September 22, 2017

“The Gradebook of Class 10-B”

This was written by my mother. I’ve translated it from Russian to English, and reposted it here, with her permission. I’ve also added a couple of footnotes, for the benefit of my Western readers.

Every word of it is true.


Leningrad. An ordinary secondary school in the new residential district near the Piskaryov Cemetary. I’m 20 years old, and I’m the new “class teacher”1 for class 5-B2. Soon enough, we’ve been together for six years. They’re tenth-graders3 now; the last, graduating, grade level. Strong, smart boys; beautiful, smart girls. One problem: they’ve grown out of school; it bores them. Every blessed day, Tamara Naumovna4, the school principal, calls me on the carpet: “Your 10-B…” I already know the usual litany of mischief—“disrupted a lesson, smoked behind the school building, taunted the young math teacher, ditched Literature en masse and ran off to play soccer instead… etc., etc., etc.” I nod my head, while thinking that I’d ditch that Literature class too.

My 10-B knew, deep in their hearts, that I was on their side.

But once, even my patience reached its end. After yet another summons to the principal’s office I went back to my 10th-graders and, in anger, said: “How long are you going to keep up these childish pranks? If you’re set on making trouble, at least go for the bigtime!” I didn’t mean anything by it. It was the outburst of a tired schoolteacher. But we remember the story of Pandora’s box… Read more...

September 20, 2017

“How M. Gorbachev Bought Me A Ticket to America”

This was written by my mother. I’ve translated it from Russian to English, and reposted it here, with her permission. I’ve also added a couple of footnotes, for the benefit of my Western readers.

Every word of it is true.


“Never”. That was the operative word, when our relatives, in the 70s, would leave for Israel or America. We’ll never see each other again. We’ll never get a letter. We’ll never talk. Never, never, never.

My father was in the military, and a Border Guard, to boot—and those were KGB troops. Our relatives had decided to emigrate. The word “never” began and ended all conversations about it. They were carried on in whispers. Fear on a genetic level. My aunt and her family left. We were orphaned, and tried not to speak of them, because it was sad and painful.

Who, in those years, could’ve thought that Gorbachev would come, and that our life, in a moment, would change so much?

I remember well how, one evening, I was sitting in front of the television, and suddenly realized that I was NOT SCARED. That was it. Not afraid. Not afraid to speak aloud. Not afraid to discuss family in America. Not afraid… yes, not afraid at all to write them a letter. Read more...

September 14, 2017

Soviet kids’ atlas

This is a Soviet children’s atlas that my mother got for me when I was 5 years old.[1]

World and Man: A Geographic Atlas
World and Man: A Geographic Atlas [2]

(click illustrations to see full-size version)

I remember being enthralled by it. You can see, in the well-worn pages, the time I spent leafing through this thing. Read more...

September 12, 2017

Old Blog, New Home

My blog, Cognitive Pie, is now hosted here at the OborWiki Network. I’ll be migrating my old posts from elsewhere on the internet to here in the next little while. Stay tuned!

April 28, 2017

“In a world with wizards and dragons…”

... in a world where dragons fly, wizards teleport, and warriors routinely survive hundred-foot falls, it’s not a big deal for a character to unlearn one ability and learn a different one in its place.

Just as with the sentiment described in my last post, I see this sort of thing all the time. Someone proposes that a fantasy RPG should contain some element—some game mechanic, some fantastic phenomenon, whatever. Other folks object: “this makes no sense”, they say. The proponents parry: “In a world where [some fantastic thing], why shouldn't there be [proposed thing]?

I've seen this reasoning used to justify metagame mechanics (forgetting all the martial techniques you’ve spent years practicing, and learning completely different ones; PCs vanishing into thin air when a player is absent), setting-altering justifications for attempts at game balance (“sure it makes sense for fighters to throw fireballs—maybe magic radiation permeates everything and gives every person in the world innate magical superpowers”), and all sorts of weird game mechanics and fictional scenarios.[1]

People tend to sense that there”s something wrong with this logic. They push back. But not very well; the arguments against this kind of argument are rarely coherent. Sometimes people appeal to “realism” (more savvy or experienced gamers and designers might instead say “verisimilitude”); sometimes it’s setting coherence, game balance, fun, etc. Read more...

April 26, 2017

Holistic Fun and the Fallacy of Composition

This is a sentiment I hear pretty often, in discussions about game design:

“[element of the game] is not fun. Therefore, let’s change it, or remove it from the game.”

(Here’s an example in a discussion about the cost of resurrection magic in Dungeons & Dragons.)

This is a textbook example of the fallacy of composition.

The fallacy of composition is the idea that a whole must have all the properties of every one of its parts. So because chlorine is poisonous and sodium explodes upon contact with water, NaCl (table salt) must be more dangerous than white phosporus…

The fallacy of composition is obvious nonsense. So why do people forget this when they talk about games? Read more...

April 25, 2017

Class Balance in Tabletop Role-Playing Games: Kinds of Fun

This is the first in a series of posts about class balance in tabletop RPGs. This post describes the “kinds of fun” model of class balance.

Sean K. Reynolds says that you can’t balance classes in a tabletop RPG except on the basis of damage. Many players and GMs agree (in my experience, anyway).

They’re wrong.

There are two ways of thinking about class balance in tabletop role-playing games (a.k.a. “pen-and-paper RPGs”) that solve, or cut through, the problems SKR describes, and that describe player views and behaviors fairly well. This post talks about one of these ways of thinking: the “kinds of fun” model. (A subsequent post will describe a lower-level model of class balance, the “evaluative metrics” model.) Read more...

December 14, 2015

Meil: Design motivations

This post is part of a diary-style series of posts that catalogue my design and development of Meil—an IRC client application for the Mac. See the first post in the series, “Making a better IRC client”, for the background.

I have a confession to make. I first decided to try writing a new IRC client because I play pen & paper role-playing games[1] (a.k.a. tabletop RPGs or TTRPGS) online,[2] and no existing IRC client is as good for that purpose as I would like.

People have all sorts of odd wants, needs, and preferences when it comes to software. For me, RPG gaming is a big part of what I use chat programs for. I’m going to talk about that in a later post; for now, bear in mind that at least some of what I want from an IRC client is unusual.[3]

Anyway, this post is about design motivations. Not requirements, mind you; that comes later, further into the design process (and after a good deal of research and analysis). Right now, I’m asking: why am I doing this? What do I want? How will I know when I have it? Read more...

December 07, 2015

Making a better IRC client

If you want something done right, don’t ever let anyone else touch it

Internet Relay Chat (IRC) is one of my primary means of online communication, and it’s easily the most useful and enjoyable.[1]

The problem is, most IRC client applications are terrible. Yes, I’m picky to the point of cantankerousness, but that’s beside the point, which is this: who makes a chat client with a nonresizable one-line-height input field? People are crazy and the world is mad.[2] Read more...

June 09, 2015

The Hyperreal Room (A Reply to Searle)

Do you know what hyperreal numbers are? They’re a concept in number theory, a sort of number, like integers, real numbers, imaginary numbers, etc. I myself have only a passing familiarity with hyperreals; I know that they’re represented by infinite sequences of finite integers, that you can perform arithmetical operations on them (though these are quite different from operations on everyday numbers), and… that’s all. I don’t know how one would operate on hyperreals; one thing I certainly don’t know—not an inkling—is how one would go about multiplying two hyperreal numbers together.

Imagine that I’m placed in a locked room. People outside the room pass pieces of paper to me through a slot, and on these papers are symbols; perhaps alphanumeric characters, perhaps ones and zeros, perhaps strange squiggles I’ve never seen before. They don’t seem to be in any sort of pattern, at least not one I can discern. Read more...