Thursday, May 26, 2016

Nashville Escape Game: Gold Rush

This is my spoiler-free review of my experience at Nashville Escape Game playing Gold Rush.

This was my fourth room at Nashville Escape Game, and my first at the Third Avenue location. The location is very well marked. I really like the big lock sign! You either know what it is and that it's awesome, or you don't know and you say "What's that?" Parking is a pain downtown, no matter where you are, but there's a garage not far away. Honestly, with the price of parking, I think I'd just park somewhere further out and take an Uber next time!

I did this room with my wife, my dad, and three tourists from LA. I don't often end up doing rooms with strangers, so I was a little apprehensive, but this one worked out nicely. We ended up making it out, with several minutes left on the clock.

At this point I've done four rooms with Nashville Escape Game, and four with other companies around the country. Invariably, NEG does by far the best job with scenery, depth, and immersion. I suspect they spent more money on their rooms than other places, and it shows in the quality of the gameplay. Not that the other game rooms are bad! You can do a perfectly good room on a lower budget. Money's not everything, but in some areas, it really helps!

While I will not give any hints to solving puzzles, I will be describing some minor details about the room. Nothing I say will help you solve anything, but it will tell you some vague details that aren't obvious when you first walk in. If you wish to remain utterly surprised by everything, stop here.

NEG does their usual job of setting up the backstory in a well-made, concise video. The gamemaster tells you immediately that a couple things in the room are not to be touched or are irrelevant, but from that point, almost everything else matters.

From minute one, I have no complaints about this room. Zero. The atmosphere is perfect, the decor is extremely well done, the reveals are unexpected, and the puzzles are both unique and fit perfectly with the theme. At best, I have some minor observations.

There is one puzzle near the end that I'm not sure most groups would solve. We had an engineer and an actuary, both of whom do math puzzles for fun. It still took us a couple minutes to solve, even once we were told how to do it, which itself was completely not obvious. Perhaps I underestimate the average Joe, but I genuinely wonder how often people get stuck on that one...

Also, do not nail the nails in! You'll know what I mean when you get there. The game master had to stop the clock and come in to help us, which is never what you want.

Oh, and at one point something went off prematurely... I think it may have been manually triggered from outside the room, and designed that way. But I really wanted to push that detonator, consarnit!

Ultimately, I loved this room. It had a great mix of puzzles, and didn't use any of the usual tropes. Whoever did this room did it right.

Rating: 10/10

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Escape Chambers @ Milwaukee: Containment

This is my spoiler-free review of my experience at Escape Chambers in Milwaukee.

First, Escape Chambers. This is the only escape room I've seen that's actually in a mall. If you're walking down the street and don't realize a mall's there, it can be a little surprising. But it works! Like most downtown locations, parking is a pain, but at least the mall has dedicated garages. It's not the nicest mall I've ever seen, but it's not the worst. (I'd stay out of the bathrooms if possible, though.) And having a food court immediately available before and after is pretty cool.

Like everywhere I've been, the people here are professional and fun. They seem to really enjoy what they do, and hearing about other rooms. The overall escape rate for the facility is about 20%, but they didn't have it broken down by room. I did their Containment room, and ended up being the only one in my booking. They said that in the year they'd been open, nobody had ever tried a room alone; I escaped the room with about five minutes left, which is apparently a better time than many groups!

While I will not give any hints to solving puzzles, I will be describing some minor details about the room. Everything I say is either something you're told before starting, or something common to many escape rooms. But if you wish to remain utterly surprised by everything, stop here.

The backstory is straightforward: you have an hour to find 40 vials of blood and three other widgets, or civilization is destroyed by a virus. Good luck, we're all counting on you! No really, all of us.

This game was more primitive than most I've seen. There is no clue screen, almost all the locks are mechanical, and the audio feed is a baby monitor! Those weren't really a problem for me, though there were areas that the baby monitor didn't pick up well enough to be heard by the game master. It's nice to see that a good escape room can be done without the gadgets if you want to.

This game had the best system of hints I've seen in any room so far. You're playing the part of a scientist in a locked-down lab. The game master is actually playing the part of a lab assistant trapped in another room! You can chat back and forth constantly, and she gives hints about whatever you need, including if she thinks you missed something earlier. It's a great system, and really added to the fun.

There were some glitches in the puzzles here and there, which I might not have been able to solve without hints. Two puzzles depended on matching photographs to items in the room. But the photographs didn't look at all like the items they were supposed to represent! One had faded badly and made the colors indistinguishable, and another simply had never been right. It was a little frustrating to have to basically ask for the solution because the needed information just wasn't there. Hopefully they'll fix that with some new photographs! I like things that are easy to fix! Also, one puzzle towards the very end was just kind of silly; I arranged some items properly, but I don't think anyone would reasonably think to get a combination from them the way I was finally instructed to.

Another issue I had was with the construction: the walls didn't go all the way to the ceiling, and I could hear other groups clearly discussing their rooms! That didn't cause me any problems, but it could have been a significant distraction. Having a ceiling on your escape room would improve the immersive feel.

Other unique aspects: this room was really full of things to go through, which I liked. It actually contained lots of irrelevant data and gear, just like a lab should. The assistant often told you when you were on the wrong track, which makes that kind of thing perfectly fine. I can't say enough how great that assistant is! If you and the world survive, give her a raise.

Ultimately, I had a very good time. The staff was helpful, the room had some unique puzzles, and the little details helped make the atmosphere more immersive. The minor glitches were really very small in the overall picture. I sometimes think that rooms are better with minimal groups, but I think this is one room that would actually benefit from more people. I would definitely recommend this room, and I would go back to Escape Chambers for another.

Rating: 8/10

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

The Escape Key @ Salt Lake City: CSI:SLC

This is my spoiler-free review of my experience at The Escape Key in Salt Lake City.

First, The Escape Key. The location is relatively easy to find, and parking is good. Like all the escape rooms I've been to, the people here are professional and fun. My dinner beforehand was slow getting to me, and I rushed to eat it, so I arrived at Escape Key with shawarma all over my pants, and possibly not in the best of moods, but they quickly put me at ease. 

One great thing to note about Escape Key is that their prices are about $20 per person, instead of the usual $30. That makes me much more likely to make it a casual outing. They're also unique in having a wall for people to write on after the game. Apparently the place is popular, because the walls were completely full. ("Stephen is a beast" is now somewhere on the ceiling.) And there's a house Chihuahua, which is just funny. They have three rooms presently, with Lair of Lunacy having a 50-60% escape rate, CSI:SLC at around 20%, and Impossible at around 15%.

I did their CSI:SLC room. I ended up being the only one in my booking, and I escaped the room with 23 seconds left. This was my eighth escape room, making my record 7/8. While I will not give any hints to solving puzzles, I will be describing some minor details about the room. Everything I say is either something you're told before starting, or something common to many escape rooms. But if you wish to remain utterly surprised by everything, stop here.

The backstory video is extensive. In short, you have to solve the murder of an undercover officer by finding clues left in the room where he was playing poker with five underworld figures. One of the five is the mysterious Vendetta. (And all I can think of is Sideshow Bob...) Your briefing is interrupted by a message from Vendetta, telling you that he's trapped you in the room. You have an hour to find the six-digit code to the panel next to the door, or the room explodes.

One unique aspect of this room that I really enjoyed: you get one shot at the code. Once you unlock the panel, you have sixty seconds to enter a code. If you don't, or if you get the code wrong, game over, you lose. I've seen locks that only let you enter limited codes in a set time, but I've not seen another room that you can lose prematurely. A very nice touch.

Another unique aspect of the room is that it's a crime scene. They tell you going in, don't move things around too much, and they mean it. You could easily make the room impossible to solve if you don't take that seriously. And unlike most rooms, there are meaningless details in this one! Almost every room I've done subscribes to Chekov's Gun. This one doesn't. And that's okay! It's arguably more fun this way, having to figure out what matters and what doesn't.

There were a few minor glitches. At one point I accidentally unplugged the clue TV! Oops! I'm not sure how you'd make that more difficult, but it did seem surprisingly easy. Apparently it happens once a day! They fixed it, of course, and knocking it out is as much my fault as theirs. There were a couple chains hanging down from the TV mount that seemed relevant at one point but turned out not to be; most irrelevancies were marked, but those weren't.

The room had some of the standard tropes, including a UV light. Unlike any other room I've seen, though, this room had a window to the outside, which was completely unrelated to the puzzles. You're told to just pretend it's not there. But the UV lights work best in almost complete darkness. I think the room might have been a bit more fun if the sunlight around the edges (and the red flashing light) hadn't interfered with the UV so much.

Another trope is the audio recorder. Unfortunately, most of the message was completely unintelligible. You're able to get what you need, if you know what to look for, but don't waste time trying to understand the rest.

The room was also impossible to solve by one person, just because of some distances involved. The game masters realized this when I got to that point and helped me out, but be aware that you'll need them if you plan on doing this room alone. The max for this room was specified as six people, though, which I think might be a nightmare of stepping on each other. You'll also need some help from the staff if you don't bring a smartphone, which is another thing I've never seen before in a room.

One thing that could really be improved is the specificity of the clues. I was often given clues to things I'd already solved, even when I said I'd solved them and was specifically asking for help with another part of the game. That was moderately frustrating. Not to be overly critical; I wouldn't have made it out without those clues, and I really appreciate the help!

Ultimately, I had a good time. The staff was nice, the room had some unique puzzles, and the little details helped make the atmosphere more immersive. If they fixed some of the small glitches, it would be even better. Even then, though, this will never be a great room. Even if it's executed perfectly, the fundamental room structure and concept is always going to be just okay.

Now, an okay escape room is still one of the most fun things around! If you want a good time, it can definitely be had here! But for me, I'm trying to have the most and best room escape experiences possible. The next night I decided to do another room, and rather than come back here, I took a chance on curtain number two. Escape Key isn't bad, by any means, but it's not fantastic enough to keep my from trying anywhere else.

Rating: 7/10

Saturday, April 2, 2016

Properties of God

God is not directly observable, in the scientific sense. Therefore, one of the following is true. In no particular order:
  1. God does not exist locally.
    1. God never existed. Athiesm. 
    2. God existed at some unobservable point in time, but not at this point. Mortal god. 
    3. God exists at some unobservable point in space, but not at this point. Spatially-constrained god. 
  2. God exists and cannot choose to be observable. Limited power over physical reality. 
  3. God exists and does not choose to be observable.
    1. God is not aware of the possibility of becoming observable. Limited imagination or knowledge. 
    2. God actively chooses to not be observable
      1. God desires to be unobservable with no further end. Inscrutable God.
      2.  God desires to be unobservable to achieve some other end. Limited in means achieve desired ends.
Per Descartes, some thinking being continues to exist to read these posts. Presuming God to exist, one of the following must be true.
  1. The reader is, in some sense, God. Pantheism. 
  2. The reader is not in any way God.
    1. God can not prevent the reader from existing. Limited power over physical reality. 
    2. God does not choose to prevent the reader from existing.
      1. God is not aware of the possibility of destroying the reader. Limited imagination or knowledge. 
      2. God actively chooses to allow the reader to exist.
        1. God desires the reader to exist with no further end. Inscrutable God.
        2. God desires the reader to exist to achieve some other end. Limited in means achieve desired ends.
Many of these lead to very odd definitions of "god". I would define a being that is mortal, constrained by space or physical reality, or limited in imagination or knowledge as not being a god. That eliminates most of our bullet points. Looking at what remains, let us assume that God is extant and separate from man. Given that we cannot observe God, and that we continue to exist, we must conclude one of two things: either it is literally meaningless to question the motivations of God; or the actions of God are constrained to be self-consistent in some fashion in service of some larger goal.

When we ask the questions "Why did God create?" or "Why does God allow suffering?" we are implicitly assuming that God's motives are not inscrutable. But by elimination, that implies that God has a desired end, and that that desired end is not not consistent with the states of reality we are supposing. In short, the kind of God we can ask such questions about can't have everything He wants at once. God allows you to continue existing because that's better for his ends, whatever they may be.

So then it is reasonable to ask, what is God's end goal? Again, we can narrow this down. If God is not constrained by physics, His goal must be unrelated to the physical state of the universe. His goals must, therefore, be spiritual, where we define spiritual to mean "unconstrained by time and observed physical reality". We are positing the existence of a spiritual reality separate from the realm we occupy, and that both God and his goals are part of this spiritual realm.

If God's goals are spiritual, either God is the exclusive target of his own goals, or there are other aspects to spiritual reality besides God. Either way, we conclude that our physical existence must have some capacity to affect a spiritual realm. The very question "why does God allow suffering" implies that our actions and experiences have eternal impact, and that God is manipulating that eternal impact in some desired fashion. You're suffering because God needs you to.

Now, supposing God's goals are spiritual, we can divide their possibilities. Either God's goals involve us, or they do not. If they involve us, there is a spiritual us to be involved, a soul. What goals could God have concerning a soul? What states could an eternal soul have, that God might wish to alter? Existence or nonexistence, communion or separation? Those are concepts we can somewhat grasp, but there are doubtless concepts that we cannot. Here we are unable to even properly speculate.

Thursday, March 31, 2016

Preventing primary disasters

Forget who the candidates are for a moment. Everything that can be said about them has been said. (Some things bear repeating, but I'll leave that to others.) I'd like to focus on how we got to where we are, and how we can avoid such messes in the future.

Right now the leading Republican candidate has 48% of the delegates and 37% of the votes. At this point, no matter who wins, the party nominee will be someone that two thirds of Republicans voted against.

This is bad policy from every possible perspective. On the level of principles, it's just undemocratic. On a strategic level, it depresses voter turnout in the general, because most Republican voters will feel robbed. Justifiably so!

This has nothing to do with who the candidates are; we could see the same outcome with an entirely different set of candidates. It has everything to do with the systems the state parties have put in place.

There are two problems that need to be addressed. First, how delegates are allocated.

Ohio and Florida are absolutely crucial in the general election. The Republican party winning the White House is largely contingent on voter turnout in these two states. But both primaries are winner-take-all, and in both, the state was won by someone with less than half the votes. Over half of Republican voters in Ohio and Florida have been stripped of any voice in selecting their nominee. In South Carolina, that number is closer to two thirds.

Pretend you're one of the voters whose vote was thrown out by this system. Are you more likely to show up in November? Or less?

States using semi-proportional systems also contribute to the problem. In Alabama, a candidate with 21% of the vote got 13 delegates; a candidate with 19% of the vote got one delegate. In what universe is this giving each voter anything like equal weight? Winner-take-all is a huge problem, but winner-take-more isn't the solution.

The state parties should all adopt straight proportional allocation of delegates. This would at least minimize the disparity between popular vote and delegate count, and give all Republican voters an equal voice.

But this doesn't solve the more fundamental problem: a candidate with a third of the vote would still be winning. The reason for this comes down to two words every candidacy dreads: vote splitting.

The way we cast votes in this country breaks if there are more than two candidates. We all know how this works: where one candidate running alone might win easily, if there's a similar candidate on the ballot, they split votes between them, and the least popular candidate ends up winning. That's why we have exactly two major parties, both of whom dread a strong third-party run. That's how HW Bush lost to Clinton, and how W Bush won over Gore. And that's why there have been constant calls during this primary season for candidates to drop out early.

If there are more than two candidates, everything goes to hell.

This is directly caused by the way we cast votes. There are two or three or ten candidates on the ballot; you vote for one, and by extension, against all the others. This system is sometimes called plurality voting, or first-past-the-post voting. I like to call it by a more direct name: pick-one voting. Sure, there are other methods of voting. But this is America, and that's just how we do things here, right?

Well, no.

Pick-one voting is nowhere in the US Constitution. It's nowhere in any state constitution or law I've ever seen. None of our founders ever sat down and wrote, "Out of all the possible voting systems, pick-one is best, and here's why." Nobody decided to use pick-one voting. We vote this way because we always have. Because of it, we end up selecting a standard-bearer who commands a solid minority base, but who the majority can not support.

This is no way to run any organization. But the state parties can fix it.

There are many other voting systems out there. A few cities use instant-runoff. Others will extol the virtues of the Condorcet methods, or range voting, and they have valid points. But for real-world elections, the best system by a mile is approval voting, because it's simplest to understand, and trivial to implement. No money need be spent; it requires no new voting machines, because all machines already support it. Votes can be counted exactly as they are now. It's even simpler than pick-one, hard as that may be to imagine!

The only difference with approval voting is that the voter now marks every candidate they approve of. Your vote is now a "yes" or a "no" to every candidate, instead of being forced to vote "no" on all but one. Want to cast a vote for "anybody but him/her"? You can do that! Want to vote for a non-establishment candidate, but you don't care which one? Not a problem! And since every voter gets to vote "yes" or "no" on every candidate, every voter still gets an equal voice.

This primary season has been a disaster for the Republican party. No matter who wins, the party is more divided than at any time in living memory. Think how this primary election would have gone under approval voting. We could have started with the same candidates, but instead of ending up with three that represent three disparate wings of the party, we would have ended up with one who the whole party could support.

I have no idea at all who that would have been. But this I know with all certainty: the Republican party would have come out stronger and more unified.

Saturday, March 26, 2016

What does the GOP look like after Trump?

The Republican party as I see it has three major wings.

1) Religious conservatives who want to enforce their beliefs on others.
2) Business interests.
3) Tea party/Trump/next demagogue anti-compromise authoritarians.

This primary has made it clear that those three groups will no longer work together. The Trump supporters can't be trusted to compromise for the good of the party, and they can't trust the rest of the party to help them burn the building down. Cruz's religious wing isn't particularly more cooperative. Rubio was trying to walk a line among all three, like a good candidate typically does. But this year the anti-compromise sentiment is so strong he failed.

I think it's clear that the Republican party as we have known it is over. They've spent thirty years purposefully growing a base that thinks compromise is evil, when it's a fundamental requirement of civilization. More relevantly, compromise is required to form a major party in a two-party system. The party elite has told their base that the system is evil. Now that base has realized that the party elite are part of that system, and it's consuming them.

No two wings of this party can survive without the third. So what's next? The possibilities I see:

1) Republicans somehow hold it together. With an anti-compromise wing this is only possible if the anti-compromise wing gets everything they want. I don't think enough evangelical Christians are willing to do that particular deal with the devil; a lot of us would end up just not voting. And the business interest wing can buy Democrats almost as well as they can Republicans these days.

2) Republicans disintegrate into two or more parties. Since our voting system fundamentally breaks if there are more than two candidates, Democrats win everything everywhere.

3) Republicans and Democrats both disintegrate. I don't see enough substantial fracture lines for this to happen in the short term, but in the medium term it's imaginable that we'd get a fracture within the Democrats. Some of the more right-wing elements leave and join the moderated Republican business/religious wing to form a viable second party, leaving the more progressive wing behind. American politics shifts leftward, to be more centrist. The anti-compromise wing is still out there, left in the cold, waiting for another demagogue to run as a third-party candidate.

4) Election reform renders the two-party paradigm obsolete. Use approval voting and proportional representation for all elections, and suddenly political parties become much less relevant. Can happen on a state-by-state basis.

Obviously I'm hoping for #4.

Saturday, March 19, 2016

Working for a living

Let us assume most people have a goal of not dying. People will take whatever steps they deem necessary to accomplish this goal.
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People need certain things to survive: food, water, shelter, clothing, energy, medical care. They also need secondary things that help us get their primary needs: education, transport, communication. Lots of thing-needing going on.

We live in at a pretty nice point in history. The things people need to survive exist in the world! This is much better than the alternative, where we have to actually create what we need. (Admittedly some people still do that, but they're outside the scope of this article.) Since our survival needs are owned by someone, survival is simply a question of effecting the transfer of these things. There are three basic ways of doing this:
1) Steal. Someone gives you what you need involuntarily. This could be burglary, fraud, looting, war, or other forms of theft.
2) Trade. Someone gives you what you need voluntarily, in exchange for something else they want. This includes shopping, barter, and labor.
3) Gift. Someone gives you what you need voluntarily, with nothing in exchange. This includes charity and government welfare, though government welfare includes some involuntary aspects.

All people do some combination of these three things to achieve continued survival.

First, we want to avoid theft, if nothing else because it's destabilizing to society. If theft is endemic, it forces everyone who isn't stealing to spend additional resources on security, which are resources spent not making the world better. We try to dis-incentivize theft through punishment. But no matter what punishment scheme you put in place, people will steal if they can't get what they need to survive, either through trade or gift. Thus, to prevent theft and maximize overall efficiency, we must make sure that survival is otherwise achievable through trade or gifts.

First, we consider trade. The overwhelming majority of humans have exactly one thing to trade: labor. We work, and in exchange we obtain things we need. Our labor has a value, and our survival needs have a value. The ratio of these determines how many hours one must work to survive. This number will vary from person to person, year to year, and place to place.

But what if that ratio gets out of whack? What if the typical person needs to work fifty hours to survive? Seventy? Ninety? If the number of labor-hours required to survive is more than a typical person can supply, if the cost of living goes up or the value of labor goes down too far, it becomes literally impossible to work for a living.

(Now, I am not presently arguing that this has occurred today, here, or at any other time or place. I am simply pointing out the boundary conditions of our present system.)

Supposing this occurs, and that we still want people to not turn to theft, we have a few options:
1) Make labor worth more than its market value. This can be done with minimum wage laws, or with the artificial creation of new jobs.
2) Make cost of living less than its market value. This can be done with price controls, or with subsidization of survival needs.
3) Decouple cost of living from labor. Give people their survival needs whether they've earned them or not.

None of these are free-market solutions; all are some form of government intervention. From this, we have an inescapable conclusion: the free market only leads to a stable society as long as people can earn a living. Once the cost of living exceeds the labor available to an individual, for whatever reason, government intervention is required to preserve stability.

Of course, that leaves trivial details like when and how...