Journal Archives - November 16-30, 2000
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November 16, 2K ... There's a fascination to role-playing games that goes beyond the visceral thrill of guiding an avatar through fantastic perils. Role-playing games blur the line between fantasy and reality. This has long been recognized, and often attacked, but I think those who focus on it miss the point of RPGs entirely: that they blur the line between reality and fantasy.
Face it. When you sit down with a bunch of dice, moving little metallic figures around a table, laughing and joking with your friends/"adventuring companions", you know you're playing a game. When your ninth-level fighter takes a flying leap at a basilisk, dodges both of its claw attacks, and cleanly severs its head, you know you'd never be able to do that in real life. But when you go home after the gaming session, idly pick up three tennis balls, and toss them into the air, you think, "I wonder what my juggling skill is?"
The underacknowledged lure of role-playing games is that we start thinking of ourselves as characters. Read that carefully: NOT that we start thinking of ourselves as "our characters" -- confusing the game's player with the game character; NOT that we start thinking of ourselves as capable of the game's abuses of reality -- confusing our observations of the world with a fictitious setting; but that we start classifying our own skills, personality, and capacities in terms of the game system. A simple proof: Ask any gamer the question, "What's your alignment?" They'll have a ready answer. (Mine's chaotic good, never mind what Erin says.)
Why? What's the lure of filling in a character sheet with our honest approximations of ourselves? Why do so many gamers have, tucked away in some old binder, a sheet of paper telling them what they could do if carted away to the game system's alternate reality? I think it has to do with the epistemological nature of gaming -- how RPGs at the same time cater to two of our most deeply held, opposing desires.
The first is our desire to pigeonhole the universe, to live in a world perfectly described. Look at the efforts of the last two century's scientists. Look at the wild growth of materialism (up until Heisenberg and QM upset the apple cart, anyway). Look at religions throughout time, too. We want the security of being able to point to a phenomenon, any phenomenon, and say, "I know why that happened." We want a world where every question has an answer, every interaction a resolution.
RPGs in and of themselves don't lend themselves well to this desire; characters go through far more weirdness than we ever could, and explanations aren't always forthcoming. But the foundation, the premise, of RPGs is that even people are just blocks of numbers. Something as complex as a human can be broken down into statistics. One of materialism's great failures is explaining the human condition, so RPGs' "answers" fill a void that our knowledge about the universe can't touch: They tell us how to reduce ourselves to numbers.
The second desire that RPGs address is our need for free will. This, really, is the reef upon which materialists always foundered: If we are nothing more than the sum of our physical parts, if the universe follows certain absolute rules, then our actions can be perfectly predicted by anyone with enough knowledge. In other words, we can be scripted. Programmed, like computers. Pure materialism says that free will is an illusion. The human condition is to refuse this idea; we want to believe in our ability to control our own lives.
That's where RPGs shine: Despite being nothing more than bundles of abstract numbers, RPG characters have total freedom. No matter how ludicrous, how against character type, an action, the statistics don't prevent it from happening. They merely influence the chances of success. And no statistic can tell you what your character thinks and feels -- even alignment isn't a predictor of actions, only overall tendencies. Every character, at any time, has the ability to make any choice that their player can live with the consequences of.
Small wonder, then, that RPGs have captured our imaginations to such extent. Self-definition and self-liberation in one tidy package. All that, and they're darned neat games, too.
November 17, 2K ... One of the questions in Form 27b/6 asked, "What is the status of a proposition which is believed by every real, thinking being?" I hit an interesting conclusion about this question. Namely, that all such propositions are true. Provably so.
You heard me: As long as everybody believes something, it's OK. If every person in the universe thought "Murder is good," murder would indeed be good. Collective choice is sufficient to create an absolute. (Of course, whether we really have a "choice" is another matter entirely; I assume free will, but it's not necessary to the equation.) In another vein, if absolutely everybody believes the earth is a flat plane on the back of four elephants standing on a tortoise, you'd better watch out around the edges. In matters of absolutes, belief solely determines physical reality.
This may sound ludicrous, but bear with me here; the proof is simple. Take a proposition, A, which everybody believes. (I.e., "For every person p in the set of people P, p believes that statement A is true.") Now assume that in "some objective way" A is actually false. That murder is bad, or the earth is round, or whatever.
Now stop and think for a second: Where is this counter-argument against A coming from? Who's making the argument that A is false? A person. Some p in the set P. Therefore, our assumption has led to a contradiction with the original statement (that all p in P believe A), so A cannot be false if everyone believes it.
This little exercise in logic is rather fanciful, as I doubt there's a single thing that even merely the 6 billion humans on Earth all agree on. Perhaps the existence of the sun, or gravity, or something equally mundane. Probably not. Either way, I should also point out that this proof is completely inapplicable to topics on which there is any dissent in the slightest. If 6 billion people minus one believe in the sun, it's pretty damn certain that it's there, but you can't prove (or disprove) it from the above.
That's why the next two questions on Form 27b/6 are the interesting ones.
November 18, 2K ... I am, as I write this, 33,000 feet above the surface of our beloved Mother. I will be, by the time I post this on Tomorrowlands, in California for the weekend, visiting my beloved mother. (And father, and younger sister, and aging pooch.) There will be plenty of opportunity to describe the weekend in the BWND, but some elements of my travel are worth noting.
Our trip of some 630 nautical miles, I was informed by the captain over the plane's intercom shortly before takeoff (isn't it appropriate that a pilot known as a "captain" would use the measurement of nautical miles?), would last shortly over an hour and a half. Taking into account the slight tailwind they also mentioned, our aircraft's engines are propelling it through the air at approximately 400 miles per hour. I've always kind of wondered about that. Now I (and you) know.
Four hundred miles away, if my laptop's clock is accurate, lies a parking garage, around which the Sea-Tac airport clusters. That parking garage contains a car which could have brought me to the Bay Area, albeit six and a half times slower and requiring constant attention to the road. For the privilege of that sixfold speed increase, I paid $108.00; for the privilege of leaving my car at the airport, I will be charged $36.00. Jyhanhen's tooth. Next time I'm taking the bus.
I did, in fact, ride the bus home from the airport on the last occasion I flew to California and bax. That was when I attended BayCon many months ago. I had with me a back-breakingly huge duffel bag, a merely huge travel bag, and two stuffed backpacks. Struggling to walk to and from the bus terminals was bad enough -- but just to make the experience more perverse, the heavens decided to open up that night with a downpour so severe that Noah would have felt nostalgic. However, BayCon was a four-day-weekend trip, and I have to say that the two hours of transportation hell was still worth the $72.
Happily, I have nowhere near that much gear on this trip. In fact, the entirety of my luggage -- including the laptop on which I write this -- fits in one fairly small backpack. I still can't process that information. When I threw the bag into the car this morning; when I arrived at the airport; when I walked through the security checkpoint; when I got on the flight and took my seat ... I felt strangely naked. Where the hell is the rest of my stuff? I keep panicking, thinking I've left something behind. I think this is the first trip I've ever taken, ever, with just a single bag.
I suspect I should have taken even less, had I been thinking straight. But I kept freaking out last night while I was packing. My line of thought: "The bag's not full. What am I missing?"
November 20, 2K ... The Baxil Weekly Name-Drop: When Mom and Dad met me at the airport Friday night, they were wearing matching black outfits, sunglasses, and deadpan expressions. It took me a second or two to catch the "Matrix" reference, but boy, was it a pleasant surprise. My parents are cool.
We drove home, caught up, and went outside to stare at the skies. Mom told me that there was a meteor shower that night, and in fact, we did see a large white light streak across the sky. You don't really realize how much you've missed the stars until you leave Seattle and can see them again.
On Saturday, I ate what promises to be the first in a long string of Thanksgiving dinners. This one was fairly interesting because my sister Sarah is a vegetarian. We did have turkey, and some Greek stuffing (a mixture of rice, nuts, meat and spices), but most of the meal was vegetable-based. I enjoyed it immensely, anyway; my mom is a great cook.
After eating, we played some cards, and I challenged my sister to a few matches of Super Mario Kart, for old time's sake. I kicked her butt on Rainbow Road and Vanilla Lake, and got equally humiliated in the Ghost House. It was a fun nostalgia trip.
After that, we headed out to Tracy, where Sarah's high school was staging a production of Shakespeare's Merry Wives of Windsor. (Sarah was the play's stage manager.) I have to admit that I wasn't expecting much out of the play -- since when can high schoolers handle material with the depth and strange language of Shakespeare? -- but the troupe left me pleasantly surprised. The first half wasn't much to write home about -- the play itself was slow, and at times it was difficult to tell what was going on -- but the cast seemed to catch fire in the second half, once the real action started. They milked the physical humor and the situational comedy for all it was worth. (I'm reminded of the scene where two servants carry a basket containing Falstaff, a portly individual, out of the house; the servants were struggling to slide the basket across the floor, which provoked quite a few laughs from the audience.) It was quite a memorable play.
Sunday morning, my folks saw me off, and after a short plane ride, I returned home. I spent the day resting. I should probably do that more often.
If you've got a graphical browser, go open up http://www.nd.edu/~lkou/computer.html. Well, actually, don't. It'll scar you. Well, actually, if you don't go, this post will make no sense, so go check it out. But don't say I didn't warn you.
This leads us to Lessons of Good Page Design, Part Three. ("Three" was arbitrarily chosen. I haven't written "one" or "two" yet, so don't bother looking for them.) You'd think they'd be obvious, but judging by pages like the above, maybe not ...:
Don't use moving background images. As a famous sage once said: "Wrong, wrong, wrong."
Don't make background images the same color as the body text. Unless you're trying to drive people to use Lynx.
Don't frame without reason. No, no, let me change that: Don't frame without good reason. Making sure that I have a "Hello, Neo" animated GIF flashing in the upper left hand corner of every page I read is NOT a "good reason." And five pages doth not an index frame need.
These are not exactly earth-shattering design principles here, which leads me to the moral of this story, I suppose. That being, READ YOUR OWN PAGES. Ten seconds of, "Gee, that's distracting, maybe I should take it out" can save you years of mockery from people you don't even know.
Class dismissed. Here's your homework assignment: What's wrong with his college exactly that they're not teaching a computer science major to debug his code?
November 23, 2K ...
I am thankful for free will.
November 24, 2K ... They say that insanity is hereditary: You inherit it from your children. <drum beat> Apparently, though, it's not alone.
I was awoken this morning by a phone call from my mom. Erin brought the phone into the room, saying something about my father being in the hospital. This isn't generally good news, of course, but I was extremely concerned because my dad has had his share of heart problems in the past. Atrial fibrillation is like an earthen dam: It erodes you, little by little, and every once in a while enough dirt is knocked loose that a sinkhole forms and a whole section collapses at once. Usually you can repair the damage before the dam washes out, but you always wonder if, next time, that sinkhole is going to be just big enough that the whole system fails despite your best efforts.
But it wasn't a heart problem that sent him to the in-patient ward. It was appendicitis.
You have to understand, I had appendicitis when I was in high school. It wasn't pleasant. Among other travails, I arrived at the hospital so badly dehydrated that it took them half an hour to find a vein for the IV. And then there was the operating-table trauma ... which I won't repeat here, since it's a pretty brutal story. Anyway, I convalesced for over a week.
From what I understand, Dad got taken in before some of the complications I suffered could develop, but it was still pretty hard on him. (The appendix hadn't burst, but it leaked a little, and so the doctors decided to keep watching him for a few days. He's in the hospital now, recovering, and probably will be there for the rest of the weekend.) And I'm thinking, with some small measure of morbid humor, that my own appendicitis six and a half years ago relates somehow. That, like insanity, he picked it up from one of his children, and that it just took over three times as many years to develop.
Late-stage appendicitis is not fun. If diseases can get passed up the family tree, I suppose it's a good thing that all of my grandparents are already dead; I wouldn't wish it on them.
Anyway. If any of you (my readers) know my father, and want to cheer up his convalescence with a phone call, please drop me a line and I'll give you his number at the hospital.
November 26, 2K ... Whew. It's been a rough week, journal-wise. In between my visit to California and the access troubles early in the week and Thanksgiving and a weekend of solid role-playing, I'm surprised I managed to say anything at all. Fortunately, things seem to be calming down.
I don't really have anything to say today. Except that I seem to be awfully good at not feeling like shit. Sometimes, very occasionally, this surprises me. Sometimes, very occasionally, I remember that I have quite a lot to feel shitty about.
November 27, 2K ... The Baxil Weekly Name-Drop: It was a long Thanksgiving weekend. Where do I start? With the turkeys who gave their lives for any of the three feasts I partook in? With my father, who (as previously recorded) checked into the hospital on Thanksgiving (of all days), with appendicitis (of all diseases)? With everyone who's written me a letter lately that I haven't responded to, including most of my college roommates?
I would like to note that Dad is home from the hospital. Fortunately, he went home early Sunday afternoon. Hospitals are not exactly great places to be cooped up in. (Especially once post-op pain is factored into the equation.) Now he's at home, taking it easy, getting plenty of sleep and eating a few pills once in a while, and in general, recuperating in a far more spiritually positive atmosphere. I don't think people give enough credit to the healing power of familiar ground.
Aside from the odd crisis, the weekend was in fact marked by several notable occurrences. For one, I ate. (Along with the rest of America, so it's not particularly noticeable in that sense; but the whole overconsumption-of-turkey thing is pretty distinctive compared to the rest of the year, no?) As if last weekend's early Thanksgiving with the parents wasn't enough, I also had a meal on the day proper over at Dave's place (complete with two types of meat and potatoes au gratin), and a third feast at home -- a purely in-house affair -- highlighted by a succulent roast. I feel compelled to say something about Thanksgiving being a unique metaphor for America, what with all of the overeating and the half-acknowledged yet unprecedented prosperity, and the transition from a real holiday into a "start of the Christmas shopping season" landmark ... but, you know, it's probably that sort of heavy-handed over-editorializing that killed Ambrose Bierce. (Actually, it was probably something like dyspepsia, but who's counting?)
The other thing that I did a great deal of during this weekend was role-playing. Dave, Kris, Will, Ness, and I spent most of the weekend proper (which is to say, Friday night and all day Saturday) over at Dave's playing AD&D. We created some 10th-level characters -- which is to say, adventurers who've been around the block a few times -- and started stampeding through some high-level adventure involving trying to find the hoard of a recently deceased dragon so that we could use the wealth to save our kingdom from imminent destruction.
I learned many things from this weekend's play. Firstly, high-level characters in 3rd Ed. are brutal. Every member of our party did some serious ass-kicking. Secondly, high-level barbarian/clerics are even more brutal. That would be my character, Unglar -- the guy with the greatsword who worships the god of strength. Thirdly, that high-level barbarian/clerics with natural strengths of 20 are just SICK. (Half-orcs get a +2 racial bonus; I picked up an 18 on a streak of sweet die rolls.) Did I say 20? Oh, did I mention that my character was a cleric of the god of strength? I can cast a spell daily that lasts for eight hours and gives me an average of a +4 bonus to that. Did I mention the barbarian bit? Once a day, he can "rage" for another +4 bonus. Meaning, my average damage with a pair of chopsticks is higher than the average damage of a normal man with a greatsword. Naturally, this character wielded the latter rather than the former; I was the party's combat monster.
As a direct result of this, I also learned: Bad guys are not stupid. When faced with the choice of (A) attacking a huge, strapping half-orc barbarian, and (B) attacking the party's spellcaster, they'll choose B. I think I took the least cumulative damage of anyone in our party, despite charging headlong into combat anytime an opportunity presented itself.
We engaged and defeated, at one point, a dragon. (I'll tangent on this below.) As our party's high-level cleric (aren't multi-class characters sweet?), I got the bright idea, "Hey. We're searching for a dragon's hoard, right? Now, nobody knows where the hoard is that we're supposed to be finding. But we've got a dead dragon right here, one which has a hoard off somewhere else, which presumably is of roughly equal value. And I've got Speak with Dead! Let's just ask this dragon where its hoard is, instead of stumbling around looking for that other dragon's treasure!" Alas, the corpse made its roll to resist my spell; it would have been quite the idea, had it worked.
It may seem odd to some of you that my reaction to "slaying a dragon" in an RPG would be so blase. After all, I'm one, right? So how could I take so lightly such unprovoked aggression against my race, blah blah, etc.? Well, the short answer is that ... it's just a game. I don't play it to kill dragons, of course; I play it to slip into the role of the character who is described by the statistics and concepts on the sheet of paper in front of me. That character happens to be in a situation where directed violence is an acceptable (even profitable) answer, and those who stand in the way of his goals are, more often than not, nonhuman. AD&D is a game of metaphysical wish fulfillment, and that fulfillment comes in the form of having a persona who can control -- i.e., dominate; i.e., destroy -- the outside world. Who holds power over the strange and unknown. The context of the actions you take in the game are as important as the actions themselves.
The subtler answer to that question, of course ...: Have you ever watched a group of human role-players as they adventure? What's their attitude toward human antagonists?
Sometimes, thankfully, the race card just ain't a trump.
November 29, 2K ... I am sick today. I'm fighting vertigo just to sit at the computer and type; I spent ten minutes this morning not quite vomiting. I'm wrapped up in warm clothes and have been trying to force Saltines down my throat to stay fed. Euuugh. When you've got a dry mouth to begin with, Saltines just get downright disgusting after the first two.
Needless to say, I'm not particularly inspired. Don't expect much out of the journal for the next day or two.
November 30, 2K ...
I believe that you can measure the fundamental dogmatism of an era or culture by their opinion on Don Quixote. Not specific dogmatism -- how wedded they are to one particular belief about reality -- but dogmatism in general, or how ingrained the idea of "don't question societal assumptions" is. It's a great litmus test, because it's one of the few things on which Christian Fundamentalists, humorless scientists, and pedantic bureaucrats can all agree. "Yeah, it's a story about this schizophrenic loser who gets beat up a lot. He needs to get his head out of the clouds and face reality."
At the other extreme, you have, for example, the American West 'round about the time of the Gold Rush, in the mid-1800s. They had a living, breathing Don Quixote. His name was "Emperor Norton." He actually proclaimed himself Emperor of San Francisco ... and the city went along with it. He was one of California's most colorful figures while he lived, and from what I've been able to glean from historical records, was quite the popular guy; but a less forgiving, more "realistic" time would simply have had him thrown into the nuthouse.
It has been my experience that dogmatic individuals completely fail to perceive The Don's heroic qualities. He's got dedication, courage, compassion, and a completely unwavering sense of purpose -- but no, he's Just Some Schizophrenic Loser Who Gets Beat Up A Lot. He could be friggin' Mother Teresa or Gandhi for all they care; but let him walk down the street just once, say "Oh ho! Tis the Knights of the Round! How now, fellows?" and get attacked by a street gang, and suddenly he's JSSLWGBUAL.
Individuals with less calcified brains, on the other hand, see his beauty as a person -- his great strength of character, his total dedication -- and realize that, after compensating for his rather unique view of reality, Quixote is a hero. Within his own frame of reference, he always did the right thing. Even outside of it, his misadventures often did as much good as harm.
If anything, his biggest sin is the same as that of his detractors -- he failed to acknowledge that there could be other ways of looking at reality other than his own. There's quite a touch of the ironic in that.
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