Neverwinter is no City of Heroes

Screenshot Neverwinter

Grim and gritty, not a place I would like to spend my afterlife.

I was planning to write about the new Neverwinter MMO for a week or two, much as I did with City of Heroes from the same studio exactly 9 years ago. But the truth is that Neverwinter is no City of Heroes, and I probably am not quite the same person I was back then, either.

That said, I could probably still easier write another entry about City of Heroes, even though it closed down 5 months ago. (It feels more like a year and a half, but then I have a strange sense of time.)

As for Neverwinter, I am making a habit of logging in several times a day to have my 3 characters pray, give orders to their henchmen, and if necessary send their pets or followers on training. I’ve run some quests and hunted some bandits and orcs, but I don’t see this game becoming a lifestyle. Your lifestyle may vary.

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.

Warning: Wet ceiling?!

Ceiling after water leak

Ceiling after water leak.

Looks like the immigrants upstairs has had another bizarre accident. I came into my kitchen and found a thin layer of water on parts of the floor, with no obvious source. Then I looked up.

The landlord will be sending a plumber. I doubt he’ll do anything about the ceiling / their floor, though. It will probably take a long time yet before it falls down or anyone steps through it. The house is old and nothing is being done to maintain it – the paint on the outside is flaking off, a board is missing in the outer wall facing toward the street. My best guess is that he is aiming to either sell it based on its location like he did with the previous place I rented, or tear it down and build a new one himself. (He does run a construction firm after all.) Hopefully I won’t be there when the ceiling comes down, one way or another.

Old age: Wisdom or dementia?

Screenshot Sims 2 - elderly sims hobbying

At least my Sims stay vital until the last!

In olden days, a society where most people were gray-haired elders would have seemed like an impossible dream. Today it seems like an unavoidable nightmare. What changed? When did the natural condition of the old stop being wise and start being demented? When did they stop being a resource and start being clients? Has something physically changed, or is it just our perception of old age that has changed? Perhaps a bit of each?

It strikes me when reading books from centuries ago that old people were held in high regard all over the world. Clearly the young were stronger even then, but the wisdom of the old was expected to rule the strength of the young. While wisdom did not always come with gray hairs, there was expected to be a much higher chance of it. It was accepted as a fact of life that the old would grow frail and eventually die, but dementia seems to be either absent or very rare. Today this is considered the natural end of life for most people.

Perhaps dementia was always common, but it was just bad form to talk about it? The old were respected and looked up to, and children owed their parents and grandparents a debt of gratitude for being in the world in the first place. Honor your mother and your father! That might not go along well with recording their descent into babbling helplessness.  Still, you’d think there would be more references to it, even if in an indirect and opposite way, like “do not look down on the old when they become witless”. But there is no such commandment that I can remember.

Perhaps the old were not really that old? In a world where the average lifespan was 35 years, perhaps someone aged 50 was considered old and someone aged 60 ancient? At that age they would have almost all of their life experience and not yet much chance of dementia. But the figure of life expectancy includes a massive infant mortality. Even later in childhood, you were still vulnerable to epidemics: There were no vaccines against smallpox, polio, diphtheria, or even measles which could easily kill underfed children with no medical recourse.  A third of those who were born died while they were children, and then many young men were killed in war. Childbirth was not entirely safe either. So those who lived to 40 had already run the gauntlet; they stood an excellent chance of living till they were 70 or 80. Indeed, a normal lifespan of 70 – 80 is mentioned in the Old Testament, with a maximum of 120 (barring divine intervention). This is practically the same as today, except now most children grow up to experience it for themselves.

I have even considered whether there could be a genetic difference: The current civilization is largely dominated by people from Europe north of the alps; but if you read anything older than 500 years, it is likely written somewhere else in the world. What if the Germanic and Celtic tribes shared some particular weakness to Alzheimer’s or brain stroke? But if so, it ought to be all over the medical textbooks by now. There are indeed some ethnic groups who seem to be less susceptible to it, notably in the Far East, but this could be due to lifestyle rather than genes.

First, I think we should bear in mind that the current generation of elders, and the couple generations before, are a bit of a historical anomaly. For one thing, they are the only generations in human history where smoking was widespread. It is not just dementia that is uncommon in history, so was lung cancer and heart infarct at the age of 50. A diet rich in refined sugar and saturated fat, and a habit of smoking, were simply not possible until well after the Industrial Revolution was complete.

Some of these trends have already reversed. For instance, blood pressure is lower today than in the 1970es. More than that: Typical blood pressure is lower today in overweight/borderline obese people (BMI 30) than it was in normal-weight (BMI 20-25) in the 1970es! When hypertension occurs, it is treated at a much earlier stage and with drugs with less side effects. Since hypertension is a major predictor of stroke, this is a Big Deal. Another important flag for stroke is fat in the bloodstream, particularly cholesterol. This is also monitored much more closely today and treatment starts earlier.

There is in other words a good chance that you are not going to become demented from stroke at the age where your grandparents did. And there is a good chance that their grandparents again didn’t, either, or at least their great-grandparents.

Alzheimer’s is a little different. We know there is a genetic component, but there also seems to be geographical variations. Here in Norway, the south coast (where I live) has the highest prevalence. A study some years ago proposed that aluminum in the water might contribute to triggering the disease. This would be interesting, because a major reason for aluminum in the water is acid rain, which was very rare before the industrial revolution, and is becoming rare again recently in the rich world.

There are also a number of old people who are not actually demented, they have just always been stupid. You may have heard of the Flynn Effect, the continuous growth in IQ since the first IQ tests began in 1914. The growth is typically around 3 points per decade, so it is not something you notice at a glance, but it really adds up over the course of a long life. When someone is 80, their grandchildren at 20 will have on average 18 points higher IQ. In a family where the IQ runs a bit low already, it could be enough that the elderly person is unable to function normally in today’s complex society.

A final consideration is that when your brain function seriously starts shrinking, the last things to go are the memories from your childhood. In the past when elderly people were the libraries of the tribe, they would remember the tales they themselves listened to when they were children, even after they had forgotten the names of their own children. So they would still fulfill a valuable mission almost to the last breath.

But in today’s society, we have gone all out in the opposite direction. The knowledge of the old is held in low regard, if not actually worse than nothing. Anything that is new is supposed to be better than the old unless proven otherwise. And so the dream has become a nightmare, the secure foundation has become a heavy burden. Perhaps we should think that over one more time.

Be crazy so we can be sane

Screenshot anime Sakurasou Pet

“Love is simply an electrical bug in the human neural circuit.” Now if only we had a forum where we could get together and assure each other that it is the rest of the people in the world who are crazy…

The trigger for this entry came from another absurd question on Quora. This time: Should religious belief be classified as a mental illness?

It is kind of disturbing that people even ask this, but there are in fact a disproportionate number of the mentally ill who manifest their illness in terms of religion. That is perhaps not so strange, since religion is already the domain in which we have the most unusual experiences and traditions, and insanity is pretty unusual for most of us. It is hard to manifest insanity in the form of accounting, for instance.

Science comes somewhere in between, I guess – I see some pseudoscience that looks nothing like sanity to me, but still has some few but vocal supporters. Like “Venus was a comet which passed Earth during historical times before entering its current orbit.” But enough about that. But then again, ten years ago we weren’t a result of interbreeding with Neanderthals, now we are. (That would explain me, to some degree…) So science is pretty crazy even when it is true.

Given that almost everyone is religious, the notion that “religion is insanity” sounds more like a projection if anything. Like people worry in the dark corners of their mind that something may be wrong with them when they are so different from other people; therefore all the other people must be crazy, that would explain it!

The truth is, as I have said before, that almost all modern atheists are really half-a-theist: They tend toward Socialism, which gives them the option to serve a powerful, invisible, mostly benevolent invisible being that already has an established caste of servants dedicated to bettering the world on behalf of the otherwise invisible Greater Power, which in this case is called the State. True, the State does not offer an afterlife, but neither did Moses. Read the Pentateuch – the original Torah – and you will see that the question of the afterlife was left open. God promised them that their cows would have calves and their enemies would flee. Socialism is on that level now.

But atheists don’t know how similar they are to other believers, so they need to fabricate this vast gulf between them, with the believers being crazy. Luckily this is still a minority position among atheists, it seems. But the fact that some seem to really think so, made me think back to another small group of people who were Different.

For many years, I was part of a church (or sect, as pretty much everyone else called us) which was very pious. We took the Bible very seriously, although not always literally. If you think Jesus was literally a door and Christians are literally sheep, I guess some suspicion is in order regarding your mental health. This was not a congregation where you just went to church on Sunday and otherwise went on with your life as if nothing had happened. The founders and early adopters, in particular, were men and women of heroic virtue. They set aside even the usual “harmless” cravings of human nature: Entertainment, tasty food, pretty clothes, sightseeing … stuff that no one else would consider sinful, but they set it aside so they could use their time and money and thoughts to serve God and help their fellow man.

But by generation three and four, most of their descendants were not like that. They were still good people who stayed away from crime, drugs, drunkenness and fornication, by all means. But they had hobbies (much like me), they had tastes and interests and wants and wishes that were their own and not those of God. They were by and large human, although very good humans, loved by employers for their loyalty, honesty and hard work.

The problem was that they were really good people with a doctrine saying that they were far more than that. The chosen ones, the bride of Christ, the saints, the overcomers. They should be exceptional, rather than just good. And so, subtly and softly like the slow falling of night, rumors spread. Not rumors about anyone in particular, friend or foe. But rumors about The World and those who lived there, those who had not been saved. This is indeed a motley crew, as life will show us, but the attention became steadily more selective, until The World was a cesspool of depravity, an ongoing parade of drug abuse, divorce and drunken gay sex. All of which certainly happen in The World and not in the Church, but … you see the point, I hope. Because they could not get better, others had to become worse to keep the distance.

And that, I think, is where the more sectarian atheists are today. Because they aren’t all that different from believers, the believers need to become worse. Crazy, evil, or at the very least amazingly stupid. Because the need to feel superior is very strong, particularly in those who are average.

Are we rich enough?

Screenshot Sims 2 Apartment Life

In the last years of the Long Boom, when economists said recession was a thing of the past, I wrote the “Micropolis saga” about a near future where jobs were scarce and education expensive, and where it was natural to grow your own vegetables to save on the food budget. I tried to show that it was possible to find happiness in such times, and I still believe this.

Well, I probably am rich enough. I have food, clothes, a rented apartment, and a small gaggle of Android devices. What more can a man want in this world? It is nice to get a little more salary now and then, but it would have been nicer if the rest of the Norwegian workforce did not get twice that much increase. The relentless inflow of money squeezes housing prices, which again squeezes rent, which I pay. So if it were up to me, we would have wage- and salary-freeze for the next few years.

That would be nice for other reasons as well: Norwegian incomes are on average about 60% above EU average, and 25% above neighboring Nordic countries. I think we could safely take a breather now. We are awesome, but not THAT more awesome than our blood-brethren.

In America, where I have a bunch of online friends, people are gradually getting used to the new times where they will not automatically earn more money for each passing year. If they are lucky, they will keep their job, and maybe even work no more than last year for the same pay. The economy is picking up, so they say, although this is still largely for borrowed money. Now and then unemployment goes down a little, but there are still many who used to be employed but are now sliding helplessly into poverty. In a society where people pride themselves on being “self-made”, there are not a lot of handholds to stop that slide.

In southern Europe, official unemployment is extremely high in many countries. In all fairness it must be said that these nations have a large black economy, and even during the boom years many were officially unemployed, although they strangely seemed to always have money. Now that actual unemployment has skyrocketed, they may have second thought about not having paid taxes and earned pension rights and higher unemployment benefits. There is no doubt that things are pretty bad in such countries as Spain, Portugal and particularly Greece. But more than in the US, it is a shared misery. When school kids have to search garbage bins for food, as occasionally happens in Greece, you know things are pretty bad. If people had seen this coming, they would have made other decisions: Found a smaller place to live, perhaps, saved more and borrowed less. But every arrow was pointing upward for so long, people took it for granted.

This was the common theme of the rich world for so long, it became second nature. The sun rises in the east and sets in the west, and each year we earn a little more. Laws of nature. And then the sun turned.

If you can’t afford food or prescription medication, then I’d say no, you aren’t rich enough. (Somewhat depending on whether the reason is that you’ve borrowed a fortune to buy a palace, but I mean after you have tried to balance your economy.)

There are still a lot of us though who don’t face anything like poverty. I mean, basically the entire middle class and most of the working class in the first and second world are better off than my parents were when I was a child. They worked long hours and had little money. We had food and clothes, but the clothes we used at home were patched and darned and (for us kids) handed down, often more than once. Expensive luxuries like oranges were for special occasions, and chocolate and soda were known mainly from visitors – we did not buy those even for Christmas and New Years, if memory serves. On the other hand we managed to subscribe to a couple newspapers and my dad usually got me a book for Christmas or birthday or both each year, as well as some other books for himself and the rest of the family.

I don’t wish myself back to those days, but we survived. We were used to it – in fact, my parents were used to worse, so they felt pretty good about it. No invading armies since the 40es, for instance, and no rationing. Times were good.

I don’t wish myself back to those “good old days” – I rather enjoy the current affluence. But I think looking back a few decades can help us overcome the false despair induced by not getting richer and richer anymore.


Regression, not recession

Screenshot anime Hyouka

“The world is going to hell pretty quick…” says this Japanese animation. Economists used to talk about Japan’s lost decade, but now it is around two decades and the economy is still stagnant. Yet now the Japanese have grown used to it, and several other rich nations seem to have started their own lost decade or two.

As I’ve mentioned, for the last few years my friends in Europe and America have experienced something very like a recession. Unemployment stays high, wages stay low, some savings have been wiped out, there is uncertainty and a feeling that the middle class is slipping and slowly sinking toward poverty. People worry what the future will bring as the economy stagnates or shrinks. Even when the economy is growing a bit, as it is in the USA, it is powered by a large and rapidly growing government debt. How long can it last before this too fails and a new Great Depression sweeps the nation?

But if we look at the developing world, the picture is quite different. As a whole, the developing world is growing by 5% a year. Not as much as the first years of the century, but a respectable pace. And the “as a whole” includes a few countries that are still in the grip of war, civil war or dictatorship, and are not doing well at all. But most are doing well, quite well, although from a rather dismal starting point.

There has been a tendency in this direction for a while now. Many people are locked in the picture from the 1950es when a few rich countries stood out while most of the world was mired in abject poverty. People still say without thinking that 20% of the people have 80% of the wealth while 80% have 20%. But obviously this cannot continue to be just as true as it was, if the developing world is growing at a brisk clip while much of the rich world is stagnating at best.

One name for this process is “regression to the mean” (where mean is read as something similar to average, not “nasty”). It is globalization in practice. Perhaps we were just looking for cheap workers to do the things we felt too important to do anymore, but things tend to take on a life of their own. The poor never promised to stay poor, we just felt secure that they would, them being inferior to us and all. We were born to rule, we were created in God’s image and then we evolved. We had no competitors, but we gracefully allowed these strangely colored people in faraway places to serve us, as is good and proper. Well, things seem to have gotten a bit out of hand.

The poor, once they are no longer starving, have started looking ahead and improving their own lot. Their kids have gone to school and learned to read and write, and before we knew it they began to become technicians and engineers. Instead of taking just the jobs we did not want, they are now just as qualified as we and still doing the job much cheaper. So more and more work is done in developing countries, even work that we would not mind keeping here in the north-western world.

But this is not a process that goes on forever. China, for instance, used to be a low-cost country, but that is no longer the case. Well, there is still a reserve of rural poor, but it is no longer enough to supply all the cheap labor China needs. So China has outsourced cheap jobs to other, less prosperous, developing countries. Those of us who have lived a while remember when Japan caught up to our labor costs, and later Korea.

I used the expression “regression to the mean”, as in the rich nations becoming poorer and the poor nations becoming richer. But at the same time, the whole global economy is still growing. Even though some countries face shrinking incomes, others are standing still (which is not really a bad deal – zero economic growth does not mean zero money, it means no more money than last year.) And the mean, the middle, is still steadily rising. That is to say that even if we should eventually end up with the same income for workers in America and Namibia, that income will probably be closer to that of America than of Namibia, compared with before this process started.

Things could still go horribly wrong, of course. There are at least two big black swans. The one is a new major war. The Middle East could explode anytime, with Israel being wiped off the map and most Arab capitals reduced to glow-in-the-dark glass and radioactive rubble. China is likely – almost certain – to try to invade Taiwan (which most mainland Chinese does not think of as a different country but a small rebellious province). If they ever trust America to have a sane leader who is not willing to wipe out everything bigger than cockroaches rather than let a tiny island reunite with its parent country, that is. Right now, there is no such guarantee. So they bide their time. After all, for each year, China grows stronger compared to the rest of the world.

The other black swan, beyond war, is natural disaster. Global climate change is a glacially slow process – literally, because the world’s great glaciers play a key role in regulating the climate. So it will still be many years before the sea starts to flood the streets of London and New York every high tide. But other things could go horribly wrong. The supervolcano below Yellowstone could explode, as such hotspots do every few hundred thousand years. An earlier supervolcano eruption in south-east Asia almost put an end to Homo Sapiens – we were down to a few thousand at most. When Yellowstone goes off – and it is overdue – it will kill most humans in the USA in a matter of days at most and plunge the world into a temporary deep freeze. That is bound to depress the global economy for a while (and probably end the current civilization). But it could also be a thousand years from now – it has waited this long, after all.

Just as we cannot really know when the black swans will land, there are also “white swans”. We might discover safe fusion, finally (it has been 20 years in the future since I was a child). This would make energy trivially cheap for thousands of years at the very least. We could put an end to aging, possibly (although unlikely). That would certainly have some interesting effects, although we would still be mortal. We could develop technology to settle under the sea and colonize the three quarters of Earth’s surface that are covered by salt water.

So we don’t really know the future. We can only make guesses, and not very far ahead. But the current trend is one of convergence: One world, no longer first world or second world or third world. And I for one welcome our new global citizens.

Food is too cheap now

Screenshot anime GJ-bu

What is the proper way to eat hamburger and fries? No more than once a day. ^_^ Food has become so cheap that there are now more obese humans than starving ones.

Back to our world, which has its own troubles. But most of these troubles are not natural or technological or even economic, but moral: Greed, anger and ignorance. Today, let us look at the Quora question “What would be a good plan to produce enough food for everyone on the planet?

Ryan Carlyle pretty much nails it in his answer, and I am happy to say that this is the most upvoted answer at the time of writing. We already produce 2700 calories a day for each human on Earth, enough for everyone to get a little chubby. But some of the food spoils, some is wasted, and much of it is eaten by those who already are a little chubby (and then some). The real problem however is bad government, says Carlyle.

I tend to think that for the most case, bad government stems from bad culture, specifically a culture of war and strife. The most terrible places to live on earth are those where people have a tradition for war, civil wars or tribal feuds. It is impossible to have a good government in such places. Bloodthirsty people will follow bloodthirsty leaders. Those who do not feel bad about people being shot will not feel bad about people going hungry either.

If it is not obvious to you that the problem of starvation is human rather than natural, just read his explanation again until you get it. It is pretty straightforward. If there is more than enough food for all, then the problem is not in the soil but somewhere between the farm and the mouth, at least I hope we can agree on this.


What I want to bring up is related to that, but not quite the same. What would happen if all the wars ended, the dictators set their peoples free, and the ruined roads and warehouses were repaired? What would happen if hungry could finally eat their fill? The price of food would go up.

Today, because a billion people don’t get to eat their fill, there is that much more for the rest, and this presses the prices down. You may not think food is cheap, but in that case you are probably thinking of the wrong food. (Or you are reading this in the future, when various things have happened that I may or may not have predicted.) The price of food to farmers is so low that a great deal of arable land lies unused – the people who might have farmed it prefer to do things that are better paid, and buy their food in the supermarket. In the rich world, almost the only land being farmed is that which is suited for full-mechanized farming, where the work is done with large diesel-powered tractors and other farm machines. This is because if it required more manual labor, the hourly wage would simply not be worth the trouble.

If a billion more people came to bid for the same food, the price would necessarily rise. The supermarket may not look like an auction, but the food that ends up there has often passed through an auction earlier. Grain, potatoes, even cattle are auctioned. Unless you are getting your food from the local farmers’ market, chances are it has been auctioned. And even the local vegetable farmer will keep an eye on the Net to check what the current prices are.

So if all goes well, if we manage to end the wars and not start new ones (a big, big if) then food prices will go up. But this is not a bad thing. It is a good thing. First, it is a good thing because it is a sign that more people are getting food. But it is also a good thing because it means farmers will reopen their fallow fields, and small farms that would have been closed down will get new owners and continue to operate. With higher food prices, it will be worth the time to farm in terrain that is not quite as perfect for large machines. The production of food will expand until the price stabilizes, and it will likely do so on a level that is still very comfortable for us in the rich world. Even a ten percent increase in the hourly wages of the farmer would bring a lot of land back into production.

Over the last couple decades, the number of Chinese who have gone from poverty to middle class is large than the population of the USA. This means their eating habits have changed. No longer eating rice for all meals unless it is a public festival (in which case the family eats a chicken), people now eat pork and beef. It takes about ten pounds of corn to make one pound of beef (somewhat less for pork and poultry) so a lot of grain has gone into this process. But the world has not really noticed. The prices of food vary somewhat, but other factors have much larger effect. (Here in Norway, for instance, groceries have been consolidated into a few chains so the competition is less fierce. The chains have a lot of profit now, which they would not have had if we bothered to enforce competition. But food is too cheap for us to bother. Your state may vary.)

The population is expected to peak around 9.5 billion at the middle of the century, barring some unimaginable disaster (which will likely happen, but it is not clear whether this will make the number lower or higher). We can feed them all with a moderate increase in food prices. Of course, this is not a big deal in northern Europe or America. But there are other parts of the world where food is a big part of the budget. The solution to this is to let these people earn more. And this is currently happening.

While my friends in Europe and America feel like they are trapped in an endless recession, the developing world is growing at about 5% a year. That is from a low level, of course, but as Albert Einstein said, “compound interest is the most powerful force in the universe”. The next time it grow by 5%, it is 5% of a higher number. And as an old friend of mine would say: “$10 is a lot of money when you don’t have it.” For the poor, 5% more money makes a big difference. It allows them to improve their lot even more. With a bike, they may be able to commute to a better paid job in the town. With that better paid job, they may be able to afford an Android tablet. With that tablet, their kids may improve their school skills and get a better job than their parents ever could. Poverty is a deep valley, but the higher you climb, the higher you can climb. By 2050, it may not be the same parts of the world that are struggling. It may be those who are fat and lazy today.

We do not need cheaper food – we need less poverty. And we know the way to that. As the Buddha said, we need to remove the 3 poisons of the mind: Greed, anger and ignorance. The world is not Heaven, but we could make it a lot closer just by this.

Magical Daydreams worldbuilding

Oblivion portal (Screenshot game Oblivion)

After writing the below, I looked for a good illustration photo, and suddenly realized that the game Oblivion does have portals to pocket universes. However, Oblivion is itself set in a highly magical world, and the pocket worlds are limited variations on the same theme. Not really what I am talking of.

The muses in my head just came up with a worldbuilding I have never read about before. It is a mostly ordinary world where the economy is largely based on magical daydreams.

The only “magic” in the ordinary world is the ability to access the Dream Aether, where daydreams are real. Well, more or less. Each Dream is basically a small pocket universe, and people can visit these and, on certain conditions, bring things with them back.

(It is not specified whether the Dream Aether is local to that planet, that alternate universe, or whether it exist everywhere but some mutation in the distant past gave humans the ability to interact with it. If the muses know, they are not telling yet.)

The Dream economy is based on three types of people: Makers/Dreamers, Stayers/Visitors and Fetchers/Adventurers. The Makers and the Fetchers have the more specialized talents.

Pretty much everyone can Dream, but most people’s dreams remain small, personal and flimsy. There is a kind of bell curve from the few who cannot Dream at all, over the ordinary people who can only make small banal Dreams, to the actually useful Makers, and a few extraordinary people whose Dreams change the world.

Dreamers cannot simply wish into being whatever they want. The Dream Aether has its own rules, which are fantastical but consistent, and different from (or rather in addition to) the natural laws of the ordinary world. The magic inside the Dreams is more similar to High Fantasy, in a general sort of way, but its principle is that Everything Comes at a Price. There is a balance of risk and reward, effort and result, light and darkness etc. So if you create a Dream in which you can only grow potatoes, your enemies will mostly be weeds and beetles; but if you want precious treasures of gold and jewelry, you will have to fight deadly monsters and dodge devious traps. Stuff like that.

A Great Dreamer can create a fairly large fantasy realm with extraordinary treasures, but the Dream Aether will enforce the corresponding challenges, presumably dredged from the subconscious of the Maker. (Although some crazy philosophers believe that the Dream Portals actually lead to other worlds that exist elsewhere and are just “found” rather than “created”. Dreamers generally disagree with this, although they admit that they often start with a vague idea which then takes on a life of its own.)

Maintaining a Dream takes effort, but Visitors can do this. The more (and the more Dream-talented) people that are inside a Dream, the more persistent it becomes. It is even possible to maintain Dreams indefinitely after the original Maker is dead. Some people stay more or less permanently inside the most important Dreams, having houses and families in there.

Fetchers have the dangerous task of grabbing the loot, at considerable risk to life, limb and sanity, and getting it back to the ordinary world. No magical talent is needed for this, but obviously they need other skills that Joe or Jane Farmer is unlikely to have.

A few extraordinary Great Dreamers created realms that have been permanently settled for centuries at the least, possibly millennia – there are legends of forgotten realms that are still inhabited. (The oldest of these was supposedly created by Allfather, the progenitor of all Dreamers now alive, millennia ago. But no one knows where it is, if it still exists.)

The rise of a Great Dreamer can alter the geopolitical balance, for lack of a simpler phrase. It is like discovering a very valuable natural resource – but one hard to extract.

Magical weapons and armor (and other magical artifacts) exist in many of the Great Dreams, but they lose their power permanently when taken out in the mundane world. This also means you cannot bring magical artifacts from one Dream to another and game the system that way. You can however bring weapons and armor made from mundane materials but with exceptional quality. Of course, these are not exactly left lying around unguarded – they are usually found on ferocious opponents.

ANYWAY, this is kind of meta-worldbuilding in the sense that the actual pocket universes could be anything from a poorly disguised World of Warcraft clone to something never before imagined. The muses may or may not follow through on this. At the moment, they seem more interested in the meta. In such a world, would you breed for super-Dreamers in the hope of discovering new amazing realms, or hunt them down in order to preserve the existing order? What if different countries take different approaches? What if there are more or less secret cults doing each? What if there are secret cults guarding the entrance to Dreams forgotten or never revealed? What if any random kid could be the next Great Dreamer, with the power to change the course of history forever?

Your challenge, should you accept it, is to recommend fiction similar to this, so I don’t need to write it myself. Writing is a thankless job, especially if others have done it already.

Unlimited games

Screenshot anime Boku wa Tomodachi ga Sukunai NEXT

“There sure are a lot of games in this world.” There sure are! Hindus even claim that the world is God’s game (lila). With most of us not being God, the closest we come to that feeling may be computer games. For better or for worse.

I don’t like computer games where you win and then it’s over.

The best part of games like Civilization or Master of Magic is when the enemy is reduced to 1 city that I keep on the map so the game won’t end, while I transform the planet into a utopia. But even these games come to a natural end. At some point all technologies (or magics) are researched, and every square of the map is gainfully used. At that point, the game no longer merits my interest. It is not perfection I enjoy, but growth.

Even better are games which are for all purposes unlimited, or only limited by the human lifespan. (I suppose someone could inherit them, but I doubt there will be many volunteers.) The games that come to mind are simulators from Maxis. I am afraid Sim City is not among them, certainly not in its latest version. But the game Spore is the star example: The imaginary galaxy has thousands of stars, most of them with at least a couple planets. I’ve seen someone claim 50 000 planets (or was it stars) – the point is, there are more than you could possibly colonize in your lifetime, so the game is basically unlimited. It is also unlimited in that you can add your own creations, and the possible combinations there are also in the millions. Not only your own – the game will automatically load some of the worlds with creatures made by your friends and strangers. So this game is for all purposes unlimited.

A less obvious example is The Sims 2. Each neighborhood in this game can have up to 999 shopping districts or downtowns or both. (I judge this from the structure of the filenames, as far as I know it has never been tested.) You can only see one suburb at a time, but they are all part of the same neighborhood: If you run a shop in a shopping district, sims from the various suburbs will show up as customers. If you play a family in the main neighborhood or in one of the suburbs, sims from the other suburbs will randomly walk by. If you go downtown on a date, you will see sims from other suburbs come and go. So over time, theoretically you could have tens of thousands of sims who all knew each other. But usually the game crashes or people lose interest before it comes that far.

Role playing games are more limited, but here you have many different paths you may take. There are various classes or archetypes in such a game, and usually you can choose different specializations even within each class. In a massive multiplayer online RPG you can make teams with an almost unlimited variation of different classes and specializations. I rather enjoyed this in City of Heroes, which allowed many different combinations of archetypes to be viable, not just the standard formula from early medieval RPGs. For instance, perhaps you did not have a healer on the team, but you had two forcefield defenders. Two layers of force fields would make you hard to hit, so you would not need all that healing. The game had many such alternative routes, which made teams different and unique. Still, not exactly the same as the unlimited building games.


I think it is natural to want unlimited growth, but of course it is not really found in games. In this case, it is really all in our minds. Although our lifespan is limited, we desire to see the growth of individuals, families, neighborhoods, cities, empires, even worlds without end.

Well, some of us do. Others prefer games of endless killing, war and destruction – or at least to pull up the ladder while the sims are swimming. I guess there is some truth to the old proverb that you can learn more about a man from watching him play for and hour than hearing him talk for a year. (Although it is pretty certain that it wasn’t Plato who said that, no matter how many people attribute it to him. It is first seen in the early 20th century.)