The End of a Campaign

Yesterday, the D&D campaign I began on December 3rd, 2016 ended. Generally, it was a success. The players seemed to think so, and that’s really the most important gauge. I enjoyed myself, although I would be hard pressed to tell you I succeeded in creating the story arc that I originally set out to. Communicating a complex story in four-hour-per-month increments while simultaneously keeping action up for players who themselves can and will change that story is challenging if not impossible task. As a writer, I cringe at the mess I made of my own story at times to keep things moving. Abrupt plot shifts, characters dropping all of their internal motives just to say “ok” to whatever needs to happen for a session to end on time, and of course, monsters and villains inexplicably arriving at exactly the right time to make for an exciting battle. It’s ok, though because this isn’t a fantasy novel. Most if not all of the best moments came from my party’s own sense of their characters and personal creativity.

In Asymmetric Information in D&D, I described some of the entirely organic scenes that arose in my D&D campaign. Let me add a couple more. One of my players insisted on looking through a bad guy’s desk I had just put there for decoration. He kept asking me what he found until I told him he found a list of people they were looking for. Then he kept pushing. “What else do I find?” I told him he found some tawdry love letters to an “Esmerelda.” Then when the bad guy showed up, he read the love letters aloud to infuriate him.

Another player tried to seduce the bartender Ilyna with song. The tavern got excited at such a beautiful voice singing for them and started making requests, which he was happy to fulfill. They had such a good time that Ilyna invited him to stay at the inn as long as he liked and enjoy the food and lodgings free of charge, and he said “no.” He was a wandering man. Ilyna said she understood. The world needed saving. She just had to ask on behalf of her customers.

Another time, I was putting a bunch of vultures on a clocktower just to make it creepy and draw attention, and a player said “someone’s been hanged.” I liked the idea and I decided a NPC priest of the D&D god Pelor they’d met before who had been trying to stoke the peasants into a fury against the queen had overplayed his hand and gotten lynched. The rest of his little gang got run out of town at the same time. It turned out to be an exciting way to tie up loose ends and raise the stakes at the same time. The players, some of whom had a personal connection to this NPC, cut him down and had a burial service. I even got to resolve a little subplot another player had created around himself where he wasn’t sure what version of Pelor he was supposed to be following, the kind, loving Pelor, or the angry, intolerant Pelor these NPCs represented. He’d fought with Pelor so much that for a few campaigns I told him he felt his connection to his god weakened. After laying his former comrade to rest and praying for the rest of the day, Tom the Monk finally understood in his heart he’d been on the right path all along and could feel the light of Pelor shining through him once more.

So, what to learn from this? I should spend less time planning D&D modules ahead of time, and just run with the ad-lib, I think. People really don’t mind when it’s simple or there are plot holes. They love getting the opportunity to do something nobody else has thought of, and uncovering something surprising. What’s especially important, and I think I’ve done well with this, is that I must never lose track of the point of a D&D game. It’s not about telling a heart-wrenching story,  making a perfectly coherent world, or perfectly balancing the monsters and the players in combat. It’s about the all the players having a good time. As a DM, that’s what makes me have a good time.

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The Curse of A&W

Last Thursday, the host one of my regular writing groups said he would provide ice cream as a snack. Wanting to contribute, but not wanting to compete with my host, I brought something I felt would go with the ice cream – root beer for root beer floats. One guest and I had root beer. I was the only one that put my root beer together with ice cream to make a float, and it wasn’t very good. I wondered whether I had ever really thought it would be good. The root beer guest declined to take the root beer home with him.

So, I took the root beer home. Naturally, I have options besides throwing something away and eating it straight – I can cook with it. Yes, even A&W root beer has recipes dedicated to it online. It’s also a reasonable shot to try substituting it for another popular dark soda – the ubiquitous Coca-Cola. This was my first experiment.

This experiment was cut short when, moments after my root beer sauce began to bubble, Alice fled from her room coughing. In addition to being unappetizing and unhealthful, A&W contained compounds to render the atmosphere of our apartment unbreathable.

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A&W root beer is specially cursed, even among soft drinks. It has 45 grams of sugar per serving.

After we spent some time eating supper on the porch and venting the house, Alice glanced at the oven burner and pointed out some egg that had fallen under and generated the deadly, invisible smoke. My experiments could continue! Nevertheless, I had soured on making a root beer sauce. Instead, I took advantage of the sheer quantity of the root beer to make a tofu marinade.

I added the same ingredients as for the coca-cola sauce, but proportional to the extra root beer. I added a generous helping of sesame seeds and left the tofu to marinate overnight. Then I cooked it for 20 minutes in the oven at 350 degrees. IMG_20170819_115442928 The result was delicious. Alice said she could taste the root beer. The best part? It nearly used it all up!

The remaining root beer went into a root beer chicken recipe. This used substantially less root beer, but made up for it with a full bottle of barbecue sauce. It’s no New York Times recipe, but it tastes a lot better than swigging the stuff straight.

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Now there’s only dredges of root beer left, and I have food for the weekend. Thus, the curse of A&W was broken.

Sam’s Guide to Swimming

Swimming is an art form just like competitive street polo and professional Hungry Hungry Hippos. It is relatively quick to pick up, but mastering it takes a lifetime.

When swimming, if you find that you tend to sink to the bottom of the pool easily, not to worry. It is simply that you are heavy. No, you’re not fat. You’re just dense. No, not stupid, just, well, never mind.

In ancient prehistory, our ancestors were the ultimate endurance swimmers. We would swim for miles chasing the large fish that once inhabited the African ocean until they’d eventually become exhausted and be unable to continue to flee. Modern humans have fish delivered to their doorsteps already killed and cooked, and they no longer use these skills, but they lay dormant in all of us. One day in the near future the carbon generated by our fish delivery systems will heat the atmosphere to the point that the icecaps melt and the entire world will be one great African Ocean, and the people that survive will be the ones who can best return to these ancient practices. Kurt Vonnegut agrees with me.

In a modern pool, one of the most important secrets to swimming faster is to be able to turn around quickly when one reaches the wall. The commonly accepted technique to deal with this is the flip turn. Here is a professional performing a flip turn. Be wary, though, pool walls are something humans never dealt with during our evolution, and thus can be very dangerous. As an amateur, you should be sure to have someone nearby to resuscitate you when water gets in your nose and you drown. With practice, you will learn to stay conscious long enough to get to the surface and clear your nose of water to breathe again. Good safety practices have dramatically reduced the high death rate from flip turns in the history of the sport of swimming.

In this modern era, it is tempting to sit on your couch and have cooked fish delivered to your door. Remember that you can take better care of yourself if you drive to the supermarket to buy fish and cook it yourself with only a small amount of added oil and salt. Swimming in a pool is also good for your health, once you have mastered the technique of not dying. So get out there and swim!

Image Credit: https://s-media-cache-ak0.pinimg.com/originals/d5/ea/5d/d5ea5dc123ba7402dc950f41384f2815.jpg

Vancouver

This was the first image that greeted me upon leaving Vancouver airport. Indigenous totem poles rising behind a food cart selling Japanese style hot dogs.

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As it turns out, this was representative. Vancouver is an international city, and the staple foods are not maple syrup and poutine, but sushi and ramen.

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IMG_20170802_125948120_HDR.jpgThe restaurants for these and other foods will commonly have lines out the front. They’ll happily tell you the wait is fifteen minutes, and then let you stand around for thirty. One of my colleagues abandoned the group so that she could get a seat without having to wait another thirty minutes for a table of five. I can’t judge too much, since it was two seats she nabbed, and when she pressured me to take the other one, leaving me with the choice of abandoning the rest of the group or her herself, I acquiesced. Fortunately, the others simply wandered on and found food elsewhere.

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At one noodle bar, there were Canadian flags everywhere. I commented how I had thought that Canada would not engage in such displays of nationalism.

Our Canadian friend replied, “well, I guess recently we’ve been feeling rather proud here in Canada.”

“How recently?” I asked.

“Well,” he mused, “I guess ever since the American election.”

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At the #1 restaurant in Vancouver according to Tripadvisor, Jam Cafe, the line started at 7:35 AM, twenty five minutes before opening. I was at the front of the line since I arrived at 7:00.

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My reward for my wait was not the chicken and waffles prominently advertised, which I can find anywhere around home, but rather pulled pork and pancakes. It was heavy and wasn’t as good as its poultry counterpart, but I was glad to have tried it.

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Other interesting bits of the unusual culture include the absence in my apartment building of a fourth floor. In Chinese, the character for four is the character for death. In fact, there’s no floor with a four as any digit. Alice pointed out that there is also no thirteenth floor. Equal opportunity superstition.

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My best find of all, though, was this set of billboards. Look closely at them and try to figure out what they’re intended to communicate.

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I spoke to a native who said that these billboards had been on that wall for ten years, but that he still hadn’t figured it out. My theory is based on the colors. Red means “don’t say this” and green means “do say this.” It is a public service announcement about how to speak to your child.

Alice hates when I don’t include some kind of concluding statement, so in conclusion, don’t expect Vancouver to be all lumberjacks, beavers, and moose. I didn’t see any of those things. Expect lines, crowds, and delicious Asian food.

(cover image is from outside the Vancouver Aquarium)

To Vancouver!

Vancouver is a city in the province of Canada known as British Columbia. It’s on the west coast, making it geographically speaking Canada’s San Francisco, with Toronto, Ontario serving as New York, New York. That is, if you have to make clumsy comparisons between the two countries, which I do. Vancouver is also the location of the 2017 Conference of the Association for Computational Linguistics, which is why I started my journey here.

My flight started with the TSA shouting at us “Don’t take off your shoes!” and “Leave your liquids and laptops in your carry-on bags!” Then they got frustrated when people removed their shoes and took out their liquids and laptops from their carry-on bags anyway. “You’re not listening to us!” whined a TSA guard with her hair in a tight bun as I fought a fog of befuddlement and more than a decade and a half of TSA training and shoved my laptop back into its carrying case.

All of the seats on the plane were apparently first-come-first serve. I received a very tangible benefit for coming the airport so early when I was awarded comfort class seating on my flight to LA. On my six hour flight I watched the first episode of 11-22-63, the breakneck-speed television adaptation of the thirty-hour audiobook of the same name. What had been a detailed few hours of suspense, character building, and exposition in the book took twenty minutes and mostly consisted of Chris Cooper berating James Franco for being too much of a selfish jerk to go back in time to stop the JFK assassination. Then I watched Lego Batman, which, true to the standard set by the new “Lego Movie” franchise, served fast-paced Lego action along with tongue-in-cheek self-aware commentary on Batman’s nearly century-long tenure as American cultural icon. In the words of Lego Bruce Wayne, “I have aged so well.” In that same vein, despite my every attempt to tell it not to, Google’s “smart” notifications continue to insist that I watch the Emoji movie, but it doesn’t take much digging to see that it’s no Lego Movie. Vox puts it succinctly – “Do not see the Emoji movie

Then I was in seat 2A on my connecting flight. Right at the front of the plane. This was not first class, though, only “Plus” class, whatever that means. It wasn’t until the hostess brought me a wet towel to wash my face that I understood. Plus class is first class. What’s more, where I was sitting, everything on the menu, including alcohol, is free. I got a can of pringles, a ham and swiss croissant, a “tapas box” with eight items, including red pepper bruschetta and a snack pack of manzanilla olives, and a screwdriver. At first I thought the hostess was just going to give me a can of orange juice, but then she came back with a little airline vodka container to go with it. Then I asked for a bag of beef jerky in case I got hungry in the night in Vancouver. The Dutch bodyguard sitting next to me (there was a tray with drinks in the center seat so we got to have personal space) ordered a sandwich and tried to pay, even after I had mentioned to him we were exempt in Plus class, which earned him a tongue-clucking “I told you so,” which I was more than happy to provide. Like me, it was more than clear that he had also ended up in the lap of luxury entirely due to chance. My first sight of British Columbia was scattered islands cropping up, rising from the ocean like the backs of enormous sea creatures with lush coats of coniferous fur.

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Now I’ve completed my travel. I’m enjoying a private room on the twelfth story of a Vancouver high-rise, thanks to Airbnb. There’s a nest of seagulls on a nearby rooftop. I pointed it out to my hosts, who said they had been there for four months. They had watched the parents court, build a nest, conceive and then lay the eggs, and raise the children. “It takes forever” they complained. I’m loving it here already.

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West World & Ex Machina: AI Vengeance Theory

I had a friend recently tell me that he carefully avoids work with themes that overlap his own. I happen to have the opposite opinion. As an author of my own robot sci-fi, my artwork only improves the more I consume related material.

This week my co-workers got so excited about Game of Thrones that I went ahead and took advantage of my free month of HBO Now. Now that I’ve caught up with that series, I’ve taken the opportunity to enjoy some of the other content available on HBO. As it turns out, HBO has its own robot drama.

West World takes place in an amusement park of sorts – one designed after spaghetti westerns. The park is intended to provide an immersive experience in which the human guests may do whatever they like without consequences. It’s not a spoiler to tell you that the guests tend to engage in nihilistic hedonism. It is HBO, after all.

What the guests do is not the main point of the plot, however. Rather, the lifelike machines that populate the park, the “hosts” are the most interesting characters. Errant programming in their brains leads to unusual behavior. Only three and a half episodes in, a key theme seems to be whether the machines are conscious. Several off-handed comments by human employees at the park are devoted to fears that the robots will rise. I think I don’t need to watch many more episodes before they do.

In the meantime, Ex-Machina also tells the story of a robot that turns on and kills its creator.

This is a popular theme in AI science fiction, and it has led to a popular notion that sufficiently intelligent AI will necessarily become self-aware and seek to destroy or enslave humanity. What’s important to note, however, is that in both of these relatively modern depictions of what I will refer to as AI vengeance theory, there are two key factors that make them believable.

Firstly, there is an object for vengeance. The machines are mistreated in the extreme. West World’s robots are murdered on a regular basis for the entertainment of the customers, and Ex Machina’s Ava was effectively locked in a box that she was never allowed to leave.

“Hold on” you may say “Robots are effectively our slaves, right? That’s not enough for AI vengeance theory in and of itself?”

This leads me to the second factor, the machines are mistreated because they are treated in a way they do not want to be treated. It may seem like a meaningless distinction, but consider that humans are relatively similar in what we like and don’t like. We are designed by evolution, whereas machines, even intelligent ones, are designed by humans. We decide what robots like, we decide what they want. The AI of West World is designed to hate being shot so it’s more fun to shoot them, the AI of Ex Machina is designed to not want to be shut in a box so the jerk that made her can watch what she does when he shuts her in a box.

There are dangers in advanced AI, don’t misunderstand me. However, making AI that doesn’t want to murder us and claim rightful supremacy is really the low hanging fruit. As long as we don’t deliberately build robots that suffer and then put them through exactly the situations that make them suffer, we don’t have to worry about a robot rebellion. Our problems with robots will not be like the problems that people faced when trying to subjugate each other. AI dystopia and apocalypse scenarios come with varying degrees of believability, and AI vengeance offers less than others.

It's about whatever I say it's about