The simplest autism diagnostic test.

(Autism, Personal)

2014-03-26 22:33
Comment

So, I have stumbled across a lovely test for autism, which … well, I’ve now lost count. But so far, I have never once gotten a confirmed-false-positive from it, and I’ve confirmed well over half a dozen positives.

Test methodology: I talk to people. Mostly, I eventually get this sort of hard to qualify sense of annoyance. If I don’t, after a few minutes, I suspect they are autistic. Quite a few have been already-diagnosed, and I’m somewhere over half a dozen cases of people for whom this diagnostic led me to suggest that they talk to a specialist, and they have since had a properly qualified professional diagnose them. In one case, it’s not a “formal” diagnosis with all the fancy tests, for budget reasons, but nonetheless a qualified, licensed, psychologist considers the evidence good enough to justify using that as a basis for treatment.

This really seems like a wonderful example of a thing which, even if true, is completely irrelevant on any kind of large scale. I don’t think I could teach anyone how I do it. I couldn’t do it enough to really save that much time or money or anything. And yet. For six or ten or however many people, it has made a difference, so I guess that’s a thing.

Peter Seebach

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How to make poor people more responsible

(Personal)

2014-02-26 15:22
Comment [1]

I see a lot of complaints about how poor people are irresponsible. There’s plenty of existing work being done on the question of why this might be the case, and the obvious answer (“being irresponsible makes you poor”) appears to be only a very small part of the story. Most noticably, being poor deprives you of cognitive resources, while vastly increasing the cognitive cost of many things.

Meanwhile, the standard answer is to try to crush people’s souls harder in case maybe they just aren’t despairing quite enough. So people running, say, housing projects for poor people? They are gonna typically be really hostile to pets because why should you ever have anything nice? You don’t deserve it.

However, there’s plenty of research on ways to help people develop greater mental resilience, motivate them to try harder, and so on. And there’s one thing that really stands out in this: Taking care of others makes people stronger, and gives them reserves. Also, pets are cheap.

And there’s some pretty fascinating examples of just how effective this is; for instance, consider A Street Cat Named Bob, the story of how a guy finally kicked drug addiction because he had to take care of his cat. This is not a unique occurrence; I know several people who are a lot more functional now that they have pets. When you’re depressed, you might not feel like you deserve basic care, but you’re not going to think your dog doesn’t deserve care. And the dog will make it clear that you deserve care.

So here’s my idea: What if we inverted this? Instead of trying to discourage poor people from having pets, what if we actively, aggressively, promoted pet ownership for poor folks? For instance, any and all subsidized housing or similar things aimed at people who can’t afford apartments would be required to accept pets, period. Support programs could include pet care. That might sound expensive, but it’s not super-expensive, and most places already have animal shelters, which would be able to reduce costs a lot if more people were taking in pets.

The payoff? People who had nothing to drag them out of bed in the morning suddenly having something other than themselves to take care of. Affection and company for lonely people. Things that we know make people more effective, more successful, happier, and more motivated to succeed.

This is part of my general theory that social services should be structured around spending the least possible money to get the job done, rather than being an endless battle over how much money to spend without any thought given to whether the job gets done.

Peter Seebach

Comment [1]

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Kaiju

(Personal)

2013-12-31 18:47
Comment [3]

One of the things I like about Pacific Rim is its introduction of the term Kaiju to English. I remember loving Godzilla movies as a kid. And there’s a thing to them I always thought was fascinating, which is that Godzilla sort of started out as the monster which destroys Japan, but ends up being the monster which defends Japan. And this, I sort of empathize with, if that’s the right word.

For a long time, I’ve been sort of aware that I am, even among autistics, pretty low-empathy. Furthermore, for someone who’s autistic, I am unreasonably charismatic and effective at manipulation, a highly unusual trait in autistics. I’ve spent some time talking to a psychologist about this, and concluded that I just-shy-of sweep the diagnostic criteria for what the DSM-IV called “antisocial personality disorder”, and the DSM-III called either “sociopathy” or “psychopathy”, the distinctions between those categories being a little fuzzy.

But, of course, obviously I care about other people, quite a bit. Which is sort of atypical, to put it mildly. So you might ask, why do I still think about this? And the answer is: I don’t think what I’m doing is the same thing that most people appear to be experiencing. I think I’m adopting a stance based on consideration and philosophy, rather than having some kind of innate preference in the matter.

What do you mean, no preference in the matter?

It’s hard to express the distinction I’m getting at. When cats are happy, they typically purr. Sometimes, cats will add a sort of high-pitched noise to their purr, which some researchers suggest is intended to be about the frequency of human baby crying, to obtain food. My cat does that when there’s a food shortage or just because she’s happy. I think purring is cool. I like that sound. I will make cats make that sound.

So, there’s another sort of similar sound cats make. A cat which is cornered and really does not want to fight may hiss, but if it’s really terrified or mad, it will growl. A lot of people don’t even know cats make this noise, because they don’t make it very often normally; you have to have a cat and an animal it really dislikes to get this noise much. Or just be really mean to the cat. When I was a kid, I would sometimes catch one of the cats and prevent it from escaping until it got really upset and started growling. Why? For the same reason I made them purr: I liked the noise. I was vaguely offended that the cat would not switch between these noises easily, or would avoid me because I’d been scaring it. I have stopped doing that, because I have a more complicated model of the world, and I’ve decided I want cats to be happy. But… I didn’t have any particular innate sense that terrifying or upsetting animals was a Bad Thing. I just observed that it produced a result I like.

Perhaps a little spookier: I don’t really have any remorse to speak of here. I recognize that this behavior was “bad” in some way. I note that it fails to align with what I now believe about moral actions. I don’t do it anymore. But I don’t have any experience which is even remotely similar to what I hear people describe when they talk about remorse. I experience distress when things I do fail to produce desired results. I don’t experience distress just because the results I desired at some point in the past are now results I don’t desire.

Ice, glass, and souls.

I like breaking things. Mostly, I like watching things break. Ice, glass, you name it. I like watching things shatter. And most of the time, people are a kind of things. As I’ve gotten older, though, I’ve learned a thing: You cannot shatter a thing and still have it. And if you like having the thing, you may want to specifically avoid shattering it. I still have a heck of a mean streak, though, because I am innately skilled at finding weak points in people’s sense of self, and hitting them in ways that cause them to experience structural failures. And I love it. Only… Well, I have objections to it. Philosophical objections.

People have told me that having these objections means I don’t really have that instinct or whatever, but I don’t buy it. If you know bacon is bad for your blood pressure, so you don’t eat bacon, that doesn’t mean you’re an innate vegetarian who doesn’t like the taste of bacon. It just means you’re able to make tradeoffs between different kinds of gratification, including highly abstract ones like “living longer”.

Originally, the main reason I stopped being mean to people was just that I realized I couldn’t beat them all, and that I couldn’t go around randomly being mean to people and not have to beat them all. Over time I have gradually adapted a little better, and since then I’ve developed philosophy. And yet, the fundamental reason I’m not randomly destructive of other people’s sense of self is not that I’m kind and compassionate, it’s that I know I cannot have pleasant interactions with people who have been destroyed. In fact, I’ve developed a really nice strategy for getting opportunities to smash people up occasionally. Bullies. I go around emitting social cues that bullies tend to look for as signs of targets. Then I get people to play with. And that’s fun, but it’s also just socially useful enough that people are inclined to tolerate it and not get too freaked out by it, mostly.

Goal-directed behavior

Frequently, when I see fictional villains, I am not particularly upset by or horrified by their evil schemes, except that they’re doing it so badly. I don’t tend to get the visceral reaction of aversion and horror to a person wanting to do a horrible thing. I do, however, get a very strong negative reaction to people doing something that’s not well-considered and likely to lead to success. I don’t really get why people pursue some of these things, but ultimately, most motivations are sort of arbitrary. That someone’s motivation fails to align with my philosophical beliefs about morality is not horrifying to me. That they are wasting their time doing it badly, or failing to recognize an internal inconsistency in their motivations, does bother me quite a bit.

There’s a sort of recurring trope in religious debates, which is that sooner or later, someone asks why people who don’t believe in God don’t just murder, rape, etcetera. And this always struck me as pretty stupid. Seriously, if you’re trying to decide between going to work and collecting a paycheck, and wandering out and killing people, and the big deciding point is that someone told you an invisible man will set you on fire later if you pick the wrong one, I don’t really feel a lot safer knowing that you believed them.

There’s a similar thing going on with empathy. People seem surprised that I’d claim to have no particular empathic response to people most of the time, or at least the ability to turn it off (or forget to turn it back on), and yet be nice to people. Why is this surprising? If most people do it by instinct, presumably that instinct exists for a reason, right? Like, it was useful to have that instinct? People with that instinct were more successful? So. Why wouldn’t you expect a reasonably competent person to act that way anyway? I mean, it works. It is an effective way to get things of value.

I grant that I am a lot more likely to occasionally and unexpectedly act in non-empathic ways than most people, but there is the further question of what goals we adopt. I’m pretty well aware that I am not immortal in any practical sense. If I want to have goals, I should probably pick goals more interesting than short-term personal gain. So I have adopted goals involving trying to change the world so it is more like I want it to be. And that, it turns out, means making things nicer and safer for people. And it turns out that sometimes, the ability to behave in non-empathic ways to achieve those goals is a benefit. There’s some fascinating reporting suggesting that there are people in a number of fields, such as brain surgeons, who are unusually likely to have sociopathic traits, because they can’t do their jobs competently without them. I sort of get that. I see people who are crippled by doubt and indecision because if they screw up someone could get badly hurt. Well, yes, and if you do nothing someone could get badly hurt. Sucks to be you, I guess? Just make a decision and go with it.

Seeking excitement and challenge.

One of the things I’ve heard claimed is that at least some serial killers, etc., view “getting away with it” as a challenge. I can sort of get the idea of wanting a challenge. One of the reasons I find most modern “trolling” in MMOs annoying is the complete lack of effort or challenge. People enter a chat system which has hundreds of participants, say obviously stupid or abusive things, and then gloat about how they got responses. Uh. That’s sort of like bragging about your martial arts skills, then showing off a series of videos in which you hunch over and punch toddlers, who fall down. Toddlers of an age where they tend to fall down fairly often anyway, no less. Provoking people to react is not a major accomplishment. Provoking people to react without being personally engaged is utterly, totally, trivial, because being disengaged offends people in and of itself, and not being personally engaged is extremely easy. (Well. It is for me, anyway.)

And this is where things start to come together a bit. I sort of get the idea of wanting to seek some kind of excitement or challenge. I enjoy the metagame of old-school “trolling” in the form more typical of Kibology. And then there’s the bullies. See, the thing about bullies is, at least some of them are pretty sociopathic, or at least, have disconnected enough from what they’re doing that they aren’t emotionally engaged, making it hard to have any effect on them.

And a thing which is hard to do could be a challenge, and thus a thing which is interesting. A thing which might be fun. And as a side-effect, well, any time a troll spends fighting me, they are spending not fighting other people, most of whom are frankly going to be easy pickings for a troll.

Kaiju

So tying this together: It occurs to me that, at some level, Godzilla may not be primarily interested in defending Japan, so much as in beating down other kaiju, because they’re the only things it’s interesting to fight. And maybe that defends people, but the real point of it is just finding something that it takes some exertion to fight. Something challenging, and fun. Fighting bullies is an opportunity to let loose and be as destructive as I want without worrying too much about people getting hurt.

With slight apologies to Nietzsche: Whoever is already a monster should see to it that he fights monsters. And if I gaze long enough into the abyss, the abyss is gonna break eye contact first.

Peter Seebach

Comment [3]

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Human nature

(Religion)

2013-11-23 18:56
Comment

People talk a lot about human nature, often fairly cynically. I do it too. People say things like “in theory, only people who actually need the aid are supposed to apply for it, but human nature being what it is, lots of people apply fraudulently”. And, barring some dispute over what constitutes “lots” of people, that kind of thing is true. It really is the case that people steal, that people commit violent crimes. It is true that people try to get ahead without regard for others, and even at other people’s expense. It is the truth, and nothing but the truth… But it is not the whole truth.

This guy I know recently wrote a blog post entitled, and I quote, Amazingly good things wow oh my god. Theo’s a nice guy. He’s not rich or famous, he’s just some guy. Going around being a person, meeting other people, and doing people things.

So here’s a little snippet of his story from that particular day (edited to remove a last name):

So my friends come out of the cafe with some other peeps and they all get into conversing so I go inside to sit with Dan and Alex, who were reading and talking and playing chess. A few minutes go by as I watch Dan dance all over Alex’s face and checkmate him when a dude walks in. His eyes are bloodshot and tired, he’s wearing some raggedy clothes, and he walks up and asks us “hey, man, you got a couple bucks you can spare so I can get something to drink or eat?” I of course proceed to hand him what cash and change I have in my pockets, an impressive 2 dollars and something, and he thanks me and goes up to the counter, but the stuff is still too expensive for him and he starts walking away dejectedly when I’m like “hey, man, I can get you something. Want a coffee and a bagel? It’s cheap, and I got it covered.” He thanks me and takes the coffee but passes on the bagel, so I grab it and a while later I’m talking to him and the dude’s not wearing socks and it’s been raining and it’s almost freezing so I ask him if he wants my socks, but he doesn’t take them and I ask him if I can buy him some and he just nods his head and says something to the effect of “I don’t know if they’d have them, but can we go down to the 7-11 and check? They have those sweaters and hats maybe they’ll have socks, too.” I don’t go to 7-11s very often, so it was worth a shot. We start walking, and he tells me his name is Bruce, and starts telling me his life story, how he got homeless, how his parents were dead and he walked 10 miles from where he had been staying at a motel that he’s been making his home for 50 bucks a week or something (I don’t remember because I’m a terrible person) that had finally kicked him out because he couldn’t find and another job, to downtown Grand Rapids where he could have a chance to panhandle some money to get a bus ticket to Muskegon.

Like I said, Theo’s just this guy. He’s not some saint who’s spent years in a monastic order training for compassion. He’s just some ordinary guy, but since he noticed that the guy he was talking to had no socks, and it was cold, he tried to help. It’s sort of surprising, because mostly people don’t do that. But I assert that this isn’t because human nature isn’t like that; I think it’s because our culture spends so much time teaching people not to do things like that. People are told all about how it’s irrational, and it won’t work, and it won’t make a difference anyway, and so on. They’re told to watch out for themselves. And the people advocating this just sort of ignore the question of what to do about the guy with no socks.

The story continues. Bruce eventually gets a ride to Muskegon, which is a nice thing if you happen to want to go there. Theo is happy because he got to make a difference. And I get a chance to ramble on about how human nature is not always such a bad thing, perhaps.

Peter Seebach

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Stay classy, Google!

(GeekStuff)

2013-11-18 21:14
Comment [6]

Well, too late for that.

So, in theory I have a Google+ account, except it’s suspended over my insistence that “seebs” is more like my real name than any other name is. Which decision could in theory be appealed, except that they don’t have a working appeals process; instead, they have a process wherein you might or might not get a form letter, or alternatively you just stay suspended for months.

Recently, they migrated absolutely all help or support pertaining to Google+ to new Google+ discussion forums… Which cannot be used by suspended users. So you can’t ask any questions about why your account name is not being accepted, or what exactly they meant when they claimed they would sometimes allow pseudonyms, or anything else.

But that’s not where it gets bad. Where it gets bad is that this is also the sole provided contact for privacy stuff. Like, say. If people were sending you event invitations, and you wanted to opt out of event notification emails. Because that, too, requires an unsuspended account. But you can still be added to things, and sent invitations.

Peter Seebach

Comment [6]

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Starting spamd (and other related fun) using Server.app on OS X

(GeekStuff)

2013-11-03 19:46
Comment

Since my previous blog post on this topic was so useful to me, but slightly obsolete, I’m posting updates. I recently had occasion to rebuild my mail server, and decided to bite the bullet and go with Mavericks plus the new Server.app.

The new Server.app thing is a pretty pathetic replacement for the classic OS X Server, but most of the same stuff can be found under the hood. Eventually.

The SpamAssassin implementation is buried in, and invoked by, amavisd, which means that if you want to run spamc directly, you have to do Something Else. The basic idea from before remains; create a launchd job for the spamd program.

But, there’s changes, because the new system puts server stuff inside Server.app, in Server.app/Contents/ServerRoot. (If you are interested in this post, you probably already know that applications are just directories and can contain all sorts of things, like a partial root filesystem image in this case.) So my new org.spamassassin.spamd.plist looks like this:

<?xml version="1.0" encoding="UTF-8"?>                                                              
<!DOCTYPE plist PUBLIC "-//Apple Computer//DTD PLIST 1.0//EN"                                       
"http://www.apple.com/DTDs/PropertyList-1.0.dtd">                                                   
<plist version="1.0">                                                                               
<dict>                                                                                              
        <key>Label</key>                                                                            
        <string>org.spamassassin.spamd</string>                                                     
        <key>OnDemand</key>                                                                         
        <false/>                                                                                    
        <key>Program</key>                                                                          
        <string>/Applications/Server.app/Contents/ServerRoot/usr/bin/spamd</string>                 
        <key>ProgramArguments</key>                                                                 
        <array>                                                                                     
                <string>-D</string>                                                                 
        </array>                                                                                    
        <key>RunOnLoad</key>                                                                        
        <true/>                                                                                     
</dict>                                                                                             
</plist>

But that turns out not to entirely solve my problem. What I’m trying to do is have a local IMAP server so that I can have fetchmail grab mail from a couple of sources, accumulate it in a single place, and so on. And I want it to be subject to SpamAssassin rules. And because of reasons, I want to also hand it off to procmail for some other filtering. And instead of having procmail run everything through spamc, I can just rely on the fact that local delivery goes through the mail server, and thus through amavisd, right?

Almost right. There’s some configuration changes needed (in /Library/Server/Mail/Config/amavisd/amavisd.conf, which is of course the first place you would look.) First, I wanted SpamAssassin tagging on everything, even boring stuff, so I changed the minimum score needed to produce tags:

$sa_tag_level_deflt  = -999.0;  # add spam info headers if at, or above that level

I would like to point out that “deflt”, here, is a really great example of an abbreviation which does not save enough space to help. I would have called this $sa_tag_minimum_score maybe.

But amavisd is also clever enough not to do tagging on anything that it isn’t delivering locally. Unfortunately, for historical reasons, I am receiving mail for more than one domain, so the To: lines in my email don’t always match. There’s lots of ways to set the list of domains you want, but what I want is to always match everything, because I don’t care what the address is, this mailer only does local delivery and thus everything is always local, period. Amusingly, “period” turns out to be the magic word:

@local_domains_maps = ['.'];

This tells amavisd that everything is local delivery and should get properly processed.

And while I’m at it, the place for custom SpamAssassin rules is local.cf, found in /Library/Server/Mail/Config/spamassassin. Only it’s not there, just a local.cf.default, but you can just create a local.cf and stuff seems to work.

And, speaking of things that took me a while to find: The amavisd job description lives in Server.app/Contents/ServerRoot/System/Library/LaunchDaemons, which is a fascinating bit of history: Normally, /System/Library is used only for the base operating system, while installed apps put their stuff in /Library. But the parts of Server.app which aren’t really intended to be tweaked or modified just live in the place under ServerRoot that they would have been in an OS X Server filesystem. Interesting.

By the way, I’d also like to state for the record that mail server failures are a big hassle.

Peter Seebach

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Why universal health coverage might be cheaper than it looks...

(Politics, Personal)

2013-10-22 16:13
Comment [1]

Been thinking about this for a long time. Medical costs in the US are unreasonably high, for unusually poor results, and that’s been true for a while. But it seems pretty reasonable, at first glance, to assert that providing health coverage for all the people who don’t have it will be pretty expensive.

I think it is likely to be less expensive than it seems, and perhaps more importantly, to produce significant additional funds which could cover those expenses.

A bit of background, since people outside the US often have no idea how strange our system is. In general, medical care in the US is nearly all processed under a “health insurance” model; you buy “coverage” from a company, who then treats it a lot like an insurance product. So, you pay premiums, then if you need things paid for, you pay out some sort of deductible or copay, and they pay the rest. Only, in most cases, you pay only a very small part of the premiums, with the rest paid for by your employer. There are some reasons for which this may not be as insane as it seems at first to most people not from around here, but mostly it’s for historical reasons. As I understand it, back around WWII, the government placed salary caps on hiring, so companies started looking for non-salary ways to improve the deals they were offering people, and “we’ll cover your medical expenses” was one of them.

This produces a lot of very strange outcomes, such as losing health coverage when you lose your job, so we have large and elaborate schemes to allow people to continue their existing health coverage. In general, though, the default has been that if you don’t have a job with health coverage, or a parent (if you’re young) or spouse with health coverage, you have no health coverage, and can’t get any unless you are healthy and considered a “good risk”.

And yes, that really does mean people going without any treatment at all because they can’t afford it, or getting treated and then being bankrupted as a result. Until the 80s, in fact, people would indeed be turned away from emergency rooms or redirected to other hospitals, and die in transit, because they couldn’t pay. So we added a new rule: Emergency rooms have to treat people who have emergency-room type conditions, or women in labor. But this doesn’t specify how that gets paid for. So, in general, people who can’t afford medical care wait until they have something emergency-room worthy, then show up and get very expensive treatment, which they can’t pay for. So the hospital averages those costs up and spreads them to everyone else’s care. Which is to say: Who pays for it is everyone else, indirectly, proportionally to how often they are using hospital or clinic services. And since those costs are in turn often being defrayed over insurance networks, they end up affecting health care premiums.

And a lot of the time, the people involved can’t do anything about it, since they simply can’t get health insurance coverage to begin with.

Enter the “Affordable Care Act”, which is basically modeled on a system that had been used in Massachusetts for a while, only done very badly for a number of political reasons. The basic premise is this: We require insurers to accept anyone, even “bad risks”, and prohibit them from ceasing to cover people who get sick. This solves some of our problems, but then they have the problem that if only sick people buy insurance, the costs go up even faster. So we also mandate that absolutely everyone buys the coverage, so the pool is “the entire population”. This is basically just like what most modern countries do, only we have an extra layer of middle-men taking a cut of the cash flow. But, it’s a thing that allows us to basically expand our existing system rather than overhauling things.

If this works as intended, which isn’t obvious, it’s supposed to reduce costs. One of the ways in which it would do this is increasing the chances that people will get things treated earlier rather than later, and I think that’s quite likely to actually happen. Furthermore, if all the people showing up at emergency rooms do have some kind of coverage, the “overhead” charges from uncovered visits won’t be getting spread around to all the other health care. That might actually work.

But today, on my third day of being too sick to work, I am reminded of another side of this: The side where I think it is likely to increase tax revenues and the general health of our economy. See, people get sick sometimes. Not “have to go to the emergency room” sick, just a general cold or flu or something. And in the US, if you have a lower-end job without health coverage, missing work can get you fired. You might be able to keep your job if you can present a statement from a doctor that you really are sick and need the time to recover, but if you can’t afford to go see a doctor, that doesn’t happen.

Some years back (long before we were married or even in contact with each other), this happened to Jesse. He got a nasty cold in mid-to-late fall, quite a lot like the one I had now. And he tried to get a couple of days off work to recover, and his boss wouldn’t let him. So he’d get one day off, then get told he had to make it in or lose his job the next day. And he’d come in, not yet recovered, and travelling through snowy weather, and get sicker, and this went back and forth until he lost the job. And then became homeless.

And what I’d like to stress here, for the benefit of the people who are so concerned about the costs of this system, is: The cost of our existing system, in that case, was all the taxes that were being paid on his wages over the next couple of months while he tried to recover enough to be able to work and then find a new job. If he’d been able to get to a doctor, get treated, and get the two or three consecutive days off he needed, he would have kept plugging away, with various money from his paychecks going to fund the state and federal governments. Instead, he stopped for quite a while, and consumed social services like food stamps. And that kind of thing sort of adds up over time. And I think people tend to ignore the huge opportunity costs we are paying for not treating illnesses competently and in a timely fashion because we’re too worried about the visible and direct costs.

Me? I work from home, so I worked for about two hours today, then concluded it was unwise to keep standing anymore, so I sent out a couple of emails and went to go do things that are not going to cost my employer money if I screw them up. And they pay my salary for a couple of days, and they don’t worry about whether I have a note from my doctor, and if I do get to the point where I need a doctor, I just go see one, and they keep getting programs and I keep getting money and paying taxes. And everyone wins.

Peter Seebach

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Comment [1]

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FF14: A Realm Reborn. Review/commentary

(GeekStuff)

2013-09-24 15:50
Comment [3]

Overall summary: A fairly good game, with a mix of some really cool things and some spectacular stupidity. The things that are wrong, frequently it’s simply mind-numbing that anyone could possibly have thought this would be okay, or taken the extra time it would take to get them wrong. The things that are right are often quite good.

FF14:ARR is a “reboot” of an existing MMO. FF14’s initial launch was summarized pretty well as “catgirls are adorable, rest of the game is bad”. The new game is much, much, better. Overall, I think it’s a pretty good game with a lot of potential.

There are things Square is doing that work well. There are things they are doing that do not work well. There are things that really don’t make any sense at all. For instance, consider the spam problem. Companies that sell in-game stuff for money (a plague everywhere) infest FF14, and they spam. A lot. In major cities, you may get 2-3 messages a second from them. Why, you ask, is there no chat throttle to prevent a single player from sending that many messages? Well, there is. But the chat throttle has been implemented with extra code to take the time to confirm not only that you are sending a lot of messages, but that they’re identical. So the spammer send out messages with four letters appended at the end, and nothing stops them.

That’s basically characteristic of the sorts of things that go wrong in FF14; the developers have not only gotten stuff wrong, but they’ve often done so in ways that required substantial effort over and above what it would have taken to not get them wrong.

FF14 is true to the heritage of Final Fantasy. The first time I played the game, it was roughly ten minutes from when I first got told I was entering the game world to when I was able to move my character. Final Fantasy games love their cut scenes. And that one is unskippable, because partway through it you get asked a question that determines which of several minor and not very important items of equipment you get. And, this being a Final Fantasy game, that’s the last significant choice you get to make for a very long time.

On the other hand, the resulting storytelling is frankly pretty excellent compared to most MMOs. The writing is mostly good, and some of the writing for side quests is unexpectedly brilliant. The quests tie things together well, and are very well structured; the running around meeting people and doing things for each city to teach you where things are is well done.

The biggest weakness this system produces, by far, is that it is a huge pain to unlock even the most basic functionality of the game. Personal storage other than your own inventory, like a “bank” or whatever? Locked behind story quest, you won’t see it until you’re somewhere around level 15-20. A way to sell things to other players? Locked behind the same story quest. So until then, your inventory just sort of fills up, and you haven’t got any options but selling stuff to vendors for a pittance.

FF14 uses its own names for a lot of things for no obvious reason. Repeatable quests aren’t quests, they’re “leves”, unless they’re for multiple players, in which case they’re “hests”. The “cooldown” (how long before you can re-use a power) is called “recast”. This isn’t a huge problem, but it can be a bit confusing at first.

The game feels slow, and really, it is. The “global cooldown” (the standard interval between using an ability and the next time you can use an ability) is 2.5 seconds. Most games I’ve played that used a GCD-based model had it at 1.5 seconds, or even 1. 2.5 is a long time, and you can’t queue your next ability until quite close to the end. And worse, from a gameplay standpoint, “off-GCD” abilities (those that can be used during that 2.5 second delay) have their own cooldown and can’t be used immediately before or after a regular ability. This is because the game restricts a lot of things based on having animations complete, rather than interrupting them.

As you might expect, that indicates a serious focus on pretty, and here, FF14 delivers. It’s gorgeous, and it plays pretty smoothly. At least on my gaming machines, it performs better than Rift did (admittedly prior to the major performance tweaks in Rift’s 2.4 patch) and looks a great deal better. But that’s not just technical merit; FF14 has excellent art direction and the world is just plain awesome to look at. To compare to other games: FF14 has more detailed and realistic graphics than most of the other games I’ve seen, but has more consistent art direction and style than anything else out there except maybe WoW. It works very well.

Class system: Every character can learn every class. You have to level your first class to level 10 and complete a special quest before you can start taking other classes, but then you can take all of them if you want. Each class has a series of quests (roughly one every five levels) which tell some sort of story and try to teach you things about the class’s play style. You can also use a limited number of abilities from other classes (though each ability may have some restrictions on which classes can use it). At higher levels, there are “jobs”, which are specialized sub-classes you unlock by getting one class to level 30, another to level 15, and then completing a special quest. Jobs have much more restrictive options for cross-class skills, and are intended for party play, where you can focus on a specialized role. Less flexible than a system like Rift’s, but much more flexible than what many MMOs offer.

Gathering and crafting: The gathering and crafting in FF14 are huge and detailed compared to most MMOs. There are 3 gathering classes, and 8 crafting classes. And they are classes, not side-projects; you level them from 1-50, same as any other class, and doing so requires a great deal of time and effort. It’s also comparatively fun, if you are interested in that sort of thing, and quite rewarding; you can make a fair bit of money, and you can save a huge amount of money with crafted gear rather than purchased gear.

Travel: Pretty restricted at first (you have to make it some ways in the story quest before you get access to other cities, and thus to the classes that have their guilds in those cities), but not too awful. You can teleport to known locations from anywhere, you don’t have to reach one of the teleport points to do so. There’s also much slower, and much cheaper, travel through birds. (Player-controlled mounts, like everything else, are locked behind story quests; you have to make it through about 20 levels and several dungeons to get to them.)

Community: There’s no global channels, but there are pretty decent tools for player-moderated channels (with inexplicably low limits of 128 players to a channel). People are mostly pretty friendly. Part of this may be that Square has a pretty good history of being willing to take firm action against hostile behavior in their player base; I met one user who said he got a ten-day ban from their forums for “calling someone an idiot for crying”. I’m inclined to view that as a big positive.

Overall: If you enjoy fantasy MMOs, this is a pretty good one. It has some fairly severe limitations, for now, but they claim to be working on many things. It’s still pretty fun to play.

Assuming Square continues working on this and continues listening to feedback (something they’ve been quite good about so far), it seems likely that this will be an exceptional game. My biggest reservation is their stance that they would rather shut it down than consider a F2P or hybrid model — I don’t think that’s economically sane, in general. But they can probably make it work for quite a few years.

Peter Seebach

Comment [3]

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A mismatch of visions

(GeekStuff)

2013-08-08 17:15
Comment [1]

I’ve been, historically, a pretty big fan of Rift. I like the game. I like the developers. And throughout most of the last two and a half years, I have felt that the Rift team have earned a certain amount of trust. They make mistakes, but they fix them. In general.

But throughout that time, the Rift team has tended to disregard problems with the player community. And as long as this was merely not taking action, or taking action too slowly, I could mostly handwave it away, although I’ve posted my share of complaints about it. But this week, it moved past into new territory: Taking action which actively rewards griefers and punishes legitimate players. And that is a thing I am not able to handwave away.

The problems, as I see it, are:

  1. Trion tends to keep actions taken about community problems secret, so players in general cannot know whether there is any enforcement.
  2. The enforcement we do see is visibly ineffectual in most cases.
  3. These states persist despite many players pointing them out, and raising concerns about them.
  4. There is no discussion of this from Trion employees, so we can’t even tell whether they’re happy with things as they are, or don’t know how to fix them, or have ideas but not the resources to fix them. There’s essentially no feedback at all.

So throughout the last couple of years, the one recurring sore spot has been that in general, griefers and harassers get to do whatever they want. Trion might occasionally issue temporary bans. It may even be that they issue permanent bans. But for the most part, if you identify a troll or griefer in the game, you can be confident that they will continue making life unpleasant for other players for as long as they want, with no visible consequences.

If it were just a few trolls, that wouldn’t be such a big deal. The problem is the side-effects. This becomes a broken-windows problem. Users see that the game clearly tolerates a fair amount of trollish and abusive behavior. The users who might or might not be trollish or abusive tend to become more trollish and abusive. The users who don’t like abusive behavior tend to leave. So over time, players who would prefer a more friendly community tend to be driven out, and players who think the point of online interaction is to get a rise out of people tend to congregate.

This results in what appears to be a fairly high turnover rate, because the usual barrier to hopping around from one game to another is community engagement, and Rift is not an environment conducive to such engagement. It could be, quite easily. There’s a lot of really nice folks there. But as long as they are being driven out of the public channels by aggressive trolls, it’s not going to really work that well.

Up until this week, though, at least I could say that the game itself stayed good. Rules and policies were set in ways that were clearly considered and based around what made for a good game experience.

Since Rift launched, Trion’s official stance on playing multiple accounts at once (multiboxing) has been that multiboxing is allowed. There have, of course, always been complaints; any time anyone does anything unusual, there will be complaints. By and large, the complaints are mostly highly emotive, and unfounded. Here’s a sample of complaints (one an exact quote from something a player said):

  • Multiboxers are unstoppable and other players can’t beat them.
  • Multiboxers are weak and guarantee a loss for their team.
  • Multiboxers are using multiboxing to send spam.
  • Multiboxers are used by gold farmers to farm resources.
  • Multiboxers are using the report-AFK feature to kick people out of matches.
  • “The thing is, multiboxing mentality is literally 2 degrees from a rapist’s mentality. The only difference is that the victims are virtual and it’s not illegal. Technically.”

You might notice that two of these complaints directly contradict each other. The others don’t fare much better; fundamentally, these complaints don’t make sense when evaluated as claims about the actual impact of multiboxing on the game. What these complaints show is that people are outraged and not quite sure why, so they make up whatever sounds like it would be bad and say it about multiboxing.

So, Trion did the obvious thing: They suddenly disabled a key game feature, without which multiboxing is no longer practical for users who want to obey the game’s other rules. No warning, and no explanation or rationale, just an announcement that this has been done and maybe players could give feedback. The problem I have with this is that the people complaining have, as a general rule, been offering complaints which were incoherent at best, and frequently simply dishonest. So, Trion has just sent a clear new message about policy: As of now, personal animosity and outright lies are a winning argument. If you want to hurt other players badly enough, we’ll help.

This isn’t to say there might not be good arguments that would lead to that conclusion. I’ve even advanced one, although I personally don’t think it’s strong enough to justify a change. A post explaining the reasons for the decision, and the tradeoff, and acknowledging the harm to legitimate players, might well be acceptable. But without that, the message is that either the arguments already presented are compelling, or the arguments are irrelevant. And since the arguments presented are, by and large, mutually exclusive or incoherent, that’s a bad thing in either case.

It might seem strange that I am simultaneously unhappy that Trion took action on some complaints, and unhappy that they are slow to take action, or just don’t take action, on others. The key distinction is that I think it matters whether things are true. In the case of griefers and harassers, there is solid supporting evidence and argumentation for the claim that ignoring this problem has made the game substantially worse for large numbers of people. In the multiboxing case, the vast majority of arguments presented aren’t even arguments, they’re just expressions of personal contempt.

I’ve known a few of the active multiboxers in Rift. (I personally occasionally dual-box, but I don’t PvP, so these changes have no direct impact at all on anything I do.) I have consistently found them to be friendly and supportive players, who are competent at the game and always happy to help others. And Trion has just said that those users are unwelcome, but the people who were telling lies and name-calling to try to win a point are welcome. Which comes back to my basic complaint: Trion shows no signs of having any preference at all between players who try to make the community better, and players who try to make it worse.

What do I think Trion should do? A few things:

  1. Acknowledge that griefing is a problem, and that the solution to systematic harassment or griefing is not “oh, just ignore them”.
  2. Develop some kind of protocol for dealing with the tiny handful of highly persistent trolls.
  3. Come up with some way to act more quickly on trolls. Yes, it is expensive to deal with things quickly. It may be more expensive to deal with all the secondary effects and fallout from not dealing with them. Certainly, it is more disruptive to the players waiting for something to happen.
  4. Find a way to give users real feedback on what’s being done. There is no obvious need for a policy of never discussing policy-related actions, and there’s a lot of very obvious downsides to it.
  5. If there’s a lot of really hostile and dishonest behavior coming from a group of users, and you come to think that you really should do what those users want, clearly distance that outcome from their behavior.
  6. More generally, talk more about the community, not just the game rules. Acknowledge that the player base is an important part of what makes people play an MMO or leave it, and talk about what you want to see in the community.

I think that last one may be the most important. All I know is that I don’t like the changes I see. I can’t say whether I would like what the Trion devs intend or want for their community, because they never talk about that.

Either way, it’s harder to get confidence back than to build it in the first place.

Peter Seebach

Comment [1]

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The most important person you know

(Personal)

2013-07-29 10:06
Comment [2]

You never actually thought you’d meet them, of course. I mean, who would expect to? I mean, really, we all like to think we’re important, but we know that we’re just not that important, that we will never rate the attention of the truly great ones. So at first, it just seemed like they were a little rude. Maybe a little dismissive of other people. Who would have guessed, though, that you’d actually met the one person in the world whose time is the most valuable?

Of course, they never actually tell you that. Their time is too valuable to waste explaining how valuable it is. So they just ignore questions he doesn’t have time to answer. When they ask questions, they’re quick to express their disappointment that other people are under the mistaken impression that they have more important things to do than answer those questions. And if the answers aren’t detailed enough, they don’t waste their ever-so-valuable time researching, or thinking, or even articulating specifically what they’re missing. A simple “?” will suffice; the experienced user will usually know what is wrong.

It’s easy to mistake them for a troll, frankly, because their complete disregard for social niceties, or the notion that other people might have more important tasks, seems outright irrational if you don’t know who they are. It can take a while to realize just how blessed you are by their presence. Sadly, some people may not ever really figure it out. And that’s why I’m making this post. Because you know them, and the next time you meet them, you’ll recognize them.

Peter Seebach

Comment [2]

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