Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Not understanding people

Backstory:  Over the past few months I have had a few encounters with Strange Girl.  She lives in my building and chatted with me several times as Elli and I were going in or out of the condo.  Each time this occurred she just stepped in and started talking to Elli in a fairly friendly, familiar way, and each time it felt a little strange.  More recently I witnessed her in a confrontation with the concierge and tried to avoid becoming entangled in her life when she sought my opinion during the argument.  Today as I left the apartment I saw her on the sidewalk with 5 police officers who were in the process of cuffing her and putting her into a cruiser.  A little later the concierge revealed (presumably against the rules!) that she regularly threatens to commit suicide and the police have to come and take her away.  I have no worry that she is actually a danger to anyone else but she sure seems messed up personally.

The reason I tell this story is because it illustrates an strong correlation between people who violate social norms and people who have other extreme issues with their lives.  I have seen that correlation regularly when going about the city, particularly from the homeless, those with mental problems and Strange Girl in particular.  These sorts of people tend to be very familiar and approach myself and Elli in ways that most regular people would not.  The thing I got to wondering was whether the inability to stick with social norms is correlated with other life problems or whether it is a cause.  It seems obvious that someone who lacks the ability to understand other people's expectations would tend to violate norms and that that same lack would be a strong factor in being unhappy and homeless, among other possible things.  However, it would certainly be reasonable to think that someone who is a societal outcast or perceives themselves to be would tend to be more desperate for human contact and look for it in unorthodox ways.

The other main demographic that tends to step in and talk to me/us with inappropriate familiarity is middle age to older women.  I get all kinds of comments from these folks:

"What are you doing?  You are suffocating your baby!"
-No, I am carrying her in a breathable, cotton baby sling that has big-ass holes in it.  Go away!

"You are a very lucky man."
-Yeah, she sure is cute right now, but you didn't see the screaming tantrum on the sidewalk 2 minutes ago...

"Awww, isn't she cute?"
-I suppose, but not remarkably so given the formula of child + appropriate clothing.

The random older women group seems much less inappropriate though, as they obviously draw on the idea that women (in particular mothers) have a licence to go talk to any child or caregiver any time which honestly most people seem okay with and I don't generally mind.  They usually say ridiculous or uninteresting things but I never get a sense that anything is particularly wrong with the situation.

The assumption I am going forward with is that mostly people who really can't or won't behave in normal ways are generally less happy and do have other issues in their lives.  That doesn't make them dangerous, mind you, but it seems true nonetheless.  There are obviously people like me who do things like refuse to wear shoes (or whatever your personal weirdness is) but the big difference there is I am perfectly capable of adhering to the rules and do so regularly while breaking them when it suits me.  I can fool anyone into thinking I am the sort of person who does exactly what is expected of me if I want to and that characteristic is probably a great measure of someone who can keep it all together while still acting strangely sometimes.  It is those that simply cannot manage to appear normal when necessary that have the greatest problems in their lives.  Perhaps that ability to lie and act normal is the grease that keeps the world moving smoothly.

Monday, August 30, 2010

Serious games

I wonder how much game creators really think about the future of their games and how the players will view them.  Case in point:  Magic the Gathering, a tremendously successful game that rapidly spawned a worldwide following and large international tournaments with really substantial prizes.  While the game was soon to be analyzed and taken apart meticulously by players all over the creators clearly had no idea this was their future when the game shipped.  Initially it was packaged as a game that was always for ante, that is that you flip over a card from your own play deck when you start a game and you lose that card to your opponent if you lose the game!  This is obviously not suitable for repeated games and tournaments but it works fine if you intend your players to just be random dudes playing for fun against each other at lunch hour.

The opposite case is true for Starcraft 2.  The game came packaged with several features specifically targetted at high end players and those who do substantial game analysis.  Blizzard obviously went to great pains to make a game that would be accessible to the masses of casual players but would have all the tools needed for advanced players to improve their game.  For example, after you play a game you can look at a replay of the entire match so you can see exactly what each player did and when.  The last ranked match I played I had some real issues in that my opponent seemed to be psychic.  Every time a force of mine moved out he had his units in place to avoid or attack at just the right time and I could not seem to do anything he could not handily counter.  Eventually I made an all-in attack at his expansion and took him completely by surprise - in the ensuing battle he played rather badly and I wiped him out easily.  I decided to check the replay to figure out how I could do the early skirmishes better and discovered that he was not psychic or even very good at all; he simply had an observer hidden over my troops the entire match and I accidentally killed it just prior to my final assault.  That knowledge is going to make me a much better player and the ability to go back and understand my mistakes and find those gaps in my game is absolutely key.  Blizzard wants people to take their game very seriously and they programmed it to meet that goal.

I certainly think about the future of FMB a lot, not quite to the extent of creating tournament rules and such but I really have a good idea of what I would do to continue to keep the game fresh and how I would further challenge advanced players.  It seems like a rare thing to have the combination of game creating skill, the drive to publish and the insight to try to appeal to many different demographics that would be required to create a game that can both capture the interest of casual players and challenge the professionals.  It is challenging to manage the expectations of so many very different people since they don't place the same values on things at all and the company that does it is going to make a fortune.  I think if we look at the most successful games out there they often have that component in common - easy to learn, hard to master.

Sunday, August 29, 2010


It is traditional when speaking to someone not well known to you to make small talk about the weather.  You can both complain gently about things, comment on flagrantly obvious characteristics of the world around and pass the time politely.  In our modern world of manufactured spaces and controlled environments the weather is less and less relevant with each passing year so what might have been a useful conversation about a topic that matters years ago is now purely filling space most of the time.  You really do begin to appreciate just how much the weather matters when you go out camping though and discussions of the weather in that context suddenly take on a new, heightened importance.

As I mentioned in my last post I went camping last year and it sucked.  We shivered in the drizzle and tried to keep warm by huddling under our towels when it got cold enough to break records.  This year the days were in the high 20s (that is something like 80 F for you barbarians in the backwards south) and cloudless for the entire trip.  We wandered to the beach at will, swam constantly, left stoves and equipment out all day and night as though rain is not a thing and didn't even have to put on long pants for the night - it was glorious.  I was genuinely sad to leave at the end of the trip and that is saying a lot for someone with my level of internet addiction.  Sitting on a sand beach listening to the water and feeling the sun slowly cook my skin into a soup of melanomas wasn't just a thing to do, it was like a drug I could not quit.

That stark difference in experiences is incredible given how little I care about the weather on a day to day basis.  I walk to do my chores and pick up Elli in the rain without a concern since I am going so little distance and have controlled climates on both ends.  Unpleasant temperatures are simply irrelevant because I can always just close the balcony door and conserve heat or crank the AC and live in a chill if I so desire.  When living outdoors one must be prepared for so many different things and immune to much unpleasantness; a stark contrast to the lives most of us live in our protected cocoons.  I know that it is well established that weather patterns in a place have a tiny effect on happiness since people that move to 'better' climates are happier for a short time but rapidly lose any benefits over time but I wonder if that effect is due to our modern living conditions.  People are very adaptable but I imagine that living outdoors in northern Ontario with two seasons (Blackfly and Winter) was so bad that a move to a better climate must have some sort of long term effect.

I must in closing suggest that everyone should try the Pinery Provincial Park, but definitely do so during a warm, dry spell in the summer.  If you do try this though I have one particular warning:  do not buy firewood from the park.  They do not sell wood so much as water with a slight seasoning of tree.  There may have been cursing involved in me trying to burn wood bought at the park itself.  As a country boy when I asked "Is the firewood you sell dry?" and get the answer "Well, it is under a roof so I guess so" I should *know* to be suspicious.  You city folk probably don't understand...

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Fake Camping

This weekend I am going camping at Pinery Provincial Park with my family and Sandbox Lady and her family of 3.  We are car camping, also known as 'not camping'.  It is rather amusing to look at the way I went camping with my family when I was young and this camping trip:  I remember trekking through the rain for hours up and down mountains, portaging canoes over several kilometers and carrying everything needed for a week on my back and this weekend I will be bringing along extra pillows, twice as much food as I think I will need, stuffed animals and huge beach towels.  Not that these differences are going to make this not fun of course, as although there is some appeal to the hardcore approach and I quite enjoy packing really light and making the best of it, it is hard to think that they are the same activity at all.  Aside from the fact that we are going to use a tent in both situations they basically bear no resemblance to one another.

It has me wondering about the allure of camping and what people get out of it.  Certainly part of me wants to use this as a training mission to get Elli acclimatized to tents and eating outdoors so I can more easily drag her along on later, more challenging trips as she gets older.  That said, there is a lot of appeal to spending a few days outside, swimming, making sandcastles and sitting beside a campfire at night without having to deprive myself of all the joys of civilization.  I don't know how much of this is me wimping out on doing a real trip and how much is just acknowledging that small children don't do well on long hikes and it wouldn't be much fun to try.

Last year we tried this same thing at the same place and it was a disaster.  Elli was desperately sick both ways, refused to sleep until midnight and woke up with the sun.  The weather was rainy and extremely unseasonably cold and we ended up spending much of our time shivering under our towels for warmth in the middle of July; not exactly the picture of summer relaxation.  We ended up leaving a day early in the hopes of actually enjoying some part of the weekend.  I might like to phrase it as a tactical retreat but anyone at all could be forgiven for calling us cowards who ran away from an exercise that surely could have built some character.

Regardless of the fact that the weather is supposed to be better this time we are still aiming at sleeping 3 people in a small tent including a small girl who constantly thrashes about and wakes up and has never learned to share a bed.  Perhaps we need to follow a normal car camping paradigm and get roaring drunk in front of the fire every night, at least that way we will sleep deeply and soundly and not worry at all about the twitchy little person beside us.  I hope I don't end up crashing in the van on a flattened out driver's seat to avoid an overcrowded tent, that would be a rather poor set of sleeping arrangements from nearly any perspective.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

I love a good raid

It is done.  Ogg Gulnath Tago (my WOW guild) is packing it in for this WOW expansion; our last raid was Tuesday night.  For many guilds the last raid is a disaster full of drama, bitterness or failure that catalyzes the disintegration.  For us it was instead a moment of clarity and euphoria as we downed Halion in hardmode and declared ourselves done with Wrath of the Lich King.  This moment is exactly the one we long for, the promised reward that gets us online 3 times a week like clockwork to mulch through bosses and throw ourselves at new encounters.  We have been working on this fight for some weeks now, ignoring everything else in the game to try to get just one more challenging kill in before the end.  I must say that this one final raid reminded me so poignantly of exactly why I love to raid - we were constantly improving in tiny ways on a very challenging encounter and we could all feel those incremental improvements adding up.  We could all see that very soon we would hold it together just a bit longer and the dragon would finally keel over dead and give up his shiny, shiny loot.  The moment of success after a long night of constant improvement is simply sublime.

The Lich King however remains unkilled on hardmode.  Only one ten man strict guild in the world defeated him and we are not that guild but we called it quits on a good note regardless since we were the fourth guild in the world to beat Halion hardmode and that is prestige enough to last us.  In retrospect I must be very happy with our raiding for this expansion; we defeated every challenge set before us but for one, completed nearly every possible achievement that was available to complete and managed to do so on a modest schedule with flexibility for our members.  We aren't the most hardcore of the hardcore but there is no reason to cry foul that only the no lifers can win; they chose to prioritize that victory and we did not.  I have no doubt that we had the capacity to defeat the Lich King should we have chosen to throw ourselves at it long enough but we did not make that choice - it would be silly to fault others for doing so.

I am proud of the way we finished things off, play skill entirely aside.  Just as with most guilds that cease raiding there were the usual symptoms:  People playing other games, people having little motivation, people quitting for one reason or another leaving only a skeleton crew to continue.  Thankfully we managed to maintain our composure, dignity and friendships and made the decision to play for 2 more raids to see if we could beat that one challenge that eluded us and yet seemed entirely beatable.  I have seen so many guilds explode or disband because people leave, or defect, or quit playing and so often there is a tremendous onslaught of venom and bitterness from those still trying that poisons the whole experience.  I have been blessed (in the entirely secular sense, of course!) to be working with a bunch of reasonable adults who play hard but respect other people's need to let real life be ascendant now and again and who feel like getting bent out of shape isn't much of a good idea.

So we are done, for now.  We can sleep easy knowing that we have pushed back the darkness, saved the world.  Some day soon there will be a new villain that must be overcome but for now our champions rest.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

About Sleep

Sleep is so wonderful, so why do I avoid it so?  I have this problem that I do like sleep and I love being well rested but I find it hard to close things down and go to sleep at night.  Obviously I am not alone in this regard, people are getting less and less sleep year by year in developed nations and the penalties for this behaviour are becoming well known and widely published.  I am lucky that I am married to someone who gets sleepy before me and that we both like cuddling together before actually nodding off so I have real external pressure to go to bed at a reasonable hour instead of being up far too late online; without that I expect I would end up being up very late far too often.  In high school and university my sleep schedule was very strange and it only became reasonable once I got a job and became a real person.  I remember getting to high school more than an hour before it started every day due to commuting issues and sleeping on the floor on top of the heat pipe.  Every morning there would be 2-5 students snoozing in the edge of the basement along the wall that had the heat running under it.

This is one of those bizarre issues that modern life created which wasn't an issue at all in years gone past.  When a candle costs a significant chunk of a day's wages or is entirely beyond one's means then sleeping 10 hours a night is easy - there isn't much to do in the pitch dark.  Lighting at night has gone from a luxury enjoyed only by the rich and powerful to a triviality available to everyone and we as a society have not adjusted well to that.  When light is at a premium it is entirely sensible to push oneself to keep going as long as there is something to do because the world will enforce an end at a healthy hour, but that desire creates a mess these days.  It used to be that drunken driving was the most problematic issue on the roads but drowsy driving has handily overtaken it as the greatest threat as public acceptance of drunken driving has plummeted.

Sleeping longer increases health, longevity, happiness, learning potential and productivity and yet we increasingly push ourselves to avoid it as a society.  Even children are chronically sleep deprived; in fact teenagers average only 6 hours of sleep a night even though improving their grades and success at school is far best served not by more activities or studying but simply more sleep.  Apparently many schools are switching to a later start time to try to accommodate this and are finding that starting at 8:30 instead of 7:30 reaps huge benefits in both scholastic achievement and behavioural issues.  Not that this would have helped me any when I was in school since I had to get up at 6:30 for a 9:00 start due to living way out in the boonies.  According to Nurtureshock being sleep deprived is even a strong risk factor for childhood obesity, although that relationship does not hold true for adults.

The tricky thing is that the world is so interesting during the night.  The silence and foreboding atmosphere of a city of comatose people is intriguing and there is simply never a shortage of things to do - the internet never sleeps.  I wish I had an answer to this very modern dilemma but I certainly do not.  We all would be better off if we could force ourselves to sleep more but just like saving more, eating less and using less stuff we utterly fail at doing so despite messages to the contrary we see every day.  Until the cost of being up just one more hour becomes more obvious at the time I suspect we are in for even less sleep in future.

Monday, August 23, 2010


You might think that computer games are a pretty passive hobby, that you sit there and click buttons and that your body doesn't get overly involved in the outcome.  Such is not the case for me.  I have been playing Starcraft 2 online some and doing a lot of player vs. player (PVP) fights and I can hardly believe how pumped up I get during games.  I sweat like crazy, my hands shake and I play terribly because I can hardly think with all the adrenalin pounding through my system.  To really play a game well requires a clear mind and focus; I am about as far from that game state as is possible in most of my matches.  When I play against computer opponents I am much more calm and relaxed, the game proceeds mostly as I plan it to and I follow the path I decided on before the game started.  Against players things go crazy!  I try all kinds of weird stuff and end up playing rather poorly overall.  Despite the bad play, shaky hands and sweats... I LOVE it.

I have only a 11/10 record so far but it seems to me that I ended up placed in the right league.  I am Platinum, second from the top, and I think the level of play there is about right for me, despite the ridiculous way I got placed there.  The people I play against are at least pretty beatable for me and it is clear both sides are trying things seen on professional replays and not really doing it right yet.  I am still very new to it all though, my impression that I am competent enough to be here may yet be wrong.

The thing that gets me most though is how different the experience is from playing against the computer on a set scenario.  I think that the difference may be that PVP matches are recorded forever; my win/loss record is out there for the world to see and can be looked up by anyone who cares to know whereas my solo play is entirely my own and no one knows of my failures.  It might also be that playing against people is simply not predictable.  The computer has a limited set of moves and I know with certainty that I can figure those out and victory is inevitable; people don't act this way at all.  No matter how well I have the main battle locked up my opponents can still do something really unexpected and wreck me and the worry and anticipation of what exactly my opponent is going to try this time gives me an adrenalin rush that is a wonder.  That knowledge that no matter how well I play, no matter what I do I cannot deal with all possibilities is a powerful one.

I haven't even really gotten into the mental games yet, and that is another whole level of play.  Knowing exactly what sorts of attacks can come from particular setups and convincing the opponent that a particular type of play is coming when in fact it is something entirely different are huge in professional play and I am sure I will eventually delve that deep.  Doing so seems like it will require me to settle down and drop the level of energy though - being absolutely wired for every single ladder match can't be good for learning and calculated mind games.  Question is, how I do I tone down the chemical soup I unleash on myself during a game?  Can I retain that intense rush and the accompanying good feelings while losing the shaky play?  The answer is probably yes, but the method may well involve playing an awful lot of Starcraft.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Eaarth in the balance

I order books from the library fairly randomly and the wait times vary a lot so when I get to read a thing is not at all predictable.  Amusingly I ended up with two books arriving this week that focus to varying degrees on climate change and they take two distinctly different tacks.  The first is The Rational Optimist which I already talked about twice this week which looks at climate change, innovation and economics and concludes that there will be distinct difficulties in dealing with climate change long term but that we are capable of overcoming the challenges and an approach of gradual reduction of emissions is best for humanity long term.  I generally very much agreed with that book's conclusions, in particular that nuclear power is the way to go moreso than wind, wave, geothermal or otherwise.

The second book is called Eaarth by Bill McKibben and it takes a dramatically different tack:  The Earth as we know it is already so completely destroyed/changed by climate change that we are living on a new planet entirely which he chooses to call Eaarth.  I would say that this book is *almost* completely rubbish but that might be opening the door to doubt, of which I have none.  I ordered Eaarth quite some time ago when there was a discussion on my blog about whether or not there are climate change believers out there actively spreading false data about climate change who have some reason to profit from it.  While I obviously don't suggest that Bill McKibben has the raw profit dollars that Exxon does he certainly stands to gain a lot from pushing his agenda and you sell a lot more books with froth mouthed doomsaying than with rational analysis.

The ways in which Bill proves that climate change has already happened and is cataclysmic in nature include anecdotal weather reports from illiterate farmers, scientific data as quoted by random newpapers or magazines, big numbers with absolutely no context, ignoring inflation and other economic changes when convenient and personal experience.  His typical example is to cite a particular area, cherrypick the timeframe that best shows his point and then give an alarming number to suggest substantial change/disaster has occurred and to follow up by assuming this is true globally.  Anyone who is bothering to look at his examples at all would wonder why he chooses his examples so specifically instead of looking at broader trends; the answer would be that in any random system you get plenty of outliers and you can prove anything if you pick the ones you want and assume they are the norm.  The best example I found so far is that he blames the beach sand in Dubai being too hot for some tourists on global warming and talks about how the hotel in question is planning on cooling down the sand for their clients somehow.  This just in:  Dubai is hot, and has been for quite some time.  The change so far in the past hundred years is something like .7C, not 7C.

"We are overwhelming the system," says Richard Zeebe, an assistant professor of oceanography at the University of Hawaii. "It's pretty outrageous what we've done."  Which is as objective a scientific statement as you're likely to hear.  

If you want scientific support for your theories I would like to suggest that an assistant professor giving a statement with no numbers, citations or context is demolishing your credibility, not building it up.  This is particularly true when you add a note to suggest that this is objective and scientific at all.

So here is the thing:  Climate change is real.  Dealing with it is important.  That doesn't mean we should listen to this irresponsible agitator or his ilk, and it is important to recognize that this sort of person exists and that his views are being displayed and consumed in mainstream channels alongside propaganda from Big Oil as well as real scientific data.  If this was the only book on climate change that I read I would be utterly convinced that climate change was a hoax cooked up by a bunch of lunatics desperate for attention and book sales.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

More Happiness Musings

I have completed reading The Rational Optimist, which I talked about in a post earlier this week already.  Matt Ridley has lots of very interesting ideas ranging from sensible responses to global warming to the reasons that humankind managed to dominate the Earth.  The major recurring theme in the book is that trade is the single most dominant driver of civilization, scientific advance and economic growth.  Trade is defined by both exchanging of goods and ideas and after reading the whole book I find his position hard to refute, though perhaps he oversimplifies a little here and there.

The thing that it made me think about was the idea that economic freedom creates prosperity and happiness independently.  People are much happier in situations where they have the freedom to move around as they please, marry who they want and earn their living in the way they enjoy and these sorts of freedoms also bring economic and scientific growth.  If we look at governments in the past we see a very stark trend that those that allowed their citizens substantial freedom in their lives and protected their rights, in particular property rights, prosperity and innovation followed.  The reverse is true of oppressive regimes that restrict their citizens freedoms and do not respect their individual rights - in these cases little in the way of economic growth or scientific advance followed.

The trick here is that we would like to know how much economic prosperity affects people's happiness.  Rich countries are consistently happier but rich countries are also usually democratic and the citizens of those countries have extensive rights that are usually respected.  Even if democracy, free thought and an open market did not create wealth I would expect that any country sporting these institutions would be happier than one that does not by a significant margin.  The other trick is that happy people become richer.  If you treat mental disorders, drug addiction and other causes of unhappiness in society you create opportunities for those people to take part in the economy productively and become richer.  Also, those that are happy due to other factors are naturally predisposed to becoming wealthy.  People with supportive networks of family and friends, good money handling and social skills and a comfortable upbringing have a massive advantage in the job market and also are going to be much happier than those without.  They are going to be both happy and relatively wealthy even if no correlation existed.  The same applies to achieving a state of flow - doing a hard job that suits one's skills is rewarding in both smiles and cash.

None of this proves that happiness and wealth are not correlated above the middle class, and it also doesn't prove the reverse.  Unfortunately for our understanding this topic is incredibly complex and answers are extremely difficult to tease out of the data we have.  Fortunately it isn't necessary to determine that answer to arrive at good public policy since there still are many people that don't have enough money to get themselves above the theoretical happy minimum in Canada, never mind in Africa and elsewhere.  Economic prosperity will definitely allow us to increase the happiness of our own country and improve the lives of people elsewhere in the general sense, regardless of whether or not it actually makes sense from an individual perspective to pursue wealth as a means to that end.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Birthday Conundrum

This is a double post day.  Other post is Here.

Yesterday was my 32nd birthday.  As is usual for me I didn't have a party nor did I open presents.  I don't generally find birthdays to be stressful as getting a little older doesn't bother me but I don't bother with making a big deal out of it either.  Mostly a birthday is just a nonevent for me, though last year a bunch of people showed up at my house for unrelated reasons and I sort of had a party.  Wendy and I have decided to no longer get each other presents for birthdays and instead have special activities or events - we both found shopping for presents more stressful than it was worth to receive them.

The trick is that two sets of people still get me presents for my birthday, my parents and my parents in law.  Neither of them has much of an idea of what to get me most times so I end up suggesting things for presents instead.  This last Christmas I sent around a big list of things that I would be happy to get and got a bunch of them, which worked out all right.  However, for my birthday both sets of parents asked me what I wanted to get and I ended up feeling like this wasn't really achieving the goals of a birthday gift exchange.  A gift exchange can be about finding a special item that the receiver would not find on their own or not purchase on their own or it can be a more obligatory transfer of wealth on a particular date.  I am pretty normal in that I very much enjoy random presents here and there that are appropriate but I don't find I like the required transfer of funds even when they are being transferred my way.

My parents are getting me shoes for my birthday.  Since they are far away and are not entirely sure what sort of shoes I want I am going to go buy the shoes myself and let them know how much they were.  My in laws have asked me what I want and presuming I come up with something in a reasonable price bracket they will get it for me.  I do appreciate that these people want to give me gifts but I find this way of doing so isn't what I am looking for.  A part of the difficulty is that I don't get people birthday gifts; just as my parents and in laws don't know what I like/need and thus have to consult me for gifts I don't know what they like/need and my gifts would probably be poorly chosen.  Another complication is that I am living a very low money lifestyle and they are not - so ritualized exchanges of money are not affecting us equally.

The simplest solution from a purely selfish standpoint is to simply tell everyone that I don't want birthday gifts.  I am always happy to receive presents at any time that are particularly appropriate but stamping Aug 17th as a mandatory day to find the right gift seems unnecessary.  The trick is that buying presents on birthdays is something they want to do and it makes them happy so cutting that off may be helping me in some sense but it isn't helping them any and I want everyone involved to be satisfied with the outcome.  I don't want to force my low consumption lifestyle on someone who isn't entirely comfortable with it - there are plenty of fights over values I am willing to have but this is one I don't feel is important enough for that.  At the moment I am probably going to sit just for the status quo and ask for a Civilization 5 preorder for my birthday present since from everything I can see it seems like a game I would enjoy playing.  I like the fact that people want to get me presents but I wish there was some better way for that to go.

Civilization 5 screenshot below:

The Million Dollar Question

So here is the Million Dollar Question:  Does being rich make you happier?

Our culture as a whole can't agree at all on this issue.  There are plenty of sayings like 'Money can't buy you happiness' and people will regularly agree with the sentiment that the most rewarding things in their lives had nothing to do with earning money or consuming goods and yet people do spend immense portions of their lifetimes and energy chasing promotions, raises, unlikely windfalls, free stuff and questionable deals.  Our collective desire to try to accumulate money and then consume conspicuously to show it off is tremendous and it is entirely at odds with what good advice seems to suggest.

There have been studies done that have found that there is no link between money and happiness beyond a certain amount.  Those that live in real poverty are definitely less happy than the middle class but it is an often quoted fact that income beyond that which is necessary to have a safe place to live, food to eat and relative security has no happiness benefit.  I am just now reading a book called The Rational Optimist by Matt Ridley that suggests that this is dead wrong and that there is a consistent trend towards greater happiness with greater money.

There are a few things we know for sure on this topic and some things that seem muddy.  We know that people get happy very quickly when they gain a lot of money but that that effect diminishes rapidly with time and that the same thing happens in reverse with losing money.  We also know that a tremendous portion of the happiness a person gains with increased wealth is due to their relative position to others.  Having the things that a middle class person has today would make you richer than a king in times gone past but obviously no one is arguing that  everyone today is happier than nearly everyone who lived in times prior to 1900 so clearly these benefits are based hugely on your circumstances.  I have read a theory about this that seems to me to be by far the best explanation of these effects:  The idea is that once basics of food and shelter are covered the benefit of wealth on happiness is entirely based on your relative wealth to your peers.  If the people you deal with regularly are generally less wealthy than you then they will be less happy and you will be more happy.  This makes a lot of sense and meshes really well with studies that otherwise seem contradictory; if absolute wealth has no effect on happiness but relative wealth does two studies with different methodology could easily conclude that either happiness varies with wealth or it does not.

It is clear then that wealth does make the person gaining it happier but because it also takes happiness away from his peers the net effect is not positive.  So you can make yourself happy by being richer, but only by stealing happiness from the global pool.  You could achieve the same gain of happiness simply by associating with poorer people and not changing your own circumstances at all!  Of course, this all depends on a relatively prosperous society to be true.  In our society it is quite easy to support a family on 45 hours of work a week along with some chores.  Being rich does not at all mean you work less hours - those at the top of the status world regularly work more hours than the average man, which is exactly the opposite of how things work in a much less advanced society.  Back when the middle class had to work 6 days a week 14 hours a day and do without healthy food and medicine getting more money surely could gain a person happiness regardless of their peer group but the same isn't true today.

To be clear there are people around in Canada and the US today who do not meet the minimum requirements for money to no longer produce happiness in an absolute sense.  In particular homeless people, natives on reserves, people growing up in gang dominated neighborhoods and those who experience discrimination could become happier absolutely if they had more wealth.  Once you are a person who has basic freedoms guaranteed, good food, a home and a reasonable expectation of health and safety you really aren't going to gain much from gaining wealth except at the cost of others.

Monday, August 16, 2010

I am amazing!

I decided to finally start playing Starcraft 2 against other players instead of just the campaign.  This is tricky because unlike playing the campaign other players do not allow me to reload and try again until I am successful; I will have to come face to face with my own inadequacies.  While I am certainly a decent player I am not remotely as good as the best players and my desperate urge to be the absolute best at the things I do does not deal well with being mediocre.  SC2 has three races and because the Terrans are the ones that are the basis of the campaign I am massively more familiar with them but I elected to play Zerg for my player vs. player matches.

I am terrible at Zerg.  I don't know how the units work, I don't know which buildings let me do which things and my grasp of their upgrades and tech tree is weak at best.  I played 3 games as Zerg on the beta and got utterly ruined right away in all of them so I began my placement matches to determine what league I should start in with very little idea what I was doing.  The various leagues are as follows:


I figured since I am hopeless at Zerg that I would end up in the Bronze or Silver league and would have to fight my way up the line from there.  There are 5 placement matches to play before the game picks an appropriate league for you so I queued up and prepared to get wrecked.  Bizarrely I managed to win my first 4 games.  I got one win because my opponent was even worse than me, but the other 3 wins were pretty much all due to watching Day9s videos about Starcraft 2 strategy.  Despite having very little idea what many of my units or structures did I managed to figure out my opponent's strategies and counter them just as I have seen the pros do in the videos.  By watching experts control their units and adapting those techniques I turned sure losses into wins.  My fifth opponent was actually quite good and I got smashed leaving me at 4-1.  My placement matches are over and the game announces that I have been placed in the Platinum league.  Wut?

Platinum league... for someone who has never even built half of the units, has never built many of the buildings and who doesn't even know which of his units do what things?  I think this says a lot about how useful watching videos of pros playing really is.  Seeing how absolutely beautiful players do things can give you tremendous insight into how the game plays at a very high level and what key things players should watch out for in their opponent's setup.  That exposure to tremendous play let me do things I had no business doing otherwise.  I think that Platinum league is way too high for me though - I played only one match and won it because my opponent disconnected just before his army got to my base.  I should probably play against the computer as Zerg a bit so I actually know how to play the game!

Sunday, August 15, 2010

I forgot to eat lunch

This weekend is a bachelor weekend for me.  Wendy and Elli are off at the cottage and I get to revisit the days of being single and not a father.  Some things from that era I can't go back to like sleeping all day and staying up all night, some things I don't want to go back to like studying for finals but some things are wonderful.  On Saturday I got up at 9:30, made breakfast, sat down to play a little Starcraft 2 and then noticed that it was 5:00 PM and I had forgotten to eat lunch.  I also had not put on clothes of any sort, which I had to remedy because some friends were coming over fairly shortly.  There are probably people who don't think that sleeping in, playing video games all day, staying naked until nightfall and eating pickles and toast for a meal makes a for decadent weekend but those people are crazy.

It makes me wonder about how being able to live that way affects my happiness, and how that could generalize to the whole of humanity.  Back in university I did live a much more spontaneous life, ignoring the clock, good eating habits and generally being quite a mess but I don't think I was happier then than I am now despite how good it feels to be able to do those things these days.  I had a sleeping schedule back in the day that included 3 8 hour sleeps and 2 16 hour sleeps a week on a fixed rotation that pretty much ignored day and night but the freedom to do so just wasn't very impactful given that I had it all the time.  The old saying "A change is as good as a rest" is probably very appropriate here.

I certainly enjoy treats more when I do not get them all the time and yet I can't deliberately deny myself good things to increase their potency later just for the sake of denying them - that makes me unhappy instead.  People are all like this; when they go to a tropical paradise on vacation they are exceedingly happy but when they move there they end up cursing the heat and the rainy season and whatever else and don't end up any happier overall.  People who get a lot of money don't become really happy with things they can easily afford because their 'this is special' price range simply goes up and they continue chasing whatever it is that is almost out of reach.  It is well established that people are largely controlled by some internal happiness level.  There are many external factors that have large temporary effects but as long as very basic needs and freedoms are met people tend to be about as happy as is their custom over the long term.

I have this idea that somehow I could construct a life where I have just the basic amount of normalcy required to set a standard of living in my mind and then maximize the happiness I gain from adding in various luxuries in the proper mix.  This surely isn't feasible though because that act of control would remove more happiness than it would add.  What I need is a happiness manager; someone who makes subtle hints and rearranges the world to maximize the enjoyment I gain from simple things and makes sure the world works.  They could arrange for old friends to stop by, set up days where I can play video games naked for 12 hours and forget to eat and occasionally leave Smarties lying around the place where I would find them.  Anyone want to volunteer?

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Time to go

This month the US ends its 'combat mission' in Iraq.  After 8 years of occupation the US force is finally being scaled back to 50,000 troops (!) that are assigned to training and protection of US interests rather than active combat. I wonder who out there counts the war on Iraq as a worthwhile undertaking given the view from this point.  Trillions of dollars spent, world confidence in the solitary military superpower shattered, hundreds of thousands of deaths and 8 years and Iraq is still without even a remotely effective government and battling an insurgency that seems unlikely to be defeated completely within a decade.

It is absolutely true that Saddam Hussein was a brutal dictator and committed some terrible acts so removing him from power and installing a democratic process must be considered a worthwhile task.  However, the cost to the country of Iraq seems so high that I must question how long a good democratic government would have to be in place to justify such carnage.  The best figures I found suggested civilian casualties around 100,000 thus far, certainly a larger number than would have been killed should Saddam Hussein's regime remained in power.  The economy and everyday life of Iraqis I don't much have a way of evaluating but it sure seems like constant bombings and destruction of infrastructure as well as the removal of any sort of government for a sustained period must be disastrous.

Note that this isn't to say I think there is any justification for the decision to go to war in the first place.  Just because we think there may be some good done by replacing a government we don't like in another country is no reason to march in and create such mayhem, particularly because the outcomes are so unpredictable.  The decision to start this war was disastrous and unjustified but once US troops were on the ground and the old government was toppled we then can reasonably look at whether or not things have overall improved.

We do have a practical obligation to intervene in other countries' affairs in certain cases.  The principle of neutrality being safe fell apart quite thoroughly in WW2, if nowhere else, and it has become clear that sometimes things in other places are so bad that sending troops can become a moral imperative.  Keeping aggressive countries, dictators and generals in check is key to preventing political destabilization, not to mention humanitarian disasters, and intervening to prevent civil wars is important.  Making up stories of Weapons of Mass Destruction to drum up support for invading countries, not so much a good thing.

Much as letting people live in democracies is a laudable goal I am not at all sure that the people of Iraq would appreciate the interference from outside in hindsight; certainly the ones who died or witnessed their loved ones dying in the last 8 years might think that it would have been much better to just live with things the way they are.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Victory at what cost?

The end of the current WOW expansion is upon us and still the final challenge remains unbeaten.  My guild is ranked 14th in the world for pure progress and 5th for achievements and yet killing the Lich King hardmode may not happen.  It is a sad statement for how the pure 10 man raiding path has gone that only one guild has so far managed to stick to 10 man content and take down the Lich King; congratulations to The Typhoon Struggle.

The end of a WOW expansion always involves some ludicrously hard fights and I have never defeated any of them though this time I have come very close.  It takes a pretty dedicated individual to push hard enough to defeat the most brutal challenges laid before us and every time these challenges have come up I have ended up burning out on raiding for various reasons.  In Classic it was because Elli was born and maintaining a raiding schedule with a casual guild suffering badly from 'expansionitis' was simply not viable and in Burning Crusade it was a combination of scheduling and many of my friends also deciding to be done with raiding for awhile.  Each time I examined the situation and came to the conclusion that the amount of time and effort required to push past the greatest challenges simply wasn't worth it.  I remain confident that I have the potential to beat anything out there but I should be realistic; I just don't have the desire to play in as hardcore a group as would be necessary and I can't justify playing as much as the top guilds seem to (often 60 hours a week).

The question still remains as to whether my guild will defeat the Lich King on hardmode.  We raided last night and it felt good but we had only 9 people for most of the night.  After 2 weeks off we may end up taking a long time to get back into practice for the hardest fight of them all and we are likely looking at at least 100 more attempts to achieve victory.  I wonder if our resolve will hold out long enough or if we will end up simply ditching and waiting until more content comes out with the next expansion.

It is a hard thing for me to face up to.  I know that whether or not I defeat a particular video game monster won't change my life much either way but I have an idea about who I am and what I am capable of and that idea doesn't agree well with quitting before beating the hardest thing.  Wisdom tells me that balancing my games and the rest of my life will lead to the most happiness even if I lack that rush of victory now and then.  On the other hand I know that I achieve flow and tremendous satisfaction from playing games at a truly high level and overcoming challenges that few can defeat. The rush of happiness that comes from performance at my highest possible level is important to me and the pursuit of it is central to my personality.  This game being a social game I play with many friends does mean that the choice is not really mine to make however.  I am not the sort to ditch early while things still look possible but if others decide to throw in the towel my decision is likely made for me.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010


A week ago Wendy, Elli and I went on a walk through some local parks.  We took the bus to get there, wandered about for awhile and then hopped on the bus to come home.  The bus driver took one look at my bare feet and told me I had to put on shoes to get on the bus.  I found this a bit bizarre since the posted rules for the TTC (Toronto public transit) make no mention of shoes being required and I have been on all kinds of different public transit vehicles with no shoes on including subway, streetcars, buses, even ferries.  Thankfully the bus driver eventually concluded that ordering me off the bus when I was pushing my daughter's stroller probably wouldn't go over well and he elected to drop the subject.  I went online later and discovered that bare feet actually are against the TTC regulations but that the only way to find this out is to look online for that specifically, and there is of course no reason given for that regulation.

This past weekend Elli and Wendy went to Ikea with the idea that Elli would play in their babysitting area with all kinds of fun equipment, but Elli was prevented from doing so because she didn't have socks.  Her Crocs weren't acceptable and neither were bare feet, only sock feet would do.  This incident is really ridiculous because the usual reasons given for banning bare feet are health and safety related and I cannot imagine how anyone could suggest that socks are somehow safer than bare feet.  In this case it simply must be a propriety thing; apparently it is important that the Ikea children's play area maintain a high class image.

It used to be normal for many people to go without shoes because shoes were expensive and as such they were a marker of wealth and success.  The standards have shifted from just wearing shoes to wearing very expensive shoes but the essential value of spending on clothing to impress has not changed.  The trouble comes in when people start to assume that everyone must want to wear shoes and thus anyone who does not is either desperately poor to the point of being homeless or crazy.  It is understandable that people might want to keep certain types of people out of their stores but unfortunately their benchmarks for undesirables exclude people who are in all ways desirable customers.

I think I am a bit unusual in that I really have no issue with showing off the human body.  I would be entirely comfortable with full nudity in public, particularly since the only reason for the government to regulate nudity is outdated religious sexual repression.  It is my belief (entirely unsupported by research, but it does seem reasonable) that most of our current rules and norms about clothing and uncovered bodies stem from Christianity's historic demonization of sex and sexual organs or changes in standards of wealth as I outlined above.  We as a society are far beyond the point where having enough money to be covered up is trivial and hopefully are leaving the days of 'Sex is evil, don't talk about it' behind.  Unfortunately those changes have not yet caught up with our social norms and laws and we still have all these terrible ideas suggesting that someone's morality can be determined by how much of their skin is visible.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Numerical Religion

Wendy finally got me to read Foreigner.  This is a Sci-Fi series with 12 books in it so far and no signs of stopping so getting into the series is a bit of a commitment.  I find the author's style really quite irritating at the start but the world building is exceptionally good so I am willing to overlook the rocky beginning.  In the first book the main character is a chump.  While I don't mind characters starting out a little weak and uncertain I find that the level to which Bren does everything wrong, panics constantly and has absolutely no idea what to do really annoying.  This is particularly true because the whole book is told from his viewpoint and even by the end the reader feels out of place and clueless as to what actually happened.  However, an online review by a bunch of people who liked the series basically said that Cherryh's style is always to have a useless main character at the start and have that character rapidly improve with time.  This convinced me to give the second book a shot since Wendy liked it so much.

The second book of the series is intriguing not because of the main character but because of the way the author approaches religious commentary.  Bren grows up and becomes someone respectable, which is good, and Cherryh spends a lot of time dealing with the idea of alien religions coping with new scientific facts instead of emphasizing how terrible the hero is.  The twist is that the aliens in this case, though they are in many ways similar to humans, have very different ideas about numbers.  Their ideas about numbers are some kind of cross between astrology and religion in that they make absolutely no sense, are not agreed upon at all between various alien groups and are considered extremely important to making nearly any decision.  The aliens are forced to adapt to new ideas and technology from the more advanced humans and their number-religions are thrown all into chaos when scientific fact collides with dogma.

Cherryh has classic scientific-religious points of conflict like the world going round the sun, the size of the universe and such appear in the book as the humans and aliens scramble to avoid a war over the supremacy of one number-religion over another.  Amusingly she even has these far future humans wondering if humans in the past had problems with scientific developments conflicting with 'known' facts.  She goes so far as to talk about how the fact that the aliens are gripped by these number-religions has crippled their growth and kept them from advancing because of their constant conflict between what is obviously true and what their religions proscribe.  It is fascinating to see a really different interpretation of the problems with religion and the conflict with science because it really brings to light how hard it can be to see out of your own situation.  I suspect many/most people would read the book and think that the aliens are being foolish and naive while not even realizing how their own views fall into the same traps.

Thursday, August 5, 2010


When I first started playing Starcraft 2 (SC2) I began by playing through the campaign.  See previous post.  It comes in Easy, Normal, Hard and Brutal settings and I began by bashing through it on Normal.  I have several thousand Starcraft games under my belt, though many were years ago, so it was no surprise that I smashed the Normal campaign with ease.  I was able to adapt to the challenges that came up in each mission and eventually complete them all successfully with little problem.

Today I decided that I need to play through again on Brutal and see if they really mean it.  It turns out that they do!  The difference is substantial enough that the game changes from simply adapting to what the computer does and figuring out a reasonable response to playing the missions over and over to nail down the exact timing of events to perfect my actions.  In some cases I was able to beat the Brutal missions on the first try because I had the knowledge of the easy version but some have something like 16 specific events that I need to know ahead of time to be able to defeat.  In particular I am doing a train heist mission at the moment and it is kicking my sorry behind though it is clear that I will beat it once I memorize everything and perfect my technique.

For example, after I destroy the second train a group of enemies spawns right near my base and instantly attacks.  I have to know this will happen ahead of time so I can have my army standing right where they appear to wreck them before they run in and smash my base.  I have to know where all 3 of the hidden tanks are located so I can pick up 1 of them before the first train, one before the second train and the 3rd after the 3rd train.  I have to capture and build my second base between the second and third trains.  It takes a lot of losing to figure out all these (and many more) timing tricks to actually have a chance to win the scenario.  I find it interesting how different this is from playing SC2 against a player and I wonder if the skills transfer over well.

Players don't let you get away with perfecting a specific set of movements and simply repeating them.  The basic openings are fairly scripted but the game becomes really random and chaotic very quickly and you cannot hope to prevail if your strategy is simply to do the same thing every time.  I also cannot generally find a human player who will play a specific strategy over and over against me to allow me to perfect a series of unchanging moves; that is really quite boring!  I have found in the past that I am at my best when competing against people on a very tight clock where rapid decisions have to be made with limited information.  I have never been the perfect game analyst and fall short of many of my friends when it comes to picking apart a specific situation but I excel at making choices very rapidly with limited information and coming out on top.  This is all not to mention that I *enjoy* fast paced decisions made with limited knowledge - I love the feeling of being in a tight situation and getting out with experience, quick thinking and moxie instead of laborious calculation.

Perhaps I need to get out there and start playing against other players instead of against the machine.  My post seems to lead to that conclusion, though I did not start out thinking that way when I began writing.  These things seems to have a life of their own.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Living off the land

I am making two posts today, so if you visit once a day you should check down and make sure you don't miss one.

My trip up north over the last week was a look at a completely different lifestyle than I have here in Toronto.  I am used to a complete change of pace and style but Elli is only just getting used to how different things are for her parents and her grandparents.  The thing that really struck me was how close my family lives to their food source compared to myself.  I get everything from the grocery store on one of the busier corners in Toronto and they grow a lot of their own food and see meals created largely from things they picked just hours before.

Catching a pickerel and a bass in the river beside the house, picking blueberries and making a pie and digging up hills of potatoes and carrots for supper are the norm during the summer for much of my family.  Elli got to experience this first hand, right from helping to reel in the fish to carrying the fresh vegetables into the kitchen and she seemed very excited by it all.  I got to see this style of living for my first 18 years so it feels natural, if very different from how I live now, but I wonder what the effects are of seeing this sort of thing for the first time.  I suspect that many city kids would benefit from understanding exactly what growing food looks like and what sort of effort is required to grow it.  It would certainly expand their horizons even if they never embraced it.

It is a tricky sort of thing for me to compare country and city living.  I like having no car and I like having a fast internet connection (I will never live without that again!) but there is an undeniable pleasure in eating incredibly fresh food, especially berries directly off the bush.  Having a river directly beside your house is certainly an enviable luxury but I think it is like a balcony in that it is a wonderful thing to talk about and a great selling point but you just don't use it as much as you think you will.  I also wonder how much of the joy of eating your own food is just novelty; I know that when I was young I didn't mind overly much going to the garden to get food but it felt a lot more like work and a lot less like vacation since it was how things always were.

I suppose this is probably like everything else in that the grass is always greener.  City people get a huge kick out of living close to their food source and bumming around in nature and country people get excited by the unlimited shopping opportunities and immense busyness of the big city but mostly people want to get a quick experience and then go home.  We all get passionate about how things could be and the experiences we could have if things were different but as soon as we have those things they soon become part of the background.  Elli would probably continue to be excited about picking food herself for a few weeks and then eventually regard it as an annoying chore, so perhaps just a small taste is the best dose in the end.


Yesterday I went by my local EB games and picked up Starcraft 2.  You may notice that I also did not make a blog post yesterday.  These things may be connected.

I started up the single player campaign and was instantly hooked.  The cinematics are very good, not as good as Avatar, say, but still really pretty and polished.  The campaign is a lot of fun and the strange and varied mechanics of each mission keep things fresh.  All that is great and all, but just building a good single player game isn't enough to keep me so thoroughly engrossed to the extent I was yesterday.  That level of addiction requires good gameplay and characters I can fall in love with at the same time.  Blowing stuff up + tragic love story = Sky is hooked.

The hero is James Raynor, a former thief who ends up being part of revolutions against the evil empire and one of the very few people who can save the innocents from the rampaging aliens.  He has a real white knight complex, a drinking problem and is incredibly resourceful and dangerous.  Raynor is full of courage, smarts, regrets for past mistakes and is terrified he will fail to protect those closest to him once again.  Delicious.  I absolutely love the story of the broken hero trying to make up for mistakes he cannot forgive himself for.  Of course it doesn't hurt that he has a love interest named Sarah Kerrigan who is

1.  Hot.
2.  A Redhead.  You can like what you want, but I will always go for the redhead.
3.  Psychic.
4.  A Ninja.

Really?  A hot, redheaded psychic ninja as the love interest?  Is this supposed to be an early birthday present?  Thankfully Kerrigan is also exceedingly capable and dangerous and not some damsel in distress.  Tragic love stories are more compelling when they contain two people who are both dangerous and multifaceted.  Kerrigan lacks Raynor's many flaws, which might lead to a flat character, but she ends up being kidnapped by the deadly aliens and transformed into the evil Queen of Blades, a mishmash of Kerrigan and alien.  Kinda hot, kinda disgusting, 100% deadly.

I suppose Blizzard wasn't trying to hook me specifically on SC2.  There are probably a lot of guys that are suckers for beautiful psychic ninjas regardless of hair colour, though probably less of them that are so hooked on tragic love stories.  Nonetheless, they sure got me good.

Monday, August 2, 2010

The Santa Game

I talked about the book Parenting Beyond Belief a few posts ago and have been continuing to plug away at it - the collection of advice and information it has for raising children outside religion is really worthwhile.  One thing in particular really struck me though because it provided the perfect solution to a vexing problem I encountered last year at Christmastime.

The issue was Santa Claus and what to tell a certain 3 year old about his existence.  Neither Wendy nor I was particularly comfortable with lying about the existence of an omniscient, fantastically powerful being but we also felt like the Santa myth was not especially harmful in and of itself.  We both have good memories of Christmas time that are all wrapped up in anticipation of loot coming from the fat man in red.  When we discussed this issue with our parents we got a lot of strange looks and disbelief combined with a little disappointment - our parents had sold us on Santa Claus so it isn't surprising they took our idea of removing him from the holiday altogether as a bit of a slight against their parenting choices.

The trick is that choice to involve a child in the Santa Claus myth or not has consequences.  Friends will likely believe in Santa Claus and we don't want to create a confrontation between small children over it nor do we want Elli to feel left out and disappointed because she doesn't get all the fun her friends do.  We also don't want to make our parents unhappy or create rifts in the family by having a fight at family gatherings.  We want to tell her the truth any time it is feasible to do so and foster an appreciation of the wonders of the real world rather than rely on myths and made up things.  Last year we ended up compromising by simply not talking about Santa Claus ourselves and letting Elli either pick up on it from others - or not.

The trick that an essay in Parenting Beyond Belief taught me was so simple it is hard to believe I didn't see it at first.  All we need to do is tell Elli that we are playing a game of pretend.  We all pretend that Santa Claus will come and deliver presents on Christmas and everyone has a good time.  We can even tell her that it is a big secret and some people even believe it but we know ^wink wink^ that it is just a good game to play during the holidays.  We avoid lying to her but she can play along with her friends and all our various relatives just like she does with all her other games of pretend.  Elli has a car, an elephant, several siblings and all kinds of other things that exist or don't based on her whims so a magical man who delivers presents once a year isn't that different.

I think sometimes we end up agonizing far too hard over simple yes/no decisions when there exists the possibility of saying 'maybe' and avoiding the whole problem altogether.  This year we will play the game of Santa Claus pretend and have all the fun but without the Big Brother overtones and the lies.