Review: Volume

I really love physics puzzle video games.   The general pattern for physics puzzlers is that you have a fairly small set of tools that alter some fundamental law, like gravity, and you use them to get to the other side of the room.  The puzzles are quite separate from each other, and there is no metapuzzle.  You walk into a chamber, you solve the puzzle, you walk out.  None of this wondering if you’re did the puzzle wrong or it’s just a tree you walked in to, no metagame (I’m looking at you, The Witness.  Either be a book of mazes or have a story, doing neither is annoying), just a puzzle to solve with a little reward pellet when you’re done.  I have enough things in my day where it’s not even clear if I’m solving the correct problem, I don’t need that from my leisure activities.

The example you’re most likely to be familiar with is Portal.

But my favorite is Thomas Was Alone, a game about rectangles making friends.

Thomas Was Alone uses a couple of my favorite themes, including disparate people (rectangles) bonding together to solve a problem, and entwined moral and practical leveling up.  The puzzle solving of using different rectangles to get them all where they need to go becomes a metaphor for social cooperation in really impressive ways.  It is the first game I ever went through to get the collectibles not because I wanted the reward pellet from getting 100% completion, but just because I wanted to spend more time in the world.  So you can imagine my excitement when I found out the creator, Tom Bithell, had a new game coming out, and by coming out I mean came out a year and a half ago and was in a Humble Bundle, because I am not super up on my video game releases.

Story wise, Volume is no Thomas Was Alone, and I think that’s true even accounting for the facts that I was playing during a truly awful week, and Thomas was Alone‘s story couldn’t have targeted me better if it tried.  If you removed the story from both Volume is clearly the better the game, but part of what made Thomas Was Alone work was the superb integration between story and mechanics, so that’s not really fair.

But Volume‘s gameplay is excellent.  You play a thief playing a AI-driven simulation of stealing  (but are also actually stealing? To be honest I wasn’t paying attention.   Oh, apparently you’re simulating it to show other people how to steal and then they do?  That explains the moralizing at the end) from people who totally deserve it.  If you filmed the results it would look a lot like a wireframe of a Bugs Bunny Cartoons.  Guards can only see in a very prescribed area, so often the best thing to do walk directly behind them.  If you enter their line of sight they will chase you, but if you leave it for long enough they will give up, which led to a couple of really entertaining chases where I ran around columns perfectly opposite them until they gave up.  The game pokes fun at the simplifications it made- “I didn’t have the money to illustrate a bunch of objects so just pretend each of these identical gems is something different”, “Yes, transporters are impossible, but stairs are hard to code please just go with it.”

You’re given a variety of tools to manipulate the guards, like a bugle to create sound far away from you, and a way to generate a ghost of you running away so the guards will chase it (this one is a mixed blessing because it makes the guards more vigilant).  The tools vary dramatically in entertainment value: I found the stun gun was no fun at all, because it removed the need for planning.  Encounter a problem?  Shoot it.  It doesn’t even take that long to recharge.  But the stunning tripwire was fantastic.  Figuring out where to place it so you have as much time to run past the guard to your goal as possible and then lure them to it without getting shot is hard.

Like Thomas Was Alone and unlike every other puzzle game I’ve ever played, I completed Volume without once looking at a walkthrough.  For Thomas this was pretty clearly because the puzzles were easy; for Volume I think it’s at least partly really excellent design.  I didn’t know how to solve everything right away, but I always had more ideas of things to try.  None of this staring at a brick wall wondering what the hell I’m supposed to do (I’m looking at you Fez).

If I had one complaint about Volume that wasn’t about the lack of the magic of friendship, it would be that you don’t get enough time with any one mechanic.  I wish the game had had more confidence that the puzzles were fun and it didn’t need to keep feeding me novelty.  Luckily there is an ecosystem of user-made levels that I can only assume solves this exact problem.

So I heartily recommend Volume.  While I’m at it, if you like this type of game you’ll probably love Swapper, which might be more fun mechanically than even Portal and has narrative/mechanic integration to rival Thomas Was Alone, although this time the narrative is about watching your body die horribly over and over again, which is somewhat easier to represent in gameplay.  And for people like me who will enjoy even mid-tier representatives of the genre, Q.U.B.E is totally adequate.


Some thoughts on The Power Broker (Robert Caro)

The Power Broker is a biography of Robert Moses.  Moses had a variety of job titles over the years (parks commissioner, highway commissioner, construction coordinator), but none of them give a really accurate sense of what he did.  The short version is: he is the reason New York City looks the way it does.  Also he built the Niagra Falls damn, but you’d barely know that from reading the book.  For a 1400 page book it leaves out weirdly large parts of his life.

The Power Broker is a libertarian horror story.  Robert Moses decides he wants some land, uses an obscure clause of state law that was only ever intended for remote forests, and claims a bunch of people’s homes.  Their punishment for failing to give him the land when he asked is that they’re banned from even retrieving their belongings from their home, and for state troopers to literally use their house for target practice.  Later in his career he condemns dense city blocks in poor but socially thriving neighborhoods in order to build highways.  And then he manipulates the concept of public authorities so that he has the funding and freedom of a private business but the power of the government.

It’s also a progressive horror story.  There’s the “condemning thriving, often minority, neighborhoods”.  There’s “he kneecapped public transit, schools, and hospitals in order to fund more highways” and “he built bridges over the Island Parkways too low for busses to pass through, explicitly to keep out poor people”.   And then there’s the petty stuff like, in one of the few parks he deigned to build in a black neighborhood (out of hundreds he built), the design motif was monkeys.

Conservatives probably weren’t too happy with him either, given the many billions of dollars he spent on public works.  Say what you want about the guy, he was nonpartisan.

One of the problems with 1st world aid to developing countries is neither the populace nor the government has a ton of control over it.  The people making the decisions lack local knowledge, and the people with local knowledge aren’t given much choice.  They can maybe make a couple of suggestions,and of course they could say no, but mostly the NGO is going to build what they want to build, and if it’s better than nothing you take it.

[Some exceptions:  Tostan spends months finding out what participants want, and of course GiveDirectly gives the most fungible good of all, cash.]

[Originally I was going to cite Tostan for increasing both the amount participants pay in taxes and what they demand from their government, which had been verbally reported to me.  However this turned out to be anecdotal and there are no hard numbers.]

Robert Moses had more or less the same set up in one of the first-worldest of cities, New York City.  He abused the public authority system, intended to allow governments to fund infrastructure with bonds and collect tolls until they were paid off, to establish his own kingdom, collecting the tolls from every major river crossing in NYC.  That’s good money, but not enough to build a highway system.  For that, he needed federal money.  Any city agency could apply for federal money, but he was the one with a source of funding that let him keep engineers and architects on staff designing for speculative projects. The minute federal money became available, he was there with plans.  During the Great Depression 1/7 of New Deal money was spent in NYC, because Moses always had a plan.

This still wasn’t quite enough money for all the penis monuments public works he wanted to build.  The city had to contribute something.  They could say no, but they couldn’t take the Authority and federal money and spend it on a better project instead.  It was that or nothing.  The politicians had construction unions to bribe, so this was an obvious yes for them.  But if you take Robert Moses’s hard-on for highways as a given, saying yes may have been the correct choice for the city as a whole.  Especially during the Great Depression, those jobs were important.  But because Moses was so prepared his projects ate up all the city’s extra money.  He did at one point deign to build public housing, but mostly because he didn’t like the idea of someone else getting to build something.

The correct solution was for someone else to plan ahead and figure out what the city actually needed and pursue it, instead of deciding on each Moses project as he proposed it in nearly-finished form.  One reason this didn’t happen was that Moses deliberately knee capped the attempts.  But this was easy because of the way government is structured.  The best attempt at a comprehensive city plan was very good, but they forgot to ask for funding to print out reports (this was in the 50s when that cost actual money).  Robert Moses stalled request for funding while he launched a counter offensive- with the large, undirected pile of money generated by tolls he could print out glossy brochures without anyone’s approval.  Between that and a friendly media, he torpedoed it.

One of the scariest yet vindicating things to me was how little influence the average voter had over this situation.  Not only was Moses beyond elections, but very few people even knew that there was a problem, much less that he was the cause.  He managed this in part by being on very good terms with the press and picking good enemies.  He could frame problems such that his opponents were Tammany Hall, that money grubbing back room institution.  Moses genuinely appears to not have been in it for the money. Many of his posts were unpaid, a fact he played up endlessly.  He played the graft game, but only to get people to support his penis monuments public works.  His job was a thing he put money into and got construction projects out of.

The press turned on him not when the realized he had an unethical pattern of behavior stretching back decades, but when it became easy to write headlines linking him to the mob (semi-correctly.  He was doing something wrong and the mob was touching the same project, but he was not doing the thing most people assumed when they read the headlines).  They continued because he antagonized them and journalists have easy ways to fight back when a politician yells at them, whether or not he’s actually doing something wrong.

Uber has some fairly sketchy business practices.  I overlook these because I think the core business- getting people to places quickly and cheaply by breaking the taxi monopoly- is a good thing, and given the legal structure at the time, the kind of people that could make it happen were not going to be the truest and most virtuous.

There’s a good argument that Moses was the same.  Yes, he was a son of a bitch who refused to move a highway an inch to save a neighborhood.  But maybe the people who were inclined to compromise or follow legal structures were weeded out of large scale public building because it’s impossible.  If Moses had built subways instead of highways and had properly compensated the victims, I might be describing him as “a good guy whose virtues made him hard to be around” and not implying his main drive was to prove the size of his penis.  Nothing was going to get built in Manhattan without a bunch of lives being overturned, the question should always have been “was it worth it”.

But then he refuses to add 5% to the cost of a project so that dedicated mass transit will some day be feasible, and of course builds bridges to block even buses.  So some of it was just him being evil.

Would I recommend this book?  Eh.  It’s not an efficient way to learn things.  I listened to it out of a combination of needing an audiobook and a major project pulling away the brainpower that would have been necessary to listen to a more thought-dense book.  If you don’t need the knowledge for something specific, like a civil service career or ammo for political beliefs you already hold, I would recommend it only if time is not a limiting factor for you.  But if you need something to fill the time while driving, The Power Broker is an extremely efficient use of an audible credit.

Georgia Bill SB 81

Georgia recently tried to restrict schedule II-and-higher prescription drugs (schedule I is already illegal to prescribe).  The internet reported this as “requiring ADHD patients to get a new prescription every five days” and yelled a lot because you are literally requiring extensive logistical work to treat a medical condition defined as being bad at planning and follow through (not to mention the money).  Georgia made some changes, which were reported as “ADHD prescription rule removed from bill, restrictions now focus on opioids”.

Reading the text of the bill (unclear if this is the draft either news article was talking about), neither of these appear to be accurate.  The bill doesn’t actually ban longer prescriptions, just leaves open the option to sue providers if they don’t either check a statewide database of prescriptions, or give a restricted supply.  Even then the 5 day rule only applied to the first prescription for adults (although every prescription for children) (line 275).  If you think the government should be in the business of restricting access to certain drugs in the first place (which I don’t), requiring doctors to make sure you don’t already have a prescription seems totally reasonable.  And they explicitly said prescribers should prescribe whatever was in the patients’ best interests, they just needed to note the justification for a new prescription of longer than 5 days.

Well, kind of.  The full text is “Nothing in this paragraph shall limit a prescriber who, in his or her professional 289 medical judgment, determines that more than a five-day supply of a Schedule II, III, IV, 290 or V controlled substance is medically necessary for palliative care or to treat a patient’s 291 acute medical condition, chronic pain, or pain associated with a cancer diagnosis.” (line 288).  This leaves out anyone with a chronic condition that isn’t pain that requires scheduled drugs.  This includes ADHD, but also sleep disorders, anxiety requiring benzodiazepines, epilepsy, being a trans man, and diarrhea.

[Controlling anti-diarrhea drugs is not quite as insane as it sounds, if you believe the government has a role restricting mind-altering substances.  Your gut and brain use a lot of the same neurotransmitters, so anything that affects your gut neurology and can get passed the blood-brain barrier will affect the brain as well.]

I would be surprised if the Georgia state legislature did this deliberately to hurt people with Irritable Bowel Syndrome.  My best guess is someone basically forgot that there are scheduled drugs besides opioids, and used the terms interchangeably in the bill.  Which actually concerns me much more, because it means the bill was written by someone who doesn’t understand medicine very well.





Review: Submission (Michel Houellebecq)

I am not a liberal or progressive, but I feel like I understand them pretty well.  That’s aided by me having lots of friends who do identify as progressive.  I don’t have any conservative friends who couldn’t be better described as libertarian, and they didn’t vote for Trump either.    I want to understand Trump voters better, and I’m doing it my way, which is books and the internet.  By which I mean not the endless handwringing anthropological studies written by liberals, but actual conservatives articulating their actual views aimed at a sympathetic audience.  My original reading list came from Ross Douthat, and has picked up things from random sources since then.

[“Why not talk to people in person?” you might ask.  I see your point, but between the risk of annoying the crap out of the people I’m talking to and severe introversion, reading is the solution for me.  This has nothing to do with Trump voters in particular, I did it to the last three cultures/subcultures I got interested in.]

I just finished Submission, by  Michel Houellebecq (translated from French by Lorin Stein).  Submission is one of those weird novels that has an obviously speculative fiction premise, but the author isn’t versed in speculative fiction and everything feels slightly off in ways that are hard to articulate.  It’s also an obvious member of “literature professor writes about literature professor so filled with ennui that even fucking students has gotten boring”, except that Houellebecq never even attended university.  I suspect he’s drawing on the tropes of then ennui genre to make points which I am missing because I haven’t read any unironic works in the genre, plus lack of familiarity with the French version of the trope.  For bonus points, the literature professors’ area of expertise is clearly supposed to filter my understanding of what’s going on in the present, and I have never heard of this guy.


Submission is a dystopia, set just before a Muslim takeover of France, but the main character does not consider himself to be living in one.  For him, the Muslim takeover (and his eventual conversion) represent reinvigoration and a reclaiming of masculinity.  This book was not great for helping me understand Trump voters, because I too am horrified at the prospect of women being pushed out of the workforce and non-religious education ending at age 8.  The difference there is in our perceptions of the probability of that happening.  Alternately the dystopia for them could be that it’s the effete liberal college professors who get bonus wives.

But one thing did jump out at me.  A French nationalist character describes the Muslim Brotherhood’s long term plan to take over Europe.  It’s frightening because it’s a series of small steps, any one of which looks reasonable and in fact would be reasonable, except that it’s laying groundwork for Sharia law.  As I was reading this, I was debating with a commenter who couldn’t understand why I was getting all worked up about Trump’s actions when it was totally possible he wasn’t going to become a dictator.  I found this terrifying because by the time he’s a dictator, it’s too late.  That’s what dictator means.  You have to mobilize early… which  is exactly what that French nationalist character described, and what I suspect many anti-immigration people believe.  No, there might not be many consequences now, but this is obviously laying the groundwork for something terrible and by the time they can prove it it will be too late.  The idea that the other side has a plan and your side hasn’t noticed is terrifying.

Tangent: Trump apparently against the concept of judges and the idea that they have power over the enforcement of laws.



This is Not Okay

I am in favor of more immigration that the US currently allows.  If you asked me if we should stop issuing visas to citizens of certain countries, I would say no.  But if I lost, well, the government does lots of stuff I dislike, that’s the price of living in a democracy rather than a dictatorship run by me.

Preventing existing visa and green card holders from reentering the country is not the same.  People built their lives around a promise from America, and we yanked it away with no chance to adjust.  Newborns have been separated from their parents.  People who endangered their lives helping the US Military are going to be left among people who wish to kill them.  We did not even have the decency to give enough notice to prevent people from getting on a plane to a country that would not let them in.

This is not border security, this is punishing people for cooperating with us and trusting us.  The net effect of this is that people will do those things less.  Honestly, this is probably the point.  Even though the order was overturned in 24 hours, even though it’s probably illegal, even if the next president does everything he can to welcome immigrants, there will be a chilling effect.  To the extent that foreign terrorists living in the US constitute a problem this does not touch it at all, because terrorists are not putting down roots.  Trump didn’t kick out anyone actually in the US, and terrorists probably don’t go back and forth much for this exact reason.

I didn’t participate in the women’s march last week, because it’s not my thing and I didn’t see the point.  I went to the SFO airport protest today, despite coming off of a week of travel and really not feeling like it, because it had a specific, actionable demand that would have concrete effects, and would be a return to the status quo, not a new action.  It worked– but not by much.  People who were on planes when the ban came through are not being sent home, but they may be kept in detention.

For the benefit of any Republican strategists reading this: I am not a liberal, I am not a Democrat.  I voted for Johnson.  You want me in your coalition.  You will never get it while someone this incompetent is your leader.

I considered my donation budget spent after my big transfer to Tostan, but I just donated $35 to the ACLU.  I think this is an excellent example of where effectiveness analyses go wrong.  The ACLU was supremely effective today because it had the capacity to take action immediately.  If Trump hadn’t done this, that capacity would have been wasted and they would look less effective.  Having strong institutions matters, even if you’re not using them.

A note to my fellow protesters: don’t protest bans on travel by shutting down modes of travel.  Seriously, it’s just annoying.

EDIT 1/28: I’m getting a lot of commenters who disagree with me, which is great, but the comments are low quality, which is not.  I’m leaving them up for now, but what I really want are strong arguments from the other side.  People who are angry at me: instead of just saying that, I’d like to invite you to write out your thoughts long form, or link me to a blog post, news article, or book.  I commit to reading the first 20 of these (for books I reserve the right to stop after the first chapter), and anticipate reading all of them eventually unless my blog gets way more popular.

I am linking to this post by Ben Hoffman because I want to declare myself for team words-have-meaning.  But while I’m at it I want to discuss a complication.  The piece is fairly hard to excerpt, but here is a paragraph to give yo an idea.

My working hypothesis is that some people mainly perceive their environment as one in which words have meanings, while for others speech-acts are primarily construed as social moves. If you’re in the first group, you imagine that people are tracking honesty of attempts to inform in a way that contributes to your reputation. If you’re in the second, you might think that they’re mainly interpreting your words as a statement about your current posture and intent. Are you on their side? What are you about to do next? Where are you trying to point their attention?

I take my integrity very seriously, but there are times I treat my word as a social signal rather than conveying literal truth.  For example, I sometimes simplify the anecdotes I tell on this blog.  I do this because the anecdotes aren’t supposed to prove anything, they’re supposed to be illustrations of the data that actually proves things, as a concession to the way the human brain works.  Taking out extraneous details is respectful of the time of you, the reader.  I don’t think anyone took my suggestion that the head of the World Health Association was actually a giant sentient tuberculosis cell  literally either.

Here’s a more complicated example.  Two friends of mine, Alice and Bob, started dating at approximately the same time I started dating Bob’s friend Carl (and Carl and Alice had met, although they weren’t close).  Shortly into this Alice started talking to me about the four of us going on vacation the next year.  Since we were talking about plans nine months away for people who had been dating a week and a half, I assumed we were playing some sort of fantasy game.  Telling her no would have felt like saying no in improv.  It would have cut off a conversation that was really about us being excited about our new relationships.  Apparently she was taking it more literally and immediately approached Carl (who had the most restrictive job of the three of us) to get possible dates.  For nine months in the future.

I think Alice was being unreasonable here.  But my immediate reaction when Carl told me this was “oh shit, I should not have said maybe.” I put the responsibility on myself to determine whether something was a literal-truth-type-situation or not, and viewed the miscommunication as my failure.  The alternative would have been blaming her for misinterpreting me.

I propose that people differ not only in when they think words are social vs. informational, but in who bears the blame when there is a misinterpretation.  I pretty much always put the responsibility on the person who used words as social levers.  I suspect other people are faster to put the blame on the person who took the words too literally, and this correlates with tendency to use words as social levers, but not perfectly so.