Not-City-of-Heroes Fanfic writing

Screenshot from City of Heroes character generator

This picture may be created by the City of Heroes character generator, but the heroine Nordic Spring is from the totally imaginary MMORPG Paragons which never existed in our world, only in the world of the novel I am currently writing (my second NaNoWriMo novel this year, after I won the 50 000 words challenge with my first story, Artworld.) In contrast to Artworld, I am having a blast writing Paragons of Virtue, where Virtue refers to “Virtue City”, the city formally known as “Virtual City” before it became real, and totally not the Virtue server in City of Heroes, which is an intellectual property held by NCSoft Inc, whose lawyers are probably on the Internet like most people these days.

Nordic Spring is one of the characters in my story set in the defunct MMORPG Paragons that has mysteriously become real. She is a Nature / Ice Guardian, which is totally not a Nature Affinity / Ice Blast Defender from City of Heroes, seeing how CoH doesn’t exist and never has in that world. Before coming to the alternate reality of Virtue City, she was a slightly physically challenged, long-haired woman named Tove something or other, which is totally not a poorly disguised rewrite of Tuva, not that it matters since they are both imaginary and all.

The main main character of the story is Lightwielder Trainee, a Light/Light tank. The tank class is a mainstay of MMORPGs since long before CoH was made, and it is not spelled “tanker” like the corresponding archetype in CoH. Also, CoH doesn’t have Light powersets, although it has Darkness powersets, which work differently. (The MMORPG Champions does have a Light powerset, but it works slightly differently from in my imaginary world, beyond the obvious implications of the name.) Before coming to Virtue City, Lightwielder Trainee was an underpaid office worker named Markus. In the story he is mostly referred to as Markus when doing internal monologue or talking with friends, and Lightwielder Trainee when doing heroic things or being mentioned by others. Only Tove knows his former identity, and the other way around, as they used to team up together almost every day for several years, to the point where people thought they were a couple.

Of course, now that they are physically in the game world, who knows what will happen. But I am pretty sure it will be rated T for Teens, like the game itself. Or “Young Adult” as they say about books.

***

I am having a blast writing this story, it is one that practically writes itself. Which is great because I get to read a new chapter or two each day. The downside with stories that write themselves is that I have less control over them than if I crafted them from scratch. For instance, I had planned to introduce Tove early in the book and use her as an alternate viewpoint character to avoid this becoming just a translation from 1st person perspective.

One thing that bothered me about Artworld was that the heroine got way too little exposure and development because the MMC (male main character) was the narrator. An interesting character was largely kept unexplored and the romance was badly understated because the MMC did not really understand her emotions. (What guy can understand a woman’s emotions anyway?) So I decided that my next book would be 1) not a romance, although there might be pairings and triangles in it, and 2) not a first person perspective. In practice, however, I am now on the 6th chapter of what I call “translated first person”, by which I mean it reads as if it was written in first person narrative and then someone went through the text and replaced all instances of “I” with “he” (or occasionally the name), “me” with “him”, “our” with “their” and so on. Only one person has internal monologue, only one person’s feelings are clear to the reader, and the reader does not know things the main character doesn’t know.

Translated first-person perspective is very common in LitRPG novels, even in good ones like Aleron Kong’s Chaos Seed. But having recently rewatched parts of the anime Log Horizon, based on the LitRPG books by the same name, I see how useful it can be to expand the scope a bit, even if you maintain a main character. If you compare Log Horizon to Sword Art Online, another popular Japanese LitRPG which was made into an anime, you will notice that the main character of SAO has a pretty strong Mary Sue (or Marty Stu) flavor. In other words, he is too perfect and overpowered.

One of the most appealing aspects of LitRPG is that the characters are constrained by the game mechanics. You have to do your grinding and your artifact quests in order to become powerful, you cannot muddle through until toward the end of the book, when everything comes to a climax, the main character suddenly has godlike powers because of his heroism or his love or his heritage or an ancient prophecy or because Mystra said so. That is one of my major turn-offs about conventional fantasies, and conversely one of the things I love about LitRPG is that the character has to do the grinding to power up, use his creativity to find the best strategies and tactics based on understanding the rules, and gain the cooperation of other heroes or even villains to help save the day.

So what I wanted to write was a kind of “Log Horizon meets City of Heroes” (except not really). But the writing style, as much as I love writing and reading it myself, may get in the way of making this what I wanted.

Of course, it is still early. I mean, as of Chapter 6 (16000 words) we are still in the character’s first day in Virtue City, and he is still level 4. The tentative female main character has just arrived and is level 2, having done only a street quest so far. (Notice that the quests are usually called quests or quest missions, never just “missions” because this is totally not City of Heroes. I am sure not even lawyers could misunderstand that.)

But now it is time to get back to City Park, which is totally not Atlas Park, the starting zone in City of Heroes. Just like Factory Row is not Kings Row, Steel Towers is not Steel Canyon, and so on.

Duolingo revisited

Screenshot YouTube / TEDx

Please apologize for your stupidity! The pitfalls of using machine translation on the Web. Instead, please enlist the French. There are a many thank you.

Back on February 23, 2013, I wrote about Duolingo, a website that let you learn a foreign language by translating the Web. Or that was the idea. I also mentioned that it had relatively few languages, all of which were cousins of English either on the Anglo-Saxon or the Norman side.

Things have changed a little, but Duolingo is still around, and there are now a few more languages. (You can learn Norwegian! So you can properly greet your new overlords when the longships come.) No truly alien ones such as Japanese or Mandarin, but a couple using Cyrillic alphabet, and Hebrew is in the works; there are also western languages for Arabic speakers, so the alphabet problem seems to be worked around. And there’s Turkish for English-speakers. While using a slightly modified Latin alphabet, Turkish is not an Indo-European language, meaning it is not visibly related to English and its neighbors. (Even Russian is much closer to English.)

Naturally I have started learning Turkish. Because I can. Or because I wanted to see whether I can learn a language from scratch, without even a seed of background knowledge. We had a smattering of French in school, so when I play around with French on Duolingo, I am never sure how much I am actually learning and how much comes back to me from our seemingly futile French classes, and how much I have picked up from French pop music and cultural references. None of those are particularly applicable to Turkish, because Vienna did not fall to the Ottoman army in this timeline.

***

Back when Duolingo was new, it had just the website (although it was surprisingly mobile-friendly for a site with so much interaction). Now there are apps for iOS and Android. They are similar to the website, but actually easier. In other words, I take longer completing the standard chunk of 10 XP on the website. This is partly because I downloaded the appropriate languages for my smartphone keyboard (I use SwiftKey, but this probably also works with Google keyboard). The keyboard helpfully corrects badly spelt words, and even proposes valid words if I get the first letters right or nearly right. In addition, the Android app is more likely to give me exercises of the type “tap the word pairs” or “select the words” instead of actual writing exercises.

The focus on translating the web seems to have receded a bit. The philosophy was sound enough: The server keeps track of each student’s competence level, and assigns sentences from actual texts that the company is paid to translate. If the sentence is short and contain only common words, it can be assigned to a newbie, while longer sentences with more advanced vocabulary are reserved for advanced learners. The same sentence is given to a bunch of different students, and if they agree on the translation, fine. If not, you may get to vote on which translation is correct.

The website has a tab called “Immersion” which does take you to the translation work, but you are not pushed into it early in the course at least. I still haven’t actually completed any languages yet (as if such a word even has meaning for a language). I am supposedly 25% fluent in French, although I suspect 2.5% would be a more accurate estimate. I am not entirely sure I can say “twentyfive” in French.

With translation somewhat sidetracked, it seems that the company Duolingo is currently living on investments while waiting for a buyer or IPO to go public. For now it is completely free, and this was important to the founders. But if it gets bought up, it is anybody’s guess how long it will be free. At the very least I would expect a return to focus on actually useful translations. But for now it is mostly fun and games.

***

Duolingo is highly gamified. That is, the learning is made as fun as possible. Completing exercises give you XP (experience points) and you level up by doing enough of them. When you have completed a topic group (like “food”, “clothing” or “animals”) you get “lingots” which is the currency of the game. You can use these in the “lingot store” to unlock optional features like “learn flirting”.

There are small chunks of exercises that normally only take a few minutes, and they are a mix of different types. In the case of French, I translate phrases and sentences from French to English, and from English to French. The French phrases are spoken as well as written. There are also exercises where I listen to a French phrase and write it down in French, and others where I listen and try to repeat a phrase. Sometimes I get to pick a translation of a slightly harder sentence from 3 alternatives in French. Sometimes I get 6 different words, 3 in each language, and get to sort them into pairs.

In the original version, you started with 3 “hearts” which would break if you made a mistake. If you lost all three hearts and made a fourth mistake, you had to redo that batch. But evidently that made people lose heart for real, so this has quietly been dispensed with. Now instead, if you make mistakes, you don’t make progress, or may even be set back a little, but nobody scolds you in any way. It just takes longer to gain your 20 XP (two batches of exercises) for the day.

There is currently a bug where, if you study two languages, Duolingo will count progress on one of them as progress on them both. OK, I am not 100% sure if this is a bug or a feature, but I am almost sure it is a bug, because it does track progress on both of them when I look at the daily reminder mail. But in the app and on the website, I have to keep track myself.

***

Duolingo is probably the most efficient way to get started on a foreign language today. (Science backs this up: A study showed that 34 hours of Duolingo was equal to a semester of beginner Spanish in college.) It may over-estimate your progress (it certainly does with mine), but you can’t avoid noticing when you don’t know something, so it is kind of self-correcting if it pushes you too far ahead too fast. And it is just plain fun to use. Not super fun like actual computer games, but I certainly wish my workday was like this! So more fun than reading the newspaper. (Just kidding, boss! ^_^)

So go get it while it’s free. Remember, being bilingual delays Alzheimer’s. We want to delay Alzheimer’s until someone has found a cure for it, OK? So here you go, now:

Duolingo – learn a language for free!

MOOC update

Screenshot anime Denki-Gai (ep 1)

I am glad I have lived this long! (Picture from Denki-Gai, which is not really recommended except for the funny screenshots.)

Try if you can to imagine what free university studies at home means to someone who, as a child, would read the phone book for scarcity of non-fiction literature.

I just finished the astrobiology course Super-Earths and Life from HarvardX (via the edX MOOC platform).

MOOC, as we have talked about before, are massive open online courses, at this time mainly university-level courses and frequently coming from some of the most prestigious universities of the world. Harvard, in this case, probably needs no further introduction, at least to readers from the western world. So that is kind of awesome. And it will be available to most of the world, thanks to the Android revolution that (according to my estimate) should start in earnest this year (with $20 – $50 Android tablets being churned out for India and other emerging markets). The $20 tablet has actually arrived just in time. Now just wait until it is in the hands of the global middle class: Those who have food security but not luxury. They are going to embrace education in a way that we cannot even imagine, we who had it stuffed down our throat since early childhood.

Be that as it may, the astrobiology course ends on Sunday. (There will no doubt be new rounds of it.) I got 97%, less than perfect but still respectable for a Harvard course I guess. My brain is still working, long may it last! But I am too old to become an astrobiologist. Not that there is detected any biology among the astra so far, but we keep looking. Because we can! Humans are kind of funny that way. Whether lifeforms on other planets think the same way is an open question.

***

I am not going to run out of MOOC just because this one course ends. I still have a couple more weeks left of Programming for Everybody (Python), from the University of Michigan, on the Coursera MOOC platform. These are the two platforms I have used so far. Generally I find Coursera easier, a bit more spoon-feeding while my edX courses have required some more work. None of them have been too bad though, except the “Science of Happiness” course that I stopped following because their anti-spiritual crusade was just too grating. With all due respect for evolution, the human race has long ago reached a point where we can no longer hide behind the “we do what we do because those of our ancestors who did so had more surviving offspring”. That is not my form of happiness. In fact, it was quite painful to watch.

Luckily programming is not haunted by that kind of bizarre left-wing flapping. I used to be a rather awesome programmer back in the day, but it came to an abrupt halt after I burned out on the debt collection software project that fed Supergirl’s father and his large family for many years. I don’t regret doing that, but perhaps I regret that I burned out on programming. It is probably too late to get back into that now, at least in the sense of seeking employment. The best I can hope for is to be able to stay employed at the place where I work now, until death or the age of 75. But you never know. The world is a strange place and we live in the strangest time that has ever been. And so, I am learning to program in Python. I am still not entirely sure what the point of that is. The language looks very strange to me, but it is not particularly hard to learn. Well, it will take quite a bit of practice to be able to code without looking up the various features, but the exercises so far have been pretty quick and easy.

So much so, in fact, that I have signed up for two more programming course: One in C# by Microsoft experts (on edX) and a longer on in Java from a university in Madrid (also on edX). Hopefully the Madrid professors will speak English, despite their names. The blurb for the course was certainly in English, so I am hoping for the best.

The C# course starts in early April, the Java course in late April. There will be some overlap, but hopefully it won’t confuse me. I believe the two languages are related, being both inspired by the C programming language.

For May, I have signed up for a more sociological course again, about superheroes in popular culture. This is definitely not career related, I think. Well, not for my day job at least. ^_^

Exit from Camelot

My rather defensive paladin in Darkness Falls (an underground realm in Dark Age of Camelot), battling imaginary demonic creatures. Well, at least I was on the right side.

Well, it was kind of fun playing the old game again for a couple weeks. But it was almost a single-player game on the co-op server where I used to play. There were some scattered player on the combined server where all the other old servers had been merged. But over the years they have continued to develop a more and more unique culture and language, so that the public messages were a mixture of names and abbreviations that made no sense to me. I wonder if this would have happened to City of Heroes if it lived for another decade? There was some of it after 8 years, but not so much that you could not get into it pretty quickly, and there were always new people who would ask for advice, and people would answer them politely and quickly.

I guess going back to the ex after the death of your loved one just isn’t very likely to work. Not that I would know except for computer games.

I may still play it as a single-player game occasionally, perhaps. Although this is made unnecessary difficult because the game refuses to acknowledge my mapping of a network drive to store the game files, even though it should normally be transparent to programs outside the operating system. Probably some part of the Electronic Arts paranoia, the same thing that makes The Sims games so hard to run on Linux.

Return to Camelot

Screenshot Dark Age of Camelot: Prydwen Keep

Tinlad, the new overly defensive paladin, at the gates of Prydwen Keep.

It was September 1, 2006. I was writing in my hand-coded on-line journal about leaving my favorite game for several years, Dark Age of Camelot. A new, superior game had taken its place in my heart: City of Heroes. And I wrote: ” I know that unless the game gets an interface as easy and intuitive as City of Heroes, I am not going to return. Probably not even then. Well, unless CoH is closed down for some reason. Perhaps not even then.”

Both of these things came to pass. It is now almost a year since City of Heroes closed down. It is not coming back. A “spiritual successor” is slated for release in 2015. Perhaps I will still be here, and still be interested. But to me it is an ocean of time. And a while ago, I learned that somehow Dark Age of Camelot (DAoC) had survived. It was scaled back. Development is slow when it happens at all. The population is low. The subscription fee is still there, in an age of plentiful free massive online games. The servers have been consolidated, there are now 2 of them from what I can see: Gaheris, the no-playerkilling server, and one common server for all the rest.

And so, I have returned. I am not sure for how long: I paid only for 1 month, and I may not stay that long. But I did stop by.

As promised in that entry in 2006, Itlandsen the overly defensive paladin is going to remain retired, although I may visit him for reference perhaps. I have started a brand new paladin, so that I could go through the tutorial quests from the start. It has been some years, after all, and the game has also evolved for a while after I left. So let’s welcome Tinlad, the overly defensive newbie highlander paladin!  (Yes, I have just shifted a couple letters in my last name, but it was unexpectedly descriptive, since paladins spend their days in plate armor.)

The startup zone for highlanders was moved to somewhere that did not even exist when I was there. The tutorial quests were easy and the leveling quite rapid – I got to level 10 and was ready to leave the startup zone in an afternoon. In the olden days, it took days to get someone to level 10, at least alone. And I spent plenty of time getting familiar with the controls again (and changing some of them – the system is now more flexible and it is easy to set up your own keyboard shortcuts and mouse controls, or choose from popular setups.)

Some memories of the early 2000s did come back, though, once I got back to a zone I was familiar with. And when I saw the entrance to Prydwen Keep, I felt a wave of nostalgia. This was where many of my first characters spent their “childhood”, the levels up to 10. I have no count of how many hours I have spent chasing ghosts and spriggans and bandits in the area between Prydwen and Cotswold. It was also on the ramp up to Prydwen Keep that I parked my favorite character when my trial period was over and I was unable to subscribe to the game, a problem which was later fixed.

My online friends from back then are no doubt long gone. I only saw one other playable character during my stay online, but there are probably others since Gaheris is still running. But the game is playable solo, especially during the first part, as long as you don’t go into the borderlands that are designed for large-scale realm war. I wasn’t into that even back then, and I certainly am not now. Knowing that there is a real person playing the character I am killing is a super turnoff for me. Your turnoffs may vary. ^_^

The extreme longevity of DAoC also shows what a big mistake NCSoft made when they closed down City of Heroes. If they had kept the game subscription-based, slowed development to maintenance and consolidated the least populated servers, they could have had a steady income from people who just never got fed up with the game and subscribed year after year. All for the cost of electricity and fiber connection for the servers. CoH had a system for users to create new content, so it could probably have continued to grow for another decade or two or three, until the end of PC gaming as we know it.

Whether DAoC will last that long, is more uncertain. And whether I will be there, even much more uncertain. But I was there today. It was … alright, I guess. ^_^ But I’m impressed that they kept my characters waiting since 2006 for me to return. Perhaps we all have something to learn from that!

Filter bubble and school bubble

Screenshot anime Narue no Sekai (featuring Kanaka)

What is wrong with this country’s education system? Well, first and foremost it is populated with people who are different from me. That can’t possibly be good!

In my previous post, I mentioned the MOOC I am taking from NTNU about technology and social development. Now for the bad part. We got an assignment to write about the Filter Bubble. The text by the professor was a one-sided reference to Eli Pariser and his claims that Google search result are filtered to conform to each person’s ideological and other views, so that a conservative and a liberal would see completely different pages when searching for a politically charged topic, for instance.

The problem with this shocking revelation is that it does not repeat when tested. This is mentioned in the Wikipedia article, and I took the time to test it for myself. At home I tested with one page signed in as myself (an avid Google user over many years, also using other Google services such as Blogger, Google Docs, and not least Google+, their social network.)  But a search for a very “me” topic while logged in to Google gave very nearly the same result as a search from an anonymous Opera window – some sites were a little higher on one than the other, but not so much that one would have noticed without looking for differences.

Now you may counter that both of the browser windows were on the same computer and so had the same IP address, so Google might be able to guess that I was the anonymous browser. (Then again this would not explain the small differences that were, and it would put Google in hot water if spouses, siblings etc borrowed each other’s computer and suddenly found themselves in a different filter bubble.) Just to make sure, however, I ran a new test later at work, using a tablet where I was logged in to Google and a work computer that is not used with my private Google account, is occasionally used with another Google account, and goes through a server farm in which we log on to a different terminal server each time we log on, and of course also has a different IP. Once again, the differences were trivial, with a little more prominence to sites I had visited in the past.

My conclusion is the same as those who have disputed Parisier’s claims. The facts do not even remotely resemble his description, at least in its Internet meme form. (I have not bought the book, so I can’t speak for that, and given the outcome of my tests the book would be a waste of time and money. I would not be shocked to the core of my tender soul if it turns out that selling his book and possibly related goods was the reason for the claims in the first place.)

The rest of the students uncritically accepted the claims and expressed their deep concern. One of them corroborated the claim by mentioning that he had found the answer to an iPad problem in a few seconds by searching on Google, while his friend who had the problem had not found the answer, despite being an educated man and mentally sound. I have no doubt that this is true, but it is not the filter bubble. It is called “Google-fu”, the art of using Google. In order to verify or falsify the claims of a filter bubble, you have to do an identical search, within a reasonable time of each other, and in the same geographical location if geography is involved. (The coverage of Hurricane Sandy is obviously different in New York and Paris, for instance, or even New York and Seattle.)

I was rather discouraged. This is tertiary education. University students were among us. Isn’t questioning at the heart of higher learning? Shouldn’t a university-level student pause in the face of extraordinary claims that can be tested in the convenience of your home, rather than respond emotionally in conformity with the claims? Am I truly the only person down into which the overwhelming brightness of a higher consciousness has shone to endow me with the ability to think twice?

After this, I lost part of my enthusiasm. I still intend to complete the course, though. Probably. Some day.

MOOC!

Screenshot Sims 3, after a high school graduation

Used to be that people my age were worried about their children’s studies, not their own. Not anymore. The age of the MOOC has come!

I signed up for my first MOOC on September 9. (The letters stand for Massive Open Online Course, generally used about university level courses that are distributed over the Internet, usually but not always for free.) This course comes from NTNU, the Norwegian institute of Science and Technology. It is also touted as the first MOOC in Norway, although the College in Molde is supposed to have a full study online this year. I am not sure how to reconcile these claims, but in any case this is the first for me.

Back when I was a teenager, high school was a bit higher than it is now and a high school diploma (Examen Artium) such as I had would have qualified me directly for university studies, I believe. I did take some college-level courses organized and paid for by my employer not many years later. Today you have to have Examen Philosophicum to enter into any further studies, and as I don’t have this, I wouldn’t be able to take an exam anyway. Apart from that however I have followed the course like an ordinary off-site student. The professor and staff have treated us freeloaders like students as well, whereas in larger courses one would obviously not have the capacity for that. (There are American courses with hundreds of thousands of students, if not more.)

In addition to my interest in technology and social development (which the course is about), I also wanted to evaluate the study form as such. I have dabbled in online study on a small scale, improving my extremely rusty little French with Duolingo and my math with Khan Academy, both of which I have written glowing reviews about before, I hope. (Duolingo has later released an Android app which makes it even easier to practice on the go.) But the mainstream MOOC format is one I am not familiar with, and I hope to be in the future, if any.

I generally have a deal with my workplace to not write about my workplace. But that may not last, because my job may not last. It seems more likely than not that my job – and those of my coworkers – will be outsourced sometime over the next four years. I am not particularly worried that I will simply be waved goodbye to by my employer, but what kind of job I will be assigned to could depend quite a bit on my technical competence. Going back to school is not an option at my age, as I would be nearly 60 on my return, and Norwegians have a tendency to retire at 62 (and then be very surprised that they don’t get the same pension as if they had kept working till 75). I hope to work until 75 or until shortly before my untimely death should that happen first, Light send it be not so. But hoping is one thing, doing is another. “Strong souls have will; feeble souls have only wishes.” Which of these categories I fit into should be interesting to find out, at least!

So far, so good. It is not particularly hard, although I have to dodge a few issues as I already have a Twitter account and blog that are … orthogonal in content and atmosphere, let us say, compared to the exercises given. But it is interesting and a convenient study form. I could definitely see myself doing more of this.

Google: Blurry targeting

Screenshot anime GJ-bu

“The evidence will be stored in my digital camera forever.” If this is how you imagine Google, you may not have looked very closely.

For years now, Google has offered a wide range of services to the Internet users for free. They have been able to afford this because advertisers are willing to pay for small, unobtrusive ads associated with many Google services. These advertisements are supposed to be “targeted” so that the people who see them are the people more likely to respond to them.

This works well enough in the case of simple search. If you search for “credit cards”, there is a good chance that the major financing companies and you may have a common interest in the matter, for the time being. Of course, your interest in the matter could be entirely theoretical, but on a larger scale it makes sense to match up search results and advertisements like this.

If Google knows a little bit more about you, they can be even more useful. For instance if you search for “flowers”, your friendly neighborhood florist may want to provide their services, but this would require some knowledge of where you are. If Google is allowed to keep track of where you are – not necessarily to the square foot, but the square mile at least – they could let your local florist advertise rather than one in a different city.

Gmail, another free service from Google, is also financed this way. By showing ads related to the text in your mail, they get money from advertisers and you get a chance to buy something relevant, or at least become aware that it exists. This worries some people, who don’t like that robots are reading their mail. But there is no actual reading involved: The system simply responds mechanically to words in the mail. For instance, when I discussed the author Orson Scott Card with a friend, Gmail started showing ads for credit cards. Card=card!

For the most part, however, I find that the ads are utterly random. For instance, 99.9% of my mail is in English, but almost all the ads are in Norwegian. They seem to be based on the location of my Internet Service Provider and nothing more. I could of course be an exception; perhaps someone at Google has set some kind of flag at my account. But the opposite seems more likely: People see an ad that interests them and thinks it is tailor-made for them, but it is actually just made for ordinary people and they are ordinary people. This is known as the “Forer effect” or “subjective validation”, if you want to read up on it.

There is a certain sense of paranoia, or at least of reason for paranoia, when people speculate that Google will show ads for condoms on their mobile phone when they are on their way to a date. There is no reason to think we are getting anywhere close to that. I have been feeding Google all the information I reasonably could since I discovered them, surely enough to write a biography in several tomes (and a few novels perhaps) but there is no sign that they are using any of that. The location of my Internet Service Provider, my gender (possibly, although I think they default to male if you log on anonymously) and the occasional keyword in the text, but usually just the ISP, which they can extract automatically from my IP address.

Not to make light of the IP address. If they were to target their random customer in Norway with ads for things that can only be bought in America, or in China or India for that matter (far more populous nations than the USA), the ads would be wasted or have entertainment value at best. When showing ads for Norwegian companies, there is at least some theoretical chance that the ad may click. Although this has never happened in all these years. I have only responded positively to two ads, none of which were Norwegian, and only one led to a sale. For the most part the ads either pass by or evoke a mild response of disgust. But then I am not exactly normal. More about that all the time, I guess.

The conclusion so far is that the “targeted advertisements” from Google have a long, long way to go. You may have heard about the retail chain that started sending a young woman ads for baby stuff before she had told her parents that she was pregnant. The fact that I have only ever heard of this one story makes me wonder whether there is even a causal connection at all, or just incidental.

For instance: After buying wedding presents to two of my friends on Amazon, some months passed and I started getting hints about baby stuff from them. Which normally would have been a great idea, I suppose, if I intended to continue giving them gifts, and if they were normal. But even my friends tend to not be entirely normal, and so here too. The point is, if I were a woman and pregnant when the baby recommendations came in, I might have freaked out as well, even though the causal link was actually Not Like That.

As it is, Google at least is far, far, far away from the stalker fantasies of some of its detractors. It is so far away from stalking that it is just barely useful.

Help! I’m being monetized!

Screenshot anime Yuyushiki - touch screen!

Just a hunch, but I think a certain older software company has a hard time adjusting to a new generation of customers. Just saying.

Microsoft is running a smear campaign against Google, accusing them of providing free services just to earn money from spying on you, basically. Which is not too far off, but they go too far when they imply that you pay for this. In one sequence, they use the verb “monetize” correctly, but illustrate it with money flying out of your pocket. This is a way of thinking that should have died during the Bronze Age. I will show you why. Follow me to ancient Mesopotamia, where humankind discovered Trade.

Local barter with people you knew has existed since before the dawn of history. Young Neanderthal males brought with them extra stone axes when they left home looking for a wife. But almost 6000 years ago, someone discovered that you could smelt copper and tin together and get bronze, which was much easier to make into weapons and tools than stone, hard enough to do the same work, and could be recycled over and over. There was just one problem: Tin and copper were only rarely found together. Usually there was stormy seas, high mountains or dreadful deserts between them. What to do?

Someone came up with a genius plan: They brought copper with them from a place where it was plentiful and therefore cheap, and bartered it against tin in a place where tin was common but copper was rare. This way they left every time with more than they started with, and this practice caused them to get rich without actually digging in the mines. I am sure there were envious people at the time reacting much like Microsoft does today: These guys get rich from other people’s work! It just ain’t fair! But the practice continued, because people on both ends of the trade caravan ended up with more bronze than they could have had alone. Everyone was better off.

The caravans did not come and steal your stone axes. If you wanted to make stone axes like your ancestors had done for a hundred thousand years, you were welcome to it. And in the same way today, if you want non-targeted advertising, you are welcome to it. But I would like to point out that since non-targeted advertising is more expensive (you have to reach several times as many people to make the same sales) the extra cost is added to the product. So if Microsoft succeeds in smearing Google out of existence (good luck with that), you will help pay for it. Money will float out of your pockets, so to speak.

Going ass first into the future has always come at a cost. But at least this time nobody will hit you on the head with a bronze ax. So we live in good times. And Google is making them even better, by monetizing us all.

(Another matter is whether their targeting actually works, but that is a story for another day.)

 

Neverwinter MMORPG

Screenshot Neverwinter MMORPG - Protectors Enclave

I think this is the prettiest part of the game I have seen so far. Not much to write home about, but reasonably well rendered … just kind of gritty.

The new massive multiplayer online role playing game Neverwinter will be available to the “freeloaders” (free to download, free to play) on April 30, but I am already in. The reason is that I bought a second-tier “founder’s pack”.

In a perfect world, games would be free, and this is as close as you are likely to get. What I mean by that cryptic statement is that you can play the whole game, including endgame content, without paying a dime (if you have a computer and internet access, at least). But obviously someone is paying. In this case, I am one of them. Paying customers get some goodies in the game which makes it a little easier and more colorful. And some of us paid in advance, helping to foot the bill of getting the game to the market. As a thank-you, we got in on the game a little earlier.

Neverwinter is a medieval-style sword and sorcery game, unlike the two other games I have played from Cryptic Studios, the superhero games Champions Online and my favorite MMO ever, City of Heroes. Like other medieval games, Neverwinter tends to have the players all look pretty much alike at the start, except for variations from race, sex and class. I haven’t seen the high-level areas, but so far it looks like people continue to look pretty much the same, the weapons and armor found by questing aren’t all that different looking. The style is on the gritty side, and people are not particularly good-looking. The women all have well developed breasts though, although the armor can reduce the visual impact in some cases, thankfully. I suppose prioritizing breasts over beauty is a hint as to who they expect to be their typical customers.

Despite this initial impression, I have to say the game is surprisingly good. The game mechanics and lore are based on the original Dungeons & Dragons role-playing system, the first in the world of its kind, and a mainstay of paper, pencil and dice role playing for many years. I actually had some source books and stuff for this myself, many years ago, shortly before the Internet came to Norway. It is still viable.

The saving throw, to keep to the terminology, is the wide range of lore accumulated over the pen and paper years. There are innumerable books set in the same game world and at time in the same city, and the copyright holders are actively consulted in making the game. This makes for an immersive, integrated world where all the threads come together. And then there is my excuse for supporting the game in the first place: The Foundry.

The Foundry is a set of developer tools given to users to make their own quests. These quests are then made available in much the same way as the quests created by the developers themselves. Users vote for the quests, and can also flag them for inspection if they contain illegal or indecent content. A similar system existed in City of Heroes, but it is actually even better integrated in this game. You can play only Foundry missions for as long as you like, and get the same kind of half-randomized encounters and loot that you will get in the native quests. In theory you should be able to play all the way to level 60 this way, and some people will probably do.

Unfortunately for their hope of trapping me in their game, the interface is very mouse-heavy. The two main attacks for every class are bound to the left and right mouse button, and you also use to mouse to choose the direction you look and move. As a result, I can only play a fairly short time before my right arm starts hurting again. It has never completely recovered from the repetitive stress injury some years ago, and probably never will, barring divine intervention or nanotechnology.

But on the other hand, as it were, there is crafting and leadership. These skills can be performed through a web interface, including on my smartphone. You can also use the web portal to check your inventory or access the auction house, and guild members can also use it for guild activities, whatever those may bet. This can be done in a rather low-stress manner, including tapping on my smartphone screen, which avoids the cramping from constantly having to hold on to the mouse.

The leadership skill is lumped together with crafting. You assemble a virtual team of mercenaries which you assign to various tasks, like guarding a caravan or exploring the terrain. Each task has a set duration and gives a certain outcome: Leadership XP, pretty much always. Sometimes also character XP, and/or coins, astral diamonds, maps or chests of random goodies. The goodie chests, coins and diamonds go into your inventory. You can actually level up by using XP from your little mercenary team, but if you have the opportunity, you can level up much faster by praying as well.

Oh yes. There are various small gods in the game, and Invocation (available at level 11) let you get various goodies from them once an hour. There is no set praying hour, the 1 hour limit is just a minimum. You need to find an altar or campfire, but these are pretty common (and there are portable altars to be found as well). Sometimes you get just a combat buff (which expires after you’ve been online a certain amount of time), other times special coins, astral diamonds (used for various special shopping) and even a decent amount of XP. So in theory again, you could level up and become rich simply by praying. I am sure some Americans find this appealing. I find it amusing.

So basically there are numerous ways to level up your character and get stuff without playing through the main quests at all. You can pray, you can craft or send your imaginary mercenaries around, or if you deign to fight, you can do so using player-made content only (including your own).

On the off chance that you go fighting, you will have a pet to assist you from the start if you are a Founder like me. Otherwise you gain a companion at level 16, which can be of any class of your choosing. Again, you may have your companion do most of the fighting, but in that case they will level up and you not so much. (You still get the XP for finishing the quest, at least.)

I could see myself spending months trying these fringe activities, just because I can. But preferably those that don’t require frantic mousing. No matter how powerful I become in a 2-dimensional world, it is not worth destroying my body in the 3-dimensional world. And my soul probably won’t thrive on enormous amounts of this, either. It’s not really something I think I will miss having dedicated my life to, when that life is over. Your life may vary.

But a quite well-crafted game it is, so if you’re planning to play a lot of MMORPG, this is well worth a try for free.