Tobold's Blog
Saturday, February 04, 2023
Archeology 2222

Imagine you are an archeologist in the year 2222, and you have come across an absolute treasure: A buried server farm containing all the YouTube videos of 2022. This should give you a brilliant opportunity to find out how people lived 200 years ago. Does it?

The first problem with that idea is that YouTube is obviously not geographically representative of the real world. The 40 million inhabitants of California produced a lot more YouTube videos in 2022 than the 1.4 billion inhabitants of Africa. To get an idea about China, you'd need to look a WeChat and Weibo, not YouTube. And even within the USA, YouTube demographics aren't representative: The average YouTuber is younger, whiter, more likely to be male, and richer than the average American.

The second problem with using YouTube to find out about the lives of real people is that the large majority of YouTube videos don't have the lives of real people as the subject. A huge number of YouTube videos are about fiction: Video games, movies, TV series, books, and so on. That would give an archeologist an idea what the entertainment in 2022 was about, but not much more.

The third, and probably most deceptive problem for the future archeologist is one that has plagued historians since the profession exists: Average people are boring, which is why they don't appear much in historical records. We know a lot more about the histories of kings and queens than we know about their subjects, in spite of there obviously being a lot more subjects than kings. YouTube has the same problem: It is easy to find videos about people driving Lamborghinis, although only 9,233 of these cars were sold in 2022. And you can probably find a lot of documentaries of people queuing up at food banks, or other cost-of-living crisis reporting. But good luck finding anything about a US household making around the median income of $70k per year. We know how the average person lives, because this is us, but we aren't leaving a lot of records about our lives, because even we think our lives are boring.

Now, the problems of future archeologists are probably not very important. But the lack of YouTube to show real lives of average people does have consequences today. All those videos with the Lambos have the driver get out of his car and try to sell you a get-rich-quick scheme or course. The glamorous lives of influencers cause depression and anxiety in the viewers, because it makes them think that they are doing a lot worse than they actually do. On the other side of the spectrum, people are making political capital by exaggerating the problems. This is the century in which people decided that they can't trust the press, so they instead turned to social media, which turns out to be significantly less trustworthy still. This is how we got into the post-truth society. Half of the people on social media deliberately lie, and the other half misrepresents because the misrepresentation gets more attention than the boring reality. The old motto of Google was "don't be evil", but I think they underestimated the evil that their search algorithms on the search engine, and the recommendation algorithms on YouTube would ultimately bring us.

Friday, February 03, 2023
A technological dead end

The 3D printer I still have is a so-called FDM printer, fused deposition modeling, that uses a thermoplastic filament, like PLA, melts it, and controls its deposition through a nozzle with the help of step motors. The resolution of that is given by the quality of the step motors, and typically reaches 0.1 mm. That is still quite visible, so if you 3D print a miniature, you will see the layers. The more modern 3D printing technology is SLA, stereolithography, which uses a beam of light hardening a liquid resin. The resolution of that is typically much better, at 0.03 mm, and as a result a miniature printed in resin looks a lot better.

And there lies the trap: 3D printing technology has developed away from FDM printing and towards SLA printing, because the results of SLA are better. But FDM printing with PLA is essentially harmless, and is something you can do without many safety precautions; a simple HEPA filter on the printer, and not touching the hot nozzle is enough. SLA printing is significantly more dangerous, as it involves handling a rather toxic acrylic resin liquid; you will want to have very good ventilation, preferably a fume hood, and you need to wear gloves. You will also need to handle the flammable isopropanol used for washing, although most of us have gotten quite used to handling that, given that it is the main component of most hand sanitizers. I really, really wouldn't recommend a SLA printer for kids. And personally, although I am trained to handle chemical substances safely, I don't use a SLA printer in my home, because of safety concerns.

In other words, a SLA printer is not really a mass-market consumer product. 3D printing technology has evolved *away* from consumer-friendliness. Which in part explains why earlier forecasts of a 3D printer in every home have not come true. The other half of the problem is that even with a SLA printer it is extremely difficult to use a 3D printer to replace some broken plastic piece in your household. The emblematic model of FDM printing, the hairy lion, sure looks cool, but has no practical use. 3D printing is a rather complicated and expensive way to produce cheap plastic objects and toys. Still, I believe that a technology development towards more user-friendly and easier to use FDM printers would have led to a wider spread of the technology than going down the high-quality SLA route.


Thursday, February 02, 2023
On the difficulties of stopping climate change

As this post will contain some news that aren't flattering about some climate activists, I think I should start with a series of statements, which I believe are true:
  1. Climate change is real, and is caused by human activity, mainly the emission of greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide (CO2).
  2. At the current pace of action against climate change, we will not be able to limit the temperature rise to less than 2°C above pre-industrial levels.
  3. While this will not exterminate humanity, climate change at this level will cause a series of very hard to predict meteorological events, which will cause immense economic damage and kill a large number of people.
Given these statements, I have a certain sympathy for climate activists. While I will be dead before the worst consequences of climate change happen, younger people and people with children don't have that easy way out, and need to think about limiting climate change for a less catastrophic future. Having said that, it appears to me that a lot of climate activism is based on solutions that are overly simplistic, and won't work. A typical slogan is "End Oil", and while that is certainly a long-term goal, it isn't as if we could just stop using fossil fuels as easy as we could stop smoking.

In Germany, a climate activist group calling themselves "Last Generation" has been in the news with some actions that were downright dangerous, like trying to cause a huge oil spill by sabotaging safety valves on oil pipelines. Causing a catastrophe to limit a bigger catastrophe is a dubious method at best, and downright terrorist at worst; which is why these climate activists have been targeted by German anti-terrorist police.

The latest story about the "Last Generation" is funnier, because it involves hypocrisy. But I want to tell it not for a cheap laugh, but to highlight some of the difficulties involved in stopping climate change. Two activists of the "Last Generation", a couple, missed a court date for their involvement in a blockade event. The judge, as judges do, wasn't amused, and demanded an explanation. They replied to that request for an explanation, which thus got into court records, and by that way was found by journalists: They missed the court date because they had been on holiday, flying to Bali. A return flight from Germany to Bali emits about 4 tons of CO2 per person, while for comparison going vegan saves only 1 ton of CO2 per year, and a typical car emits about 4.6 tons of CO2 per year. Flying is about the worst thing an individual can do regarding greenhouse gas emissions, which is why for example Greta Thunberg used a sailing boat to get to a climate conference in New York in 2019. I haven't taken a flight since 2019, but of course I don't claim that is possible for everybody.

Smaller planes flying shorter distances have been shown to be able to use more climate friendly fuels, like electricity or hydrogen. However, for a typical holiday flight, it is physically impossible to get a jumbo jet from Germany to Bali on anything other than liquid hydrocarbon fuels. You can make that "climate neutral" on paper, by offsetting it with "negative emissions", or reducing the carbon footprint by using fuel that has been made out of biomass or even recycled CO2. But currently "carbon offsetting" is often a scam, especially if they don't fulfill the criterion of additionality. Scam carbon offsetting is a lot cheaper than actual carbon offsetting. And if you look up the discussion of what a working "carbon tax" would need to be, or how much carbon capture and storage would cost, you end up with a cost per ton of carbon dioxide of around $100. With the cheapest ticket for a return flight from Bali to Germany being around $1,000, offsetting the carbon emissions realistically would increase the cost of the flight by 40%. And because take-off and landing consume more fuel than high-altitude flights, carbon offsetting for shorter flights can up to double the cost of the ticket.

Obviously cheap holiday flights are not actually a human right, but many people treat it that way. And the carbon offsetting solution would quickly be perceived as socially unjust, with only the richer half of the population still being able to afford it. The same is true for ground transport: The technology exists to make climate-friendly or even climate-neutral cars (climate neutrality always involves "negative emissions", even going on horseback isn't strictly "climate neutral"), but they will be a lot more expensive than cars running on fossil fuels. Which means that a smaller percentage of the population could still afford a car than today, which will be controversial.

Furthermore, if you had a magic wand and could in an instant replace every single car on earth by a climate friendly electric car, these cars wouldn't go anywhere. There simply wouldn't be enough electricity to run them all. For example the USA in 2021 produced 4.11 trillion kWh of electricity. But they consumed also 7.26 billion barrels of petroleum, which is about 12.3 trillion kWh. Yes, some of the petroleum produced went into electricity production, so the numbers aren't strictly comparable. But it is obvious that we would need not only make all our electricity production carbon neutral, but also increase it by several hundred percents in order to switch to electric cars.

There are other areas where we can make real progress relatively fast. For example I am currently building a house in the near-zero emission building standard (NZEB). Home isolation is a one-time investment that can save around 3 tons per year of CO2 on heating (rough estimate for Europe, but this very much depends on where you live, and how bad the current building standards are where you live today). Unfortunately isolating older buildings isn't quite as easy, and in some situations the incentives are badly aligned, with for example the landlord paying for isolation, but the heating cost being paid by the renter.

In summary, the difficulties of stopping climate change are the ones I mentioned above: We need a large amount of green energy to replace fossil fuels before we can "end oil". Barring a technological miracle in fusion technology, that green energy will be significantly more expensive than fossil energy, so we also need solutions for social problems in order to make heating and transport affordable for everybody. And all of this will take decades, and trillions of dollars in investment, which is why we will overshoot the 2°C target. Lifestyle changes should be a part of the solution, but they are difficult, and they won't be enough to solve the problem.

Wednesday, February 01, 2023
Sequels and replayability

In May, The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom comes out, the successor of The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. So I am currently playing Breath of the Wild again on my Switch, not sure if it is my third or fourth playthrough overall. And while Breath of the Wild is certainly a game you can replay and enjoy after not playing it for a year or two, I quickly realized a flaw in my reasoning: Playing Breath of the Wild doesn't really do much to prepare me for Tears of the Kingdom. Well, it would if I would concentrate on getting better at combat, learning how to reliably flurry rush or do similar moves that are likely to be present in the next game as well. But I don't fight more than absolutely necessary in Breath of the Wild; and pressing three buttons simultaneously on a controller and at exactly the right moment is not something I will ever be good at.

Breath of the Wild is a game about exploring a large open world. Finding everything, knowing where everything is, being able to use that knowledge to your advantage for example to upgrade your armor, that is the essence of mastering the game. If Tears of the Kingdom uses the exact game mechanics, but a completely new world, the mastery of Breath of the Wild simply doesn't transfer. Which in a way is good, because the exploration and finding out where everything is, is a major part of the fun of the game.

In the world of board games, people all over the world are currently receiving Frosthaven, the sequel to Gloomhaven, and the highest funded gaming project on Kickstarter at 13 million dollars, not counting late pledges. I didn't back it, and I don't plan on buying it, except if it comes out as a digital version (Gloomhaven Digital is my preferred version of the game). And conceptually it is the exact opposite of a sequel than Tears of the Kingdom is: If you are very good at playing Gloomhaven, that will very much translate to you having an easier time in Frosthaven. Yes, you will play with new characters in new scenarios; but most of the people who bought Frosthaven haven't played all the characters and played through all the scenarios in Gloomhaven.

Gloomhaven is more of a puzzle, the challenge is to learn how to use your cards in the most efficient way, so that your dwindling supply of cards lasts until the end of the scenario. Once you have understood the long-term consequences of burning cards, you have understood that the only good way to play is to start softly, and keep your big burn combos for the end of the scenario. And that doesn't change, regardless of whether you are playing Gloomhaven or Frosthaven, and regardless of which character you play in which scenario. Once you are good at Gloomhaven card management, another -haven game is just more of the same. My wife and me never finished Gloomhaven, because we got to the point where we had mastered the game after 20 or so scenarios, and applying that mastery over and over to different scenarios and different characters wasn't all that much fun to us. At least not in the board game version, where the fun of playing a scenario is paid for very dearly with the extremely high effort of setting up the game and putting it back into the box afterwards.

Besides playing with my wife, I have been playing board games once or twice per month with a group of 4 players overall. Besides a few games of Scythe and Return to Dark Tower, we mostly played legacy games: We finished Clank!: Legacy – Acquisitions Incorporated, and are currently halfway through Charterstone, another legacy game. And while I actually bought a Charterstone recharge pack, which would allow me to reset the game and play it again, chances are that I won't. Both Clank!: Legacy and Charterstone seem to be reasonably well designed in that the length of the full campaign corresponds about to how much you'll want to play a game before wanting to play something completely different. So while putting stickers on your game, or tearing up cards, or other ways of permanently changing your game might feel weird to some boardgamers, I very much like legacy games. I have far too many games that I haven't played often enough to be bored of them. Reaching the end of a legacy game is a nice point of closure, and the fact that you *can't* replay it (unless you buy a recharge pack or second copy, or play the final version without legacy elements) is a feature, not a flaw.

For me, that is the ideal situation: I arrive at the end of a campaign, regardless of whether it is a board game or a video game, and the length of the campaign corresponds to the length of time the game was fun for. Unfortunately that rarely happens. There are both games in which the fun ran out before I reached the end, and I stopped playing because the final part seemed like just too much of a grind to me; and games where I finished the campaign and then started over with different options and choices, and only stopped playing somewhere in the middle of the second or third playthrough. What games did you play where you reached the end of the campaign and said "that was just the right length, I liked playing this much, but don't want to play more than that!"?

Monday, January 30, 2023
ISS Vanguard - Pre-play Considerations

In December 2020 I did not back the Gamefound crowdfunding campaign of ISS Vanguard. Mainly because I am more a fan of the fantasy genre than science fiction. Two years later, in December 2022, ISS Vanguard got delivered to backers, and I was able to watch people play it on YouTube. It was immediately clear that this wasn't the game I would want to play with my wife, or my board game night group. In many aspects, ISS Vanguard resembles a RPG video game, but as there is not computer to take note of what you did, there is a relatively heavy bookkeeping part of the game, where by writing things down or moving cards from one space to another you create a memory of what you did, and the game state for your future action. There is a part of the game where you do nothing but move cards around in a three-ring binder. Not an activity that is much fun to do in a group.

However, I don't mind doing that sort of administrative work when playing a solo game. I love 7th Continent, which involves a lot of moving cards around in an index card box. And the more I watched people playing ISS Vanguard, the more interested I became in the game for me to play solo. So I "late pledged" the game on Gamefound. Unfortunately the site wasn't very explicit about what "late pledging" means in detail. Turns out it means that you'll get a copy from a second print run in Q3/Q4 2023. And I didn't want to wait that long. So I searched the internet and found an online shop that sold a copy of the first wave that had been delivered in 2022. That copy is now in the mail to me.

So why the growing fascination with a game that has so much busywork? I think it is in part because of a challenge, and in part because ISS Vanguard has elements that I do like from playing JRPG video games. I have a peculiar way of playing JRPG: I love doing side quests and even some grinding in order to make my characters stronger than what is expected from somebody who is just following the main story. And from what I could see, that sort of strategy would work rather well for ISS Vanguard. My observation of the YouTube streams was that if you do what is logical for somebody who is streaming a campaign game, and never go to the same planet twice, but prioritize advancing the main story, you end up being underleveled for the campaign content.

A part of that is definitively flawed game design, especially of the rank-up system. Planetary exploration in ISS Vanguard is about pushing your luck; you have a dwindling number of dice and supplies to refresh those dice. There is a temptation to concentrate on your main mission, and leave the planet as soon as you did that mission. However, to rank up the characters you took onto the planet, you need to collect a certain number of success tokens, and fulfil a random secondary condition. Unless you are very lucky, if you only do the main mission on a planet, you will probably not rank up your characters. Maybe from rank 1 to rank 2, but unlikely from rank 2 to rank 3, which requires twice as many success tokens. And unbeknownst to you, if you don't rank up early, it will come to haunt you later.

Basically I have seen people play, and done some theory-crafting, and I think that A) I know how to play the game more successfully, and B) that more successful strategy is one that I am more comfortable with. It involves not only pushing your luck further on any given planetary exploration, but also visiting planets more than once to grab really everything there is on that planet. That has the added advantage that if you do a planet twice, you will also go through the ship phase (the phase with the three-ring binder) twice, and advance your research and production projects further. ISS Vanguard is a game that challenges you with nasty surprises and the necessity to roll specific symbols on your custom dice; by going deeper on each planet, and a bit of grinding, you can get prepared for those challenges, because you have more dice and more dice manipulation.

In a way my interest in ISS Vanguard is the same psychological phenomenon than the one that is used in a lot of mobile game ads: They show somebody failing at the game, which makes you eager to try and to do better. In this case it probably wasn't intentional, nobody could have known that I was watching a series of streams where people didn't do very well in the game. But my reaction was the same, I am eager to try and to do better. I just hope that works out and I will actually have fun doing so.

P.S. Another observation about ISS Vanguard is that it pretends you can play with anywhere between 2 and 4 characters, but in reality the game isn't balanced around the character count. 4 characters are more likely than 2 characters to reach the rank-up condition of a planetary exploration, and then all 4 of them rank up, instead of just 2. Playing with 4 characters is giving you an advantage, so I will solo the game 4-handed.


Saturday, January 28, 2023
Have you no sense of decency?

About 7 decades ago, America was in the grips of the Red Scare and McCarthyism. It started out with a not totally unfounded fear of communist spies, but quickly spiraled out. And one of the most damaging ideas of the time was that it was very dangerous to have somebody with communist beliefs working in Hollywood, because subliminal messages might be hidden in a movie script and turn all of America communist. Hollywood writers, actors, and directors were blacklisted, including such obvious dangers as Charlie Chaplin.

McCarthyism began to crumble when in a carefully staged moment on television lawyer Joseph Welch asked Senator McCarthy "Have you no sense of decency?" in the context of a character assassination that McCarthy was doing. The Hollywood blacklist officially ended in 1960, although some of the blacklisted people had their careers already permanently destroyed by then.

After that, for some time, it was widely recognized that you shouldn't blacklist people for their political beliefs. The danger that somebody in the entertainment industry subverts the public with his political beliefs is much smaller than the danger to democracy and liberty the blacklisting itself does. If somebody is committing a crime because of his political beliefs, that should be dealt with by the justice system. Just holding political beliefs and speaking out about them should never be the reason for somebody losing his livelihood. Freedom of speech is one of the most important pillars of democracy and the rule of law.

What also needs to be considered is that Hollywood movies and other big entertainment projects are never the work of a single person. If you ban or boycott a movie because of the political beliefs of one person in a huge team, you are equally hurting a large number of people who don't even hold those beliefs. As if punishing somebody for "thought crimes" wasn't bad enough, you end up punishing people for "associating with people who committed thought crimes".

It makes me very sad that these days the idea that you should punish people for their political beliefs is back. That is not because I necessarily agree with those political beliefs. Although Voltaire didn't actually say it, his point of view was correctly described as "I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it". The right to state their political beliefs of a public figure is the higher good, however much you might disapprove. It is the hallmark of tyrannies all over the world that they first attack this freedom of speech, before attacking other freedoms.

So if you might be tempted to participate or promote a boycott of an entertainment product this year, maybe you should ask yourself: "Have you no sense of decency?". Is attacking the livelihood of somebody you disagree with, or somebody associating with somebody you disagree with, really the morally correct choice? Aren't you getting blinded by your passionate support for one cause into hurting much more important pillars of a free society? If you participate in making it socially acceptable to destroy somebody's career or means of earning a living because of their political beliefs, what will you say if some day the tides turn and it is your political beliefs that allow others to destroy your life?

Thursday, January 26, 2023
Heavy Metal Mouse

Last year in October my old gaming mouse broke and I had to replace it. I didn't want a cheap $10 mouse, as those aren't very suitable to play games with. But as I am not into e-sports or games with very fast reaction times, I didn't want a $100 high-end gaming mouse either. I ended up buying a Razer Deathadder Essential for $30, thinking that it would go well with my Razer keyboard, with which I am quite happy. 3 months later, the Razer mouse started malfunctioning: When I use the scroll wheel to scroll down, sometimes there is a wrong signal and the page jumps up instead of down. Quite annoying!

So I looked up the problem on the internet and found that other people had the same problem with the same mouse. And while one could fix it by disassembling the mouse and cleaning the contacts of the scroll wheel, the mouse wasn't built to be disassembled. You need to first remove glued on stuff from the bottom to even access the screws to open the mouse. People reported that cleaning the mouse on the inside also caused some irreparable damage. So I decided that I'd rather buy another new mouse. And this time I was doing more market research, looking for a solid product, and one with a good scroll wheel.

I ended up with the best-selling mouse on Amazon, the Logitech G502 Hero, for $40. And it is a heavy gaming mouse, which I didn't even know was a thing. The weight of a mouse affects its performance, and there are advantages and disadvantages to both very light and very heave mice. It turns out that for the games that I am playing, where precision is more important than speed, and for my large hands, a heavier mouse is better. The G502 Hero even comes with a pack of additional weights which you can use to make it even heavier, but I haven't tried that out yet.

But the feature I like the most about the G502 Hero is the metal scroll wheel. While you can use it like a regular scroll wheel, you can also unblock it, and it becomes an "infinite" scroll wheel. That is to say that it is so heavy and so well balanced that if you give it a flick to spin it, it will keep spinning for quite a long time. Enough to scroll to the end of even the longest document. That works pretty brilliantly for my purposes.

So right now the Logitech mouse is already a big improvement over the Razer mouse. I will have to see how long this new mouse lasts. But the 24,000 Amazon reviews, of which 80% are 5 star, make me think that this is probably a solid product.

Saturday, January 21, 2023
Trickle-up economics

My interest in hobbies like gaming leads to me coming across more news about companies that make games and other forms of entertainment than news about companies in let's say heavy industry. And lately all the news about these companies have been bad. Tech companies like Apple are laying off record number of employees. Game companies like Hasbro are making very bad decisions in an attempt to stop the rapid shrinking of their profits. The share price of Netflix is half what it was at it's peak in 2021.

None if this is actually surprising. The current economic problem is a cost of living crisis, where between inflation and rising energy prices the average household is increasingly squeezed to pay its bills. And while that is bad news for the whole economy, it obviously disproportionally hits companies that make things that people buy from their disposable income. Share prices of energy companies are doing just fine; Exxon's share price nearly doubled in 2022. But once people have paid for all the necessities of life, these days there isn't much money left, if any. It is easier to not buy the latest iPhone, or Magic cards, or cancel your Netflix subscription, than to cut your spending on rent, food, and heating.

Previous recessions, like the one after the 2008 financial crisis, have shown a curious phenomenon: Countries with higher minimum wages and stronger worker protection got through the crisis a lot better than others. A prime example was Germany, where a deal was struck between unions, industry, and the government for workers to work shorter hours, receive some wage subsidies, and not be fired. That turned out to work brilliantly, because recessions do end, and it is a lot easier to increase cut hours than to rehire people you fired.

In 1914, Henry Ford more than doubled the salary of the workers in his Ford Motor Company, from $2.25 to $5. Henry Ford wasn't a socialist. But up to that time a typical worker didn't earn enough money to even consider buying a car. With Ford being the only one to produce affordable cars, the salary increase led to Ford's workers buying Ford cars. Giving money to working class and middle class households works wonder for the economy, because they tend to spend most of it. If the same company profits go into dividends payed out to already rich people instead of increased salaries, the money tends to get stuck in savings accounts. Ben Bernanke coined the term "savings glut". It describes a situation in which the spoils of capitalism are distributed in a way that gives the holder of capital too much, and the providers of labor too little. But beyond a certain point, capitalists can't find any productive investment for their money, which leads to it getting stuck in low-interest savings accounts, or wasted on bad investments like crypto. Economists talk of the "velocity of money", and it has fallen dramatically since the start of this century.

The short term economic future of Europe will see a lot of strikes. To an American that might look like a bad thing. But the end result will be an at least slightly larger share of the pie going to working class and middle-income households. And that money will have a higher "velocity". Unlike trickle-down economics, which has been repeatedly shown to not work at all, trickle-up economics makes everybody richer.

Thursday, January 19, 2023
Retire as a millionaire! Self-identify now!

Dear Californians!

I would like to direct your attention to a brilliant opportunity to retire as a millionaire, at zero cost to yourself. The only thing you need to do is to self-identify as "black" on any official documents from now on. And in some years, you will receive $5 million. That is the opportunity offered by the San Francisco Reparations Plan, which foresees such a $5 million reparation payment for any citizen who has been self-identifying as black for a number of years. While the wider California reparations plan only comes out in June, and is currently still planning to base reparations on people being able to prove they descend from slaves, that plan has already been widely criticized. Who has documentation of his ancestry dating back over a century and a half? Given the political climate in California, the San Francisco version based on self-identification could very well be adopted state-wide.

So what if you aren't actually black? I have good news for you: You are! Pretty much any human being who would do a self DNA test, available for around a hundred bucks on Amazon, would find some percentage of being descendant from Africans. There is no scientific definition of "being black", so nobody can contradict you. And you are actually allowed to self-identify as something that you biologically aren't, so there really isn't any argument against self-identifying as black. Worried about you self-identifying as black leading to discrimination? Well, you only need to do it on official documents. Any possible employer, landlord, or other person who could possibly discriminate against you isn't going to do so based on such official records, but rather on how you look, or what your first name is.

I would especially recommend self-identifying as black to anybody who is actually a descendant of Chinese immigrants to California in the 19th century. While that might seem strange genetically, I would say that morally you have a much stronger claim at a local level. The State of California harmed a lot more Chinese immigrants than black slaves, which is both a function of geography, and because California was a Union state.

The San Francisco plan foresees a requirement that to qualify for a reparations payment, you must be an "individual who has identified as ‘Black/African American’ on public documents for at least 10 years". So I would advise you to start self-identifying as black now; it is likely that it will take at least 10 years before the plan is actually carried out. And the requirement time might still be reduced. After all, putting a 10-year minimum requirement on other policies based on self-identification would obviously be inacceptable. If you self-identify as black in California now, you have a chance of retiring a millionaire!

Tuesday, January 17, 2023
Chillaxing Against the Storm

I am still playing Against the Storm. Steam tells me that I am at 86+ hours played now. I also reached the level cap, and nearly all the upgrades. I might make a second profile and start over, but for the moment I am still playing the first playthrough. Only, I am probably not playing it the way you might think.

Against the Storm technically has 24 different difficulty settings. There are the 4 basic ones: Settler, Pioneer, Veteran, and Viceroy. But if you beat Viceroy, you get the option to play on Prestige 1, beat that to get to Prestige 2, etc., until you reach Prestige 20. That suggests that this is how the game is meant to be played: Play at increasing difficulty levels, try to push it to the hardest setting, and get more rewards for each run. I don't do that. I play most games on either Pioneer or Veteran difficulty. I basically can't lose a game at Pioneer, so I have a 97% win rate, with my losses coming from the occasional dabbling at Viceroy. I unlocked Prestige difficulty, but never used it.

I am basically chillaxing the game, and not challenging myself. Rather than trying to play in an optimal way, I am trying out different things. For example you gain embarkation points and can use those to buy resources for a run; while I know what resources would be optimal, sometimes I just buy something that is interesting, but sub-optimal and see how the game goes.

Against the Storm is surprisingly welcoming to such a more casual approach. Yes, if you play always at lower difficulty, it takes a lot longer to level up and gain upgrades. But that is the only disadvantage. And the rewards you get at higher difficulty down go up all that fast for prestige, so it isn't as if meta advancement slows down to unbearable levels if you play on easier settings.

The main advantage of playing at lower difficulty is something that you can observe with many different games: The higher the difficulty, the more options of the game become unviable. You can choose to do certain things, but you can't win high difficulty levels if you choose the sub-optimal stuff. You are supposed to have learned what works best, and play like a well-oiled machine. At lower difficulty you can goof around and experiment with things. You can take risky timed orders and not worry if you end up being unable to complete them. You can choose to play in interesting locations with modifiers that are rather bad. And you can change your strategy in function of the random forest events, cornerstones, and building choices you get. That keeps the game fresh.

Sunday, January 15, 2023
Is that really the legacy?

One of the major game releases of 2023 will happen in 4 weeks, when Hogwart's Legacy is released on February 10. So I looked through the various information available about the game. And I can't get a solid grip on what the game is really about.

Hogwart's Legacy is to the Harry Potter books/films what Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor is to the Lord of the Rings books/films: You get to play in an open world that depicts the world you know from the original, but in a different age; thus you don't play as the main character you know, and don't encounter the other characters from the original. So in Hogwart's Legacy you interact with the school of Hogwart's, including surrounding areas, and including the school system with attending classes etc.

While it is easy to see how that will attract a lot of Harry Potter fans, it is a lot less obvious how it will allow them to have a similar experience than the books/films. We know how open world games play; there are usually a myriad of points of interest on a map to explore and things to interact with. That is necessary, because an open world which you can only fly over and look at would become boring pretty quickly. And thus there will be something like collectibles or "side quests" which make the player visit all the nooks and crannies of Hogwart's and surroundings.

At first glance that corresponds to Harry Potter and his friends exploring the school. But the story in the original is a lot tighter and linear. Harry Potter doesn't go on side quests. Nor does he get into a series of wand fights to level up. The use of combat magic in the books is pretty rare. Grinding through combat encounters and open world points of interest to gain levels doesn't really *feel* like Harry Potter.

My prediction for Hogwart's Legacy is that it will follow a trend we have seen a lot for major film and game releases in 2022: Well-paid critics giving really high review scores, and the user reviews having an average score that is a lot lower. While the numbers don't really tell you anything, reading what users complain about is usually a better indication of the quality of a game than the paid reviews. So that, and streamed playthroughs is what I am going to look for to decide whether this is the game for me.

Saturday, January 14, 2023
Baldur's Gate 3 - The problem with companions

Dungeons & Dragons has character classes which are designed to have unique advantages, allowing every player around a table of a pen & paper game to shine in different situations. In a dungeon full of traps and locked doors or treasure chests, a rogue who can disarm traps and open locks is so useful as to be almost indispensable. A fireball-throwing wizard is an enormous advantage in a fight against a horde of goblins, as melee characters have a much harder time to kill multiple enemies at once. You need a divine spellcaster to cast healing spells. And so on.

So what happens if a group doesn't contain any character that has a specific advantage? In the pen & paper version the answer is easy: The DM adjusts the adventure. If there is nobody who can pick locks, there won't be many locked doors in the adventure, because that would be frustrating. Even if the adventure module foresees a door to be locked, the DM can simply decide otherwise. Unfortunately, a computer DM in a game like Baldur's Gate 3 isn't all that flexible. If you try to play BG3 without anybody able to pick locks or disarm traps, you are going to miss out on a lot of content, and have a really hard time in certain locations.

The "standard" way to play Baldur's Gate 3 in early access is to custom create a character of any class you want, and then relatively early in the adventure choose 3 NPC companions out of a selection of 5. That selection contains 4 rather essential character classes (fighter, rogue, cleric, wizard) and a warlock, who is an arcane spellcaster like the wizard, and can replace the wizard (although that wouldn't be optimal, given the camp system of BG3). So if your custom character is a fighter or similar class, let's say barbarian, you wouldn't take the fighter NPC, but rather the rogue, cleric, and wizard to create a well-rounded party. And so on, if you want to play a cleric or druid, you might want to take the fighter, rogue and wizard as companions. Yes, you can custom create a sorcerer, and then take the wizard, warlock, and cleric to have an all-spellcaster party. But you would probably come to regret that lack of balance later in situations where you could really have used a fighter or rogue.

So, from a tactical optimization point of view, in Baldur's Gate 3 you will want to choose your companions based on their character class and specific advantages, which will be needed at some point in the adventure. But one of the big selling points of Baldur's Gate 3 is the relationship management between your main character and his companions. And the companions you most want to have for tactical reasons might not be the ones you want to hang out with.

I felt that very strongly when I was trying to play Baldur's Gate 3 as the typical good aligned hero adventurer, helping the weak and trying to not do evil. As it turns out, 3 of the 5 possible companions *are* evil, with a 4th one being neutral, and only Gale the wizard will approve of your actions when you are consistently nice. If I wanted to make an arcane spellcaster as main, and thus not take any arcane spellcasters as companions, I would be forced to group up with a murderous fighter, a blood-sucking rogue, and a cleric of darkness. Then I would either need to play evil myself, or "cheese" the approval system by constantly save-scumming, and reloading after dialogue options lead to disapproval. You can temporarily dismiss a companion, do the dialogue that he would disapprove of while he isn't around, and then get him back into the party. Obviously not a fun way to play the game. But if you constantly play in a way your companions disapprove of, they will leave the party.

Unless you want to play an evil character, Baldur's Gate 3 doesn't have enough companions you'd actually want to go adventuring with. Which is really strange, because lots of story elements revolve around being a hero and helping the weak. You either play against the story, or against your companions. Not really a great choice from a role-playing perspective.


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