Within Temptation

Last night I went to my first concert in . . . I don’t know how long. I’m pretty sure the last one was before Cindy and I got married, so at least fifteen years. It was quite an experience. For one thing, I’m pretty sure I wasn’t the oldest person there, but I might have been the oldest who was there alone. All the other over-40 types seemed to be escorting kids. That didn’t keep me from being carded, though. The Palladium staff were simply carding everyone who wanted to purchase alcohol, which is totally fine with me.

The Palladium has, to put it bluntly, seen better days. It must have been a grand theatre once, but now things are in pretty serious disrepair. There’s paint and plaster hanging off the walls. Most of the balcony, where I had gone in hope of saving my ears, was closed for what were pretty clearly safety reasons. Somehow the only other unaccompanied 40-year-old in the place happened to be sitting next to me (hi Ben!) and I joked with him a little about the abandoned-theatre ambience providing an appropriate theme for this kind of music. I didn’t catch the name of the opening band at the time, but apparently it was 3. (Side note: naming your band “3″ in the era of Google search seems like a slightly bad idea, because it’s hard to search for.) I liked some of their songs quite a bit, though it also did occur to me that their style might not be the best possible match for the headline act. It was good hard-driving music, with some unique guitar technique adding a bit of flair. After a short break, Within Temptation hit the stage.

What can I say about the music? Of course it was amazing. Everyone has a certain set of musical features that get them excited. For many people, including me for most of my life, this has resulted in combinations that aren’t actually represented by any real-world act. I’m lucky, though, because the combination of mid-tempo high-dynamic range symphonic metal with strong female vocals is pretty well represented in Europe nowadays, and Within Temptation are clear leaders within that genre. Everyone else focuses on Sharon den Adel’s voice, and rightly so, but I think all of the band members play their parts just a bit better than anyone else. Special mention should probably go to Martijn Spierenburg’s work on keyboards, which is often hard to notice consciously but rounds out the sound in an important way. His band-member page also mentions his daughter among his hobbies, which I consider extremely cool. The most important thing about WT’s sound, though, is not the individual contributions but the way they all work together. The buildups are beautifully layered, and the timing when everyone comes in for a crescendo is flawless in both composition and execution. There’s a reason this is the first show I’ve gone to in a long time.

It’s a bit different hearing them in person, of course. First off, it was loud. My ears were still ringing when I got home, and the drive from Worcester to Lexington isn’t short. It wasn’t obnoxiously loud, though. From up in the balcony, at least, the vocals still came through and the overall distortion level was still reasonable so every song sounded just fine – just louder than I’m used to. Maybe that wouldn’t have been true down on the main floor. Also, Sharon’s voice wasn’t 100% last night. She was only twice as good as most other lead singers. ;) High notes were a particular problem, which might have led to disappointment on some of the songs where those particular talents are highlighted. Other than one “well, that didn’t work” shrug near the beginning (which I found endearing) and one not-even-attempted high note later on, though, I didn’t really notice. Like everyone else in the crowd, as far as I could tell, I was just far too enraptured to care about such things. Even at 99%, they provided a musical experience far beyond anything else I can recall. Listening to Within Temptation is a pleasure, but being immersed in the sound like that and with that much energy – from bands and audience alike – is something more.

Yes, I’m a fan. I’m even more of a fan now than I was at this time yesterday, and isn’t that what it’s all about?

Chess Ratings

The Elo system was originally developed for ranking chess players, but has since been used to rank performance in many other contexts as well. According to the Wikipedia article, this even includes the Bowl Championship Series in college football, which was a surprise to me. The article also mentions several common criticisms of Elo, some of which are addressed by existing alternatives, and more recently there has been a competition to improve the state of the art still further (warning: site is being Slashdotted as I write this).

I should probably enter, since I’ve done a lot of thinking about this exact problem over the years, but I’m oversubscribed already. Before this site even became a blog (which BTW was a little over ten years ago) I implemented a Yahoo/ICC rating script based on the principle of examining not just a person’s opponents but also their opponents and so on to whatever level one wants. It often found non-trivial anomalies in the ratings of players who were getting better or worse, or more often those who had lately changed their preferred time limits or criteria for selecting opponents. I used to run it to cut through the ratings manipulation then (probably still) rampant on both sites, to find opponents who were truly at my own level for a satisfying game. Another idea I’ve developed since then is to represent a person’s rating as not just a strength but a strength plus an internally calculated “style” measured along one or more axes. This has nothing to do with actual style, but can account for the often persistent and reproducible anomalies when one player just seems to beat another player more often than their ongoing records against other opponents would ever indicate. For example, as an endgame-oriented Caro-Slav type of player, I can genuinely expect to win more than I lose against easily-frustrated tacticians even if they’re rated 100-200 points above me. There are other players rated below me against whom I’ll fare poorly, but I’m not about to tell you those secrets. Another idea that I haven’t actually explored as much is of using a “coupled oscillator” approach similar to that used in time-synchronization protocols, to account for the fact that an opponent’s rating was probably changing even as you played them, but that the resulting inaccuracy can be detected and corrected in retrospect. In other words, subsequent analysis could show that a player you thought was at 1500 when you played them was probably more around 1600 but their rating hadn’t caught up yet, and then you could account for that when using the result to modify your own rating. The process could even be repeated until the results stabilized, but probably most of the bang for the buck would come in the first couple of iterations.

All of these approaches can be combined, of course, and I’m pretty sure that with sufficient tweaking of code I could come up with something that would outperform Elo on the competition’s sample. They’re both a bit out of line with the competition’s goal of using/maintaining roughly the same amount of data as Elo, though. On the other hand, they seem to be allowing Glicko, so there’s clearly room for a couple more values per player. Perhaps some simplified version of the last idea would work. In any case, it’ll be interesting to see what comes out of this.

Two Fantasy Novels

In an attempt to use up some of my rapidly dwindling free time, plus some of the proceeds from finally turning my candy-concession change into Amazon credit, I recently bought books by two new fantasy authors – The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss, and The Blade Itself by Joe Abercrombie. Based on reviews (including comments here) I expected one to be a bit of a curiosity, OK as an alternative to TV or games but ultimately unsatisfying, and the other to be significantly better than that. That’s pretty much how things turned out, but not in the way I expected.

Rock-Paper-Scissors Chess

In my never-ending quest to be geeky in more ways than anyone else on the internet, I’ve invented a chess variant that incorporates the RPS dynamic while still (I hope) remaining playable. RPS is not only a game in its own right, and apparently one that some people take rather seriously (there’s also a 25-gesture version), but it’s a dynamic that appears in many other games. In wargames it’s often a range/mobility/defense triangle. For example, in a medieval wargame, long-range archers might be devastating against low-mobility infantry but vulnerable to high-mobility cavalry, while those cavalry in turn can’t get past the strong defense of massed infantry with pikes. Here’s how you apply the same idea to chess.

  • Paper = pawns. Rock = rooks and queens. Scissors = knights, bishops, and kings.
  • Members of every class can take other members of their own class, plus the next one in the circle. For example, a pawn can take another pawn, a rook or a queen, but not any of the “scissors” pieces.

What this does is make a lot of capture/recapture scenarios asymmetric. A pawn attacked by a knight and defended by a pawn is still vulnerable, because the pawn won’t be able to recapture the knight. This has some less obvious effects on strategy.

  • Some openings become much less effective. For example, Philidor doesn’t work because it’s an instance of the example above. On the other hand, Ruy Lopez still works because the pawn is defended by a knight, and Petroff still works because it’s more of a counterattack.
  • Bringing the queen out to b3 to attack b7 (one of my favorite motifs) is no longer as effective because the queen can’t take the pawn at b7. On the other hand, bringing the queen out to the king-side might be more effective because it can’t be harried by a knight. This also makes the fianchetto more risky, since the bishop won’t be able to defend a knight at c3/c6/f3/f6 that’s threatened by a queen.
  • A lone king is no longer helpless against two united passed pawns, because it can approach or capture the frontmost without being in check.

The last point I think is particularly important with respect to changing how endgames work, and how players maneuver to get a favorable one. At first I wasn’t wild about kings being so totally helpless against rooks and queens, but then I realized that such endings are generally a foregone conclusion anyway. They’re only tedious, not difficult, most of the time. Making them less tedious doesn’t seem like such a bad thing after all.

Some day when I have some spare time, I might take an existing chess program and modify its move generator to eliminate certain captures according to these rules. The position evaluator will be a bit askew, so the program won’t play strategy well, but most programs can beat me easily on tactics anyway so that’s unlikely to be an issue.

Fatal Attraction

For a long time, I’ve told people that I avoid online multiplayer games (except chess) not because they’re uninteresting but precisely because they are interesting and I didn’t want to get addicted the way so many others have. Well, I guess I’ll have to find another addiction-avoidance strategy, because I’ve started playing Dofus recently. Apparently it’s pronounced doe-fus, not dew-fus, but I’m sure the latter pronunciation is common among players of more “serious” MMORPGs (as though running around killing imaginary dragons with imaginary swords isn’t pretty silly in its own right). In fact it’s the un-seriousness of Dofus that I find attractive. Most of the names are palindromes, anagrams, puns, or funny references, though many are French and so less obvious. There’s good entertainment to be had just by reading the descriptions of items being advertised on the trading channel of the in-game chat system. The cartoony drawing style might not appeal to some, but it serves well enough, and I actually like the turn-based tile-based combat system. It’s less frantic than most games, more like a board game than a brawl. These factors are also intimately tied to the fact that the whole thing is Flash-based, which makes it playable on just about any platform; since I use Linux day to day and don’t care about pretty pictures all that much, it’s a tradeoff I thoroughly applaud. (Wakfu, from the same company, seems to be essentially the same game with better graphics at the expense of becoming platform-dependent.)

One thing that’s a bit sub-optimal about Dofus is a relative dearth of information for noobs – by which I mean particularly people who are not only low-level but entirely new to the game and perhaps the genre. Even the most basic guides seem to assume that you recognize the significance of certain game-play elements, though there’s no real reason to suppose a true noob would know that. As one noob to another, then, there are some tips.

World Champion

I’ve always had a weakness for “make groups to clear the board” kinds of games, from Tetris to Zuma, Sokoban to Shisen-Sho. Lately I’ve been playing Colored Symbols II, which is a variant of SameGame which comes in many forms. One feature is a high-score list, and I’m proud to announce that I now hold the global all-time high score of 3156. I pretty much lucked into it, really. The game dropped a killer combo right into my lap at the outset, and then all I had to do was not screw it up. Nonetheless, it’s something to be proud of for at least a few seconds.

OK, I’m done.

Dungeon Crawling

Here’s the best article I’ve seen yet related to the lamented passing of D&D co-inventor Gary Gygax.

Those few doughty characters and doughy players who survived the experience did so by the application of techniques like driving livestock ahead of them into the tomb to set off the traps, which strikes me as a bit less than heroic. I’m not an expert on fantasy literature, but I don’t remember a scene in Lord of the Rings where Gandalf prods 50 head of cattle into the Mines of Moria to serve as Balrog bait.

July 28
I’m very excited! The cataloging of the entryway has been completed, and a graduate student, Bill, will be entering the dungeon itself for the first time today! He requested a goat to herd into the dungeon ahead of him, but I pointed out that goats are valuable.

Civ4 First Impressions

The title should tell most of my readers everything they need to know about why I haven’t been writing much lately. I’ve been a fan of the Civilization series for a long time, having played all four of the main titles plus Alpha Centauri (including Alien Crossfire) and a few inferior knockoffs from other development shops. Civ2 will probably always reign as the best game for its time. It fixed some of the major combat-system warts in the original, such as spearmen defeating tanks, and added a whole bunch of other neat stuff. Spies were more fun in Civ2 than in its successors, and there were several other interesting units. I was always fond of paratroopers as instant city garrisons, and wonder why they seem to be absent from Civ4. Civ2 also made diplomacy more interesting, though the “everyone hates you” phenomenon was still gallingly prevalent, and having to manage happiness as well as money presented an interesting challenge. Taking a slight detour, Alpha Centauri’s “design workshop” that let you design your own units based on components absolutely rocked, and is still unique among the group. AC also had a few other conceptual improvements that I’ll get to later, and might be the best game overall. Civ3 had diplomacy that actually kind of worked, enemy AI that wasn’t totally stupid, and the new dimensions of resources and culture. It almost seems like it should have been better than Civ2, but somehow I just never got into it as much. That’s about enough history, though. What about Civ4?

Unusual Tastes

I’ve always known my taste in music was a bit eclectic but I always thought it was the combinations (e.g. Kitaro to Guns ‘n’ Roses) more than the invididual songs/artists. Then again, maybe not. Every once in a while I go to CD Baby and listen around. Their “new arrivals” pages, arranged both by time and by genre, offer a great browsing experience. Usually browsing is all I do, but every once in a while I buy a batch of CDs – why there always seem to be batches that appeal to me all at once instead of just one at a time is another mystery to me, but that’s the way it works. In my latest batch, I was a bit surprised that four out of five were so new and/or obscure that CDDB didn’t know about them yet. Even more surprising was that the one hit wasn’t for Bethany Curve’s Flaxen (even I had heard of BC before); it was for Ether Aura’s Crash. I guess I’m just so far out at sea musically that I’m not even sure where the shore is any more.

In case anyone is curious, the others are Riverine by Autumn’s Grey Solace, Different Stars (2004 Nettwerk version) by Trespassers William, and Wait for Someday by Half Light. All of them are in the shoegaze/dreampop/ethereal area, heavy on the reverb and (except for Crash) seriously down-tempo. Interestingly, Crash is probably my second favorite despite being the oddball of the bunch (or maybe the one non-oddball). So far my favorite is Different Stars, which is also the slowest of a slow lot. “Haunting” is a good way to describe it, unless “soporific” works better for you. As far as I’m concerned it’s great stuff.

Biggest Time Sink Ever

As though playing Civilization IV won’t be bad enough, I found this little snippet in an interview.

Civilization 4 will be the most moddable version of Civilization ever. Players can edit basic stats and attributes in XML files. On a higher level, much of the game will be exposed to Python so modders will be able to edit events and have more control over how the game works. On an even higher level, we are planning to provide an AI SDK to allow experienced programmers to dig very deep into customization.

Wow. I’ve always thought it would be great fun to create a new AI for Civilization or some similar game, and the fact that the SDK might be Python-based is just gravy. I can see having a ton of fun with this if they actually follow through on this plan.