Spaceship wrangling

Just wanted to share a little story from X3: Terran Conflict, because I'm having so much fun after playing it for four days straight.

I needed to retrieve a derelict hulk floating in space, with a time limit before they would declare it was stolen. The trip out there was at 600 meters/second in a Kestrel fighter. The trip back would be 30 meters/second in a fat, crippled Hermes Hauler. And I wouldn't make it if I stopped to repair it.

First thing I tried was ordering the hauler to fly home by itself, then ejecting from my Kestrel in its path. That gave me about twenty seconds to use my spacesuit's repair laser as it trundled by, and then I had to get the Kestrel to fly close enough to pick me up.

Here's a screenshot of me racing my fighter to intercept the hauler:

 photo intercept_zps311e94ab.png

That got my speed up about 15%, but used up more than half the distance to the jump gate. Then I realized my spacesuit's attitude jets were actually more powerful than its thruster pack, and I could keep up with the ship by floating sideways. I love discovering new tactics in the hour of need, and it looked cool too:

 photo repair2_zps6d0411ea.png

At top speed now, I'd have a minute to spare. I jumped out of my Kestrel and flew the Hauler myself so I could jam my fingers on the attitude jets for eight minutes, just in case I had trouble docking.

The game wouldn't take the ship! Wouldn't strand me with only a spacesuit. The Hauler is way too clumsy to undock itself and redock. I had to order my Kestrel to the dock from way back by the jump gate. Fastest ship in the game that I've found. Eleven seconds left on the time limit when it docked. Mouse hovering over the "Switch Ships" button till it went live. Last second panic to send the message that officially turns the ship over to the station. Made it!

There's simply nothing better than pulling together a bunch of skills you've mastered and have the graphics and missions make it like it actually matters. I love video games.

(no subject)

Step one, record sleep data in a spreadsheet. Step two, calculate a moving seven-day average. Step three, color-code for above or below my nine-month average. Step four, zoom way, way out:

sleep chart

Left-hand column is the seven-day average, right-hand side shows exactly which hours of the day I was asleep.

Look how I have those long continuous runs of above-average or below-average sleep. It's hardly ever choppy, like sleep a lot/sleep a little. Are those biorhythms? It it just what a seven-day moving average behaves like? Do these runs have specific causes or effects on mood or productivity? I'm gonna find out.

Teaching skills

I made a YouTube playlist out of the Uncommon Schools teaching techniques. Fascinating to me:

  • The specific techniques -- how to keep people's attention without asking for it, how to avoid using praise (which people distrust) and give them acknowledgment instead.
  • The idea of reducing good teaching to trainable skills
  • The idea of teaching these skills at all -- I mean, "social skills" could be learned in this way, if you could see demonstrations of what you don't get and have it explained how it worked.
  • Seeing "what it's like" to be a teacher.
  • The dynamics of social control -- you know, if all teachers used these, I might want to show the videos to kids to show them what's being pulled over on them!
Hat tip: Seth Roberts.

(no subject)

Here's an article detailing the specifics of waterboarding as we practiced it:
One of the more interesting revelations in the documents is the use of a saline solution in waterboarding. Why? Because the CIA forced such massive quantities of water into the mouths and noses of detainees, prisoners inevitably swallowed huge amounts of liquid – enough to conceivably kill them from hyponatremia, a rare but deadly condition in which ingesting enormous quantities of water results in a dangerously low concentration of sodium in the blood.

The CIA used much larger amounts of water for the waterboarding than we use when waterboarding special forces for training. I wonder if we train our SERE guys on this "resistance technique":
The CIA's waterboarding regimen was so excruciating, the memos show, that agency officials found themselves grappling with an unexpected development: detainees simply gave up and tried to let themselves drown. "In our limited experience, extensive sustained use of the waterboard can introduce new risks," the CIA's Office of Medical Services wrote in its 2003 memo. "Most seriously, for reasons of physical fatigue or psychological resignation, the subject may simply give up, allowing excessive filling of the airways and loss of consciousness."

Most of the claims are based on this memo from the Department of Justice. There's more specifics if you read the whole article.
One of the weirdest details in the documents is the revelation that the agency placed detainees on liquid diets prior to the use of waterboarding. That's because during waterboarding, "a detainee might vomit and then aspirate the emesis," Bradbury wrote. In other words, breathe in his own vomit. The CIA recommended the use of Ensure Plus for the liquid diet.

Five-factor personality test results

"Which Muppet character are you?" is not my idea of a personality test. Geoffrey Miller's book Spent got me interested in psychology's Big Five Personality Traits, which are supposed to be all independent of each other so you can really describe someone with them. (I'd heard of them before I read Spent, but I didn't really believe in them or see the usefulness of being able to evaluate people with them.) So here are my results from the test at

One thing this cleared up for me was whether the amount of hard work I put into special projects (the rules for Civilization, my little troubleshooting notebook at work) makes me conscientious despite all the classes I skipped and commitments I avoided. I actually am conscientious in just that one way: I'm cautious, I don't like making decisions without complete information (too neurotic), and with my level of openness that manifests as creating big data-gathering projects.

If I had known I was so low in conscientiousness at a younger age, I could have made very different career choices, and not gone to college with all those long-term research projects I would never complete. On the other hand, I ended up at a liberal arts college (good for high Openness) and a clock-punching job that gets me working much harder than I would on my own.

On, I was a O41-C21-E15-A50-N66 Big Five, compared to this test's O35-C10-E1-A31-N85. I averaged 9 points higher on everything else but 19 points lower on Neuroticism, so the tests disagree about whether I really rank an 85. I'm willing to believe it, though -- I constantly find myself making lifestyle and entertainment choices that only 1% of the population agrees with, so there must be something unusual about me besides intelligence.

Hope I can get somebody else to take the test -- after you take it the first time, you start looking at all the actions it asks about going, "Oh! Is that something I wouldn't have done if I were extraverted?"

Did Hugo Chavez declare himself a Marxist?

I fact-checked a claim by the Economist and there were no English-language sources in the search results, so I thought I'd better post what I found. The Economist wrote:
In his annual address to Parliament, earlier this month, the president announced (to no one’s surprise) that he was now a Marxist.
It might come as a surprise to Chavez himself, since he also declared two seconds before that that he was not a Marxist! You can see the declaration here (I skipped the two minutes he spent declaring himself a Christian, which isn't very Marxist). Here's what he has to say:
"Yo soy un revolucionario ahora. Marxista no soy, porque no me formé con Marx. Soy socialista, bolivariano, cristiano y también marxista, aunque (unintelligible) no tengo formacion marxista."

My translation: "I am a revolutionary now. I am not a Marxist, because I was not educated in Marx. I am a socialist, Bolivarian, Christian, and also a Marxist, although... I don't have Marxist training."

I think boiling that down to "Hugo Chavez declared himself a MARXIST!" is more propaganda than reporting. If you continue listening to him explain himself, it really seems like the exact same line of thinking he was using two years ago when he said:
Respeto la vía marxista, pero yo no soy marxista. No puedo compartir esa tesis porque esa es una visión determinista del socialismo --
"I respect the Marxist way, but I am not a Marxist. I can't share this thesis because it is a deterministic vision of socialism."

Until Chavez starts believing in destiny and stops believing in God, I don't think he's going to truly declare himself a Marxist, even though it would be convenient for propaganda purposes if he would.

(no subject)

I have knowledge that the rest of the Internet doesn't know, at least per my Google search. If you want to use Yahoo Calendar to schedule something every other week, what you do is pick "Repeat Every Week", and then change "Every" to "Every Other."

Google Calendar is even worse, you can't see any way to do it until you select "repeat weekly" and then Ajax scripts pop up the option of doing it every other week -- but at least you can Google how to achieve that one. Yahoo Calendar totally stumped me to the point I was ready to switch to Google, and only the fact I couldn't figure out theirs either stopped me.

My D&D character art is up! has finished illustrating my very first D&D character! His name is Chroma, and he's standing underneath a thin magical membrane holding back a boiling underwater lake -- the "boiling bubble" from the classic D&D adventure White Plume Mountain. Here he is (click on picture for the larger size):

Here's how I described Chroma when I commissioned the art:
Description: A D&D wizard who uses spells like Color Spray to blind opponents with all the colors of the rainbow.

A chameleon familiar, shifting colors from red to yellow. His name is Skittles.

An ankle-length black robe with a thin gold braid spiraling around the body twice and up the right arm. Beside the gold braid is one of dark green, blue, and red for a rainbow effect.

Holding his dagger overhead in his right hand, pommel up, point down. The prism in the pommel is emitting a flare of colored light. His other hand has a rainbow swirl around it, the start of a Rainbow Pattern or Color Spray spell.

Chroma's schtick is color; his favorite spells are Color Spray, Glitterdust (in red, green, and blue glitter), and Rainbow Pattern. The prism in his dagger's pommel is the focus for Rainbow Pattern, but it's also enchanted with the cantrip Flare. Chroma's too flashy to go totally invisible and sneak attack people, so the flare when he hits advertises his presence and dazzles them for a round. He can also pop a flare to give him +5 on his Bluff check to feint in combat and set up a sneak attack.
I think it's amazing how well AvatarArt was able to match the image I had in my head, while adding tons of little details. And I'm especially grateful they went through all the rounds of revisions necessary to create the boiling bubble, which I didn't have fixed in my head from the start. In the beginning, I thought the most I could expect them to create was a portrait of Chroma standing outside White Plume Mountain, which would basically have been a tiny volcano in the background. But the background just kept getting more dynamic and interesting the more ideas I bounced off them.

I'm hoping I can find someone to print it so it will look as good as it does on my computer screen. Big props to AvatarArt!

the Iraq war is over, do you know why?

The people who served in the Sunni Awakening no longer want to cooperate with the Americans. The Iraqi government hasn't tried to assimilate them at all. But it doesn't matter:
What has not followed the drop in violence is a political settlement: for the past year analysts have worried that the failure to disarm or integrate the Sunni Awakening groups into the state risked sowing the seeds of a new insurgency. But the tepid response to the arrest of Mashhadani and other Awakening men suggests that a political reconciliation may not have been necessary. The burgeoning Iraqi state, embodied by Maliki himself, can simply continue to expand its power and crush any rivals. One US Army Iraq expert, who worked closely with General David Petraeus to plan and implement the surge, told me in 2008 that the civil war would end when the Shiites realised they had won and the Sunnis realised they had lost. Based on the conversations I had during a trip through Iraq last month, both sides seem to accept that this is the case.
This is by Nir Rosen, who speaks Arabic and has massive antiwar cred to his name, so I really trust him when he says it's over.
There is nothing the Awakening groups can do. As guerrillas and insurgents they were only effective when they operated covertly, underground, blending in among a Sunni population that has now mostly been dispersed. Now the former resistance fighters-turned-paid guards are publicly known, and their names, addresses and biometric data are in the hands of American and Iraqi forces. They cannot return to an underground that has been cleared, and they still face the wrath of radical Sunnis who view them as traitors. They have failed to unite and as their stories demonstrate, they are on the run.
So here's how it worked:
The cleansing of Sunnis from much of Baghdad deprived Sunni insurgents of sanctuary among the population as they were losing battles with al Qa'eda, the Americans and Shiite militias. The Shiite bloc had numerical superiority, backed by the force of the Iraqi state and its security forces. And so, one by one, groups of Sunni resistance fighters struck ceasefire agreements with the Americans and joined the fight against al Qa'eda and other radical elements.

The "surge" of American forces allowed Maliki to strengthen the authority of the state and its security forces, while the establishment of the Awakening groups neutralised anti-government Sunni militias (in some cases simply by paying them salaries not to fight the state). The decline in sectarian violence gave Maliki space to weaken competing Shiite militias, who had been integral to cleansing Sunnis from mixed areas and establishing Shiite dominance but whose presence prevented his fully consolidating control.
So the story this is telling is that we hastened the end of the civil war by getting people to stop fighting each other temporarily, allowing them time to realize that they were beaten. I understand the part where we got half of the Sunnis fighting al Qaeda instead of the Shiites. I don't understand the part where the non-government Shiite militias stopped competing with the government Shiites. Did they spend their time fighting Sunnis, while the government had Americans fighting the Sunnis for it and could spend time fighting the militias?

The part I can't quite remember is, who were the Americans fighting exactly before and during the surge? Both the Sunnis and al Qaeda, but no Shiites? Or were we fighting Shiites too? I can't remember because during the ethnic cleansing I felt like we were just turtling up and not accomplishing anything.

It looks like the civil war was the essential element to ending the violence. Without the Shiites letting loose and destroying the Baghdad Sunnis with horrific violence, the insurgency could have continued much longer. Then the Anbar Awakening got enough Sunnis to call a truce, without feeling like they were surrendering -- but it turned out that's basically what they'd done.

What a complicated situation, do you think David Petraeus could have sat down and thought, "OK, we have group A1 and A2 fighting group B, group C fighting group B and D, and group D fighting groups A through C, we need to get B and C fighting D so that A1 can fight A2, leaving us with A2 and D defeated and A1 dominant over B, so that group C can go home?" (A1 being Maliki, A2 being al-Sadr, B being Sunnis, C being the Americans, and D being al Qaeda.)

Did actual military victory, with kills and arrests, have anything to do with this? Or would the Sunnis still have beat al Qaeda and Maliki beat al Sadr without the surge? If they would have, then the co-opting of the Sunnis would have been the only thing that really mattered. Of course, if you knew this was the situation you wouldn't take that chance. You'd throw the extra troops in there to make sure the Sunnis knew they'd win if they took your side.

And once you'd planned this all out, you'd never be able to sell it in public, because you couldn't say "Our plan is to get the Sunnis to help us beat al Qaeda and then sell them down the river." All you could do is say "We're gonna, um, kill some terrorists and hope the Iraqis reconcile together." You have a plan now, but you have to keep saying the same thing you said when you didn't have one and hope the public trusts you.

So what does this mean for the question, "Was I wrong to oppose the surge?" Before, I would have said "No, they weren't proposing any new strategy that we could expect to work, and the old one was a proven failure." But now, I'd say "Yes, I was wrong not to see that the civil war made for a very different balance of forces in Iraq and therefore the prospects for any strategy succeeding were different than before."

And finally I don't want to fall into the trap of talking about how the surge worked out in the end and letting people think that means the Iraq War was OK. Out of the three questions "Given what we knew at the time, was it right to support 1) the invasion 2) the occupation and 3) the surge?" my answer to 1) and 2) is still decisively "No." Out of the three questions "Were the consequences of 1) the invasion 2) the occupation and 3) the surge better than doing nothing?" my answer to 1) is "No" and the answer to 2) is "Hell no." But I am glad that we broke our streak and things finally started getting better from 2007 to 2009.

I don't especially want to argue about that last paragraph in comments. I'm more interested in discussion about the surge and how it worked.