Archive for December, 2008
Wednesday, December 31st, 2008
New Year’s Eve, a time notorious for two things – wild drunken parties and futile resolutions that are soon broken.
Most people make a New Year’s Resolution to fix mistakes made in the old year. So should we start off the New Year by thinking of all our flaws and the things we need to do better? That’s about as useful and enjoyable as a New Year’s Day hangover – or a drunken Meep.
Instead of concentrating upon how many pounds of fat we need to lose or promising ourselves that we will catch the Gremlins before they get into the computer system again, let’s try something different. Don’t dwell on past mistakes and try to fix them with depressing New Year’s Resolutions. This time. let’s focus on a better future with – ta-da! – New Year Commitments.
Um, So What’s the Difference?
Resolutions focus on what we Need to do – Commitments focus on what we Want to do. Here is a list of our New Year’s Commitments:
- Every Day an Adventure
- Life is a Journey
- Git’er Done
- Time Enough for Love
- It Had to be You
Every Day an Adventure
What are you doing today that you have never done before? What have you learned that you never knew? What are you doing differently?
This is a commitment Lori made a long time ago, but it’s always good to re-assert older promises and keep them on track. This one is all about treating each day as an opportunity for exploration and growth.
Life is A Journey – So Where are We Going?
You can’t get where you want to go if you don’t know where you are going. We need to set goals for ourselves. We need to make our own roadmap to the future. If we don’t, the future will be here before we know it and we’ll be run over by it.
As semi-professional Procrastinators, this one is a hard one for us. We’re experts of thinking of all the things we need to do, getting overwhelmed by them, and then going on to do something else. However, to take a tip from David Allen’s “Getting Things Done” book – if it takes less than two minutes to do – Just Do It! Okay, so Corey says nothing gets done in two minutes, so we’ll stretch it to ten. The point is that putting things off is actually harder than getting things done. The weight of every task put off is the equivalent of carrying around a sack of five Meeps – five struggling Meeps.
Time Enough for Love
In Heinlein’s book, “Time Enough for Love”, Lazurus Long recounts his life and loves of 2300 years. We don’t all have 2300 years (and neither did Heinlein) so we have to remember every day to think about the people you love. Hug your mate… or your parents. Let them know you care. Do some small thing they’ll appreciate. Got a dog? How about taking it for a romp in the yard. Got a cat? How about taking time to give it a skritch under the chin or a string dragged across a floor? Stuck at work? Help someone else with their job. Invite a co-worker to join you for lunch. After all, Love is a tower built from the sum of all the happiness you have with others. Go ahead and build it higher – Just make sure you invite your loved ones to share it with you.
It Had to Be You
You are the one stuck with living your own life. Don’t let it all slip past you as you drift along through your day to day routines. Take time every day to do the things you love to do. Take the time to do the things you want to do. Take the time to do the things you know you need to do. Nobody else is going to do them for you.
Commitments for a Better New Year
None of these Commitments are life-altering or even mind-altering. These are the sort of things we can all do automatically as part of our habits of Heroism. We need the bricks and mortar of new ideas, vision, dedication, love, and joy to build a better future. So from all of us here at the School for Heroes – Happy New Year!”
Saturday, December 27th, 2008
Well, it’s that time of year again when holidays abound. Christmas, Chanukah, Kwanzaa, Winter Solstice, New Year’s Eve – There’s a festive occasion for almost everyone. Each of these events is a celebration of ancient traditions. They represent rebirth, renewal, and hope for the future. It’s a time for reconnecting with relatives and friends. It’s time to count your blessings and make commitments for your future.
Celebrations at the Ranch
Here at the Flying Aardvark Ranch, we’re enjoying our holiday season. Lori managed to get out for a day to get some nice photos of the season at Western Sierra Nursery and did some art for the FAR Studio website. Our son, Michael, is home from his work in Lompoc, California for a few days. Lori, after agonizing over Michael’s low-carb diet, put off making the traditional sugar-loaded, fattening holiday cookies until now, and Corey apparently ate more than his share of them… but more likely the Evil Meep took a bunch just to make Corey look guilty.
Gifts were opened on Christmas Eve just as midnight came around because people couldn’t wait for morning. Lori got a ‘Pirates of the Caribbean” mug from Michael’s recent trip to Disneyland. Corey got a “School for Heroes” denim shirt from Hero Bazaar. Michael got the “Persona 4″ video game for the Playstation 2. It’s an interesting role-playing game about developing your skills and interpersonal relationships as a kid at a High School in Japan who fights Shadows in a strange shadow world. The game play is varied and the mystery underlying the game is intriguing. It’s a great game for anyone who likes heroic games.
Singing for Supper
We sing in a local choral group – Corey’s a tenor and Lori a first soprano – and for the holidays, we did a Christmas concert and caroling at a couple of events. We enjoy learning the harmonies and singing with the group. We sometimes have a little trouble with the better-known songs because we know too many parody versions. “Carol of the Bells” reminds us of Oxhorn’s World of Warcraft machinima version, “Hark, Hear the Wails”. Corey can’t hear “Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire” without thinking of the Star Wars parody version – “They know that Obiwan is on his way, carrying daddy’s light saber home on his sleigh.” But we manage to fight through it and usually sing the correct lyrics.
We had a little Winter excitement two weeks ago as a result of choral singing. The group had been hired by Tenaya Lodge, a wonderful local resort hotel about 25 miles up in the Sierra Mountains, to carol in their lobby. As we started up the hill towards Yosemite Park, snow began to fall gently all around. Having neither chains nor 4-wheel drive, we decided it would be incredibly stupid to keep going. So of course we did anyway. The concert was lovely – we sang in the foyer by the huge Christmas Tree and the blazing fireplace. Then, afterwards, we followed the snow plows back down the mountain through several inches of snow. We drove really, really slowly and had no luckily had no mishaps.
Last Sunday was the holiday concert. We were raising money to fund a free meal program. However, it was still a fun concert and everyone sounded very good… even when people got a little creative with their parts. Afterwards, we had supper at a local Mexican restaurant and the waitress insisted we sing some carols with her. A patron at the next table also threw in a special request. That and a Mastercard were enough to pay the dinner bill.
No School Break
Despite the busy time, we keep working on The School for Heroes. Lori makes sure the teachers get all of the assignments and then she posts the results. She creates art for the blogs and the website. Corey fixes bugs and adds features to the site code. The latest – Assignments are now broken down by level to make it easier to find current ones. You can now edit your “avatar” icon and tag line on your personal page. Honor awards for “charter students” (anyone who completed at least the first “mission” in 2008) and special awards for exceptional submissions now appear on the Personal Page as well. We will soon add school-wide assignments, available to everyone in the school. Corey is also gradually adding higher-level assignments as we work out which ones from the previous incarnation of the school still make sense four years later.
A Time for Reflection
This end-of-the-year holiday season is a great time for reflection and commitment. We tend to scoff at New Year’s Resolutions, but you know, if you really want to be a hero, think about taking them seriously this year. Pick two or three big changes you would like to make in your life and commit to them. If you say them as New Year’s Resolutions and repeat them several times during the day, you can begin your commitment. Repeat your resolutions to yourself each morning in front of a mirror and you will be amazed at what you can accomplish this coming year.
What is a New Year’s Resolution, Hero style? For Warriors, it’s a powerful commitment to definitive action. To a Wizard, it’s a form of Lesser Magic by which you turn dreams into reality. For a Paladin, it’s an opportunity to commit to helping others and doing good. Bards can use their resolutions as a rehearsal for the deeds of renown they will be performing throughout the year. And for the Rogues – Well, let’s just say that planning ahead is essential to succeeding in whatever wild plans you may have in 2009. And repetition of the goals and the plan are a great way to make sure you stay true to your goals under pressure when you are challenged.
We look forward to growing together with all of you in 2009. It’s a time for change, and we can work together to make those changes positive ones.
Friday, December 19th, 2008
I (Corey) just read a fascinating book called, “The Drunkard’s Walk: How Randomness Affects Our Lives,” by Leonard Mlodinow. Since I found myself quoting all sorts of interesting tidbits from the book to Lori, I guess it’s time for another book review – what “The Drunkard’s Walk” is all about and how it relates to games and life.
A “drunkard’s walk,” also known as a “random walk,” is a mathematical term for randomness. Suppose you take one step in a random direction, turn in a random direction, take another step, and so on? Will you end up at your starting point? It’s possible, but it’s far more likely you’ll end up somewhere else. If you flip a balanced coin and it comes up Heads, the next flip is equally likely to come up Heads or Tails. Over the long run, you’ll probably get about half of each, but you can expect to see a lot of “clusters” of 3, 4, 5, or more Tails in a row. That’s why you can’t just pick the best team in a sport and expect them to win every time. There are so many random factors to any significant event that you can never be sure of the outcome until it happens.
There are a lot of counter-intuitive results in probability. Perhaps you’re familiar with the “Let’s Make a Deal” puzzle from the old television game show. Your host, Monty Hall, shows you three doors. Behind one is a brand-new Mercedes, while the other two have live donkeys. After you choose one of these doors, Monty opens one of the remaining two and shows you that there’s a donkey behind it. He then offers you the choice to stick with your original door or switch to the last one. So, what IS behind Door number One? Should you switch? Does it make a difference?
What do you think?
What Are the Odds?
“The Drunkard’s Walk” has some crossover with the previously-reviewed book, “The Black Swan.” One of the important points is that there’s a huge difference between “unlikely” and “impossible.” Over enough trials, every unlikely result is likely to occur. And in a single trial, anything can happen. If you roll two dice together, the most likely result is that they will total 7, but that only happens 1/6 of the time. It is twice as likely that you will roll one of the “unlikely” results of 2, 3, 4, 10, 11, or 12, because their combined chance is 1/3.
That’s really what the Black Swan theory is about – When you look at enough highly unlikely possibilities, the combined chance that at least one of them will happen is actually very high. Of course it’s impossible to predict which unlikely chance will come up – except as a random guess – but unlikely things occur all the time. A friend is fond of saying, “All that probability shows is how unlikely it was for the thing that just happened to occur.”
You’re probably all familiar with the “bell curve” – also known as a “normal distribution”. Basically, “average” and near-average results are the most common, while very low and very high results are rarer. The problem is that our minds are not wired very well for understanding randomness. As a result, we tend to overemphasize the high probabilities and underestimate the lower ones. If we roll two dice, if we expect them to total 6, 7, or 8, we’ll be right a lot, but still wrong more than half the time. If we note that the stock market has historically risen 8-10% per year, we may find ourselves expecting our stock holdings to go up 9% next year… but as we’ve seen, the fluctuations that make up that total trend can be huge, and there’s no guarantee the trend will continue. The outliers – strings of low-probability random results – actually happen quite a lot and can make life very interesting.
Patterns in Chaos
Our brains are programmed to look for and recognize patterns. This is a valuable survival trait, but has the unfortunate side-effect that we tend to see patterns where there are none. We tend to think that a heavily-downloaded song must be good. It might be, but it’s just as likely that it got a few extra downloads early from fans or random chance, then after that benefited from the snowball effect of others assuming that its early success was meaningful.
A related phenomenon is the “confirmation fallacy,” which basically says that we see what we expected to see. Sneaky researchers did a blind taste test of cola brands. First they asked the 30 participants which they preferred – Pepsi or Coke. They then tasted both colas, and 21 out of 30 found they liked the brand they had said they preferred. However, the researchers had switched the bottles, putting Coke in the Pepsi bottle and vice versa. In another test, researchers put the same wine into five bottles with price tags ranging from $10 to $90. The $90 bottle got much higher ratings than the $10 bottle. We tend to believe “authority”, in this case, that the $90 wine must be better for them to be able to charge that much.
Are you concerned that you got a “B” on an important essay test when you thought you should get an “A”? That’s just another example of randomness. In one study, a group of eight faculty members independently graded 120 term papers on the A-F scale. In some cases, their grades differed by two full marks. The average range was one full grade. I remember a friend in High School getting marked down for misspelling “Trinity” in the title of his short story, “A Threnody for Reason.” The teacher didn’t bother to look up “threnody” – a funeral dirge – which was in fact a perfect title for the story. Or the college writing instructor who thought that Lori made up the word, “Ragnarok” on a poem… Teachers, just can’t trust ‘em… er… except for the ones at Our School!
Randomness happens… but how we react to it affects how we live our lives. We think that Bill Gates must be much smarter than other software entrepreneurs because Microsoft has been so successful. And yet, the story of Microsoft points to a huge series of lucky incidents that resulted in that success. Any of a number of less-successful entrepreneurs could be just as smart, and run their businesses just as well, but got fewer “heads” in a row on the coin flips of fate. Sports team managers and executives are judged on the success of their team/company, but pretty much all the winning streaks and team records follow normal distribution patterns. They match random results much better than anything predictive based on management. “The Drunkard’s Walk” has dozens of similar examples of events which are best explained by randomness, but which we tend to think of as having a deeper pattern and meaning.
Make Your Best Deal
Did you answer, “It doesn’t matter,” to the Let’s Make a Deal puzzle? Most people do. In fact, when Marilyn vos Savant said in her syndicated newspaper column that you should switch, she received a lot of angry letters from pretty intelligent people. However, she was correct. Look at the problem this way – You started with a 1/3 chance of picking the correct door. There was a 2/3 chance that the car was behind one of the other doors. Now Monty – who knows which door hides the car – eliminates a door. Your door still has a 1/3 chance of being correct, and the other two doors still have a 2/3 chance. But now there’s only one door to switch to, so the 2/3 chance applies to it alone. Switching gives you twice the chance of driving home in a new car as staying with your original pick. Results on the show confirm this – People who chose a door and stayed with it won the big prize about 1 time in 3. People who switched won 2 times in 3 – double the odds of staying with your original pick.
You can see this more clearly by saying there were 100 doors at the beginning. After you pick one, the host opens 98 of the remaining 99 doors to show they’re empty (or filled with donkeys). There’s a 99/100 chance that the prize is behind the last door, vs. the 1/100 chance that you picked correctly originally. Even if you think there’s a good chance your host is trying to cheat you, you should switch. After all, isn’t it almost as likely that he’s trying to use reverse-psychology on you by trying to keep you from switching?
We all tend to be stubborn about choices. Once we make one, we hate to switch. But when the original decision is purely random, and there is any evidence at all in favor of switching, it pays to be flexible.
Getting Superior Results in a Random World
Are you depressed at the idea that so much of what happens in our lives is random? You shouldn’t be. The important message I took away from “The Drunkard’s Walk” was that we can make randomness work to our advantage. Failures happen, but people who refuse to give up after a setback are the ones most likely to find eventual success. If you “win on a 6″, keep rolling the dice. Sooner or later, you’re likely to hit. If you give up after the first roll, you’re out of the game.
Most of us have had the unpleasant experience of being turned down for a job. Writers and salespeople face constant rejection; one writer papered his cabin with rejection slips. The successful ones are those who keep going and try again. My father has been a successful real estate investor. He once told me that the important thing was never to fall in love with a property. He would make an offer far below the asking price, and if it was rejected, move on to the next property. The first Harry Potter book was rejected nine times before J. K. Rowling found a publisher and became the wealthiest writer in the world. The winners in the game of life are those who keep going and keep trying.
“Never give up; never surrender. Full speed ahead!” Most success comes from trying and failing and trying and failing and yet, trying again. Keep trying and the random factors will eventually align (probably!). Make the odds work in your favor! If you never give up, you’ll never fail.
Thursday, December 11th, 2008
Over the next 6 weeks, with a little time out for the holiday blog, we will look at each of the five four schools in the School for Heroes. This week we look at the Paladin class, our second-largest class in enrollees and level 1 Initiates who have completed their mission statements.
What Was a Paladin?
When many of us think of “Heroes”, the image of the Paladin comes to mind. The word Paladin was first used to refer to the Knights of Charlemagne in romantic tales such as The Song of Roland. The “Knights of the Round Table” and of Medieval Europe were supposedly held to a Chivalric Code – the Seven Knightly Virtues of Courage, Justice, Mercy, Strength, Generosity, Faith, Nobility, and Hope. These were the sort of values the Knights swore to uphold and believe in before they were worthy of their title.
In the early days of television, there was a TV Western show called, “Have Gun – Will Travel” about a man named Paladin who was a “Champion for hire” and a “knight without armor” who traveled around the American West helping people with his Colt six-shooter and his Winchester rifle instead of a lance.
But it was Dungeons and Dragons that defined the modern Paladin as a Lawful Good warrior dedicated to serving his God as a Holy Warrior.
Lori has played a lot of Paladins in D&D games. From Karl, the boneheaded Ultra-uber “I am the leader by virtue of my God Heimdahl” in-your-face Paladin to Ekara Lita, the gentle protectress of women and children dedicated to the Finnish Goddess Ilmatar, to Fotheringay, the angst-ridden ‘never as good as he needs to be’ Paladin of Dianceht, Celtic God of Healing, she has explored all sorts of personalities who have only their Lawful Good beliefs in common. In D&D, you have to obey the Laws of Man and God, and you must always be unquestioningly good.
Then, in 1985, Richard Garriott created “Ultima IV: Quest of the Avatar” – a computer game that was based on the Eight Virtues ethic system of beliefs. The virtues were: “Honesty, Compassion, Valor, Justice, Sacrifice, Honor, Spirituality, and Humility. It, and its sequel, “Warriors of Destiny”, inspired us a great deal to create Quest for Glory. Why? Oddly enough, because while we loved the character creation system which required moral decisions and we appreciated the virtues underlying the game, the actual game play was still basically ‘kill a monster, get its treasure” with the occasional stop at the local blood bank to donate blood to get your honor up. Not exactly our idea of heroism in action. As much as we enjoyed playing Fantasy-RPGs on computer, they were no match for a real D&D game. We thought there was a lot of room for improvement.
The Quest for Glory Paladin
The Quest for Glory version of the Paladin owes more to the Dungeons & Dragons Paladin character class than to Richard Garriott’s Paladin Avatar. However, Glorianna is a world without the ethics system of Good/Evil and Law/Chaos imposed upon the player. There was no major religion dominating the world. There was no such thing as a Holy Paladin, born to serve his deity. In fact, in the first three games, you couldn’t choose to play a Paladin. Your character became a Paladin through the course of the game by always making ethical choices and working for the good of everyone.
While the D&D Paladin is essentially a Warrior with some clerical “holy” abilities, we allowed characters of any class to become Paladins if they managed to do enough good deeds while avoiding any truly evil actions. It was most difficult for a Thief to become a Paladin as their sneaky nighttime activities often came at the expense of others. Nevertheless, a Paladin was defined by the actions he took and the good he did in the game.
So, What is a Paladin?
From the Paladin Lore page:
You are compassionate, forward-thinking, and devoted to doing the right thing… Above all, you love helping others and bringing a little light to the world wherever you can.
Paladins are the conscience of heroism. They are the ones who see problems and immediately work to fix them. The Paladin is a person who cares about other people and has the empathy to understand what they are feeling. The Paladin believes in personal growth and striving to become a better person. Unlike the D&D Paladin who lives in a world of Black and White with no moral ambiguities, the Paladin in this world needs to use his own common sense rather than firm rules to determine the Justice in any situation. Like the Quest for Glory Paladin, we live in a world where not all laws are fair, and not everyone who breaks the rules is ‘bad.’ The Paladin must learn to trust his own judgment.
The School for Paladins is called a Circle. There are five virtues to this Circle of Paladins – Strength to face the future and bear the burden of responsibility, Faith to believe in yourself and what we do, Wisdom to see what is right and true, Love to care about others, yourself, and the world, and Will – to do what is right. These five principles form the core values of the School for Heroes Paladin.
How Could It Get Any Better?
As with every class, the profile of the typical Paladin suggests both strengths and flaws. Paladins tend to be overly critical of themselves. It is very hard to live up to the ideals we believe in. Although Paladins believe that they can make a difference in the world around them, it is sometimes easy to be overwhelmed by the gulf between the “Way Things Are” and the “Way Things Should Be.” Many Paladins tend to try to do everything they can to help others, but are reluctant to ask for help when they, themselves need it. They also have a tendency to let other people take advantage of their good nature.
The Circle of Paladins was designed to bring Paladins together. It shows that “we are not alone” – there are other people out there who care as much as we care about others. There are other people who are working to make a difference in the world. The Circle is a symbol of all the Paladins gathered together, holding hands, supporting one another and our shared dreams.
For while “The Song of Roland” was only a bard’s tale, D&D, Ultima and Quest for Glory were only games, Paladins are real. They may not know the word, “Paladin,” but they live their lives by these values. The members who join the Circle of Paladins are real people who truly believe in making a difference in this world. They are actively working to make this world better.
So yes, Paladins are real. That’s why there is a School for Heroes.
Wednesday, December 3rd, 2008
Over the next 6 weeks, with a little time out for the holiday blog, we will look at each of the five four schools in the School for Heroes. Today we begin with the Wizard class, our largest class in both enrollees and level 1 Initiates who have completed their mission statements. In the following weeks, we will explore Paladins, Rogues, disbarred Bards, true Bards, and finally Warriors.
The Wonderful Wizards of Odds
There are a few reasons for the popularity of the Wizard class. One is self-selection – Many of the first people to find this site are role-playing game players, and you’re all pretty computer literate to be here at all. A lot of Wizards fit that profile.
Another possible reason is tester bias – The hero test was created mostly by Corey, a notorious Wizard, and the rest by Lori, who is undoubtedly a Paladin. It would not surprise us if we’ve unconsciously made the Wizard and Paladin answers sound more desirable than some of the other choices. We have in fact recently fine-tuned the hero test to balance the weighting a little; it is now slightly easier to qualify as a Warrior, for example. We hope to see more students choose the difficult, challenging path of the Warrior over the coming months.
What Is a Wizard?
From the Wizard Lore page:
You’re intelligent, educated, and just a bit superior to everyone you know… For you, learning is a joy, and knowledge is the greatest treasure.
There are a lot of really good things about being a Wizard. Wizards are great at defining and solving problems. They often have great insight into the heart of a problem that they can use to come up with a good solution. Contrast this with a Rogue, who is also good at solving problems, but generally by finding a way to work around or avoid the problem entirely. Wizard solutions tend to be clean, thorough, and permanent.
Another Wizard strength is “seeing the big picture.” Where a Warrior might just attack a problem head-on, sometimes the Wizard can see that what appears to be a problem is really just a symptom of a problem somewhere else. It’s like the old saying about, “Teach a man to fish.” A Paladin is likely to see a hungry man and feed him. The Wizard might be the one to see that training and knowledge are worth more than food to the man with no resources.
Wow, I’m Brilliant! Is There a Downside?
As with every class, the profile of the typical Wizard suggests both strengths and flaws. Consider that “just a bit superior” part, for example – The good side is that Wizards are very smart and know it. The bad side is that sometimes they get a bit arrogant about it and don’t listen to others as well as they might. Despite their love for knowledge, Wizards sometimes fail to learn because they are too busy imparting their wisdom to others. They can also be a little lazy about finishing projects once they’ve worked out the theory of how to do it. It’s like this…
The Mathematician Joke
A physicist, a mathematician, and an engineer met at a conference, had a few drinks, and stayed up really late. This was back in the days when even highly intelligent people liked to smoke, and they’d been smoking cigars. The engineer got back to her room, tossed the cigar into the trash can, and fell into bed. An hour later, she woke up and realized she’d started a small fire. So she dumped the trash can into the bathtub, turned on the water, and the fire was soon out.
Meanwhile, the physicist had the same unfortunate circumstance. Acting quickly, he measured the trash can and flame height, did a few calculations on a hotel notepad, and poured exactly 7/8 of a glass of water on the fire, just enough to put it out. In minutes, he was back in bed snoring.
The mathematician, having had some physics and engineering training as well, was equally up to the problem. He made some measurements, did a few calculations, determined that it would take just 7/8 of a glass of water, plus or minus 5%, to put out the fire. “Problem solved,” he thought, and went back to bed.
Ways of the Wizards
Wizards are sometimes like mathematicians. They’re great at analyzing problems and coming up with solutions, but not always quite as good at applying and following through on them. Unfortunately, this flaw is compounded by the tendency of many Wizards to be loners. A Wizard is strongest when working with a team of other people with complementary skills. The School for Heroes can help you build those relationships with Heroes-in-training in all the classes. It can also be very helpful – and fun – having other Wizards to talk to.
So, from one Wizard to another… Let’s work together to learn, to teach, to improve ourselves, and to make the world a better place through the application of insight and knowledge. It’s so much easier and more fun to do it together than alone.