My First Time on the Other Side of the Screen

I messed up rules, I forgot what I said, and didn’t add any of the flavor descriptions I had planned. But, people had fun so that’s OK. After three years of playing Dungeons & Dragons, I survived my first session as a Dungeon Master.

Once a year my employer gathers all our distributed workforce for a week of in-person work. My coworker Payton organized some groups to play in the downtime we have some evenings. He wrote the scenario, provided pre-gen characters, dice, pencils, everything! Payton also asked people if they wanted to play, DM, or “play but could DM if needed.” I chose option 3.

The game was a one-shot scenario based on Stranger Things called “Unusual Things” for a group of level 2 characters. His description:

Nothing much happens in the mountaintop town of Hawkurns, where the populace mines magical crystals and their kids to get into all kinds of mischief. Recently, however, people have been disappearing, and no one knows why. Rumors of unusual things are everywhere. Can you help solve the mystery before something worse assails this small town?

My players solved the puzzles, found the big bad guy and defeated him! Some of the townsfolk even survived!

Aside from Payton’s organizing, two things helped me a lot for my first time on the other side of the DM screen.

/r/DMAcademy has a lot of good discussions and tips. It also presents a wide array of experiences so I felt like I could handle the weird things my players did. The players still threw me for a loop, but the important thing was that I was fooled into thinking I could handle it.

The other big help was my friend Chris Salzman’s podcast Roll for Topic, where he and Andy Rau roll a d20 to decide what to talk about with their guest GM. (Skip episode 20 if you’ve never listened before, it’s an off-format episode.) Chris runs the 5th Edition game at my coworking space as well as a Blades in the Dark game I’m in with Andy on Roll20. I also recommend listening to your own DM’s podcast if they have one, just to find out how much you messed up their plans.

Chris’ sign-off for the podcast is “Remember, if your players are having fun you’re a great GM” which is the best advice I got.

(The photo at the top is from a different game I was in with maps and miniatures. I forgot to take any pictures of our game, and my hand-drawn maps with beer caps for enemies was much less photogenic)

Brent Simmons on why he’s not adding algorithmic timelines to NetNewsWire, his RSS reader:

These kinds of algorithms optimize for engagement, and the quickest path to engagement is via the drugs outrage and anger — which require, and generate, bigger and bigger hits.

This is what Twitter and Facebook are about — but it’s not right for NetNewsWire. The app puts you in control. You choose the sites and blogs you want to read, and the app reliably shows you their articles sorted by time. That’s it.

Update: Brent also wrote a follow-up highlighting these tweets:

Joshua Emmons on Twitter

1. and 2. mean it’s not the algorithm’s fault. There’s no way to write an engagement algoritm that doesn’t select for outrage and anger. But 3. means anything that incorporates such an algorithm actually makes us worse people.

Imagine messing up a laptop camera so badly that a return to normalcy is literally a headline feature

XPS 13 2019 review: One small move made Dell’s best laptop even better

Dell gave its XPS laptop an overhaul last year, but 2019 is all about refinement. Announced at CES, this year’s XPS 13 laptop looks largely the same as the 2018 model, but it has a few new and improved features that attempt to right some of the wrongs of the previous generation.

Loneliness and Junk Social Media

I keep thinking about this video Jason Kottke linked to:

The health effects of loneliness are well documented, but I’d never actually thought of it in biological terms. We hunger for connection in the same way we hunger for food, and we hurt when we are shunned in a very physical way.

Jason’s analogy to sugar really got to me:

Like our affinity for sugary foods, the feeling of loneliness turns out to be another one of those things that served humans well when we lived in small hunter-gatherer groups tens of thousands of years ago but often works against us in our individualist modern world.

I think that a lot of online social networking is the social equivalent of junk food. Call it junk socializing. Everyone knows a “Facebook friend” isn’t a friend; otherwise why would it be qualified with “Facebook?” But we still feel like we’re connecting with people when we like their pictures on Instagram.

If Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram are bad, then podcasting, YouTubers, and streamers are worse.

"how it feels to listen to podcasts" with image of a guy socializing with an ad

After listening to a “two guys talking” podcast I feel like I’ve just hung out with some friends, even though the podcasters don’t know me at all! Maybe I feel less lonely, in the same way I feel full after eating a Quarter Pounder w/ Cheese: I sated my hunger but not in a sustainable way.

As a society, we need to work a lot on social isolation. I’m not 100% in on Cal Newport’s “delete your social media” proscription, but it’s starting to make a bit more sense every day.

It’s Ridiculous That Your Company Doesn’t Give You a Paid Sabbatical

Three months off work. Paid. Every five years. That’s the Automattic sabbatical program. And I can’t believe more companies don’t do this.

The Automattic sabbatical is a benefit where every employee is encouraged to take 3 months off every five years at the company. (We’re hiring people passionate about the web, just so you know.) People take a long break from work and do something else, or nothing at all. If you do a search for “Automattic sabbatical” you can find plenty of my coworkers who have blogged about what they did.

It’s easy to write this off as yet another tech excess–like catered everything or laundry or twenty-four/seven massages–but if you look at the benefits and the cost it makes a lot of sense. Almost a no-brainer. Which is why, as it says in big letters up there, it’s ridiculous that your company doesn’t give you a paid sabbatical.

Sabbaticals make companies anti-fragile.

Netflix has a system called “Chaos Monkey.” It randomly turns off servers to test how robust their systems are. By simulating an outage, the engineers are able to build more robust systems that can deal with real outages. The parallel to a sabbatical is clear – it’s making key employees disappear for a little bit. When do you want someone with five years’ experience to train up the team on their job? For three months before sabbatical or the two weeks before they start a new job and leave forever?

I firmly believe this is one of the two most important things to understand about the benefit (the other is the cost, which I’ll get into below). It creates a system where the old guard regularly trains up newer folks to replace them. That means that the organization as a whole is stronger.

Sabbaticals make it easier to hire.

Did you click that hiring link up there, just out of curiosity? If so, you know how attractive a sabbatical program is to people. This may not be useful once more companies catch on and start offering sabbaticals, but for now it’s a clear advantage in hiring talent. Take advantage while you can!

The best way to make hiring cheaper is to not do it. When someone with five years experience leaves due to burnout or boredom, replacing them will take a long time. Keeping folks around and recharging them means lower turnover.

Sabbaticals are cheaper than you think.

There’s one other important thing: how much does this cost? None of this matters if the price tag is too high.

Well, it’s three months salary (and benefits). So your labor cost goes up for that person by 25%. But that’s every five years, so 25% ÷ 5 = 5% increase in labor costs per year. BUT that only applies to people who make it to five years, which is what? Half? So now we’re down to a 2.5% increase in labor costs. That’s less than the the 3% yearly cost-of-living increase!

So we have a way for your organization to organically get the most experienced employees to cross-train on their roles, that costs less than an annual cost-of-living raise AND it reduces churn AND it makes hiring easier. How is this not at more companies!?

Now, it’s true that this isn’t right for every company. If a company does not have to worry about knowledge transfer and retaining institutional knowledge, and it has a plentiful labor supply, it may not make sense. But for everyone else, time to ask your HR why this isn’t a benefit at your company!

Best LAN Party Games in 2019

We had our LAN party and it was grand. Online play can only replicate so much of the experience of gaming together. There are still plenty of good LAN games, here’s what we played:

Alien Swarm – A great 4 player co-op game from the Left 4 Dead team, we had 2 games going. It’s free and it’s old enough that will run on a potato, so there’s no excuses. There’s plenty of depth, too with lots of levels, unlocks, and multiple classes. Plus, it’s a sleeper so most people will get to discover it together.

CS: GO – Danger Zone – love love loved this. Counter-Strike is also free now and they added a Battle Royale mode and map designed for 16 players. We had half that but it was still a lot of fun. The game moves at a great pace. The only downsides were that starting a private server is a bit wonky, and we couldn’t spectate after we died. Luckily, it’s a LAN party so we could walk over and spectate IRL.

Rocket League – 4v4 private matches were great. It would be interesting to have people bring a Switch to play as well.

Xonotic – FOSS Quake 3 clone. As it turns out, the Quake 3 engine still has some good gameplay left in it. I was surprised at how well this worked, although the levels felt a bit small in this day and age.

LAN Party Game Suggestions?

What are the best PC games for LAN parties right now?

I am #blessed to have a group of friends that gets together for a yearly LAN. There is a magical synergy that occurs when everyone is playing the same game together, with no splinter factions. I would love to get any suggestions on cheap/free games that are fairly easy to pick up.

Below are some of the games we’ve played in the past, but please please please comment with some new suggestions

Team Fortress 2 was a solid choice for many years. Free-to-play, easy to hop in and blast people, but also a lot of depth. You can run a local server, meaning that you don’t run into problems with lag or bandwidth saturation. Did I mention free-to-play? Herding cats into buying a game for a once-a-year LAN is an uphill battle, so free is nice in coalescing around a game.

The Mann vs Machine mode in TF2 was a nice cooperative game too, but unfortunately capped at 6 people. There’s a lot of fun to be had teaming an entire LAN party up together.

Xonotic was a fun surprise last year. It’s basically Quake 3 with new maps, but Free (as in beer and as in speech). It turns out that I still have a lot of muscle memory from Quake 3.

As an aside – in the year 2000 I found myself with Quake 3 on my Dreamcast with a keyboard, mouse, and Ethernet adapter. Reader: that combination was basically cheating when playing against people on dial-up with their clawed hands wrapped around a Dreamcast controller.

Don’t Starve Together was solid when my friends and I last gave it a try. It has a local, dedicated server option. It looks like it only supports 6 players though.

Rocket League is great, but pretty much requires a controller, maxes out at 6 players. I don’t think it has a local server option either.

Town of Salem is basically Werewolf so let’s just play Secret Hitler or Resistance instead of lugging our computers over.

Left 4 Dead 2 has some solid co-op and vs modes, and has a local server. The humans-vs-super zombies mode can be fun, or just getting 4 people in the same room against the hoard. The downsides are that game sizes are either exactly 4 or 8 people and not everyone appreciates jump scares.

Counterstrike: GO works locally with bots to fill out the teams. The only complaint I heard was the realism – quick deaths, no respawns, and wild bullet patterns make the game less accessible for people who don’t play much.

WALL·E on Typeset In The Future

We are a WALL·E house. For both my kids, it was the first movie that they loved. I think it’s because so much of the storytelling happens in the animation. Even if you can’t quite follow what everyone is saying, you can see the story happening. Plus, WALL·E is a bit of a charmer.

We have WALL·E merch. It can be hard to find stuff 10 years after a movie was made, but we still managed to wind up with a couple toys (one that makes lots of noise, yay I guess), plushes, at least 3 copies of the Little Golden Book (with gorgeous art, which is in the heading of this post), a twin bedset with matching curtain, and a few other things that I’m sure I’m forgetting.

Like I said, we are a WALL·E house.

When you have a movie more-or-less on repeat in your house, you notice a few things. WALL·E stands for “Waste Allocation Load Lifter: Earth-class.” You pick up some trivia, like the fact that the cockroach is named “Hal” after producer Hal Roach. But I have nothing on Typeset In The Future’s deep dive into WALL·E.

Ostensibly the post (and the book) is about the typography, and definitely covers that:

Before we get started, there is an important detail we must clear up. Our hero’s name is not, as you might think, WALL-E. Moreover, it definitely isn’t WALL•E. His name is WALL·E, and that dot is an interpunct, not a hyphen or a bullet.

and

WALL·E’s self-promotional poster is also a fine example of Handel Gothic, one of the movie’s supporting typefaces. Originally designed in 1965 by Donald J. Handel, the font has become a mainstay of design futurism. … My favorite use of the typeface in WALL·E occurs later in the movie, when we see the distinctly curved E of some Handel Gothic… on a handle. (I refuse to believe this is anything but a deliberate typographic joke.)


https://typesetinthefuture.files.wordpress.com/2018/08/walle_0_58_301.jpg?w=1100

But there is so much more interesting background information. The design of the ship The Axiom, the inspiration for the monorails, the class system aboard the Axiom, the economic inflation of BNL’s currency. If you have any love for Pixar’s (surprisingly large) yellow robot, please do yourself a favor and read WALL·E from Typeset In The Future.

Christmas Songs Are a Huge Scam

This morning my 5 year old was singing Let It Snow and I realized something. A lot of Christmas songs start playing in November, but are about the snow that (in Michigan) we usually don’t see until January.

Frosty the Snowman? Dude is not getting built until February.

Let It Snow? The weather outside is mild.

Winter Wonderland? Astronomical winter doesn’t start until December 21. You probably aren’t going to have snow glistening in your lane for another month.

US map of probabilities for a white Chistmas

The song that gets it right is White Christmas. I’m dreaming of a 36% chance of a white Christmas. And as the climate changes, that 36% is going to 📉

My point, if I have one, is that radio stations should start separating the Christmas music from the winter music, and milk the seasonal playlist for another 6 weeks until mid-February

Video of the 2018 Harold Hotelling Lecture

Lawrence Tech’s 2018 Harold Hotelling Memorial Lecture is up on YouTube:

Dad was on board with school choice, and it turns out that he and Dr. Harris discussed this when Dr. Harris was dad’s student. I enjoyed the nuance that Dr. Harris brought to the topic as well – something deeper than “markets are good” or “government is good.” Around the 22:00 mark he goes into the challenges in getting benefits of an free market in education:

As always, the stories at the start of the lecture are a highlight for my family and I, and I’m grateful to all the people at Lawrence Tech for organizing it each year.