January 07, 2020

Three levels of mastery

I’ve never seen this concept named, or concisely articulated, anywhere else. The idea itself is not original to me, of course.

Of any skill, or any domain where expertise of execution may be gained, there are three levels of mastery.

At the zeroth level, you break the rules, because you do not know the rules. Success is accidental; failure is likely; excellence, effectively impossible.

At the first level, you know the rules, and follow them. You will do well enough, though excellence is unlikely.

At the second level, you know, not just the rules, but the principles behind them; you understand why the rules must be as they are. You follow the rules or break them, as the task demands; your actions are governed by deep principles. Success is near-effortless; excellence becomes possible, and even likely.

To achieve greater mastery, you cannot skip levels. At the zeroth level, you may look at one who has achieved the second level of mastery, and note that he routinely breaks the very rules he has instructed you to follow. Are there no rules, then? But there are; and they exist for good reasons. You will not achieve the second level of mastery before the first.

Likewise, the one who has achieved the second level of mastery says to him who has yet to achieve the first: “Do as I say, not as I do”. This is not hypocrisy. One who does not understand the three levels may think: “He is allowed to break the rules, as I am not, because of some privilege of rank”. But it is only that to think outside the box, you must know the shape of the box, its contours; if you cannot see the box, you will not escape it.

And once more: you cannot explore the space of possibilities, if you do not know its dimensions. The axes of that space are not the bars of a cage, but signposts; not seeing them, you are not infinitely free—but merely doomed to wander forever in a Flatland of amorphous mediocrity.

March 27, 2019

“Screen serif” fonts

There’s a small-ish cluster of serif fonts—all of recent design, not digitizations of classic typefaces, nor even designed for (professional) print1—that people always have trouble fitting into one of the traditional categories of serif typefaces.

In appearance, it looks something like if Baskerville, a 225-year-old typeface that has been shown to shape our perception of truth, and Caecilia made a baby.

The Kindle Finally Gets Typography That Doesn’t Suck

These fonts are sort of like transitional serifs, but they’re also sort of like slab serifs, and sometimes they’re called “transitional serif but with features of a slab serif”2 etc. etc.

… a crisp, modern serif typeface … avoids the stuffiness of historical text faces and doesn’t overreach when it comes to contemporary detailing … a balanced, low-contrast typeface with economic proportions…

Elena font description

Fonts in this category share these properties:

  • fairly thick strokes in the normal weight
  • low stroke weight variation
  • serifs that are not sharply tapering nor thin and dainty, but thick (yet not geometric or square, as slab serifs)
  • relatively open counters
  • relatively large x-heights

… simply a contemporary body text font.

Tuna font description

Fonts in this category include:

… and quite a few more more—see the full list (that I’ve found so far) on my wiki (and feel free to suggest additions on the Talk page!).

Some samples:

The category does not seem to have any accepted name3—yet unquestionably this is a real cluster in font-space. This blog post is meant to call attention to the cluster’s existence.

The characteristics listed above mean that fonts like this will render well across a variety of environments, software and hardware. And empirically, these fonts make for pleasing and readable body text on the web. So, at least for now (unless and until someone tells me that there’s already an accepted name), I’m calling these fonts “screen serif” fonts.

If you want your pages to be readable and attractive, try setting your body text in one of these fonts! (Again, check out my wiki for the full list—I’ll be adding more “screen serif” fonts to it as I come across them.)


1 Some of them—notably including the oldest font I’ve found that belongs to this category, Charter—are designed for consumer printing situations, i.e. laser or even inkjet printers.

3 It’s not the same as Clarendon-type fonts—though there is a good bit of similarity. In fact, Fonts.com includes Charter in the Clarendon category, but that seems to be a minority view.

June 09, 2018

A UX design puzzle for fans of SimTower

SimTower was an elevator simulation game.

OK, it actually had other things in it, not just elevators. But the elevators were the heart of it—they were the most engaging part of the gameplay, with the most complex game mechanics—and, more than anything else, it was mastery of the elevator design that would bring a player success in SimTower.

I played SimTower a lot when I was younger. Read more...

May 28, 2018

Shared interests vs. collective interests

Suppose that I, a college student, found a student organization—a chapter of Students Against a Democratic Society, perhaps. At the first meeting of SADS, we get to talking, and discover, to everyone’s delight, that all ten of us are fans of Star Trek.

This is a shared interest.

May 06, 2018

Everything I ever needed to know, I learned from World of Warcraft: Incentives and rewards

This is the second in a series of posts about lessons from my experiences in World of Warcraft. I’ve been talking about this stuff for a long time—in forum comments, in IRC conversations, etc.—and this series is my attempt to make it all a bit more legible. I’ve added footnotes to explain some of the jargon, but if anything remains incomprehensible, let me know in the comments.

Previous post in series: Goodhart’s law.

“How do we split the loot?”

That was one of the biggest challenges of raiding in World of Warcraft.Read more...

May 03, 2018

Everything I ever needed to know, I learned from World of Warcraft: Goodhart’s law

This is the first in a series of posts about lessons from my experiences in World of Warcraft. I’ve been talking about this stuff for a long time—in forum comments, in IRC conversations, etc.—and this series is my attempt to make it all a bit more legible. I’ve added footnotes to explain some of the jargon, but if anything remains incomprehensible, let me know in the comments.

World of Warcraft, especially WoW raiding1, is very much a game of numbers and details.

At first, in the very early days of WoW, people didn’t necessarily appreciate this very well, nor did they have any good way to use that fact even if they did appreciate it. (And—this bit is a tangent, but an interesting one—a lot of superstitions arose about how game mechanics worked, which abilities had which effects, what caused bosses2 to do this or that, etc.—all the usual human responses to complex phenomena where discerning causation is hard.)

And, more importantly and on-topic, there was no really good way to sift the good players from the bad; nor to improve one’s own performance. Read more...

April 10, 2018

Five cheesecake tips

Five quick tips for perfect cheesecakes:

Room temperature ingredients

Cream cheese, sour cream, heavy cream, eggs, and so on—all of these should be allowed to come up to room temperature, before mixing them to make the cheesecake batter. Read more...

April 09, 2018

Traps in tabletop RPGs

Why traps?

Traps often seem like they exist to do the following:

  1. Force the players to say "we check for traps" (or convince/threaten their DM into accepting "we are constantly and always checking for traps!" as a valid "standard operating procedure").
  2. Slow down the party's progress, due to constantly and always checking for traps. (This allows the DM to make more wandering monster checks, thus affording more opportunities to cackle with sadistic glee when the party is jumped by a … <rolls d20> … "no encounter".)
  3. Punish players who don't do #1, by inflicting gruesome injury on their characters, and forcing the party cleric to spend valuable spell slots to heal them.
  4. Force someone in the party (inevitably, the hapless rogue) to spend ranks on Disable Device (the other use of the skill—opening locks—is fully subsumed by the knock spell, rendering rogues useless, although of course they were already useless, right?).
  5. Reduce the party's successful negotiation of the fearsome dungeon hazards known as traps—those intricate brainchildren of the dungeon creator's fiendish intellect—to simple, unadorned die rolls (Disable Device again). How good are you at rolling high numbers on a d20? Pretty good? Great, you can advance through the dungeon. Not so good? Sorry, you have to keep rolling until you roll a high number. But if you roll low enough, something terrible may happen to your character!

Some of the above is true, some of the time. Sometimes it's not. But it usually feels true. Why? Read more...

March 22, 2018

Key lime pie and the methods of rationality

This post is about two things: public epistemology, and pie.

(Yes, there is a recipe for Key lime pie, down near the end of the post. You can skip to the recipe if that’s all you’re here for!) Read more...

March 12, 2018

Black & white cookies of Dyker Heights

This is the third in my series of posts about black & white cookies. Today, I headed to Dyker Heights to visit six bakeries: Grandma’s, Gold Star, Mona Lisa, and the Tasty Pastry Shoppe on 13th Avenue (a.k.a. Dyker Heights Boulevard), St. Anthony’s Bakery on Fort Hamilton Parkway, and the other Mona Lisa Bakery location, on 86th Street (where I’d been a number of times before; I was curious to see whether the two locations differed in quality). Read more...