Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Visit from Grandma and Grandpa

This weekend, my grandparents visited me and I showed them around town. Before they came I knew it would be interesting because they are strong Republicans while I am a Democrat - unfortunately they did not come on March 9 when the university was sponsoring a depate about national health care. But there was still lots of excitement:


On Thursday, they arrived about an hour late because their GPS gave them bad directions. Then they took me out to dinner at IHOP, where they showed me lots of interesting things that have happened in the news recently. They accused the Democrats of "trickery" in getting the health care bill passed, because some of the congressmen got special deals for their home districts in exchange for their vote (as if there were any major piece of legislation where that doesn't happen). Then we went to get a shave and haircut. Apparently none of the haircut places in town offer shaves, because it's against local health regulations - clearly another example of how Big Government makes life harder for honest businessmen. However, it was also an example of how "big government" regulations can spur investment in new technology, because they offered to get me a better electric shaver. I informed them that the one I had worked just fine, so we didn't need another one - thus showing that in this case, big government regulations actually saved money. Then they dropped me off at my apartment, and they went to a hotel.


On Friday, they picked me up at my apartment and drove me to class. I introduced them to the people in the department office, and they both were happy to meet each other. They also wanted to meet my research advisor Jeff Erickson but he was not here today. We left to drive around campus, but unfortunately when we were pulling out of out parking space, another car backed out at the same time and hit the side of our car. Fortunately nobody was hurt although both of the right side doors were damaged, and the car rental company had no spare cars so we had to drive around in the same car for the rest of the weekend. Then we went to the shopping center on North Prospect Avenue to have lunch and get some stuff like new clothes. Finally we went out to dinner. Apparently Grandma and Grandpa had spent the last night watching Fox News and had started channeling Ann Coulter, because they told me what they thought about the latest news on Obama's health care bill:

Me: "What don't you like about the health care bill?"
Them: "For one thing, it reduces payments to doctors. Doctors are like everyone else, they want to make a living. If doctors start making less money, we won't have as competent doctors."
Me: "Other countries with national health care systems pay their doctors less. Do they have less competent doctors?"
Them: "They have worse systems, yes. America's health care system is the best in the world."
Me: "That's not true. According to the World Health Organization's rankings, the U.S. health care system is only ranked 37th."
Them: "The World Health Organization? Isn't that an arm of the U.N.?"
Me: "Yeah, I think it is, why?"
Them: "Don't believe anything the U.N. says. If it were up to me, I'd kick the U.N. out of the United States."
Me: "What don't you like about the U.N.?"
Them: "On every vote on Israel. The Palestinians attack the Israelis, then the UN says it's Israel's fault."

I pointed out a headline in the newspaper that said that the CBO (Congressional Budget Office) had determined that Obama's plan would reduce the deficit, but they said that was "bullshit." Another interesting headline was in local news. The story was the following: UIUC was planning to retire Chief Illiniwek, the former Native American mascot, because it was "offensive to Native Americans." A student group called Students for Chief planned to rent out space in the student union for a dance in support of the Chief, but was at first denied. The student group used a FOIA request to get the e-mails between school administrators concerning this decision, and discovered a concerted plan to keep them out of the hall, such as claiming that the room was booked even through it wasn't. Confronted with this evidence the administration relented and allowed them to have the dance. Then the student group asked the local ACLU chapter for help in suing the school for trying to violate their free speech rights. The ACLU chapter declined to pursue the case, saying that since the dance had ended up happening, there was no violation of free speech. Grandma and Grandpa said that this explanation - that they didn't pursue the case because in the end free speech was not violated - was "a fudge", and the "real reason" was because the ACLU wanted to appear "politically correct" by not supporting something "offensive" to Native Americans.


On Saturday they took me first to the D+D Game Day at Armored Gopher Games. They stayed for a few minutes just to see what the game was about, then they went off to do their own thing. They picked me up later in the day, and we went to the mall and got some stuff. Then they took me back to my apartment, so that I could go to the gaming club at school. Unfortunately when I got there I found that it was closed due to spring break. So I spent the rest of the evening at home playing the new video games I got.


On Sunday we first went to the bookstore. While we were at the bookstore I ran into one of the people I play D+D with. He thanked me for saving his character's life: in our previous battle, my character had fallen unconscious in the middle of the battle so I spent most of the battle standing up looking at the scene. From the angle I was standing I could clearly see the DM's rolls behind the screen, and could tell that he was fudging die rolls left and right. Although I didn't say anything directly to the DM, I did whisper in the other player's ear what was going on. The DM might have realized I was "on to something" and fudged the rolls less, thus making his character not die. At the end of the battle all but one of us was knocked unconscious, there were only a couple enemies remaining, and as a last ditch attempt to defeat the villain before they escaped, the last remaining character fired a wide area burst across the battlefield, killing the remaining monsters but also me. (Actually I don't really mind that my character died because now I get to play a new character with a different class. The character I have come up with is an artificer - that's the class with the "socialist healing power" I mentioned before.) After we finished up at the bookstore, they droppdd me off at the Armored Gopher's board game night, and went off on their merry way.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Blog Experiment Conclusion

SPOILER ALERT: Do not read this post until you have read the three posts before this one (the two about the superhero role-playing game and the one titled "Being a Superhero in the Real World"). Then scroll down to see the rest.












The post titled "Being a Superhero in the Real World" was a demonstration of several scientifically proven persuasion techniques.

The superhero theme of the post, as well as its placement immediately following two posts about superhero role-playing games, is intended to take advantage of the real scientific result that getting subjects to think about superheroes makes them more likely to volunteer for charity.

The post itself was a demonstration of the "SPICE model" of persuasion, described in a recent article in Scientific American. SPICE stands for Simplicity, Perceived Self-Interest, Incongruity, Confidence, and Empathy. The four bullet points under "but wait, there's more" appeal to simplicity, self-interest, confidence, and empathy respectively. The overall tone of the post, mixing serious real-life issues with mimicry of TV salespersons and discussions of superheroes, is an example of incongruity.

(But seriously, you should definitely read Peter Singer's stuff. Even if you don't agree with all of it, the issues he raises are definitely thought-provoking.)

Being a Superhero in the Real World

In comics, movies, and (as you've seen before) role-playing games, brave superheroes can make the world a better place by fighting evil. Even though superpowers don't exist in real life (as far as we know), a recent book argues that it's easier than you think to be a superhero in your own way. The book "The Life You Can Save" by philosopher Peter Singer argues that by giving just a small fraction of our income to charities working to help the poor in developing countries, we can save the lives of others at little cost to ourselves. But wait, there's more:

- It's simple. In order to be a superhero the "regular way," first you have to figure out how to actually get superpowers, then you have to worry about being sued if your powers malfunction, like in the session report below. But with giving money, all you have to do is pick an organization from the list and reach for your checkbook!

- It helps you, too. Learning to live on a little less money will help you in case there is an economic downturn, so why not start now?

- I am so confident in my message that I've taken the pledge myself. Why don't you do the same?

- I'm writing this blog post because Ihave your best interest at heart. You wouldn't want to go through life not thinking that you've done what you could to help, would you?


So what are you waiting for? Operators are standing by! Act now! Sign up today!Don't make me keep mimicking cheesy TV informercials!

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

"Champions: Phoenix", Part 2

The superheroic adventure continues...
After the supervillain knocked Field Effect over, our intrepid heroes discovered that they were in for more than they bargained for - a super team known as Future Shock, consisting of four supervillains, was out to ambush them! As another villain rushed up from behind the building, Field Effect played dead, hoping to lure the enemy into complacency. As the villain rushed past him to attack the rest, Field Effect got up, activated his superpowers, and ran the villain over! Meanwhile, Rift teleported on top of a building and started firing energy blasts down at the enemies, while Strobe went the other direction and tried to blind the enemies. For Technomancer, on the other hand this was the perfect time to try out his latest experiment - a "kinetic stasis field" that could stop any enemy in their tracks! As Technomancer tried to get the stasis field to work, he asked Alpha to go attack the bad guys. Unfortunately, while he was doing this, he and the robots were inside a van belonging to Rift, and he forgot to open the doors first, and the robots had no arms. So in order to get out, Alpha blasted the back doors off the van. The battle was soon joined. Technomancer hit one enemy with his stasis field - and that was a good choice, because all of his powers were based on his super running speed, which he oculdn't use, so he spent the entire battle futilely trying to wriggle his way out of the field. Technomancer also hit the enemy mentalist with the stasis field, but that didn't affect his mental powers. There was a third enemy that Technomancer couldn't hit because he kept dodging the attacks - he had a power that once per round, he could move out of the way to dodge an attack. Beating him would require a coordinated strike: Technomancer first attacked him to force him to use up his free dodge, then Beta used its Aid power to improve Alpha's offensive capability,then Alha let loose with a blast, which hit its mark. Meanwhile, the fourth supervillain had recovered and knocked out Field Effect, but a well timed assist from Beta let him get back in the fight. A couple rounds later all the supervillains were unconscious.

Soon on the scene were agents of the special police force known as H.U.R.T. (Hyper-Ultra Response Team). While they wre talking to the rest of us, Rift teleported into the temp agency to investigate for information. On seeing a computer that he couldn't get access to, he went back out and teleported Technomancer in. When the police found out we had teleported in, he said we had "messed things up" by investigating before they could get a search warrant, and that they would have to "manufacture some probable cause." As it turned out, however, the temp agency was merely a front and contained no useful information, so it wasn't too much of a loss. At any rate, they recruited us to accompany the villains as they were transported to Mesa, a prison in the New Mexico desert specifically designed to house superpowered criminals. But the transport would not happen until the next day, leaving plenty of time for more action...

That night, Technomancer told Alpha that he had done a bad thing by blowing up the van, and that he should only attack things that Technomancer tells him to:

Technomancer: "You are a prototype. Your purpose is to protect people by blowing up bad guys. If it works, they'll make lots more of you so you will be able to have lots of friends. But if you blow up things you're not supposed to blow up, your makers could be sued. And if that happens the program will be determined to be a failure, and you will be shut down."

Unfortunately, that reasoning backfired: Alpha concluded that it "wasn't his fault" if he started blowing things up, because it was his maker's fault. Also, he said Technomancer was "annoying" because "all you do is tell me what to do." When Technomancer explained that he would only ask him to destroy bad guys, Alpha asked him "how come you are the sole arbiter of who is good and who is bad?" Alpha flew off and started blowing up unoccupied cars on the streets. Fortunately, Field Effect got wind of what was happening and went to the scene, using his negotiating skills ot talk the robot down. [Another player said that Alpha had become a "robot teenager."] Technomancer tried to get his backup robots out of storage, but found out they had mysteriously disappeared.

The next morning, after the chaos was over, it was time for the transport. There were four vans, one hero and one villain in each van. Technomancer was assigned to the van with the mentalist:

Technomancer: "I can use this device to suppress the mentalist's mental powers, in case he tries to escape."
H.U.R.T. Agent: "Has that thing been tested?"
Technomancer: "Uh... no."
H.U.R.T. Agent: "Listen. If you use that thing on him and he gets brain cancer, we can be sued. So don't do that unless it has been tested."

We boarded the vans and set out for our destination. As it turns out, the reason that the bad guys were after Technomancer in the first place was to steal his robot technology. An as it turns out, they might have succeeded, because as they were driving along, a group of flying objects looking suspiciously like Technomancer's robots approached them from up ahead...

Who will win this next confrontation? Will Technomancer be able to defeat his own creations? Will the vile Future Shock be brought to justice? And is there any legal precedent regarding who is liable if a robot gets infected by an alien computer virus, develops sentience, and goes out destroying things? Find out, coming up next time, on "Champions: Phoenix!"

Monday, March 15, 2010

"Champions: Phoenix", Part 1

A while ago I blogged about how I was going to participate in a superhero role-playing game. I just completed my second session of it, and so far it is very exciting and incredibly funny! Here is the story so far:

-- Cast of Characters --
Technomancer (that's my character) - a "gadgeteer" who has the ability to create new gadgets in the field. The way this works in game is that there is a "variable power pool" where you have a certain number of points that you can allocate to build powers, and you can switch them around. Also he has two flying robots to help hime - "Alpha" which has an energy blaster to hurt enemies, and "Beta" which has powers that can aid his allies.

Field Effect - A "super strength" character with a very interesting background. His background is that he was captured by aliens and given superpowers, then put back on Earth as part of a "reality show" being broadcast on the aliens' home planet. There are invisible cameras filming him, and he gets "stage direction" in his head from the "producer" talking to him to tell him what to do. Also, if things are getting boring the "producer" will teleport him to somewhere more "interesting," like in the middle of a fight.

Strobe - A light-based "energy projector" type superhero. He has the ability to blind and paralyze enemies.

Rift - Has the power to go through "dimensional rifts" that he uses to teleport, and then blasts enemies with energy rays.

-- The Story So Far --

The story starts in the near future, in a mall in Kempe, Arizona, just outside of Phoenix. Technomancer was there looking for Alpha, whose A.I. had developed a personality of its own and decided that it wanted to go shopping at Hot Topic. But unbeknownst to him, he was alking right into a trap. He saw a bad guy come up to a victim, inject him with something, and the victim fell over, and the bad guys started carrying him away. As Technomancer moved in to help, a dozen or so thugs armed with blasters surrounded the area and attacked! Technomancer used a telekinetic field to grab the bad guys and stop him from carrying the victim away. Seconds later, Field Effect got teleported into the action, and quickly carried the victim to safety. Strobe and Rift also enetered teh fray, and a pitched battle ensued. Technomancer aked Alpha to shoot the bad guys, but its blaster didn't fire! Fortunately, teamwork and strategic telekinesis use won the day, and all the thugs were soon defeated.

After that Technomancer discovered that the reason Alpha's blaster didn't work was because a computer virus of "unearthly origin" disabled it. As it turned out, the virus was put there by Field Effect's producers in order to make it "more interesting for the viewers" because otherwise "the fight would have been too easy." Also, Field Effect tried to walk away from the scene but kept getting teleported back. Since Field Effect isn't allowed to talk about the whole "reality show" thing, his producer told him to blame the teleporting on a "time hiccup." Also, we interrogated the bad guys and talked to the victim in order to find out what was going on. As it turned out, the bad guys were members of the evil organization known as A.C.M.E. (American Criminal Mastermind Enterprises) and they engineered the situation in order to lure Technomancer into a trap to steal his robots. The victim was an innocent dupe, who had been paid $500 to "go to the designated spot in the mall and wait there" and didn't realize there was an evil scheme. We also discovered that the thugs here weren't actual members of A.C.M.E. - they were just "goons" hired off the street and given blasters. So we had to investigate more to find out the source.

Our investigation took us to a seedy area of Phoenix, where a group of goons were driving around the city in a van looking to hire more bad guys. We found a van that matched the description, and Field Effect disabled it by punching the hood and removing the engine block (remember he is the one that has super strength). The occupants played innocent:

Occupant: "You destroyed my car! It's going to cost a lot of money to get it fixed."
Field Effect: "Don't worry. It's under warranty, isn't it?"
Occupant: "I got it used."
Field Effect: "Well, you should have gotten a certified pre-owned vehicle!"

Eventually the occupants admitted they were hired by a "temp agency" to go out and hire the goons. We next went to the temp agency, hoping to wait until it opened to get more information. Field Effect was waiting outside, in his normal form with his defenses down, when a supervillain rushed up at high speed, ran him over, and stunned him. And with that, session one ended.

Will the villain's surprise attack work? Will our brave superheroes manage to turn the tide of battle? And will they be able to put the villains into jail without violating their Fourth Amendment right against unreasonable search and seizure? Find out next time on "Champions: Phoenix"!

Friday, March 12, 2010

Blog Experiment

This week, I will be conducting an experiment using this blog in order to investigate a real scientific finding. The experiment will be conducted over one or more blog posts, starting today and ending a week from today. At that time I will make a post explaining what the experiment was.

So as not to introduce bias, I will not state here what the experiment is. That will be up to you to figure out! (Feel free to guess, that's part of the fun!)

NOTE: I meant to make this post earlier in the day, before I made my previous post about Illinois government. So that post could be part of the experiment. Or maybe not.

Breaking News: More Evidence of Cylon Activity in Illinois Government

"I need your sage advice: Should I spend money I don't have?"

- Overheard at GameStop


Unlike my last blog post about Illinois government, this time I won't make any accusations about who is the Cylon: I'll just lay out the facts and let you be the judge.

A few days ago, Governor Quinn unveiled his new "budget plan" - which involves borrowing $4.7 billion, leaving $6 billion worth of bills unpaid, including cuts to education funding, but no tax increase. The Chicago Tribune reported that the reason he did this was to encourage state senators to vote for a tax increase, because nobody would like the alternative. And Quinn's "Illinois Budget web site" now states that he supports a tax increase (see the bottom under "Increased State Revenues.")

And budgetary problems aren't the only "crisis card" that's shown up recently: pretty soon, restaurants and retail business across the state may be the host to yet another round of exciting combat action. That's right, a new bill is going to be passed to allow concealed carry of handguns in Illinois. There are just two interesting amendments that supporters of the bill added: one said that any state legislator who voted against the measure will not be allowed to get a concealed carry permit for himself, and the other says that any retail business that bans handguns inside the business will be civilly liable if a concealed carry permit holder get injured or killed in a violent crime at that business - the theory being that if the business "disarms" the permit holder, who then "can't defend himself" and gets hurt, the business should be liable..

Questions for discussion:

1. The point of the first amendment discussed above is that politicians shouldn't be "hypocrites" by voting against concealed carry but then getting a permit themselves. Should this principle be extended to apply to other laws too? For example, if Legislator X votes against a tax cut that passes, should Legislator X still have to pay the higher tax rate?

2. As for the other amendment, does it work both ways? If the business DOES allow concealed guns, a concealed carry permit holder legally brings a gun in, and the gun is discharged (either accidentally or on purpose) and injures someone, is the business liable for allowing the gun on?

3. If the purpose of concealed carry is to deter crime, then why make it "concealed"? It seems to me like if I was carrying a gun to deter crime, I would want criminals to know that I am armed so they will be deterred. (On the other hand maybe the idea is that if concealed carry is legal, then criminals won't know who is armed and who isn't, so would play it safe and not attack anyone.)

Friday, March 5, 2010

Geekiness in perspective

Today, I had the following conversation (paraphrased) with a member of my Belegarth group:

Me: I'm confused about the rules for checking arrows to see if they are safe. It says you're supposed to push down on it to see if you can feel the core. But any arrow you can feel the core if you push hard enough. So how do you know how hard you are supposed to push?

Him: There's no way to quantify it. It's not like testing it, like in a lab. Testing the weapons is personal, different people do it differently.

Me: Okay, so clearly the best strategy is to get the arrows tested by a representative sample of weapons checkers, so that it's more likely to pass everywhere (like if you take it to a different group).

Him: Don't worry about that. Everyone does it the same way, they just do it differently.*

Me: Okay, well how about this idea. I can bring a scale and have them push down on the scale with the same force that they push down when checking weapons. Then I will know how hard to push down when I am testing the ones I make.

Him: That's not necessary. People will think you are weird for doing that.

Me: Why? I'm just using quantitative data. Is there something wrong with using quantitative data?

Him: It's geeky as hell.

Me: Let me get this straight. Someone who does live-action role-playing is telling me that it's wrong to be geeky?

Him: Some of the people there don't consider it "role-playing." They're there for the fighting.

Me: Okay, let's rephrase. 'Someone who does foam sword-fighting is telling me that it's wrong to be geeky."

Him: "Not all of them think foam sword-fighting is geeky."

*This sentence, however, is not paraphrased. I distinctly remember him saying "Everyone does it the same way, they just do it differently." I laughed out loud when he said this, though I don't think he realized what was so funny.