In the picture, the enemy Knight is Shodredux.

I’m playing Chromie, currently my favorite character.  She’s tiny but very powerful. Her Q is a sand blast that only hits heroes– thus, useless against forts and minions; however, that also means the minions don’t block the shot.  Her W hits a small area; her E sets up a trap, and her R is a fairly big sandstorm that drastically slows everyone in it.  Once she’s leveled up, her Q is devastating, and if you can catch people in her sandstorm, you can spam them with her other powers. She’s fragile and has no escape methods, though.

We killed the Knight, and the enemies behind him (some were captured in one of my sandstorms, just visible at lower left in the picture).  We fought off another attack on bottom lane, which allowed us to catch up in levels. The playback is a little embarrassing at this point, as it looks like I’m just wandering around. I ended up returning to base to restore mana.

Most of the action was up top, as everybody fought for the top temple. Well, somebody’s got to try for the bottom temple, so I went there and captured it. I was alone there… only, no, Medivh flew in!

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We traded blows, and I put a sandstorm on the temple region.  That kept him there just enough to finish him off with a Q. I was low on hit points myself, so there was nothing to do but teleport home, hoping that no one else would head to that temple.

I ran out mid to the Knight statue. There had been a grand battle for this, and by the time I got there it was reduced to our Butcher holding it, close to death, against Dva and Artanis.  I snuck in and took control of the Knight.

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(There was no time to negotiate this; better to use him as a meat shield. It takes about 10 seconds to take control of the Knight, and you can’t be attacked during this time. And really, mad props to SassySadist playing Butcher here: he had dispatched Artanis and got Dva running away, despite being close to death himself.)

So now we had a Knight!  I headed out mid, and the rest of my team converged beautifully on Butcher and me.  The rest of the game was a constant team fight, taking down forts and towers and the enemy team. The Dragon Knight was felled, but that just meant I was at the Core as Chromie; I set up a sandstorm and kept throwing Q’s into it.

If you know any Mobas, you can see from the mini-map how strange our victory was:

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Blue still has two of its three towers.  Normally you’d take them all down. You can also see that Red has no towers on the bottom lane, due to the fight at the core described above.

Only on watching the playback for a second time, writing this post, did I understand how we did it: our little knot of heroes stayed alive, and kept picking off enemies, so we usually had a 5-4 or 4-3 advantage, and right at the 20-minute mark, a team kill which allowed us to beat up their core at our leisure.

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The book of mine which I use the most is The Conlanger’s Lexipedia. Enough, in fact, that my paperback copy is getting too worn. So I created a hardcover edition!

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Lulu charges more than I’d like, but on the other hand I can put it on sale! So for now, you can pick it up for $28.76. That’s less than it costs to go out for dinner! And heck, I’ve put the hardcover Language Construction Kit on sale too.

I also took the opportunity to update the text, correcting a few embarrassing errors. Also, the latest copy of Word, amazingly, can hold the whole book in memory at once without crashing. So I was able to add the first few chapters to the index.

Go buy a few!

There’s been a lot of worry lately that robots will take all of our jobs. Should you be worried? Should you try to make friends with the robots so they treat you nicely?

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This would be bad

Now, there’s a lot to say here, so here’s the tl;dr: no, this is only moderately worrisome. What you should worry about instead are:

Worries about automation go back to the beginning of the industrial revolution, two hundred years ago. But, with some major caveats, automation is good!  After 200 years,

  •  Life for the majority of people is far better. Before automation, 90% of the people lived by subsistence agriculture, one bad harvest or pestilence or war away from death. And those scourges came almost constantly.
  • Americans, as usual, focus on bad things in America, and don’t realize that these are boom times for most of the world. Global poverty is way down; it’s never been a better time to be Indian or Chinese.
  • Despite all the worries about machines taking our jobs— they haven’t. US unemployment is currently under 5%—  which is about as low as it’s gotten in my lifetime.
  • In general, pre-automation jobs sucked. There’s a tendency to romanticize lost jobs, but you really do not want to be a cotton picker, or a miner, or a laundrywoman, or a data entry typist.

The thing is, at any point in the last 200 years, an alarmist could concoct a tale of machine devastation. With modern farming techniques we don’t need 90% of the population to work on farms. Omigod that means 90% of the population will lose their jobs!  Only, this didn’t happen. Only 1.4% of the US population works on the farm today; the rest of the 90% found other jobs.

Now, the major caveat: this process sometimes goes smoothly, but sometimes is hella disruptive. It’s not pleasant when a middle-aged person has to change careers, whether it’s an 1800s agricultural worker, or a 1980s steelworker. Whole regions can be devastated and not know how to pick themselves up.

Jane Jacobs had a lot to say about what happens when the process goes well, and when it doesn’t. She calls the successful places city regions; as the name implies, these are always near big cities. In brief, this is the belt round a city where automation produces new opportunities as fast as it erodes old jobs. In a city region, there is new work to do, and it doesn’t take a lot of intervention for people to find it. (The books on India I recently read are also good introductions to this process. Poor people are amazingly entrepreneurial when they get the chance.)

You can’t count on everyone to live in a city region, but you can manage the disruption in other ways. This is where you need a strong economic safety net. You want people to be able to change jobs.  It’s not a huge exaggeration to say that the New Deal succeeded because it cushioned the disruption of industrialization. Stimulus spending spurred production and job creation; Social Security allowed people to move to where the jobs were without abandoning their old folks; unemployment insurance kept people going between jobs; the GI Bill trained people for new occupations. Europe went farther, with universal healthcare and free university education.

(Do you want a universal basic income?  Go for it, so long as you’re not actually looking to reduce government benefits. But it’s a good idea on its own; there’s no need to drag the robots into it.)

OK, but aren’t the robots different this time?  They can drive cars now! They can take your order at McDonalds! Surely all the jobs will disappear!

The first thing I’d point out is, extrapolation is a crappy guide to the future. In 1890 you could predict that the cities of the future would be buried ten feet deep in horse manure. This didn’t happen.

Second, universal AI is a huge assumption. If you look at sf and pop-sci articles, humanoid robots are ten years away, and have been for a hundred years. The first robot story appear, Karl Čapek’s RUR, appeared in 1920. Basically, intelligence is a pretty hard problem, and researchers always underestimate it. It’s easy to feel (as I did when I was an undergraduate) that a pretty good AI would be just a few semesters of work. Well, it isn’t, or it’d be done by now!

Also, I spent years as a programmer, so I know just how stupid computers are. They are great tools, mind you! But I don’t think we should scare ourselves about their abilities, at least not yet.

The better question is, what sort of jobs can computers or robots do? The general answer: jobs that are

  • repetitive and predictable
  • expensive

Automation is not, er, automatic. It takes analysis, programming, and testing, and someone has to pay for all that. That’s why a repetitive assembly-line task, done by a high-pay union worker, is the first candidate for automation.  It’s barely worth it to replace a waiter (especially since they can be hired for far less than minimum wage).

(Driving is a weird case. I think AI driving is far less advanced than it seems. As in much of programming, you can cover 90% of the work of the program and still only be 10% done.  The unexpected or difficult cases take most of the effort.)

Let’s put it the other way. What jobs are probably safe from automation in this century? Some of these, I’d wager:

  • teacher
  • physician
  • nurse
  • CEO
  • programmer
  • athlete
  • writer
  • comics artist
  • prostitute
  • craft brewer
  • video game designer
  • marketing & sales
  • legislator
  • soldier
  • actor
  • day care worker
  • hair stylist
  • product designer
  • scientist
  • thug
  • organic produce farmer
  • architect
  • call center operator
  • plumber
  • robot designer
  • robot mechanic
  • robot debugger
  • cook
  • valet
  • monk/nun
  • preacher
  • personal trainer
  • psychologist
  • web designer
  • lawyer
  • burglar
  • drug dealer
  • cop
  • spammer
  • SEO farm writer
  • AI researcher
  • anti-AI pundit

Many of these jobs, though not all, involve what humans are best at: dealing with humans. I don’t think anyone cares that their cotton be hand-picked. I think it’ll be a long time before there’s a robot you would entrust your one-year-old to all day.

I have a friend who’s an architect. I’d say his work is at least half talking to clients, and managing building projects— i.e., managing other people (contractors and inspectors). There’s that human thing again. For making the actual plans, he already uses a computer. He can already produce a plan almost as fast as he can come up with an idea.

So the better question is not “Could a robot entirely do this job?” but “What could a computer-assisted person do in this job?” Lawyers, for instance, are often still stuck in the world of paper. Automation would allow them to take on more cases. (For good or for evil.)

I’ve purposely included some “bad jobs” on the list, because the point isn’t that “things will be fine.” But I’ll get back to the grim meathook future below.

I haven’t tried to anticipate what the new jobs of 2100 might be, but we can expect that there will be plenty of entirely new things. Over 200 years, we’ve moved from an agriculture economy, to a manufacturing economy, to a service economy.  I’ve suggested before that what’s next is a frivolity economy.

Another point that I think worriers-about-robots miss: Robots and programs cost money. As one datapoint: Bitcoin mining presently consumes as much energy as the entire nation of Tunisia.

Plus, if you’re really pessimistic about the uses of humans— then the cost of hiring a human will plummet. Humans can be raised quite cheaply, without the use of high-cost metals and rare earths, and they’re really pretty versatile.

I’ve written before about why humanoid robots are a dumb idea. I realize that many people really want them, but I’d answer that they only think they want them. You do not actually want a sentient android to be your sex worker, household cleaner, or driver, precisely because a sentient android can do what it wants, not what you want. Maybe you want a robot you can talk to— but speech is a terrible medium for giving technical instructions.

We’re way too influenced here by science fiction. We grew up thinking of the Jetsons’ robot maid, or C3PO. In fact, a bulky robot maid holding 19th century tools in her 21st century manipulators is awfully poor design. Consider all the household automation we already have: dishwashers, microwaves, vacuums, washing machines. Not a single one of them is humanoid, not a single one does its tasks as a human would. Honestly, automation of the house is almost done, compared to the year 1900. But if you want more, a better model would be the room-cleaning bots seen in The Fifth Element.

Here’s another way to think about the whole situation.  Again, 90% of the population used to be engaged in subsistence agriculture. That basically means that the entire population can do what the 10% did before. Or to put it another way, there are 325 million Americans. One way to explain our economy to someone from 1800 is that we’re as rich as a country of 3.25 billion people would have been in their time.

If we continue to automate predictable high-repetition tasks, maybe another 90% of current jobs disappear.  But the population will live like today’s 10% do. Their standard of living will be far higher, and their jobs on the whole more interesting than today’s. (Of course we’re writing sf at this point, so you’d might as well look at my attempt at an sf future.)

That doesn’t mean we won’t have a grim meathook future. Piketty has warned that our future might look like… the 19th century, when most income and wealth went to a tiny class— and not even a class of innovators and entrepreneurs, but a useless rentier elite. And of course right now as I write, a clown car of reactionaries is trying to take away tens of millions of people’s health care, while the clown-in-chief is demonizing trans men and women in uniform.

But that’s the thing: grim meathook future is a political choice. Automation is just a form of productivity increase— and productivity gains do not have to go entirely to the rich. They used to help out everyone.  Around 1980, American voters decided to stop helping out everyone, and help out only the top 10%.

If that continues, the future will be grim, robots or no.  But it’s not the nature of automation that is the threat. It’s whether we manage it under plutocracy or not.

 

 

OK, these two games have nothing to do with each other, but at least one review is a positive and one is a negative.  First, To Be or Not To Be.

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It is permadeath, but you have options

This is Ryan North’s choose-your-own-adventure version of Hamlet. You can play as Hamlet, Ophelia, or Hamlet’s Dad, and you can follow Shakespeare or not.  And you will do all of the above, because in classic CYOA style the paths are pretty short and you’ll want to get a good sampling, at least.

I suppose some very earnest and glum person might not care for North’s off-the-wall humor.  I am not that person.  It’s pretty hilarious, and though North is not as well-versed in verse, I have to admit that in terms of choosing adventure, he’s got Shakespeare beat. I’d venture to say that his version of Hamlet is even better than Cowboy Wally’s. It’s also pretty cheap, so what are you waiting for?

About the only other thing to say is that as an engine for a mostly text game, it’s done very well.  You have to do maybe a little too much clicking to explore a previous path to the previous branch, but there are save points to help out, and it’s really not onerous to explore a bunch of possible plots.  There are also a bunch of illustrations for those who don’t like to read.

Next, Black Desert Online.  I promised a Steam pal a review, and here it is.  That is, there’s a review that indicates how some people might like it.  I didn’t manage to.

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One badass cutie, coming up

I heard about BDO, strangely enough, from a rave review of its character generator. And by golly, it does have a magnificent character generator. For instance, in the above image the blue spot isn’t a tattoo, it’s a control. You can take that area and shift it, rotate it, or resize it, and so with each other part of the face and body.

And yet, the process reveals that after this next-gen character generator, we really need a next-next-gen character generator.  As you can see, by default you get a cute Korean girl. And… what do you do next?  She looks fine.  Honestly it’s more interesting to spend the time in Oblivion  making its potato faces a little more acceptable.  Given a beautiful face, about all you can do is mess it up.  A next-next-gen program might help you discover how to move the face in a particular direction– e.g. you want Faye Wong or Lucy Liu or Ritsuko Taneda or Maggie Cheung instead of the default face.  Most of us have no idea how to program a face– what polygons to nudge to get those characters.

Once the game starts, what do you get?  I’ve read about it being a Different Kind of MMO, but it seemed like every other MMO I’ve tried, only more generic.  You have a starting village where you talk to people and learn the interface.  There are starter monsters that never go away, and yet killing a few seems to make an NPC happier. There are quests and item sellers and other PCs dashing around and having endless discussion of Trump in open chat. Combat is mostly mashing keys, though I’m told you get various combos later (but no real aiming). You can certainly keep busy, but none of this is as well done as (say) The Secret World, and the world isn’t as interesting as (say) DC Universe Online.

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It is gorgeous, I’ll give it that. It’s a pleasant colorful world. Above is how your character will appear in the world after all that customization: almost identical to other PCs.

Now, from the real review I linked to, you can see that you can invest in businesses, go fishing, hire NPCS, and so on.  Which sounds excruciatingly dull to me.  I can be amused building bases for awhile, as in Empyrion, but hauling products was a chore in Civ 2 and I doubt it’s improved since.  (Well, I did like Euro Truck Simulator 2, but the minimal tasks required to drive a simulated truck are more interesting than following a path in an MMO.)

So, if all this sounds like your cup of simulated medieval gruel, dive in!  I absolutely can’t say I’ve spent enough time in the game to really see what it has to offer.  But I do say that it does a poor job of selling itself in the first 4 to 5 hours.

 

 

With a few hundred thousand other people, i’ve been mesmerized by Jon Bois’s 17776.  It’s over here.  Take an hour and go through it all.

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Avid football fan

Now, I am one of the few American males who does not get football. Never really mastered the rules, and nothing about it makes me want to. But I love Jon Bois. He has a series called Breaking Madden that’s hilarious. He takes a football sim (that would be Madden), forces it to do insane things, and tells the results as a story. Sometimes the game cooperates, sometimes it glitches out, it’s all good.

The elevator pitch for 17776 is “What football will look like in the future.” And he gets there! But 17776 is so much bigger and weirder than that. It’s a science fiction story. It’s a multimedia experience. It’s about sentient space probes.  It’s about human beings.  It’s a utopia— a bittersweet one.  It’s about friendship and God and in a couple of places it’s really moving.

First, the football.  No, wait, that won’t make sense without the basic situation. His method is to insert one wild hypothetical, and draw out its implications with no further magic. The hypothetical is this: in 2026, for no reason ever explained, people stop aging and dying (and being born).  That’s it.  Everyone finds themselves immortal. What do they do?

For one thing, they play football. For 15,000 years.  The rulebook gets really long and strange over that time. Bois invents half a dozen or more weird versions of football. The least weird of these is the first one he gets to: the playing field is the state of Nebraska; the end zones are Iowa and Wyoming. There are thousands of players at any one time, but only one ball, and the game lasts for years.

We’re introduced to this game, by the way, because the protagonists are watching it. They’re space probes— two Pioneer units, and a Jupiter probe that in 2017 hasn’t launched yet. One of the units— Pioneer 9— is woken up at the beginning of the story, which gives us a character who has to learn about all this world just as we do.

The story is mostly text conversations, but it plays with the medium expertly.  There are pictures, found documents real and imagined, GIFs and videos. Many of these use Google Earth to bounce over the globe, zooming effortlessly from outer space down to individual houses or football stadiums. (I’m inclined to say: don’t try this at home. Bois makes it work, but I really don’t want every story to be told this way.)

Bois has an interesting take on utopias / the future.  In his scenario, the people of 17776 are the same people who were alive in 2026. And for the most part, their society is ours, only perfected: nanobots keep people from injury and want; war and capitalism are gone. His take is that people will try the fancier visions of sf writers— flying cars, robots, etc.— but ultimately get rid of them because they don’t like them. People want to have jobs and walk around and cook and hold elections and hang out with their pals, to say nothing of playing and watching football. Plus, they’re 2026ers at heart and they stick with what they know.

Granted, his approach may only make sense in the narrow scenario he’s created. But there’s a lot of wisdom in his take. Other writers have seriously considered what people would do with near-immortality— Julian Barnes and Jorge Luis Borges, for instance. Bois is by far the most optimistic of them. Barnes and Borges concluded that most people would get bored within a thousand years; Bois thinks the human sense of play is enough to keep us going indefinitely.  (My own sf future envisions more change, but also doubts that getting too far from our primate heritage is a great idea.)

17776 is full of novelty and pure fun, but what makes it unforgettable is Bois’s heart. There’s all sorts of grimness and outrage these days; we don’t always get this full blast of benignity. Bois seems to just like people. There’s no real villains here— except maybe for a few cheap moves in some of the football games. And it’s hard not to surrender to this future of Nice But Not Amazing.

I think I’ve written a book. This is a special verb aspect, the “dubious completive.” As any author can tell you, a book isn’t done till it’s available for purchase, and that just means the author has finally shrugged and decided to put any further changes into the next edition.

Anyway, the India Construction Kit is at the point where it needs readers.  Is that you?

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If so, contact me (you probably have my e-mail, but if not it’s here). It’d be nice to have a mix of readers who know and don’t know something about India.  (Though if you have some special expertise, please mention it!)  I will need feedback in the next month or two, so keep that in mind if you’re entering cryostasis or something for that period.

I usually get more readers than I can handle; if you offered before but didn’t get a chance to read last time, tell me and I’ll try to make sure you’re included.

Edit: Got a good crew already. If you’re still interested, watch this space for the second draft.  (If you’re actually South Asian, though, write me!)

If for some reason you’re unclear, this is much like my China book, only not about China. It gives a somewhat brief overview of Indian history (believe me, not even the scholars memorize the dozens of dynasties of medieval times), moves to a fairly extensive discussion of Indian religions. Then there’s chapters on daily life, clothing, and architecture. Finally, there are grammatical overviews of Sanskrit, Hindi, and Tamil.

The primary audience is expected to be conlangers and conworlders, who will find plenty of interest to help stop making Standard European Fantasy Kingdoms. But it’s really for anyone who doesn’t feel up to speed on one of the planet’s biggest and most vibrant civilizations.

I’ve just read two books in what might be a new subgenre: People Gawking at Modern 51-9UeT8hwL._SX332_BO1,204,203,200_India. They are India Becoming by Akash Kapur, and India Calling by Anand. Besides having similar titles and themes, they both have quotes by William Dalrymple on the back cover.

Both writers are Indian by descent, spent their formative years in the US, and went to live in India to report on its remarkable boom times. Kapur is Tamil and focuses on Tamil Nadu; Giridharadas has roots in Mumbai and reports from there and other northern cities. They also share methods: the books are a mixture of personal reflections and the stories of people they met and talked to.

Per capita GDP in India has increased sixfold since 1960— most of this since the economic liberalization of 1991. The result is a scramble, generally successful, to make money. This means former Dalits getting rich; poor people upgrading from grass huts to concrete houses; one billion people getting cell phones; cities expanding into their hinterlands; the upper quintile hastening to get cars and air conditioners.

The left these days distrusts money, and it has good reason to do so.  But money is one of the best and fastest ways of dissolving old systems of oppression.  Brahmins can’t keep oppressing Dalits when the latter can quit their ancient professions, make money in a new one, and move into the rich part of town. Women can’t be held under their family’s thumb when they have their own jobs or houses, or even their own businesses. Caste restrictions on professions mean nothing when people can simply study for a new job, or just move to a new city and take one.

Of course, the boom has its downsides. Both authors are originally enthralled by the new opportunities and new attitudes, but some people are left behind, and there are new things to worry about. Indira Gandhi once dismissed pollution as something only First World nations needed to worry about; now it’s a growing threat within India. Kapur meets people living on a growing, unregulated trash dump. Appalled, he promises that he’ll do everything he can to shut it down. The people are aghast and beg him not to: it’s their livelihood— skimming the landfill for things to use— and they don’t have any other. Kapur also mentions the problem of thugs: it’s cheap and easy to hire them, and they’re used for instance to pressure farmers to sell their land.

The opportunities within a boom can verge on the comic. Giridharadas meets a man, once a penniless Dalit, who has become a big man in a small town. His first big venture was English lessons— there’s a mania for learning English even in the middle of nowhere. (These schools are rough-and-ready, concentrating on teaching idiom and practical speaking rather than literature.) He also organized a local beauty pageant, for both men and women. But he only made it big with… roller skating. He established a roller skating team and ended up coaching the national team. Giridharadas also finds a man who write puff pieces for technological journals in English, and Maoist polemics in Telugu.

Giridharadas is the wittier author; for instance, he describes Indians’ passion for knowing his “native place”, which turns out to mean “where my ancestors had most recently milked cows, even if ‘recent’ meant the year 1500.” He recounts a typical conversation where people ask where is he from.  Washington DC, he replies.  No, no, he is Indian, where is he from?  He was born in Ohio. No, no, your native place.  His parents grew up in Mumbai.  Ah, so you are Maharashtrian.  Well, no, his parents were Tamil and Punjabi— they met in Mumbai. So, basically, you are Punjabi— your father is from Punjab?  No, that’s his mother, his father is Tamil.  Ah, so basically you are South Indian.

Both authors marvel at the changes in gender relations. Arranged marriage is still common. On the other hand, dating and premarital sex are becoming common too. Some women still take the role of always-submissive helper/cook; others indignantly reject it. As love marriages rise, so do divorces.

(Both books were written before Modi’s BJP took power in 2014, so they don’t address the rise of right-wing nationalism, and indeed have little to say about politics at all.)

The books are long on stories, short on analysis. And they rely a lot on chance contacts— but then, knowing the local language, they are far better informed than the Western style of talking only to one’s cab driver and a few high officials.

It’s interesting to compare these books to those of earlier observers, such as Octavio Paz’s In Light of India (1995) and V.S. Naipaul’s India: A Million Mutinies Now (1990). Paz is full of solidarity as a fellow Third Worlder, but finds it most easy to relate to India’s great history in literature and religion. Naipaul is terribly worried at the centrifugal tendencies of Indian society.