So, we just watched Oppenheimer today. I’d been resisting it, because despite all the hype, I didn’t really see the point; I didn’t really see why I specifically needed to watch it. However, S really wanted to watch it together, and it was now out on home video so we sat down for a nice holiday Tuesday matinee.
First off, it was fantastic, really well done. If you haven’t seen it yet, please pause this read, do so, and then come back here.
[Spoilers beyond this point]
It’s interesting that I feel I have to talk about spoilers here, for a historical/biographical movie. But I do need to. Anytime there’s a biopic, there are choices about what is shown on-screen, and how each of those things are sequenced and portrayed. The flashback structure and eventual reveal at the end was really good for building and releasing the dramatic tension (the music was fantastic for this…especially the completely silent atomic bomb explosion, which was fantastically effective, along with dramatically representing some of the delay between seeing and hearing such an event caused by the difference between the speed of sound and light).
I’d always conceptualized the Manhattan Project through the eyes of Feynman, from his essay ‘Los Alamos from Below'. I think it wasn’t until today that I really understood that he really meant it that way. I had always seen Oppenheimer as the leader/front man who had to exist so that the project could happen, but also as a quasi-mythical distant figure. I’d also conceptualized the ethical dilemmas about actually building a nuclear device as being shared and agonized over by each and every one of the scientists and engineers (and everyone) at Los Alamos.
The Oppenheimer story, being a biopic largely of one person, centralized a lot of that in one person (Oppenheimer). Interestingly, the movie tried really really hard (and I think succeeded) at leaving Oppenheimer a complex character, with multiple possible interpretations of many of the very real decisions he made along the way.
Cillian Murphy was fantastic, it seemed to me having some of the ‘dazed at the enormity of what we’re doing’ present at all points of the movie, which is appropriate for flashbacks, or perhaps for someone who had his head in the clouds of physics his entire life.
Having not seen much about the movie (aside from a clip or two, and hearing about how Cillian Murphy prepared for the role), I wasn’t expecting what type of movie it was, or how pivotal a role Robert Downey Jr.’s character was to play (or that he was to be the villain). He had mentioned in an interview that Nolan had asked him to play against type compared to many of his recent characters.
Florence Pugh was fantastic, although it’s hard to top her iconic performance as Yelena Belova. Matt Damon was an excellent potty-mouthed general, and Emily Blunt and the rest of the supporting cast were great.
I thought it was a really nice touch having Einstein and Bohr both mention that they were from the previous generation, and that this problem was not theirs, but fully belonged to Oppenheimer. S mentioned in particular that it was interesting to see a different, older/more bitter side of Einstein, rather than the ‘genius’.
I also appreciated for the nods to Copenhagen (the play), where Bohr mentions that he got significant information from Heisenberg, and a disturbing scene where Oppenheimer meets Heisenberg, and then immediately turns away and leaves, presumably because he (a Jewish boy from New York) senses that Heisenberg would be willing to work on a Bomb for Hitler.
There was also just enough of a Feynman cameo, with two shots of him playing the bongos. With his charisma and fame, anything more might have upstaged the rest of the movie.
Great movie. See it if you haven’t. Let me know what you think!
 Or perhaps because of it. I’m often somewhat contrarian about things like that.
 Interestingly, I perceived that I needed to see Barbie more than Oppenheimer, but that’s a story for another time.
 How anachronistic is the phrase ‘home video’ now?
 I find many/most movies emotionally draining/exhausting, and they often require significant processing time afterwards (and this was no exception), and it’s really nice to still have some sun out after the movie is over, which somehow helps with this.
It had been a long time. He found himself wanting to say ‘It’s been a minute’ like the kids used to say. ‘Kids’. Huh. Those ‘kids’ had been grown up for years, decades, even, and the vernacular had long moved on to far stranger things…
…but that was beside the point. If he started thinking about that, he’d be back in Vienna again, and he didn’t have time for that right now.
Rollick paused for a moment. No footfalls. Either that meant no one was following, or they were even more careful than he was, something else he didn’t care to think about right now.
Emerging from the alley, he started to be able to almost feel the beat coming from Collatz. Even the most advanced dampers couldn’t damp the ground displacement of a truly heavy bass. He put in his earpieces and joined the line, tapping them twice to change modes to ‘club’.
Quick survey of the line. No one he recognized, but they could be using a face skifter. He never used them because they were far too detectable by automated systems. He preferred to use his hat and his trained ability to shift his facial muscles. Front of the line. Standard pat-down and scan. Bouncers were no-nonsense, your standard retired linebacker-types. No piece today, not on a mission like this. Just causes more problems than it solves, especially in a crowded club.
Waved through, the door opens. The first wave of the beat is felt more than heard. Down the corridor, no coat check today, with the temperature being ‘ambient’. He enters the club proper, and is assaulted by the sound for a split second before his earpieces kick in. ‘Ah, modern technology.’
He glances at the booth. Good, she’s not spinning right now, so there should be just enough time.
Working his way through the crowd, he moves just enough to the music to look not too much out of place, but not so much that he stands out. He risks a longing glance towards one of the more open areas of the dance floor, but that might be a little too visible today.
He can’t help but look at the endlessly changing light mathematical light display that gives the club its name. With difficulty, he manages to draw his attention away.
Passing the bar, he heads back to the head (natch). No one in the hall, good.
A few days ago, I posted about some chilling COVID statistics, and said that each time you get COVID, you and your children ‘roll the dice’ (referring to the relatively high probability of death and/or organ damage/disability).
A friend of mine commented that this was ‘loaded language and emotional rhetoric’, and it came ‘across as an attempt at manipulation or a genuine reflection of fear felt by the author’.
Setting aside the obvious ‘loaded dice’ pun, I’d like to interrogate the meaning of ‘rolling the dice’ (and also the use of such rhetorical flourishes in a Health and Safety context).
Colloquially, I’ve always thought of it in the second sense given by Miriam-Webster: “It’s a roll of the dice whether we succeed or fail.”, meaning that we are not in control of the outcome, and you should be prepared for the high chance of negative outcome.
Of course, ‘high chance’ is defined differently by different people, and in different situations, people having different risk thresholds than each other, and at different times. For example, a 1 in 10 chance of the bottom of your sock becoming wet is very different than a 1 in 10 chance of being hit by a car.
For the sake of argument, let’s compare the above usage of ‘rolling the dice’ with the most popular dice betting[5a] game ‘Craps‘. In Craps, the two most well known sets of odds are ‘Pass’, or ‘will you win this set of rolls’, and winning on the first roll.
Winning on the first roll in Craps requires rolling either a ‘7’ or an ’11′, for a total probability of 8/36, or about 22%. Many might think that rolling a 7 is the way to win in Craps (it’s also one way to lose, if your first roll was 4,5,6,8,9,10). Rolling a 7 has a probability of 6/36, or about 17%.
One could also argue that ‘a roll of the dice’ is rolling one six-sided die, but that just gives us the 1 in 6 or ~17% chance above again. Higher (or lower) order polyhedral dice (or larger numbers of dice) can give us arbitrarily different odds, but let’s stop here.
Today, Statscan reported on the prevalence and ‘Experiences of Canadians with long-term symptoms following COVID-19’.
This shows that about 14.6% reported long-term symptoms after one infection (about 1 in 7), then of the remaining 85.4%, about one in 8 developed long-term symptoms after a second infection, then of the remaining 74.6%, about one in 6 developed long-term symptoms.
Each of these is pretty close to ‘a roll of the dice’, as we defined above.
Perhaps more disturbing is that more than half of those who reported long-term symptoms reported no improvement in those symptoms over time:
Also, more than 1 in 5 of those with persistent symptoms (600,000 Canadians) missed days of work or school, missing an average of 24 days each.
Having shown that this is a reasonable use of the phrase ‘roll of the dice’, I also wanted to address the idea of using emotional appeals in public education about health and safety.
A number of years I had the privilege of attending safety training run by Minerva Canada, where a talk was being given by a representative from a car manufacturing company that you’ve heard of. He was talking about their ‘getting to zero’ workplace accidents project, and he mentioned that at some point, after you’ve tried asking people nicely enough times, you have to get the ‘300 lb gorilla to go tell the guy to wear his @#$%ing safety harness’.
That was my sixth and this will be my seventh post talking about the dangers of COVID. At some point, using stronger (but still accurate) language to educate people about the dangers they and their children face due to action or inaction becomes necessary if we actually want to solve the problem.
 “tl;dr: About 1 in 8 deaths in 2022 in Canada were caused by COVID-19. Organ damage caused by COVID seems to be persistent. Each time you get COVID, you and your children roll the dice again as to whether you die or get Long COVID. Get boosted, mask (with an N95 respirator) when you’re indoors with others. Get COVID as few times as you can, and if you get it, rest up longer than you think you need to. Push for better (HEPA) air filtering and ventilation (more air interchanges per hour).” link to post
[5a] I mention the ‘most popular dice betting game’ partially because most people will have a passing familiarity, I know some of the odds, and those odds are easy to explain. Compare with the games on the ‘top 10 all-time best-seller list‘: Monopoly (3), Clue (5) (uses one six-sided die for movement, but the deduction and knowing your opponents is far more important for gameplay), and Backgammon (8)
 Here, I’m assuming that each time a person catches COVID, they either progress into Long COVID, or stay ‘long-term unaffected’. This allows modeling of each subsequent infection independently. With the numbers above, 1st infection has a ~14.6% chance of leading to Long Covid (1 in 6.85), of the remaining 85.4 people, 25.4-14.6=10.8 of them or 10.8/85.4 = 12.6% or 1 in 7.9, then of the remaining 74.6 people, 37.9-25.4=12.5 of them or 12.5/74.6 = 16.8% or one in 5.97. Note that the last number includes those with more than three infections, so one would expect the number for 3 infections to be less than that. Also note that biology is often not linear, and a linear model such as this one may be simplistic, and should only be used for illustrative purposes, no matter how well it fits the curve.
tl;dr: About 1 in 8 deaths in 2022 in Canada were caused by COVID-19. Organ damage caused by COVID seems to be persistent. Each time you get COVID, you and your children roll the dice again as to whether you die or get Long COVID. Get boosted, mask (with an N95 respirator) when you’re indoors with others. Get COVID as few times as you can, and if you get it, rest up longer than you think you need to. Push for better (HEPA) air filtering and ventilation (more air interchanges per hour).
It’s been three and a half years since COVID-19 burst into the world consciousness, and ten months since I last wrote about it.
The SARS-Cov-2 virus affects numerous parts of the body, by attaching its ‘spike protein’ to the ACE2 receptor found in the lungs, heart and cardiovascular system, gastro-intestinal system, and kidneys, causing issues and organ damage in all of those areas.
Longitudinal studies have shown that this organ damage is persistent, with 80-100% of damage present at 6 months still being present at 12 months[2a].
SARS-Cov-2 is also known to have effects on the brain, causing loss of taste/smell and vertigo. Last time, I also reported the UK ‘Brain Bank’ study[3a] which showed ‘detected damage to areas of the brain associated with taste and smell, along with measurable cognitive impact, even when COVID cases which required hospitalization were excluded’, suggesting that even ‘mild’ COVID cases cause brain damage.
In 2022, StatsCan shows that there were about 43 thousand ‘excess deaths’ in Canada (compared to 2019 and earlier), with 18 thousand people specifically confirmed to have died from COVID.
Given the inaccuracies and delays in reporting deaths, and the steadiness of the death rate before 2020 (compare the ‘All:’ line in the table above for 2018/2019 with the much greater variability in 2020/2021/2022), it is generally accepted that ‘Excess Deaths’ is the correct way to measure deaths caused by COVID-19.
With that being said, the numbers paint a sobering picture. While 43,378/38 million (0.11%) may not seem like a large number, 43,378/334,081 is 12.98%. That means that for each person that died in Canada in 2022, there was about a 1 in 8 chance that their death was caused by COVID-19.
Also note that there is a substantial uptick in cardiac (Heart & Stroke) related deaths, especially in 2022. COVID is known to increase the risk of heart attack and stroke, and the ~3,000 excess Heart & Stroke-related deaths in 2022 in Canada help us understand the magnitude of the issue.
Last time, I shared a study[2b] done with data from Veteran’s Administration patients from the U.S., showing that COVID reinfection is just as dangerous (equal chance of death) or more dangerous (increased chance of hospitalization).
While this clearly showed additive effects from second COVID infections, this was a very specific (and not very healthy) cohort.
If you want to actually protect yourself, you need an N-95 or better (ideally fit tested). My favourite is this one from 3M, as the headloop bands are a mixture of cloth and elastic, and are thus less likely to break.
Check (and improve) the ventilation:
A CO2 monitor such as the Aranet can very quickly tell you how well-ventilated your area is. Anything around 500ppm means that the air in your space is ‘like outside’.
Thanks for reading this far. Working together, we can get through this, but it might get worse before it gets better, until we as a society decide that we actually want to solve this. Stay safe out there.
[2a] Multi-organ impairment and long COVID: a 1-year prospective, longitudinal cohort study
Andrea Dennis, Daniel J Cuthbertson, Dan Wootton, Michael Crooks, Mark Gabbay, Nicole Eichert, Sofia Mouchti, Michele Pansini, Adriana Roca-Fernandez, Helena Thomaides-Brears, Matt Kelly, Matthew Robson, Lyth Hishmeh, Emily Attree, Melissa Heightman, Rajarshi Banerjee, and Amitava Banerjee
Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine, Volume 116, Issue 3
[3a] SARS-CoV-2 is associated with changes in brain structure in UK Biobank, Gwenaëlle Douaud, Soojin Lee, Fidel Alfaro-Almagro, Christoph Arthofer, Chaoyue Wang, Paul McCarthy, Frederik Lange, Jesper L. R. Andersson, Ludovica Griffanti, Eugene Duff, Saad Jbabdi, Bernd Taschler, Peter Keating, Anderson M. Winkler, Rory Collins, Paul M. Matthews, Naomi Allen, Karla L. Miller, Thomas E. Nichols & Stephen M. Smith, Nature volume 604, pages 697–707 (07 March 2022)
However much improvement there has been in economic theories over the past century or two, there is still no real consensus on the causes of and solutions for such basic economic issues as high inflation.
So, why is this? A number of ideas come to mind, of varying levels of spiciness:
1) Economics lacks predictive power, and can only rationalize cause and effect after the fact
3) Basic underlying assumptions are wrong (Humans are not rational actors, there is substantial information asymmetry, etc…)
4) Some combination of payola and regulatory capture (the current consensus on drivers of inflation does not take into account changes in corporate profit rates. Also note that the economics ‘Nobel Prize’ is not a true Nobel prize, and has been disowned by multiple members of the Nobel family.)
5) Different economic theories are required for different situations (read ‘Micro’ & ‘Macro’)
6) Economic theory is actually game theory, and as soon as something is figured out, humans compensate for that and change the rules (any large institution that you are trading with will adjust their prices (or other rules) if you figure out how to retain a larger percentage of the profit from a transaction, so as to maintain their margins)
7) Much of human behaviour (and economic behaviour) is based on human sentiment, and measuring and reporting on it affects it (try watching how swings in price fluctuate vs. accepted measures of value for stocks as ‘market sentiment’ changes; cf. ‘Mr. Market‘)
8) Economic predictions are subject to ‘groupthink‘, as there are immediate consequences of being outside the mainstream, but few consequences for wrong predictions.
So, which of the above are the main issues with Economics? Some of them? All of them? More importantly, what do we do about it?
Well, we can start by only believing theories that have been confirmed through the scientific method, i.e. Prediction, followed by successfully predicted result. Perhaps we can be more aware of sentiment or groupthink, and try to pay attention to the underlying.
(Just remember the famous quote attributed to Keynes: “Markets can remain irrational a lot longer than you and I can remain solvent.”
Other ideas on what are the main causes? Other recommendations on how to deal with them? Let me know in the comments below!
 There is one Theory of Gravity (modulo quantum), and one Theory of Evolution, and each of them have massive predictive power. Why not Economics?
 “Nobel accuses the awarding institution of misusing his family’s name, and states that no member of the Nobel family has ever had the intention of establishing a prize in economics. He explained that “Nobel despised people who cared more about profits than society’s well-being”, saying that “There is nothing to indicate that he would have wanted such a prize”, and that the association with the Nobel prizes is “a PR coup by economists to improve their reputation”. ”
 This is based on my experiences in Forex. I imagine other markets would be similar, but the less regulated the market, and the greater the power asymmetry, the worse this issue would be.
 “His analysis revealed that economists had failed to predict 148 of the past 150 recessions. Part of the problem, he said, was that there wasn’t much of a reputational gain to be had by predicting a recession others had missed. If you disagreed with the consensus, you would be met with skepticism. The downside of getting it wrong was more personally damaging than the upside of getting it right.”
Climate change has potential to do significant economic harm, and poses worrying tail risks. It is a global externality—one country’s emissions affect all countries by adding to the stock of heat-warming gases in the earth’s atmosphere from which warming arises.
The process of climate change is set to have a significant economic impact on many countries, with a large number of lower income countries being particularly at risk. Macroeconomic policies in these countries will need to be calibrated to accommodate more frequent weather shocks, including by building policy space to respond to shocks. Infrastructure will need to be upgraded to enhance economic resilience.
Elsewhere, climate change can entail significant risks to macrofinancial stability. Nonfinancial corporate sectors face risks from climate damages and stranded assets—such as coal reserves that become uneconomic with carbon pricing—and the disruption could affect corporate balance sheet quality.”
Today is Remembrance Day, where on the eleventh day of the eleventh month, at the eleventh hour, we commemorate those who served and died in war. The wars of the past century are almost too numerous to count, and the human experience is complex and varied. We had the privilege today of experiencing parts of four similar but very different commemoration ceremonies.
The first was at the war memorial for the 48th Highlanders. There was a brief parade from near the legislative building, with numerous soldiers, accompanied by pipes and drums. This was followed by a surprisingly poignant speech by (I presume) the head of the war monuments commission about the monument itself, which was commemorating its own 100 year anniversary. He noted that monuments are designed and built to appear (and to be) timeless and eternal, but over a hundred years (and often more), there is the addition of battles and names to commemorate (and the inevitable restoration work), such that the monuments have their own history as well.
There was also the beautifully sung ‘Oh God our Help in Ages Past‘ hymn, where we could see the lined up veterans reading the program and singing along, but I could only see a group of young soldiers singing to comfort themselves and each other in the trenches.
To me, Remembrance day has always felt like it should be a poignant and simple ceremony, where there are a few simple words to trigger the poignant memories, followed by silence to fully ponder them.
“The hush deepened. It had spread over the whole city and become so pronounced as to impress one with a sense of audibility. It was a silence which was almost pain … And the spirit of memory brooded over it all.”
After the hymn, there were speeches, difficult to hear because of the incongruously loud generator (for the sound system) that we were standing beside, so we moved on.
The next ceremony we experienced we had walked through during setup. Surprised by the somewhat subtle but very present security perimeter around the Provincial Legislature, we eventually figured out that it was likely because the Lieutenant Governor (amongst others) would be speaking, along with other dignitaries at the Ontario Veteran’s Memorial.
As we walked around the back of the legislative building we discovered the other reason for the perimeter: Two howitzers set up, ready to give a 21-gun salute. One of the nice young soldiers in the safety perimeter kindly offered us ear protection just before the first gun fired. We demurred, which was likely a mistake, as the first shot startled us (and many squirrels). Through the scurrying squirrels, dissipating smoke, and car alarm sounds, it struck me as jarring that an occasion that was all about commemorating when the guns finally fell silent would include so many guns firing, along with a bomber flyover…but perhaps that helps remind people of the horrors of war.
After experiencing more than enough howitzer sounds (five), we moved on to the official University of Toronto commemoration ceremony at Soldier’s Tower. This was a very standard Remembrance day ceremony, with the chaplain talking about the act of love that is sacrifice in war. This was however somewhat marred by the sounds of howitzers in the distance, scaring the children in attendance, and making us jump.
There was one moment of humour, however. I do like the sound of church bells, but it is very difficult to exactly tune them. It’s been very strange having a King, after having a Queen almost longer than living memory. This was the first time we’d heard ‘God save the King’ as part of a ceremony, and the out of tune church bells delivering their almost mocking rendition of ‘God Save the Queen' were an excellent counterpoint.
Last on our journey, we stumbled upon some UofT Engineers performing their (apparently) annual Remembrance Day ceremony, complete with specially built temporary memorial:
Of all the ceremonies, this was the one we identified with: They were engineers, they had built the memorial themselves, the ceremony was small and personal, and there was clear counter-cultural representation.
I thought the quote they chose for the memorial (pictured above) was very important for Remembrance Day (and indeed any day people talk about the ‘Glory’ of war or its self-sacrifice):
“My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.”
It speaks to how in war, death is gross and horrific. Wilfred Owen was talking about the horrors of watching your friends die from a poisonous gas attack, but it can just as easily apply to death from anything else.
I think we do ourselves a disservice, especially in a time when war is again raging in Europe, to speak of the glory of war, or dying in war, particularly as a method of convincing people to participate. I believe that as mature individuals (and as a mature society), we can understand that war is horrific and terrible, and gross, but still have the maturity to understand that it is still sometimes a necessary sacrifice for freedom.
The Commission and National Center continue to produce reports in an ongoing way. They have prioritized what they think you should read first, along with the 2015 reports that include a comprehensive history as well as specific calls to action.
You may be interested in First Nations art across various media. I would encourage you to do your own research, but I would put forward the following:
Somewhere in human evolution, the above was (presumably) an evolutionary advantage. Perhaps it’s actually because snakes are rarer than mosquitoes, and it is more possible to avoid them. Perhaps it’s because the defense against snakes and mosquitoes is different. For snakes, avoiding them or fighting them off might be the best survival tactic, as each individual snake could kill you. For mosquitoes, the ‘go away’ reaction to annoyance is perhaps actually the best defense, as we automatically wave our hands to shoo them away.
Interestingly, if you think about it, we find mosquitoes annoying, but mosquitoes didn’t evolve to be annoying, we evolved to be annoyed by mosquitoes. The buzzing about, the whine of their wings, cause automatic reactions from our auditory to our reflex systems.
But what about swatting? I know that I almost automatically swat at mosquitoes, either to grab them out of the air, or swat them when they’re trying to drink my blood….but I don’t know if that’s an actual evolved automatic response, or something learned.
What is your reaction to mosquitoes? What are your other (possibly adaptive) phobias and automatic reactions?
 Whether we evolved from being scared to being annoyed, or from ignoring them/thinking of them as food to being annoyed is anyone’s guess….or perhaps more accurately, someone else’s research.
The utopia of Star Trek. Teams of people working together to solve problems, living in a post-scarcity society, focused on science and exploration.
This is sometimes called ‘Fully Automated Luxury Communism’ (from the Atlantic article), sometimes called ‘Fully Automated Luxury Gay Space Communism' (by the memes).
One would think that if this was truly our goal as a species, we would be working together, working tirelessly to get ourselves closer to this post-scarcity utopia. But we aren’t. Something is getting in the way (probably many somethings). Here is my (tentative) list of obstacles, each to be explored in a subsequent post (linked from here when I’m done):
My list of possible Reasons Why We Can’t Have Nice Things:
1) Humans just don’t want nice things. Either because they’re uncomfortable with the required introspection or amount of change required, or because it interferes with or would reduce something they want instead (cf. ‘finite games vs. infinite games')
2) The Ideology of Conservatism. Much of conservative ideology is built around unnecessary hierarchies and the presumption that humanity is better off when more people are worrying about the lower levels of Maslow’s Hierarchy.
3) Capitalism. Somewhat related to the above, the goals of capital in most of its incarnations are at odds with post-scarcity, and it tends to shy away from incarnations that could be congruent with it, often as a result of:
4) Regulatory Capture. Any system that would lead to post-scarcity must have some boundaries or regulation. Unfortunately, any such regulations are enforced by humans, and humans are subject to ‘capture’ by those they are meant to regulate (cf. The Big Short)
5) The inability/unwillingness of humans to scale delegation or decision-making. Caleb Gamman mentioned that Film Studio execs attempt to concentrate power and film ‘IP’, but are unable to flexibly use all of the resources (of various types) that they have concentrated, being only able to focus on a small number of things at once, leaving large amounts of resources to languish or be inefficiently used.
6) Others to be named later
Let me know what you think! What did I leave out? What did I get wrong? Should we be aiming for something different as a species?
 This phrase feels surprisingly difficult, probably due to the ‘Green Great Dragon‘ problem
 Tentative for now, as I write the other posts that make up this series. This list may change, the ordering may change.
 In this context, I’m referring to the difference between a ‘finite game’, one which is played to gain power or ‘win’ against other humans, and an ‘infinite game’, which is played for the betterment of one’s self. I was introduced to this concept by the title of the book:’Finite and infinite games’ by James P. Carse, which purportedly plays with some of these concepts.
[Note that this post may include mild spoilers for the Gold Box games ‘Pool of Radiance’ and ‘Curse of the Azure Bonds’, as well as ‘TES IV: Oblivion’.]
How ‘large’ is a game? How many ‘encounters’ does it have? How many ‘quests’? (And how does the type of encounters & quests affect how large the game feels?)
In an attempt to quantify my feelings, I’m working on ways to measure the ‘size’ of games, and it’s become clear that we need some standard definitions.
Most Computer Role-Playing Games (CRPGs) have the concept of ‘encounters’ and ‘quests’.
‘Encounters’ are generally defined ‘this is who you meet/this is what happens when you go to this place’.
‘Quests’ are generally defined as ‘Someone asks you to go somewhere and do something’.
Encounters are simpler, so we’ll investigate them first.
Many aspects of these definitions are cribbed from the pen and paper language around RPGs, where there will be a map with a numbered encounter key, describing what happens in each location. This visual language has persisted in ‘clue books’ and online hint/walkthroughs, such as this one, from the clue book of one of my favourite CRPGs, ‘Pool of Radiance’:
In the picture above, you can see 5 numbered encounters, with some of them happening or being able to happen in multiple locations.
In this particular instance, encounter ‘1’ is an encounter with some Kobolds who are trying to sneak away from you, with a chance of occurring each time you enter one of those squares. Encounter ‘2’ is a large multi-wave battle that starts whenever you enter one of those locations (triggering an ambush).
Other similar encounter keys might have a ‘each time you enter one of these locations for the first time, ‘.
So, how do you count the number of ‘encounters’?
Let’s break down the definition of ‘encounter’:
– You go to a place
– You see something/meet someone/meet something
Encounter ‘1’ above triggers when you enter the first place out of a logical set of places that you enter, that probably feels like one encounter for these purposes, as it’s happening in a logical place.
Encounter ‘2’ is similar.
At the opposite end are ‘random encounters’, which are generally used to use up player resources, or to create a sense of urgency, so that players don’t dawdle. These I will generally count, but count separately from ‘placed’ encounters. (Edit: S mentions that random encounters, for example in Pokemon games are often used by the player to ‘grind’ or ‘farm’ XP, to level up their characters outside of the more story-based game content. Interestingly, one could measure how much a game is in the ‘survival horror’ genre by how difficult and resource-consuming random encounters are (cf. SystemShock).)
Somewhere are in the middle are random encounters which have a sequence of some sort, but are not tied to any one particular location, such as those in the ‘random’ dungeons in Curse of the Azure bonds:
Game locations designed in this way have the same ‘number’ of encounters, and even though they occur in a defined order, telling a story, the fact that they happen entirely at random, without regard for the location or geography, breaks immersion terribly (at least for me). They tend to feel emptier than other encounters, and (to me), only contribute a fractional amount.
What if a place is different when you go back? Is that a second encounter? I don’t know yet. I’ll have to assess that when I get to examples.
What if you have the same encounter 10 times, with each in an identical but seemingly logical place(such as guard posts)? Is that really 10 encounters? Not really…but it also doesn’t really feel like only one. I posit that it’s somewhere between. I’ve been using a log function internally, probably with base e, as base 10 feels too large and base 2 feels too small, but I could easily see it be something else, where the first few seem ‘real’, but after that they run together much more.
Now, let’s move on to ‘quests’
We can break ‘quests’ down into:
– Someone asks you to do something
– You go somewhere
– You do a thing
Pretty simple, right? This includes all ‘fedex’ fetch quests, escort quests, and even most of the ‘escape from this location’ quests.
The trick is when one of the above is missing, such as when you accidentally find the object of a quest before someone tells you to go looking for it (VLDL has a humorous portrayal of this here). This is generally still defined as the same ‘quest’ in the game notes, as well as in strategy guides, but some (such as S) believe that the ask is required (and without the ask, this is simply ‘world-building’).
Sometimes, no one asks you to do something, but there is still a reward when you do it (such as this quest from Oblivion), or they are happy that you’ve done it (such as the dungeon below Kuto’s Well above, where you get a quest reward for defeating the bandit horde of the notorious Norris the Gray). I would still call those ‘quests’, though. Perhaps there’s a difference between ‘Quests’, which require all three, and ‘quests’, which are ‘whatever the game designer says’. 😀
What if you don’t need to go somewhere? This might just be an encounter, or if it’s particularly involved, it could be an all talking interpersonal drama gaming session (or even a game within a game….)
What if the ‘thing you need to do’ is just getting to the destination? I feel like this one can go either way. Most of the quests in the Oblivion Assassins’ guild have a ‘pre-quest’ which involves getting the assignment. I’m not sure why they did it this way, but it kind of makes sense that an assassins’ guild would want it to be difficult enough to figure out what they were doing, that it might be a quest just to get to the dead drop to find the assignment. However, about half of the locations in Curse of the Azure Bonds are just places that the party has to traverse to get somewhere in order to do something important. To me, this doesn’t really feel like a separate quest (sometimes not even like a separate location), and in a lot of ways makes the game feel smaller.
What do you think? How would you define an ‘encounter’ or a ‘quest’? Do you disagree with any of my definitions above? Let me know in the comments below!
 There are variants where encounters can come to you, but that’s usually a different type of story/measurement and is out of scope. This method would probably treat these as one encounter, or you could get really fine-grained and treat that as an entire adventure with ‘locations’ represented by the state of affairs at each step.
 There’s also a theory that random encounters are useful because they allow for a differential in stakes between different encounters by having lower-stakes encounters.
 I can’t begin to describe how frustrating this quest was, and how difficult it was to do, even with the walkthrough page open beside me. Probably the most ‘realistic’ of the ‘finding something hidden’ quests out there, though.