Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Increasing Your Stats

In my last post, I mentioned show how when creating a Dungeons and Dragons character, you have the ability to choose your character's strength, intelligence, dexterity, and so on. Unfortunately, it isn't that easy in real life - but that might be changing thanks to new technology. In a series of articles in Slate magazine (,
The author discusses how new technologies and medical developments are enabling people to improve
human performance in a variety of areas. If you are interested, you should read the articles, I don't want to just repeat
them here. The article that was my favorite was "Spark of Genius", especially the link to the YouTube video and
the thing about the effect being reversed if you switch the positions of the electrodes. My general comments about
all of these ideas for human enhancement are as follows:

- Just to get this out of the way, I don't have any plans to try any of these on myself, so don't worry.
- Yes, some of these procedures may have long-term negative health effects. But there's lots of stuff we do that we
KNOW has long-term negative health effects (junk food, cigarettes) and there are no calls to outlaw those. So why
are there calls to outlaw human enhancement on that basis?
- A common argument against human enhancement compares it to the use of steroids in sports. But there is a very
important difference. Let's take, say, sprinting as an example. If by taking steroids I can run 5 percent faster, then
that is a huge advantage. If everyone takes steroids our relative ranking is the same, and it's not really significantly
more exciting to viewers, so nobody really benefits. If, in contrast, I can take some sort of cognitive enhancement drug to make myself do 
5 percent better in a test, and everyone does that, then yes, it's true that relative ranking doesn't change, BUT
now everyone learns 5 percent more, which is good. And considering the hundreds of billions of dollars we spend
each year in education, anything that improves learning even by a few percent could have huge economic benefits.
And, if the problem is that the drug makes you do better on the tests but doesn't improve actual learning, then that
is evidence that the tests don't measure actual learning, so a better approach would be to improve the tests rather
than blame the cognitive enhancement drug.)
- Another common argument against human enhancement is that it will increase inequality, because the poor won't
be able to afford it. However this argument seems seriously flawed to me:

--- 1. It is easy to come up with scenarios where enhancement helps the poor, rather than hurts it, even if only
the rich have access. For instance, let's say there are two classes of jobs, skilled and unskilled, and enhancement
moves some people from the unskilled to the skilled labor category. That increases the supply of skilled labor
relative to unskilled labor, and thus reduces the wage premium for skilled labor. Thus this could increase wages
even in the unskilled labor sector. Or let's say that scientists use cognitive enhancement on themselves, and that
makes them smart enough to invent a cure for cancer, then that will obviously benefit everyone, both rich and poor.

--- 2. There are lots of things that improve life outcomes that are more accessible to the rich than the poor
(good schools, access to educational resources, good role models, etc.). It would be silly to say that those should
be banned in the name of equality; rather, it makes sense to try to improve access so that the poor can have them too.
The same thing could be done with cognitive enhancement, if it works. And the problem of cheaply manufacturing
and distributing small electronic devices or synthesized chemical compounds (whichever enhancement method we
would want to use) is MUCH better understood than the other educational and social problems I mentioned.

(Of course, all of the above analysis assumes that the enhancement methods work long-term. That is still somewhat
speculative at this point, and if it doesn't work, then, well, it doesn't work, so no reason to use them.)

Dungeons and Dragons Part 1: "I am Domingo"

So, a couple weeks ago at the Haunted Game Cafe I met a group of three kids and we played a game of Catacombs (I was the Overlord). After the game they said they were interested in playing Dngeons and Dargons. So we agreed that next Saturday we would get together to create characters.

Theat day I went to the store and got a text saying that they weren't able to get a rids, so they wouldn't be able to come. I suggested that maybe we could meet somewhere else closer to them, and they said they were still looking, and maybe they could get a ride from someone else. In the meantime I went across the street to the mall to get some food. Wile I was there I got a text saying they had found someone else to take them, and were on their way. I finished my food and started walking back to the store, and while I was on my way (about 10 minutes after the text) saw that I had texts on my phone saying "Where are you" and "If you don't answer we are leaving." I had just assumed that they were much farther away than that, because they weren't able to come at all at first with no car (and the buses were running, so I assumed they were out of the bus service area as well). I texted him back saying "I am coming", but I spelled it wrong and the auto-correct corrected it to "I am Domingo". He said "what?" And I rushed back, and fortunately managed to get there before they left.

Anyway, with that resolved, we got into the actual character creation process. Only two of them were there but we started the process, and they made a warlock and a wizard. Some interesting things that happened were the following:

-They were well aware of how to exploit time inconsistency. When you determine your character's stats (strength, intelligence etc.) you have two choices. One choice is to roll dice, the other choice is to use a "point buy system" where you have a fixed number of points to allocate between the different stats. They chose the rolling method, knowing that if they really did roll poorly then there was no way I would actually be so mean and make them keep the poor rolls.

- It seemed like one of them wasn't interested as much in the fighting aspect. A few times during the session he asked if it was possible to negotiate with monsters rather than fight them, and even asked that question at the end when I set up a simple combat encounter not part of any actual adventure, just to show them how the combat worked.

- I am thinking that it may be a good idea to switch to a different role-playing game system. That is for a few reasons. First there are only three of them, and it seems likely that not all of them will be able to make it on any given day. The Dungeons and Dragons combat system is really designed for having at least four players to fill all the roles in the fight, and battles will likely be very tough with only two or three, especially since neither of the two characters they made had any healing or special defense abilities. 

- After this session I have been thinking about what to do for the actual adventure. One good source for adventure ideas, or ideas for things to put in the adventures, is the (real life) news, and I will tell you about what I have come up with when the time comes.