Sunday, August 30, 2009

Ways of Warriors and Warlords, part 2 (Now With Archers!)

This weekend there was a lot of interesting events going on. First of all, there was a meeting of the local Belegarth group. Belegarth is a lot like Amtgard except that there are no character classes, levels, or magic - just fighting. You can, however, still use archery, which I did. I prefer archery to melee fighting in these games because:

1. Since there are far fewer archers than melee fighters, it allows me to have a unique role on the field.

2. It requires tactics and battlefield awareness rather than just raw fighting ability, because you have to scan the battlefield to identify good targets.

3. It's less frustrating, because I'm never up face to face with someone who is much better than me and that I can't beat. If someone charges me then I can run away and find another location.

4. It means that I don't have any problems with identifying where and when someone hit me. This is also harder in Belegarth than it is in Amtgard because in Belegarth, shots must strike with "sufficient force" in order to count.


So far I have been to three Belegarth practices. There are two per week - one on Wednesdays on the UIUC south quad (no archery is allowed there) and one on Saturdays. So far, after playing the game for a while, there are a lot of interesting differences between Amtgard and Belegarth in terms of archery.

Reasons why archery is more effective in Belegarth than in Amtgard:

1. There tend to be more people on a side and battle lines tend to be tighter, so it is easier to find targets and to find allies to hide behind.

2. Since there is no magic, archers are the only people on the field who have any kind of ranged fighting ability (except javelin throwers but those aren't usually that big of a threat). Thus as long as our battle line holds and nobody's snuck around it I don't have to worry about anyone except enemy archers.

3. With the exception of shields (see below) and dodging, there is no way to defend against incoming arrows - there's no "protection from projectile" spells, immunities, armor (actually there is armor, but arrows go right through it), etc., and you're not allowed to block arrows with weapons.

4. Head shots are legal in Belegarth, but not in Amtgard.

Reasons why archery is less effective in Belegarth than in Amtgard:

1. Shields are far more prevalent in Belegarth, and shields are very effective as a defense against arrows. (And unlike in Amtgard, there are no "specialty arrows") that can damage shields.

2. The safety requirements on arrows are far more stringent in Belegarth than in Amtgard, making the arrows heavier (due to the extra foam) and less aerodynamic.

3. At least in our group, arrows are not reusable. So once you're out of arrows, you have to switch to a melee weapon.

(1) and (2) combined make it so that it is very hard to hit someone who has a shield, is aware of you, and is not distracted. And if that is the case I don't want to waste an arrow on him, because of (3). That means that lots of times my teammates try to point out specific people on the other team to shoot at, but of course all that does is alert them to the fact that there's an archer there. And then my teammates wonder why I'm not shooting them, when the answer is that I know I won't be able to hit them. (Usually the people my teammates point out is one of the more experienced fighters on the other team - that's why they want them dead - so he is going to be better at blocking.)

Another problem is in figuring out who is on which team. Since there are so many people that can be hard to keep track of, so a couple times so far I have ended up shooting people on my own team. And of course, if I ask someone whose team they are on, all I am doing is alerting them to the fact that I am about to shoot them, and giving them the chance to put their shield up or defend. They actually did try to solve this problem last practice by giving people colored strips of fabric to wear. However, this didn't work very well because the pieces weren't that big and could be placed anywhere on the body, making it so that you had to look around for it. The strips were also easily concealed behind shields.

In one battle last session, it was a "capture the flag" battle, and I saw someone rushing toward our flag, with no visible "team sash". I asked him twice what team he was on, with no response. I let loose with the arrow, and it was a hit. The target turned out to be my own teammate, bringing the enemy flag back to our base! I couldn't see his sash because it was hidden behind his shield. Fortunately by the time he got hit he had already got back to our base, so we still one, and he was okay with it afterwards.

I suggested that they require that the "team sash" be worn on the head to eliminate the problems mentioned above. I don't know yet whether they will implement this suggestion next time. I do know, however, that I am not the only person who has trouble with the teams, because at a previous battle (at the quad so it was melee only) I observed lots of people asking each other what team they are on.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Reflected sound of underground spirits, part 2

As it turns out, one of the people in the local Belegarth group is the owner of Edhellen Armoury, so he was able to answer the question I posed in my previous post.

The answer is that different groups have different standards for stabbing tips, so a stabbing tip that would pass inspection and thus be legal on the field at this group won't pass at all groups. So if they were to advertise on their web site, then they might end up selling stabbing tips that wouldn't pass. But when I called, they knew I was in the area because I had come to Belegarth the previous time, so they knew that their stabbing tip would be legal here.

And in case you're wondering about the title of this post, it comes from the book "The Color of Magic" by Terry Pratchett. It means "economics" ("reflected sound" = echo, "underground spirits" = gnomes, so "echo-gnomics")

More politics as usual in Illinois

The Illinois government has a program whereby state-level lawmakers can give scholarships to state schools to anyone they want to, subject only to the restriction that the recipient live in the lawmaker's district. Not surprisingly, said scholarships frequently go to relatives of lobbyists or campaign contributors.

In another article about this (not the one I liked, I couldn't find this one online) some of the lawmakers defended themselves by saying that they didn't have any role in choosing who got their scholarships - they delegated that decision to a committee. One lawmaker defended his decision to give a scholarship to the wife of "Mr. Williams," a lobbyist, by saying that "Mr. Williams is a decent man - I know him from his lobbying."

Possibly more surprisingly, most of the scholarships don't go to politically connected individuals. According to the article linked above, 83 scholarships over the past 6 years have gone to people with political connections, and 1,509 scholarships were awarded last year. Assuming no year-to-year change this means that less than 1% of scholarships went to people with political connections.

However, here's the question: What's the purpose of this program, if not to give politicians a way to reward their friends? I don't see why this system is a better way of distributing scholarships than a traditional way where everyone can apply and there are designated criteria for who gets the scholarship. The only thing I can think of is that a politician might know someone personally who would be a qualified recipient, but the qualifications don't look good "on paper" - but that goes back to politicians rewarding their friends.

Reflected sound of underground spirits

Here is an interesting puzzle.

Edhellen Armoury sells weapons for LARPs such as Belegarth and Dagorhir. They charge about $25-40 per weapon depending on size. They sell weapons primarily through the web site, but since they are based near here in Illinois, they also sell weapons through one of the local gaming stores, Dragon's Table. Most of the weapons they sell on the site are only legal to slash with, not stab with, because they do not have the required "stabbing tips." It is possible to get a stabbing tip added to the weapon for $10 extra.

A stabbing tip is simply an extra piece of foam that goes on the tip that makes the tip softer. The marginal cost of adding it is certainly far less than $10. (This is not the puzzle - lots of products have "extras" that you can get that cost far more than the cost of adding it, as a way of segmenting the market and making more money. For example the 16 GB iPhone costs $100 more than the 8 GB iPhone, even though the cost of 8 additional GB of hard drive capacity is far less than $100.)

The puzzle is the following:

The existence of the option to buy stabbing tips for extra is not listed anywhere on the site, and none of the weapons that are sold at the Dragon's Table have them. In order to find out that they exist, you have to call them, and then they tell you to buy the items as normal and put a "Special Payment" in for the stabbing tip. The question is: why do they make it so hard to find this information? There are other instances of companies making information about particular products hard to find, one notable example being the Starbucks "Short" latte, as a form of price discrimination. But unlike those other examples, Edhellen makes more money off the swords with stabbing tips, not less, so why would they want to hide it? The only thing I can think of is that the demand isn't high enough for it to be worth putting on the web site, but that's surprising, because I've seen lots of weapons at Belegarth with stabbing tips. (In any case, even if people didn't want the more expensive stabbing tip weapons it might still be worth putting them on the site, because of the "decoy effect" - seeing a more expensive option makes the other option look cheaper and more attractive by comparison.)

Quad Day

This Sunday I went to Quad DAy, which is a day when all the student organizations put up booths to tell you about themselves and try to get you to join. I found lots of organizations that seemed interesting:

- Illini Roleplayers (RPGs and Vampire LARPing)
- Techfront (Science Fiction and Gaming)
- MATRIX (Math Club)
- Pirates of Chambana (Dressing up as pirates, building cardboard pirate ships, and doing "pirate battles")
- Odd Request (Improv Comedy Troupe)

There's going to be a lot of different activities to choose from this weekend. The Illini Roleplayers are doing a gaming convention that lasts all weekend, but there's other activities like tryouts for the Improv Troupe and the Urbana Sweetcorn Festival.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Ways of Warriors and Warlords

Over the past couple weeks I have been exploring the gaming scene in Champaign-Urbana (CU).

From talking with some people I found out that there is likely not going to be a large market for Amtgard in this area, because there are several Dagorhir and Belegarth groups (Belegarth is another LARP like Dagorhir that focuses mainly on fighting) in the area, and most of the people in the area who are interested in LARPing are already going to one of those. (This probably explains why there are Amtgard groups in Peoria and Springfield but not CU, as well as why there didn't seem to be anyone currently going to one of the other Amtgard groups that lived closer to CU than to their park.)

I did find that there is a bus that goes to Peoria every day, including weekends. The bus ride is 2 hours long and costs $19 each direction, so it's definitely not something I will want to do every week. But it might be worth doing occasionally, like if there is a special event.

Additionally, I went to some gaming stores to check out the board gaming scene. There's a store, Armored Gopher Games, that is about a 20 minute bike ride away from home that has regular miniatures and Dungeons and Dragons (D+D) campaigns. I joined a D+D campaign that runs every other Friday and played one session so far. There were some funny things that went on. One of the rooms had a puzzle that consisted of a set of 16 plates, each with a different word on it, a door on the east side, and a statue on the south side. We assumed the goal was to open the door, and "door" was one of the words on the plates, so we tried combinations of plates like "Open East Door" and "Unlock East Door" and got nowhere. Then we remembered that we had got a scrap of leather in the previous room that had a picture of a left hand with a down arrow on it. So we tried "Left Hand Down" and that didn't work either. Unfortunately while we were doing this, one of our party members got greedy and tried to pry the gems out of the statue's eyeballs. This triggered the "Open Hell Gate Now" and forced us into combat with hell-spawned monsters. After defeating the monsters we discovered that the puzzle plates were now locked and inoperative. We also discovered that the door on the east side of the room was never locked in the first place. (We also later learned that we almost solved the puzzle: if we had stepped on "Left Hand Down Open" then the statue would have slid away, revealing a shortcut. Since we had to go through the door we had to take the long way around.) The "long way around" consisted of a trap room with traps that pulled us under the floor and attacked us with spears. Some of the characters didn't have the skills required to get out of the trap, so they kept failing their skill rolls to get out, and they were about to get crushed. However we were saved when after 5 rounds, the trap abruptly stopped (because that's what the description of the trap said) and let us out.

Finally, I found a real-life martial arts place, called Hwa Rang Do, in the same shopping center as Armored Gopher Games. I had learned about Hwa Rang Do from the Champaign Arts Festival, and there was a coupon for a free lesson. During the free lesson I learned about some of the basic moves, and also did some grappling, which is like wrestling. Hwa Rang Do grappling is a competitive sport where you get points for putting the opponent in specified positions, for example on the floor with you sitting on top of him or on the floor with you lying on his back. So in order to get the most points you have to shift between the different "scoring positions" while not allowing the opponent to get the upper hand. The cost of tuition at Hwa Rang Do is $90 per month for two 1-hour lessons per week, or you can sign up for the "Warrior's Path" which is $660 up front for training all the way up to the green belt level (green belt is the 4th out of 10 belt levels, IIRC) which on average takes about 10 months. I have not signed up for it, because I'm not sure if it's something I will want to do.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Registering for classes

This past week I have been meeting with various computer science professors in order to decide which classes to sign up for.

The first professor I met with was Michael Heath. I chose him because he works in the field of scientific computing, an area that I have done research and taken courses in in the past and so I might want to have him as my advisor. However he is not teaching any courses this semester. He did however give me a list of courses that I might want to take.

Another professor who I may want to work with is Steven LaValle. His research is in motion-planning algorithms for robots, and has a really cool lab with robots and obstacle courses for the robots to navigate around. I have already read much of the textbook he wrote on the topic. As it turns out, a lot of the problems that need to be solved in order to navigate robots are very similar to the types of problems that are solved in numerical and scientific computing. For example, robot motion planning problems are frequently modeled by specifying a set of parameters that describes a particular configuration of the robot (e.g. the displacement and rotation angles of each of the robot's joints) and then using a sampling method to search through the space of all possible parameters to find a path from the origin to the destination point. This is similar in some ways to numerical optimization problems where the goal is to search through a space of variables in order to find the variable values that optimize an objective function.

Unfortunately, LaValle isn't here this week so I couldn't talk to him. However I did also talk to another professor, Chandra Chekuri, who advised me to take two courses that would be useful in both the scientific computing and robotics fields - Topics in Algorithms and Discrete Mathematics - and also take some seminar courses where I can learn about different research areas. I also met with the director of the graduate program, Roy Campbell, who thought that that plan was a good idea.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Graduate Student Social

This was a time for all the graduate students to get together. They had pizza an they even got cheese sticks for me. (They remembered that I didn't like pizza with sauce because I ran into the same situation during the visit day before). The cool thing was they just installed a new Wii video game system in the graduate student lounge. They had also sent out an email before asking what Wii video games people like to play because they had to decide which video games they should get to put in the room. One interesting thing I noticed was that there were also several people there from the State Farm insurance company. I didn't know why they were there - were they trying to sell us insurance? As it turned out the reason was that State Farm donated the money to buy the Wii. How that got started I have no idea.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Events coming up

Now that I am in my apartment in Illinois, I got a sheet indicating that there are several events coming up on campus. I will blog about them after they happen.

The schedule is as follows:

August 14 - Pizza night with other graduate students
August 16 - "Fun Night" sponsored by International Student and Scholar Services
August 17-21 - Meetings with faculty advisors & get signed up for classes
August 23 - QUAD Day: Learn about student organizations and entertainment available on campus
August 24 - First day of classes!
August 28 - "Meet and Greet BBQ" with faculty, staff, and other students in CS Department

Monday, August 3, 2009

My last day at Amtgard (for now...)

Sunday was my last day at Amtgard before I move out to Illinois. It was also the last day of the current reign period, so we had a coronation, and it was a joint coronation with Bandit Flats East, a park in Delaware. So we had to drive all the way out to Delaware to go to the coronation.

As usual, I ran the kid's quest for the day. My plan was to do a quest based on Greek mythology. The way it was going to work was that there was going to be a series of events where they had to "prove themselves" to the gods in order to get items that would enable them to defeat the evil Minotaur. There were different events based on each god's theme - for example a weapon making tutorial for Hephaestus, an arts and crafts project for Athena, and so on. My original plan was also to spice it up by telling them some of the myths. The problem with this is that most Greek myths are not very kid-friendly, because they involve sex, revenge killing, or both. But I did identify several that were. One that I was planning to use was the story of the contest between Athena and Poseidon. (I think this is a humorous one because it is similar to the modern practice of selling naming rights to sports stadiums, except that they were selling naming rights to a city. In fact there is a Capitol Steps song, a parody of "This Land Is Your Land," that speculates that states will have to begin selling naming rights in order to cover their budget deficits, resulting in states with names like "Okla-Home Depot", "New Texaco", and "North Toyota." Apparently the Greeks had the same idea thousands of years earlier.)

When I got there things did not go out as well as planned. First of all there was a major rainstorm which trapped us in the pavilion. Also, the person who was supposed to help me in the quest, our monarch Perdita, got stuck in traffic and was going to be late. I started the quest anyway, but it was difficult because without an adult to help me, it was hard to get the kids to sit down long enough to listen to the instructions. We finished the arts and crafts and weapon making parts at about 2:00, and we learned that at 4:00 we would have to leave to go to a different site for feast. At about this time I called Perdita to find out where she was. As it turned out she was in Delaware near the park, but got lost because of construction. I gave the phone to someone there who gave her directions. Unfortunately when she got there she was busy with other business and couldn't help in the quest. Fortunately I got someone else to help. Since we were running short on time I had to rush through the rest of the events. I quickly abandoned the idea of telling them the myths when it was clear that after being stuck under the pavilion they just wanted to get up, run around, and fight. At the end, I told them that they had killed the minotaur, and was going to be rewarded with gems, but that robbers had stolen them. I played the robber and when they tried to attack me, I said "you'll never get these gems" and tossed them into a bush as they killed me. What I didn't realize was that the bush had prickly leaves, but fortunately they were able to get the gems out without any cuts. Then I gave them the prizes and let them keep the weapons they had made.

We then went over to feast, which was at a local SPCA office. The only problem with getting there was that only one person knew how to get there, so he had to get out in front an everyone else followed them like a caravan. Of course about half of us had access to GPS (either an in car device or a phone) so if they told us the address we would be able to find it, but they didn't know the address just how to get there. Fortuantely we all arrived without incident. There was a feast and then they gave out awards, of which I received several. There was going to be an auctio nbut it was cancelled due to lack of time and because everyone had to go home.