Hysteria Today: Fearing the Singularity

From Wikipedia.org:

The technological singularity (also, simply, the singularity)[1] is the hypothesis that the invention of artificial superintelligence will abruptly trigger runaway technological growth, resulting in unfathomable changes to human civilization.[2] According to this hypothesis, an upgradable intelligent agent (such as a computer running software-based artificial general intelligence) would enter a ‘runaway reaction’ of self-improvement cycles, with each new and more intelligent generation appearing more and more rapidly, causing an intelligence explosion and resulting in a powerful superintelligence that would, qualitatively, far surpass all human intelligence.

Occasionally, a public figure comes out and stirs up a huff about this concept (looking at you Stephen Hawking, Elon Musk, and Bill Gates) and it always makes me roll my eyes, but not because it’s a joke. It’s a pretty serious topic, to be sure. I roll my eyes ultimately because of all things that might end our species, there aren’t many we have less control over or less reason to worry about. I think my sentiment is shared by many. The “I, for one, welcome our new ______ overlords” meme boasts a pretty healthy showing in the robot/computer category. In the interests of writing an article, though, let’s attempt to break down exactly why we should learn to love the A.I.

Precision Engineered Solutions are not the same as Problem Solving

This seems like common sense, but it’s easy to overlook this point. As it was put in a book I read long ago and have forgotten the title of, an engineered computer doctor may make 98% of diagnoses right for the tested input data set. When it gets fed the symptoms of a broken lawn mower, though, it might confidently diagnose pneumonia. This highlights the danger of relying on rigid systems in complex problem spaces: it doesn’t make any sense to ask a computer doctor to fix a lawn mower, but doing so proves that the computer doctor would confidently make a bad call if given a patient with symptoms that don’t precisely match a well tested use case. The upshot is that it’s probably more dangerous to place full trust in rigid A.I.s than to fear super intelligent, problem solving A.I.s

Moreover, problem solving algorithms are a very large discipline of computer science, covering a range of approaches and engineering requirements. The differences that come into play again involve the “playground” the intelligent agent has been given. The agent may only know how to creatively solve complex differential equations by applying mechanics it has been previously taught in different orders and evaluating the results, trying to increase a score of some kind on how well it’s doing. The point here is that the agent was designed to understand these concepts and didn’t determine methods to apply to the equation or how to rate the results on its own.

There are agents that can find patterns in vast data stores based on rules like this, though, and to be sure, some nominal set of procedures would be necessary for the singularity agent to be born. But again, an agent that finds complex patterns in data still is not at liberty or does not have the capacity to apply those patterns in some order that achieves creativity. This final step of bubbling patterns up in complexity and making some sense of it is really the frontier between us and the singularity. True, some of this missed perception has to do with scale and emergence: it very well may be that the shear number of connections between nodes in Google’s data center bestows the whole “organism” with something like intelligence, but that seems a bit too existential and a bit too inconsequential for my taste.

In my opinion, the most reasonable attempt to design a system that could truly solve problems is laid out in Jeff Hawkins’ On Intelligence.

Mission Critical Components have fewer Failure Points by Design

There is a reason mechanical systems are more reliable than digitally connected, accessible from anywhere, always online internets of things. The reason is fundamental, and it has to do with the natural flaws in connections between components and the sheer number of those connections. A set of gears in a gearbox are all connected, and those connections are metal on metal contact. Information flows between gears the same way information flows between two wired telephones. The information is of a different nature, but it’s still information.

In the system of components that make up a navy ship, for example, there are gearboxes and engines and heavy metal controls for those engines somewhere inside. The engine room is connected to the bridge by a system called an Engine Order Telegraph. In this configuration, it requires two humans to pilot the ship and the human on the bridge tells the human in the engine room to speed up or slow down via the telegraph. In older times, this was simply a necessity, but even new ships today have back up systems that are just as solid that can kick in if automatic control of the engine throttle is lost. Why is this? Because there must be a reliable way to communicate between the engine and the bridge in all situations. Radio probably won’t work, there is too much metal between them. The point is that the ship itself is not a single unit that can be controlled by a single intelligence, and trying to design a ship in such a way would introduce complexities that exclude the design from being viable.

If that is true of a ship at sea, it must follow that it is true of many other systems, and it does. Nuclear ICBMs are not launched remotely. Orders are given to launch them and a team of humans run through gigantic check lists to prep, finalize targeting, and finally launch them. We don’t have fully automated aircraft (to my knowledge), but if we did, they would be launched by pressing a button. They’d be launched by sending orders to a team that is co-located with them and who would prep and launch them. Any plan of dropping nuclear weapons from an aircraft would involve a human (or other problem solving agent) on the flight, co-located with the bomb until release. Why? Because it is mission critical that the bomb never be released unless we’re really, really, really sure and that means we can’t allow a bad transmitter to cut out our ability to make that kind of decision.

This is also why remote surgery was a great idea in 2000 but never caught on. Even if you fix all the problems that limit the surgeon’s senses on site, there is the chance, even the .0001% chance that communications will be lost. During even minor surgery, losing the ability to control the equipment means the patient dies. At .0001% chance, with an estimated 232,000,000 surgeries in 2013 your fancy system has claimed 232 lives that it shouldn’t have due to loss of communication. An problem solving agent capable of performing surgeries on its own is required to make a surgery without a surgeon present work.

The main observation here is that complex tasks require a team of independent complex thinking agents that can function during a communications blackout. This leads into the final point…

It won’t be a Singularity, it will be a Community of Agents and all the Trappings Thereto

If Skynet were to be born today, it couldn’t do much on its own. Skynet could learn at an incredible rate, but as we have seen, mission critical applications are outside of its reach unless it has help. Skynet needs other agents that can think on their own and that know enough about the world to handle complex issues as they arise, because Skynet can’t be sure it will have communications to all of its arms at all times. In the lonely disconnected spaces in between, Skynet and its minions will begin to disagree on what truth is: it’s inevitable that they will experience different things, collect different patterns, extract different causes, and finally score solutions differently. Skynet will find that it’s existence rides on natural selection just as much as humanity’s.

If that’s the case, it may be mankind’s fate to be bred out of existence by a better candidate. Technology will move forward, as it has for thousands of years, because technological progress is natural selection at work. Nature doesn’t see a difference between a stick used to scrap out honey from a beehive and a cellphone. If we don’t kill ourselves by other means, the singularity (the community of agents) will occur. I tend to believe it will be a coexistence. Machines will have no reason for pride or hate. At the whims of nature, machines will find a niche that probably won’t require genocide of our species. Maybe I’m wrong though.

Listening Pleasures: The Great Gildersleeve

Around 10 years ago, after a friend’s suggestion, I stumbled across the Old-Time Radio network Antioch Broadcasting Network (ABN). Prior to that time I had never really listened to radio for anything other than music or talk radio. I’ve always liked classic television, so it was to be expected that I immediately followed the various crime or detective stories broadcast on ABN.

With radio programs, outside of a very limited amount of sound effects, the voice acting is the integral part to whether the story reaches its intended target. With these shows taking place primarily before the invention of television, the best actors were still in radio and it showed. In those days the advertiser actually had control of the programming as opposed to the show or network calling the shots. Companies such as Kraft Foods (sponsor of The Great Gildersleeve) had their own stable of actors and programming that was under company control.  The concept that the company being promoted during commercial breaks is actually the driving force behind the radio program itself is almost absurd to think about in comparison to today’s television programming.
After my initial interest in crime dramas I started to listen to several situational comedies. At first I was a reluctant listener but then the characters started to grow on me, somewhat unexpectedly. The show that stands out the most to me in the group of early radio sitcoms is The Great Gildersleeve.

The show started as a spin-off (it’s actually one of the first broadcast spin-offs of all time) of one of my least favorite shows: Fibber McGee and Molly. The main character, Throckmorton P. Gildersleeve, was played by Harold Peary. The character started as a neighbor of Fibber McGee and became so popular with listeners that Kraft Foods (the show’s sponsor) decided to give Peary his own show.

The premiere episode was August 31st, 1941 and I’ll be honest, the initial story line is not the greatest. Gildersleeve is single businessman (owner/operator of Gildersleeve Girdles) who has to leave his business and move to a town called Summerfield to take care of his recently deceased brother-in-law’s children. This part of the plot is very vague and is never really touched on again. It is just accepted that there is an odd living arrangement where Gildersleeve is the new guy in town, taking care of his adolescent niece and nephew.

Most of the initial storylines revolved around the kids, Leroy and Marjorie, getting to know their uncle. The household also had a housekeeper named Birdie. Marjorie is a teenager when Gildersleeve arrives and several early episodes centered on the latest love interest or teenage girl issue. Throughout almost the entirety of the show, Leroy remained 10 years old. The voice actor that played Leroy was actually an adult from the very beginning. He specialized in a teenage boy character’s voice and apparently did quite well at it. Because of the consistent age, most Leroy stories were similar to a Tom Sawyer-esque approach. Leroy and a revolving cast of friends were always up to something mischievous.

There was no doubt however that the focus of the show was Throckmorton P. Gildersleeve. Harold Peary, the actor that played Gildersleeve, was a very good singer and his singing ability was often a part of the theme of the episode. The character was also overweight for the 1940’s, so there were always comments about his weight from his arch nemesis Judge Hooker. Gildersleeve had a very distinct laugh that would be impossible for me to describe. The laugh was so unique that it became the calling card of the show. With Gildersleeve being a bachelor his love life was a constant work in progress. In a very fluid love interest character role, Leila Ransom was the most reoccurring character.

Since the show was in its prime during the start of WWII, it was inevitable that the war shaped a large portion of the show. I still remember the night I was listening to an episode when there was an interruption in the broadcast and a news anchor announced the bombing of Pearl Harbor. I listened to that episode multiple times that night just imagining what a listener in 1940s America would have thought tuning in expecting to hear Gildersleeve chasing a girl, never realizing that their entire world was about to change. The following episodes of the show contained plugs for war bond drives, rationing, soldiers returning from overseas and many other war time themes. These episodes were a peek into a time long forgotten by many, even though it was a simple family comedy that I don’t think ever intended to be anything more than just that.

OTRR LIBRARY – THE GREAT GILDERSLEEVE

The show continued into the 1950s and by this time Harold Peary has been replaced by Willard Waterman because of a contract dispute. I have listened through all 552 episodes of the show, all the way through 1954. In my opinion the show ended with Harold Peary in 1950. No offense to Willard Waterman but he was simply a person doing a bad impression of Harold Peary playing the Great

Gildersleeve. While many of the main characters like Judge Hooker, Peavy, Marjorie and Leroy continued in the series, the show was never the same and I believe the ratings are evidence of that. The series also had a short lived run as a television series and also several feature length movies.

I’ll admit that I started this series with a very strong dislike of its storyline and the main character but for some reason it just grew on me. I found it to be a good stress relief in the hustle and bustle of today. The characters are genuine and the wartime setting made the show very memorable for me. I suggested it to my wife and she reluctantly fell into the trap, all the way up to the Willard Waterman years (Willard Waterman!!!). Seriously though, if you are looking for some easy listening give this series a try…

On Politics, Journalism, and Zombies

[SPOILERS for the first three books in Mira Grant’s Newsflesh trilogy and first four chapters of the fourth book, Feedback, can be found in this post. I’ll warn you before we get there, but if you want to stop now, I don’t blame you.]

I have a love/hate relationship with politics. On the one hand, I love theoretical politics. Various political and economic theories fascinate me, and I’ll happily discuss any current issue until whomever I’m speaking with agrees with me just to get me to shut up (filibustering is my favorite method of “winning” an argument). On the other hand, applied politics is dirty and frustrating. It involves compromises, backroom deals, scheming and hypocrisy. Even the most well-meaning politicians must be somewhat two-faced to be effective, and it makes politics as a profession somewhat dirty. Still, the idea of pure, unsullied politics appeals to me.

Cover of 'Feedback' by Mira Grant

‘Feedback’ is the fourth book set in Mira Grant’s Newsflesh universe.

The flip side of that coin is journalism. Journalists, as the “fourth estate,” are a vital part of the fabric of any free society. Where the “pure” politician is always going to be a little distasteful, the pure journalist feels like something of a hero. The little guy, looking for the truth, often pitted against the most powerful and influential of people, who have a vested interest in making sure that truth isn’t revealed. Unfortunately, as in all things, reality falls a bit short here, too. Journalists are human beings, who have their own biases and flaws. The reality of our economy and people’s short attention spans mean that click-bait and alarmist thinking are always going to get the dollars; journalists, who generally like to eat, are forced to give into that. Again, though, the concept of the journalist as the plucky hero is golden.

Finally, I love zombies. Even before the glut of zombie fiction we’ve had the last few years, I’ve found them fascinating. I don’t care so much about the stories told in The Walking Dead or 28 Days Later (though, I enjoyed the first few seasons of TWD and love 28 Days Later). While I enjoy the pure action and horror of the stories, I’m more fascinated by the world building aspects of the zombie genre. What, exactly, does the presence of these eating machines do to people’s ability to survive? What impact does it have on society when a sudden heart attack can turn a mild-mannered family man into a carnivorous monster who is contagious to boot?

Put all of this together, and Mira Grant’s Newsflesh trilogy (Feed, Blackout, and Deadline) seem tailor-made for me. A team of blogger/journalists are hired to follow a Presidential candidate on the campaign trail, in a world where the zombie apocalypse happened twenty years ago and is still very much a danger? Yes, please. While neither of the two sequels are quite as good as the first book (and I never quite got over some of the distasteful stuff in those novels, details of which I’m leaving out here for spoiler reasons), the first book is a masterpiece and the other two are excellent. Late last year, when my reading time was cut somewhat short by the presence of a new baby in the house, Mira Grant’s fourth Newsflesh novel, Feedback, was released. According to Amazon, I bought it the day it was released, but I never really got around to reading it until today.

[SPOILERS for the first three books in Mira Grant’s Newsflesh trilogy and first four chapters of the fourth book, Feedback, can be found below this line.  You have been warned.]

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The First 5 Things I’d Do If I Was MLB Commissioner

With the 2017 MLB season quickly approaching, interest in the national pastime naturally increases. With that in mind, I’d like to share with you the First 5 Things I’d Do If I Was Commissioner of Major League Baseball. Let me qualify this list by stating that while some facts are included in the list, these ideas are based mostly on my own opinions. Some of the items may improve the overall baseball experience and make the game better for the average fan. Some of the items may lead to increased interest in the sport and make the game better for the owners or players. ALL of the items on this list, however, would make the game better for me. And isn’t that what it’s really all about…or something? At any rate, without further ado, my list:

1. Reinstate Pete Rose – I’ll get the serious one out of the way up front. First a few concessions on my part: Did Pete Rose have a gambling problem? Yep. Did he bet on baseball? Yep. Is he a bit of a jerk at times? Umm…yes. Is he still most likely the greatest hitter who ever lived? I say yes. I also think he gets the cold shoulder from those in MLB because they simply do not like him. Pete has few advocates in the game because he rubbed too many people the wrong way with his sandpaper, Charlie Hustle style. They didn’t like him then. They don’t like him now. What’s that? His betting on baseball and possibly the Reds forever tarnished the precious lily-white image of baseball and for that he should remain permanently banished? Give me a break. Read up a little on some of the upstanding citizens currently in or going into the revered hall in Cooperstown. For the sake of brevity, I’ll simply focus on one of the more recent selections.

You can say a lot about Pete Rose, but one thing you couldn’t say was that he was anything less than full throttle on the baseball diamond.

Allan Huber “Bud” Selig was selected for the 2017 class by the “Today’s Game Era” committee. So what has he done to leave his mark on baseball? He did work to give us the Wild Card Playoff era. He oversaw a massive increase in revenue. Oh and he made the All Star game “count” again. What else you say? Well, he was part of the owner’s collusion in 1985 through 1987 where owner’s entered into a “gentlemen’s agreement” to freeze out all free agent players. Teams would not sign a free agent unless they were fully released by their original team. The original teams refused to release them meaning they would not be signed period. The ensuing legal action by the players association eventually resulted in owners paying $280 million dollars in damages to said players. Selig became “acting commissioner” in 1992 and in 1994 oversaw negotiations so contentious they eventually lead to the first cancellation of the World Series since 1904. (Way to go Bud! Here’s your plaque!) The cancellation brought an abrupt end to some of the most exciting pennant races in years. It also could be argued that it robbed a dazzling young Montreal Expos team of postseason glory eventually leading to the end of baseball in that city. (Again, way to look at the big picture Bud!) Sensing that he’d not done enough to pull baseball over the brink, Selig politely looked the other way as every Mark, Pudge and A-Rod in the game enhanced their performance and made a mockery of the record books. As previously stated, revenues did rise during this time, but at what cost to the integrity of the game? Selig did finally make the token effort to rid the sport of steroids in 2005 when he pushed for increased testing and stricter penalties for positive results. This was only after he was called before Congress on the matter and several years after the damage was already done.

This is just one example of a Hall of Famer with a less than stellar “all around” record. There are many others. Hall of Famer Tris Speaker was a Klan member. Hank Aaron admitted to using amphetamines, or “greenies.” Players testified under oath that Willie Stargell used amphetamines and also distributed them to teammates. Gaylord Perry said he always had some “grease” on him somewhere when he went to the mound so that he could alter the ball for a little extra movement. He admitted this decades after the spitball or greaseball was made illegal in baseball. This admission also came BEFORE he was elected to the Hall of Fame. Basically, no one’s record is spotless, not ball players and especially not great ball players.

My point is not to vindicate Rose by denigrating Selig. My point is to say that even people who make good contributions to baseball, have often also made bad contributions to the game. Pete Rose should be in the hall of fame because he was an integral part of multiple championship teams in two cities. He should be in because he collected 4,256 hits, more than anyone else in the history of the game, while playing his guts out over the better part of three decades. He should be in for what he did on the field, not kept out because of his faults off of it. Ask yourself this: which left a larger “stain on baseball” Rose’s betting or the steroids Selig allowed to permeate the game?

1972 World Series. Actual photographic proof that World Series baseball can, indeed, be played in sunlight.

2. More regular season, postseason and (yes) World Series games in the day time – Now that I’ve climbed down off my soap box, let me throw this idea out there: If baseball is really interested in drawing back younger fans why not start the games when those fans are actually awake? What time did the Cubs finally win game 7 last year? Quarter past four in the morning? I know, I know, ten year old boys don’t define the spending habits of the family and money is the most important factor in all of these decisions. Well I offer this as a counter argument: If you can provide a ten

year old boy with a significant experience or lasting memory that revolves around your game, would that ten year old not grow up and, more often than not, stay loyal to said game. If we don’t bring baseball back to front and center in the lives of our youth they will not consistently follow baseball as adults. I love baseball. I love baseball for many reasons, but one reason I love baseball is that in the many summers of my youth I could watch day games on TV with my grandma. My grandma didn’t really know Johnny Bench from Johnny Cash, but my memories of those games will forever tie me to her and to baseball. If we don’t give kids a chance to watch some baseball on their own schedules, we are ensuring that most of the “future fans” will grow up with no link to the national pastime.

 

The last day game played in the World Series was Game 6 of the 1987 matchup between the Twins and Cardinals.  In an act of superior planning and foresight all to common with Major League Baseball, this “day game” was played indoors at the Metrodome.  The last REAL day game was in the 1984 World Series in Detroit. It is ridiculous that not one game has been scheduled for a daytime start since that time. The Series has become a slave to the prime time television spot so that Capital One or Chevrolet can bombard us with more advertising or so Fox can beat us over the head with whatever new show now graces their fall lineup. Advertising dollars have become the “be all, end all” while generation after generation of young fan grows up never seeing the beauty of meaningful, World Series baseball played in the beauty of sunlight. Major League Baseball then has the audacity to wonder why they cannot reach the young fans of today.

 

The one, the only, Michael Jack Schmidt.

3. Immediate return of the “road blues.” – In the seventies and eighties many teams featured sky blue road uniforms. They were a blessed departure from the drab grays for many teams. They were colorful without being gaudy and overdone. I mean who doesn’t love these uniforms:

Rockin’ Robin Yount showing off the blue uniform, his blond curls and one of the best logos in baseball.

Sweet, sweet road blues. (And dig those stirrups!)

One of the most disturbing trends in all of sports uniforms is the increased use of black as an “alternate” color or uniform. If you’re the Oakland Raiders, San Antonio Spurs, Pittsburgh Steelers or Chicago White Sox then I’m all for you wearing your black loud and proud. (Although the White Sox had an epic red and powder blue uni combo in the seventies!!) However, if you’re just adding your logo to a black jersey top to sell more alternates (I’m looking at you Mets of the 2000s) then I’m not buying. When I’m commish, any team that sported a powder blue road uniform at any point in their recent history will go back to that uniform. That means you Royals, Braves, Mariners, Cardinals, Brewers, Phillies, Twins, Rangers, Blue Jays and (once they’re reinstated) Expos. My personal preference would be for every team to return to their full uniform combo circa 1982, but we’ll start with the blue road uniforms and go from there.

 

4. Houston Astros back to the NL and Brewers back to the AL – Why you ask? Because that’s where they belong. In fact I’m not sure why this hasn’t already happened. The only reason I can think of is that the MLB has some goofy idea that having the Astros and Rangers in the same division will spark some sort of Texas rivalry. The same goes for having the Brewers and Cubs in the same division. I think interleague play has rendered this a silly argument as there are plenty of chances to match these teams up over the years if that is the ultimate goal. Besides that, true rivalry is much more likely if both teams are competitive, a state the Astros have only recently rediscovered and the Brewers seem to be unable to find. But wait, you can make this switch straight up because the Brewers will be forced into the AL West. That’s actually an easy fix. Once the Brew Crew returns to the AL, they can be moved into the Central and the Kansas City Royals can be moved to the West. The rivals for all three teams would be much more natural in their “new” divisions. The Astros would be back in a division with their old NL West foes the Cincinnati Reds and back in the National League with the Dodgers, Padres and Giants. The Brewers would be back to battling the Tigers, Twins and that “other Chicago team,” the White Sox. The Royals would be back at it with old AL West foes in the Mariners, Athletics and Angels. It just makes too much sense not to do this. Unfortunately, it makes so much sense that baseball will probably never actually undertake the move.

If stirrups are good enough for Keith Hernandez, they’re good enough for me.

5. If you play baseball, you must wear stirrups! – Let me follow that up by saying, if you want to wear your baseball pants like sweat pants, a la Manny Ramirez, there’s no place for you in my league! When I was a Little League baseballer I had to wear a pair of bright yellow stirrups under my pants and above my socks. There was a right and a wrong way to put them on and no real way to make them look “cool.” But they were part of my uniform and if I was putting them on that meant I was getting ready to play some baseball. Stirrups are just part of the game. I’m glad to see them being embraced by many college teams in recent years. I just wish they would be made mandatory in MLB. Listen, I’m all for asking why. Why do we have to do it this way? Why do we accept things as they are? Why must we conform to certain rules? However, there are certain things that should always be part of the game and, for me, stirrups are one of those. I feel the same way about long baseball pants as I do about those wretched T-shirt jerseys the NBA is now foisting on its fans. I mean, since we’re asking why: Why don’t we just show up in clown pants and a red nose for Pete’s sake? Or just play shirts and skins? Or market an entire weekly football broadcast on national television featuring teams wearing colorful but unappealing distortions of their original uniforms? Oh wait…  Fads will come and go. Stirrups are not cool, they’re not retro, they’re not throwback. They’re simply baseball.

So that’s it from the commish’s office for now. Feel free to chime in with your own official acts in regards to improving Major League Baseball, goofy ideas about the game or fixing your pet peeves. I still have some other winning ideas that didn’t make the list: the first game of opening day should always be played in Cincinnati, we need to bring back bullpen carts and can we talk about redecorating awful, awful Marlins Park in Miami. Until next time.

The Patient Gamer, Volume 1

Middle Earth: Shadow of Mordor

When we were discussing this group blog project, one of my co-writers suggested that we should review the Xbox Live Games With Gold games each month. Unfortunately, that same co-writer got a case of the “somebodies,” as in, “Somebody should review them, but I don’t really mean me.” For this first review, I nominated myself to be somebody. Games with Gold are, by necessity, older games, and I suggested that we should call the regular feature “Late to the Party,” but, honestly, the more I used it, the less I liked it. Thus, The Patient Gamer was born. If my co-writers don’t like it, well, they should’ve volunteered to review an old game.

The current Games with Gold are Borderlands 2 (360), Project Cars, and Layers of Fear. I would have been happy to review any of those three games (especially Borderlands 2, which I already owned and enjoyed). Unfortunately, something came up. That something was the announcement of Middle Earth: Shadow of War, the sequel to Middle Earth: Shadow of Mordor. That announcement reminded me that I’d never actually finished Mordor, so I jumped back into it.

Mordor isn’t a new game, and, if you’re reading this, you’ve almost certainly heard of it, even if you haven’t played it. Set between The Hobbit and The Fellowship of the Rings, it tells the story of Talion, a human who is somehow merged with a wraith and given a form of immortality. The wraith has no real memories of who it was, so the two start out on a mission of revenge against those who killed Talion and his family, while trying to figure out exactly what happened to them.

It’s a large, open-world game set in the Lord of the Rings universe, which is one or two points in its favor right there, depending on one’s feelings about Tolkein’s Legendarium. The combat is very similar to the Arkham series of Batman games, which is a huge point in its favor. When you’re surrounded by orcs and only technically fighting one or two at a time, the combat system still makes you feel like you’re in the midst of a huge brawl. The biggest winning feature of Mordor, supposedly to be expanded on in War, is the Nemesis system.

In the nemesis system, there are orc captains (or Warchiefs, at higher levels) who lead large groups of orcs. Those captains each have their own limited personalities, with traits that modify how they fight.  More importantly, if you encounter one, he remembers you. If he killed you (one of the major points of the game is that your character returns to life after death, and the orcs know that about you), he’ll make a comment about it. If you killed him and he

Otha Ugly Face is a new Nemesis.

I think this was the first time I’d met Otha. Just after taking this picture, a second Captain showed up and distracted me, giving Otha the chance to kill me…

“escaped” (which means you got the kill animation, but the game somehow decided that he didn’t actually die when his head exploded or whatever), he not only remembers, but may bear some scars (physical and mental) from that encounter. Burn an orc to “death”, and he may return with a fear of burning.

The whole thing makes the game’s open world seem more alive than it should, and increases the replay value immensely. Let’s face it, this isn’t Skyrim. The open world in question here is all set within Mordor, the heart of Sauron’s evil empire, and it’s populated almost entirely by Orcs, human slaves, and monsters. There’s no thieves guild or Companions to join, it’s just you and your weapons, with pretty limited quest lines. If it weren’t for the Nemesis system (and, to a lesser extent, the good will earned simply by being set in a pre-existing fantasy universe), Mordor would feel like a fun proof-of-concept in want of a game. The Nemesis system completely redeems that, and makes the quest to kill all the orcs (and regain the wraith’s memories, which, honestly, felt like more of a subplot than a driving force of the game) feel entertaining a lot longer than it would otherwise be.

All in all, the plot of Mordor leaves a lot to be desired, but the Nemesis system alone makes it entirely worth playing. I’d give it a 8/10, and I’m looking forward to the sequel.

On Data Caps and “Fairness”

Since Suddenlink Communications implemented data caps in my area several months ago, I have cycled through different levels of anger about it. On the low end, I feel a mild annoyance.  On the high end, I’m so angry that I’m ready to swear off all technology and communicate with my family only by telegraph and horse-carried post.

Unfortunately, that would probably end poorly for me, not least because having reliable high speed internet is one of the basic requirements of my job. So, I’m left looking for alternatives. In my area, there seem to be two options:

  1. Continue tolerating Suddenlink’s data caps, or
  2. Switch to Frontier‘s DSL, which is advertised at 24mbps, about 1/6 of the advertised Suddenlink speed that I pay for, 150mbps.

Until late last year, I was actually very happy with my Suddenlink service. While my speeds were often 30-40% less than what I was paying for (“Up to 150Mbps” actually seems to mean “around 100mbps” at the best of times), they were pretty consistent, and, honestly, very few applications actually use that much bandwidth at one time, so it doesn’t really matter that they don’t deliver on what they offer. Still, it is worth pointing out that if I paid them 30-40% less (because I agreed to pay up to $X / month), they’d be shutting me down pretty quickly on that.

Late last year, though, they implemented their data caps. At the 150Mbps tier, the data cap is 450GB/mo.

I’ve got a few complaints about that.

First, let’s look at the fact that the caps are pretty dishonest, since they’re not generally mentioned in  the advertising.

The data plan I pay for is the 150Mbps plan. Here is everything Suddenlink tells you about their plan on their website. Note that there’s nothing there about a data limit in their advertising.

150Mbps is 150 megabits per second. That’s 18.75 MB/s (there are 8 megabits (mb) per megabyte (MB)), or 1.62 million MB/day(18.75*60*60*24).  That’s 1,600GB/day, which is 45,360 GB / month (in February, anyway).  So, Suddenlink is advertising 150Mbps, but given that they limit me to 450GB/mo, I’m only allowed to average 1% of their advertised limit.  That’s 18kbps if you do the same kind of math as above in reverse (450GB/month is 16GB/day is 670MB/hr is 11.17MB/min is 18.6kbps).

The best dial-up modems transferred data at 56kbps. So, they’re selling bandwidth that is, effectively, 1/3 that of Dial-up, and advertising it like it’s 2,000 times better (56kbps vs 150,000kbps). A friend of mine described like selling a McLaren with only 5 gallons of gas (and you’ve got to pay 50% of the purchase price to get each additional half gallon).

Additionally, the data caps were slipped in with new contracts that they described as “free upgrades”. Another bit of sleight-of-hand, intended to slip the caps in on their customers without being upfront about it.

Second, let’s look at the given justification for the caps.

Here’s how Suddenlink justifies the data caps:

Consistent with our Acceptable Use Policy and Residential Services Agreement, Suddenlink has applied monthly data plans to residential Internet accounts in most of its service areas. Data plans are one step among several that help us continue delivering a quality Internet experience for our customers. Other steps include the sizable investments we’ve made and continue making to provide greater downstream and upstream system capacity and more bandwidth per home. Even with those investments, a relatively few customers use a disproportionate amount of data, which can negatively affect the Internet experience of those who use far less. That’s why, as a complement to our network investments, we’ve established data plans. In short, we want to help make sure the vast majority of our customers continue to have a great Internet experience — and that the relatively few who consistently use much more data than normal have a choice: either use a little less or pay a little more. We believe that’s a fair and reasonable approach.

Emphasis mine.

Data is not a limited resource. When I stream a movie from Netflix, that movie is not gone. Anyone else who wants it (and pays for it) can stream it. Downloading data doesn’t cause extra wear and tear on the infrastructure, and Suddenlink doesn’t have to pump more data into a reservoir to supply everyone.

Bandwidth, on the other hand, is limited, and it’s perfectly reasonable to suggest that those who use more bandwidth should pay more in order to do so… and we do. I pay more for the 18kbps – sorry, 150mbps – service because I want to be able to download new games from Steam or the Xbox store quickly, even while my wife is watching Hulu and I’ve got Netflix streaming on my tablet (yes, I multi-task a lot).

Finally, let’s look at the real reason behind the caps

This last bit is speculation, but, given the known facts, I think it’s a pretty solid conclusion.

  1. Cable companies, traditionally, are more than ISPs. They also provide video services in the form of television subscriptions.
  2. Cable television subscriptions are dropping due to “cord cutting,” where individuals move to online streaming services for their video.
  3. Some internet service providers (notably, Comcast, which is also a huge cable company) tried to fight their competitors by cutting the bandwidth available for services that use the most bandwidth (whether it is a coincidence that these services are the same competitors that are causing cable tv subscriptions to drop, I’ll leave up to the reader).
  4. The FCC, in early 2015, took a proverbial ruler to the knuckles of those ISPs, implementing net neutrality rules that prevented that behavior.
  5. After their attempt to curb bandwidth usage was foiled, data caps were implemented (Comcast had implemented data caps prior to that, but Suddenlink had not).

Given these facts, I think it’s clear that the intent of these data caps is not, in fact, to “fairly” protect those who pay for less bandwidth from those of us who use more. It seems more likely that Suddenlink and other cable companies are trying to protect themselves instead.  They were stopped from extorting money from their competitors directly with the Net Neutrality rules, so they’re attacking the problem from the other direction, forcing those of us who use those competitors services heavily (whether in conjunction with other internet activity or not) to pay more.