Review: SOMA

I said I wanted to get this done while the game was still in a Humble Bundle, and technically I succeeded, but it turns out it doesn’t matter because I’m not going to recommend it.

SOMA was sold as “Like Amnesia but sci-fi and underwater” and I love all of those things, so I had very high hopes. Hopes that were dashed. I don’t know if my tastes have changed since I played Amnesia or SOMA just wasn’t as good, but I stopped playing two hours in.

If we’re assuming the former, the problem is I’ve played a lot of puzzle games since Amnesia and my standards have gone up. Both Amnesia and Portal have puzzles so you have something to do while running from monsters and…eh. I thought I was cheating myself by looking up solutions so often, but then I solved a few myself and there was still no sense of satisfaction. It’s more just testing what the environment will let you do until the problem somehow goes away.

I was intrigued enough by the story to look up the ending. If you’re looking for something with similar themes, less terror, and better puzzles, I strongly recommend The Swapper, which remains one of my favorite games of all time.

Product Endorsement: Secret Stuff Chalk Cream

This is strictly for the climbers and other friction-ey athletes in the audience.

Chalk Cream is a lotion you rub on your hands, then air dry so that the alcohol evaporates and the chalk remains. I did not realize how amazing it was until I tried regular chalk. Regular chalk comes off in maybe three holds. Chalk Cream is still present at the top of very tall belaying routes. Yes, it is harder to reapply, but you need to do so so much less often.

I have no idea why this stuff hasn’t gone to fixation because it’s eons better and not that much more expensive than traditional chalk- possibly cheaper, if you go by dollar per time with chalk covered hands.

Tim Schafer Videogame Roundup

On one hand, I try to stay away from negative reviews.  Insulting things is easy, creating things is hard.  On the other hand, mentioning a game on this blog makes its purchase tax deductible to me.  You see my dilemma.

So let’s talk primarily about Psychonauts, which is an excellent game.  It is one of those nebulous “puzzle platformers”, meaning it involves both jumping and carrying things around until they can be used as keys.  But where it really shines is the meta game: most levels take place inside people’s heads, and reflect their inner damage.  For example, the drill sergeant camp counselor’s brain is a fairly standard 3D platformer.  Occasionally you have to knock a wall down, but there aren’t even real enemies.

Later on you enter the mind of a woman who clearly has bipolar disorder, and you work her through her abandonment by her stage mother by enacting a series of plays.  Then you shoot down the real villain, her inner critic. You also help a guy with multiple personality disorder defeat his inner Napolean by entering a ~chess board to run errands for medieval peasants.

It’s hard to convey how much this works in context, but it really does.  The gameplay is fun (most of the time.  Don’t judge by the first level), the puzzles are solvable (most of the time), the narrative is rich, and they all go together really well.  I might occasionally look up the solution to a particular puzzle and I will definitely look up where to find the collectibles because I’m an adult with a job work to do, but this feels more like hacking the game to my style.

FYI, this game is currently available on HumbleBundle.com for free until 9/16.

The creative power behind Psychonauts is Tim Schafer.  Schafer made himself famous making point and click adventure games for LucasArts.  My older friends regaled me with tales of Day of the Tentacle and Grim Fandango, but they were old and unavailable, even on gog.com.

I contented myself with new Tim Schafer games.  Stacking‘s movement mechanic made me motion sick but otherwise it was reasonably fun.  And eventually Shafer’s old games were not only remastered and released, but I waited them out until they appeared in Humble Bundles, which is very nearly free (although not entirely, IRS).  And even more eventually, I had time to play both Day of the Tentacle and Grim Fandango.

Sadface.

I tried with these, I really did. I was afraid they were hidden gems I was failing because I couldn’t give them enough attention.  But ultimately?  They’re not fun.  It’s not that the puzzles don’t make sense- they don’t, but I’d forgive that if exploring the solution space was cheap.  Then I’d get to feel clever for figuring something out.  No, both games’ sin is that they are slow.  Walking across a room to pick something up is slow.  Moving between environments is slow.  Going through dialogue trees is extremely slow. Retrying a strategy with a slight variation requires going through the first six steps over again.

I thought maybe I just didn’t have the attention span for games anymore, which was a little terrifying. Then I played Massive Chalice, from the same studio but a different lead designer.  MC is great.  It’s a tactical RPG, where you move your dudes around to shoot things, but also a creepy eugenics simulator, where you breed your heroes to produce better heroes next generation.  This game was frustrating and unfun at first, but in a way I immediately recognized would become fun if I put enough thought into it.  So I did the natural thing and recruited my friends to play it too, so we could talk about it and share the burden of finding out how to play.  This was a mixed success as far as “learning to play” went, as people disagreed violently over the best strategies, but it was fun.

Massive Chalice’s breeding minigame is not what one might hope.  Inbreeding is disallowed, there aren’t many families, and the long period of reproductive senescence creates big gaps in the ages of your heroes in each family.  You end up throwing in whoever is least bad, rather than carefully crafting a strategy.  Also, I don’t like hard choices.  I make enough hard choices in my day, when I’m playing games I just want to build things.

Recognizing how creepy this sounds: I spent a long time looking for a game with the breeding elements of Massive Chalice or Crusader Kings 2, but where that was the entirety of the game.  There’s nothing. There are some pet reproduction games but not with the depth I want.  Basically I’m looking for AKC: The Video Game.

 

Review: The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up and Spark Joy (Mari Kondo)

I read these books not because I planned on following them literally, but because I was moving and I wanted to bias myself towards getting rid of stuff rather than keeping stuff.  This was a good plan that I recommend to anyone with similar goals.  Having a little voice in the back of your head saying “If it doesn’t spark joy you are morally obligated to throw it out” is a great counterpoint to your inner hoarder.  Now on to the epistemics.

These books are weirdly calming, because they’re so confidently wrong.  There’s no hedging, no complications, no conception that other people might operate differently than her, just her opinion/the right way to do things, which are one and the same.  I spend all day around people with very complicated models they are very tentative about, and it was relaxing to see someone fully commit to something.  Plus if something is almost true, it’s stressful to disagree with it.  If it’s so clearly wrong and not considering other options, disagreeing feels easy.

Kondo actually walks back a lot of the wrongness in the second book.  For example, she acknowledges that there are practical things you need to keep even if they don’t fill you with delight.

I think I also enjoyed the books because Mari Kondo and I have the same ultimate goal: human flourishing.  She has fixated on tidyness as the base of the pyramid that ends in utopia, and she’s doing what she can to make that happen.  Aside from her initial assumption that tidyness will fix everything wrong with your life, I agree with all of her logical steps.

Epistemic Spot Check: A Guide To Better Movement (Todd Hargrove)

Edit 7/20/17: See comments from the author about this review.  In particular, he believes I overstated his claims, sometimes by a lot.

 

This is part of an ongoing series assessing where the epistemic bar should be for self-help books.

Introduction

Thesis: increasing your physical capabilities is more often a matter of teaching your neurological system than it is anything to do with your body directly.  This includes things that really really look like they’re about physical constraints, like strength and flexibility.  You can treat injuries and pain and improve performance by working on the nervous system alone.  More surprising, treating these physical issues will have spillover effects, improving your mental and emotional health. A Guide To Better Movement provides both specific exercises for treating those issues and general principles that can be applied to any movement art or therapy.

The first chapter of this book failed spot checking pretty hard.  If I hadn’t had a very strong recommendation from a friend (“I didn’t take pain medication after two shoulder surgeries” strong), I would have tossed it aside.  But I’m glad I kept going, because it turned out to be quite valuable (this is what triggered that meta post on epistemic spot checking).  In accordance with the previous announcement on epistemic spot checking, I’m presenting the checks of chapter one (which failed, badly), and chapter six (which contains the best explanation of pain psychology I’ve ever seen), and a review of model quality.  I’m very eager for feedback on how this works for people.

Chapter 1: Intro (of the book)

Claim: “Although we might imagine we are lengthening muscle by stretching, it is more likely that increased range of motion is caused by changes in the nervous system’s tolerance to stretch, rather than actual length changes in muscles. ” (p. 5). 

Overstated, weak.  (PDF).  The paper’s claims to apply this up to 8 weeks, no further.  Additionally, the paper draws most (all?) of its data from two studies and it doesn’t give the sample size of either.

Claim:  “Research shows the forces required to deform mature connective tissue are probably impossible to create with hands, elbows or foam rollers.” (p. 5). 

Misleading. (Abstract).  Where by “research” the Hargrove means “mathematical model extrapolated from a single subject”.

Claim:  “in hockey players, strong adductors are far more protective against groin strain than flexible adductors, which offer no benefit” (p. 14).

Misleading. (Abstract) Sample size is small, and the study was of the relative strength of adductor to abductor, not absolute strength.

Claim: “Flexibility in the muscles of the posterior chain correlates with slower running and poor running economy.” (p. 14).

Accurate citation, weak study.  (Abstract) Sample size: 8.  Eight.  And it’s correlational.

[A number of interesting ideas whose citations are in books and thus inaccessible to me]

Claim:  “…most studies looking at measurable differences in posture between individuals find that such differences do not predict differences in chronic pain levels.”  (p. 31). 

Accurate citation.  (Abstract).  It’s a metastudy and I didn’t track down any of the 54 studies included, but the results are definitely quoted accurately.

 

Chapter 6: Pain

Claim: “Neuromatrix” approach to pain means the pattern of brain activity that create pain, and that pain is an output of brain activity, not an input (p93).

True, although the ability to correctly use definitions is not very impressive.

Claim: “If you think a particular stimulus will cause pain, then pain is more likely.  Cancer patients will feel more pain if they believe the pain heralds the return of cancer, rather than being a natural part of the healing process.” (p93).

Correctly cited, small sample size. (Source 1, source 2, TEDx Talk).

ClaimPsychological states associated with mood disorders (depression, anxiety, learned helplessness, etc) are associated with pain (p94).

True, (source), although it doesn’t look like the study is trying to establish causality.

ClaimMany pain-free people have the kinds of injuries doctors blame pain on (p95).

True, many sources, all with small sample sizes.  (source 1, source 2, source 3, source 4, source 5)

Claim: On taking some cure for pain, relief kicks in before the chemical has a chance to do any work (p98)

True.  His source for this was a little opaque but I’ve seen this fact validated many other places.

Claim: we know you can have pain without stimulus because you can have arm pain without an arm (p102).

True, phantom limb pain is well established.

Claim: some people feel a heart attack as arm pain because the nerves are very close to each other and the heart basically never hurts, so the brain “corrects” the signal to originating in the arm (p102).

First part: True.  Explanation: unsupported.  The explanation certainly makes sense, but he provides no citations and I can’t find any other source on it.

Claim: Inflammation lowers the firing threshold of nociceptors (aka sensitization) (p102).

True (source).

Claim: nociception is processed by the dorsal horn in the spine.  The dorsal horn can also become sensitized, firing with less stimulus than it otherwise would.  Constant activation is one of the things that increases sensitivity, which is one mechanism for chronic pain (p103).

True (source).

Claim: people with chronic pain often have poor “body maps”, meaning that their mental model of where they are in space is inaccurate and they have less resolution when assessing where a given sensation is coming from (p107).

Accurate citation (source).  This is a combination of literature review and reporting of novel results.  The novel results had a sample of five.

Claim: The hidden hand in the rubber hand illusion experiences a drop in temperature (p109).

Accurate citation, tiny sample size (source).  This paper, which is cited by the book’s citation, contains six experiments with sample sizes of fifteen or less.  I am torn between dismissing this because cool results with tiny sample sizes are usually bullshit, and accepting it because it is super cool.

Claim: “a hand that has been disowned through use of the rubber hand illusion will suffer more inflammation in response to a physical insult than a normal hand.” (p. 109).

Almost accurate citation (source).  The study was about histamine injection, not injury per se.   Insult technically covers both, but I would have preferred a more precise phrasing.  Also, sample size 34.

Claim: People with chronic back pain have trouble perceiving the outline of their back (p. 109). 

Accurate citation, sample size six (pdf).

Claim:  “Watching the movements in a mirror makes the movements less painful [for people with lower back pain].” (p. 111). Better Movement. Kindle Edition.

Accurate citation, small sample size (source).

Model Quality

Reminder: the model is that pain and exhaustion are a product of your brain processing a variety of information.  The prediction is that improving the quality of processing via the principles explained in the book can reduce pain and increase your physical capabilities.

Simplicity: Good.  This is not actually simple model, it requires a ton of explanation to a layman.  But most of its assumptions come from neurology as a whole; the leap from “more or less accepted facts about neurology” to this model is quite small.

Explanation Quality: Fantastic.  I’ve done some reading on pain psychology, much of which is consistent with Guide…, but Guide… has by far the best explanation I’ve read.

Explicit Predictions: Good, kept from greatness only by the fact that brains and bodies are both very complicated and there’s only so much even a very good model can do.

Useful Predictions: Okay. The testable prediction for the home-reader is that following the exercises in the back of the book, or going to a Feldenkrais class, will treat chronic pain, and increase flexibility and strength.  Since the book itself admits that a lot of things offer short term relief but don’t address the real problem, helping immediately doesn’t prove very much.

Acknowledging Limitations: low. (Note: author disputes this, and it’s entirely possible he did and I forgot).  GTBM doesn’t have the grandiose vision of some cure-all books, and repeatedly reminds you that your brain being involved doesn’t mean your brain is in control.  But there’s no sentence along the lines of “if this doesn’t work there’s a mechanical problem and you should see a doctor.”

Measurability: low.  This book expects you to put in a lot of time before seeing results, and does not make a specific prediction of the form they will come in.  Worse, I don’t think you can skip straight to the exercises.  If I hadn’t read the entire preceding book I wouldn’t have approached them in the correct spirit of attention and curiosity.

Hmmm, if I’d assigned a gestalt rating it would have been higher than what I now think is merited based on the subscores.  I deliberately wrote this mostly before trying the exercises, so I can’t give an effectiveness score.  If you do decide to try it, please let me know how it goes so I can further calibrate my reviews to actual effectiveness.

 

You might like this book if…

…you suffer from chronic pain or musculoskeletal issues, or find the mind-body connection fascinating.

This post supported by Patreon.

How to Handle Bad Examples in Texts?

How harshly should you judge when a scientific work gives a bad example of its point?

For example, I am reading Interaction Ritual Chains (Randall Collins), which focuses on emotional energy during stereotyped interactions between people (this is the scientific sense of stereotyped, meaning rigid or strongly patterned, not racist).  IRC believes that interaction is important and irreplaceable, such that people will shun much more “efficient” solutions to their official goal in order to get interpersonal interactions.  Unfortunately it uses terrible examples to illustrate this.

For example, on page 63 he claims that online shopping will never replace brick and mortar stores, because going to the store amidst other people is an energizing ritual.  At the time the book was published (2004) this was obviously untrue to me, but I can see how it wasn’t in every segment of society.  So while this is a bad prediction, it’s not a factual error.

He also claims that television has had no impact on sports attendance because people want the in person experience so much (p57).  To the extent that is true, it’s because leagues has gone to a great deal of trouble to make it not true, by imposing blackout rules such that you can’t broadcast a local game unless it has sold out.  It’s only since 1973 that the NFL had an exception for sold out games- previous to that, the only way to see a game played in your market was to be there.

How much should I reduce my confidence in Interaction Ritual Chains, given that it made this error? Or two false predictions?  Is it even fair to score them as false? In person stores still exist, although malls are having a hard time of it.  Maybe blackout rules were preemptive strikes and attendance would have stayed high without them.  But this gives me qualms about learning examples I know less about- even if the author is being accurate, if I’m drawing incorrect conclusions.

Epistemic Spot Check: The Demon Under the Microscope (Thomas Hager)

Description

How much would it suck to be the guy who invented sulfa drugs? You dedicate your life to preventing a repeat of the horrors you saw in the war, succeed in that and so much more, and then 10 years later some idiot leaves a petri dish open and completely replaces you as the father of man’s triumph against bacteria.  Actually he left the lid off before you found your thing, but ignored the result until you hit it big because everyone knew you couldn’t fight disease with chemicals, until you proved you could.  It’s the ultimate silver medal.  The Demon Under the Microscope is the tale of that guy.

It’s by the same author (Thomas Hagen) as The Alchemy of Air.  It’s also set in the same corporation, and about field that was transforming from science to industry.  The writing style is similar.  I originally didn’t intend to fact check this book very hard because I already knew what to expect from the author (a little too invested in the subject but basically accurate), but the habit is too ingrained at this point and I couldn’t keep reading until I’d checked out the first few chapters.

 

Evaluation

Claim: “Domagk [the researcher] had the ability to see. He watched everything, noted slight variations, quietly filed it all away.”  (p. 18).

The wounds themselves he accepted as the results of war. But the infections that followed—surely science could do something to stop those. He focused on the bacteria, his personal demons, “these terrible enemies of man that murder him maliciously and treacherously without giving him a chance.” “I swore before God and myself,” he later wrote, “to counter this destructive madness.”  (p. 20).

Who knows but it’s pretty.  Someone in the same position as thousands of others (in this case a WW1 medic), caring more , and going to fix it (via sulfa drugs) is my moral aesthetic.  Of course there could be another surgeon in the same place with just as much care and potential who got blow up or gassed.  The Alchemy of Air prioritized poetry over provability, so I don’t entirely trust this, but I like it.

Claim: Cholera was a big problem for German soldiers.

This would be a weird thing to make up, but I’m a little confused.  There had been a cholera vaccine for over 20 years by that point.

Claim: Gas gangrene is bad.

True.

Claim: Sir Almroth Wright created a typhoid vaccine that was deployed during WW1, saving may lives.  During WW1 he established a laboratory researching wound infections.

True.  He was also prescient enough to foresee the risk of drug-resistant bacteria.  Of course he also thought that bacteria were associated with but not the cause of disease, and that scurvy was caused by poorly preserved meat.  Being right is hard.

Claim: Doctors at the time thought that a dry wound was more resistant to infection; however dryness inhibited white blood cells and thus ultimately increased infections. They also thought wounds needed to be completely covered to prevent reinfection, but this created the ideal environment for anaerobic bacteria like Clostridium perfringens (which causes gas gangrene).

True. I was surprised to find ideal wound moistness still isn’t entirely settled, but the book’s description seems essentially in good faith.  Demon goes on to say that by the 1920s, doctors believed they were basically powerless and their job was to get the body’s own healing systems a pillow and some tea.  They took this so far that:

“A physician doing drug research was a physician taken away from patient care. There was an unsavory aspect to a physician’s developing a drug for money. There were ethical questions about testing drugs on patients. Developing new drug therapies smacked of a return to the discredited age of bleedings and purgings.”

 

To repeat: researching new treatments was considered distasteful at best and morally outrageous at worst.  And brain differentiation was once considered phrenology redux.  I just don’t think we’re very good at seeing where medicine is going (p40).

Claim: Section on Leeuwenhoek. 

True but missing time data.  Given that everything discussed so far happened in the range of 1890-1920, I would have have explicitly mentioned I was going 250 years into the past.  As it was, the only reason I noticed was that I recognized some of the names on the list of Leeuwenhoek’s contemporaries. The kindle edition may have made this worse.   But everything Hager actually says on Leeuwenhoek’s work in inventing the microscope seems accurate.

Claim: [crickets] (no page)

There’s no false statements, but I found the absence of discussion of the 1918 Spanish Flu epidemic puzzling.  Demon’s narrative is that seeing the horror of infected wounds in World War 1 drove Domangk to dedicate his life to preventing them.  Spanish Flu killed 5% of the entire world over the course of three years, and had a massive effect on troop movements and training in WW1.  From a military perspective it might have been more important.  We know now that the flu is really hard to vaccinate against, but at the time they didn’t even know it was a virus.  If you were a motivated medic looking for something to care about, Spanish Flu was a really obvious choice.  Demon mentions Spanish Flu in passing but not as an influence on Domangk, and that feels incomplete to me. Why gangrene in particular, when there were so many horrors happening at the time?

Claim: Streptococcus is the cause of everything bad.

True.  I knew it was possible to die from a scratch, but reading about everything strep causes really made me appreciate how few technological innovations are between us humans and mass die offs.  Strep causes childbed fever, St. Anthony’s Fire, meningitis, scarlet fever, pink eye, necrotizing fasciitis… Strep is the cockroach of human-infecting bacteria.  And for a while, all we had to do was take a pill and it was completely harmless.

Of course now we have MRSA (Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus) (whose natural habitat is the hospital, just like strep).  And multiply resistant gonorrhea.  And tuberculosis resistant to most known antibiotics.  The bad old days are on our heels, is what I’m saying.

One weird thing is I finished this book with the vague impression that sulfa drugs had saved a lot of lives but not actually knowing how many.  This article estimates that sulfa drugs led to a 2-3% drop in overall mortality, which translated to a 0.4-0.7 year increase in life expectancy.  That only covers up until 1943: presumably it had a bigger impact as distribution increased, or at least would have if penicillin had not taken over.

Overall Verdict

Pretty good, with some oversights.  Like Alchemy of Air the beginning is the best part, and if you find your attention flagging I’d just let it go.  I found the subject matter more innately interesting than Alchemy of Air but the writing a little less so.  Demon spends less time on the personal lives of the scientists, which was a selling point for my roommate but a disappointment for me.

This post supported by Patreon.