Murderous Neighbors

Smoke.  This was taken today; he was maybe five feet from me.

Smoke. This was taken today; he was maybe five feet from me.

Crows get a bad rap.

Their larger, more rural cousins ravens get the lion’s share of the mythological attention, not to mention being much more rarely considered vermin. Much as with rats, the fortunes of the crow rise and fall with the humans around them; both rats and crows exist in a mutualistic to parasitic ecological niche with respect to human beings, relying heavily on human leavings for food.

Over the last few months my habit of taking a daily walk at work changed a bit, as I decided to perform an experiment on the local crows. Barb Kirpluk’s book Caw of the Wild: Observations from the Secret World of Crows, along with the various studies proving crows can distinguish individual humans by sight, gave me the idea – what if I were to insinuate myself into the local crow aristocracy?

But first, let’s go over the differences between crows and ravens:

Samantha in her favorite spot above the Post Office employee parking lot.

Samantha in her favorite spot above the Post Office employee parking lot.

  • Crows are smaller than ravens, weighing in at around a pound compared to their larger cousins who average around four pounds.
  • Crows have a wedge shaped tail; ravens a diamond shaped tail.
  • Crows have adapted readily to human suburban areas in particular, while ravens generally stick to rural and wilderness areas.
  • Crows are much more social than ravens, with family groups consisting of offspring from previous years’ clutches helping out before they head out on their own.
  • Both exhibit an exceedingly broad range of vocalizations, but in the audible human range crows are best known for variations on their distinctive “caw” while ravens have more of a “croak”.
  • The beak of a crow is narrow, while the beak of a raven is much thicker and bulkier.

I started a few months back pretty simply – with a regular supply of unsalted cashews (I did some research to make sure I wouldn’t be unintentionally poisoning the local birdlife, something for which I am sure they are theoretically grateful).

Saw a crow, whistled and tossed a few cashews. Rinsed and repeated. Ad naueseum. I’ve gone through a lot of cashews since then.

Crow-Map

Invariably, they spotted me from maybe a hundred to two hundred feet away, cawed and bolted.

Every time. I started to feel disliked.

Over the course of maybe a couple of months, however, things changed. One of the local crows – whom I later named Smoke, just so I could tell them apart – finally let his curiosity get the better of him and checked out what it was I was throwing on the ground.

As it turns out, cashews are kind of like bird candy. Enthusiasm ensued. Promptly followed by addiction, irresponsible behavior, Cashew Anonymous meetings, and eventually getting kicked out of the roost. Kidding. I hope.

For another month or so that was the pattern. I’d see a crow, throw some cashews, and once I had gotten about a hundred feet away they’d (sometimes) investigate.

Many days I wouldn’t see any of them at all; sometimes there would just be one, and only very rarely all three.

Drainage canal near work.

Drainage canal near work.

About a month ago, something changed: Smoke started waiting for me to leave the building, at which point he would start to follow me from perch to perch.

I would drop cashews, he’d pick them up – sometimes with help from his more cautious mate Samantha – quickly stash them and then catch up to me. I started trying experiments – leaving cashews when I didn’t see them, leaving them near where I had seen them perch, as well as mapping out their stashes and favorite perches.

Identifying individual crows is actually kind of a pain. Determining their sex without a blood test is theoretical at best (unless you, too, are a crow), and their feathers regularly replace meaning that you can’t even rely on feather patterns to distinguish them.

Kirpluk’s book had noted that she could start to tell them apart by behavior, something I admit to being initially skeptical about, but after a while I realized she was absolutely right.

Each of the members of the S Group, as I had started calling them, had their individual roles and levels of boldness:

Smoke barely waits for me to walk by after dropping the cashews before he’ll wing down; often, when he sees me he does a flyby, circling over my head a couple of times before finding a perch. It’s a weird blend of creepy and awesome.

Samantha seems to be the designated sentinel, preferring one of the high lightposts over the Post Office employee parking lot as her preferred vantage. Always cautious, always watching, she’s the last to descend and the first to call out warning, usually humans, but sometimes an occasional hawk.

Socket is around the other two much less; when there’s a pair on the ground it is almost always Smoke and Samantha. Judging from common crow social behavior Socket is probably a hatchling from a year (or more) ago who has stuck around to help out mom and dad. Socket isn’t quite as bold as Smoke, but s/he’ll follow me from perch to perch, beak open as if begging (which might even be what is happening).

One of the main things I was interested in was mapping out the local territories. My walk is primarily through S Group’s territory, though at one end it goes past it and into another group I don’t know as well that I call M Group (not represented on the map, but at the top end – I think it’s a separate group from C Group, but am not sure, ergo the lack of notation).

Socket, near the crux of the railway lines and the canal.

Socket, near the crux of the railway lines and the canal.

So how does one tell where a crow family group’s territory begins and ends?

Easy. They tell you.

Crows often roost in large numbers away from their actual territories – territories are mostly claimed scavenging areas rather than places to chill at night.

Like humans, crows can sometimes be kind of assholes, so you will sometimes see crows grouping up to mob interlopers trying to edge in. See this happen a few times, and you can be pretty sure you’ve found a boundary. In this case, the most obvious boundaries were the railway line and a block past the canal.

(Interestingly, the territory lines really do seem to line up with roads, freeways, railways, canals – all sorts of human divisions. This makes sense in a way, though, as it’s an easy way to demarcate as the crow flies).

Speaking of mobbing, the other type of mobbing where you will see two or three (or more) crows mobbing a hawk seems like mean bullying, until you realize what it really means is you’ve just found a nest site. Ms. Hawk is looking for a tasty fledgling for supper, and Mama and Papa crow and any allies they can muster are doing their damndest to make it not worth Ms. Hawk’s trouble.

(But before you start to feel too sorry for Mama and Papa crow, realize that crows are very omnivorous, and are very, very, very fond of meat, meaning they will happily predate on baby bunnies, songbird hatchlings and even mice).

Smoke not at all happy about having a strange camera pointed at him.

Smoke not at all happy about having a strange camera pointed at him.

Like people, crows plan ahead:

I spoil S Group shamelessly, and there’s no way they can eat all the proffered cashews, so they do what crows always do in such a situation – they stash any excess.

S Group’s favorite stash spot – bizarrely – is actually under the train tracks. Maybe this makes it less likely for rats or squirrels to dare stealing them.

They’re getting bolder, too – a few times, Smoke has flown at the cashews the moment they have left my hands; a couple of times when I didn’t realize he was nearby I suddenly found myself being (politely) mobbed by him. Even the other two, particularly Socket, are edging closer.

As they have become acclimated to my presence, they have stopped making any audible sounds around me at all, suggesting that a lot of the cawing is explicitly warning signals. I originally expected them to call out to the others when food was put down, but for the most part they don’t seem to do this, at least not as I am able to tell; possibly they are simply keeping in close enough sight range, or maybe they are using out-of-human-frequency calls.

So the next time you are bumming around the Gazillion Entertainment studios and see a black shape eyeing you warily from a lightpost, toss them a hamburger and say hello for me.

They might even say something back. Probably not hello. I wouldn’t take it personally, though.

The Existential Crisis of Leveling Up

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Ding! Level Up!

For those who play RPG video games, whether from the days of Everquest or their more modern incarnations such as World of Warcraft, Diablo, Guild Wars or Star Trek Online, the one almost ubiquitous commonality is the concept of leveling up.

You know the experience. You’re beating up some poor, innocent rat or goblin, and as each victim of your mayhem falls beneath your feet you can see the experience point bar creep up…up…up until finally, at last, in a shower of light and triumphant crescendo you achieve that coveted accomplishment – the next level.

You get more hit points, perhaps. Maybe a new spell that does more damage, or perhaps simply the ability to slot a weapon or piece of gear that will give you one of those things.

And, truth be told, it feels good. You genuinely feel like you’ve hit a milestone, like a congressman who wins an election for the U.S. Senate or a Masters student who receives their PhD. You’re tougher. You’re better. You’re awesome.

There’s just one problem: It’s (mostly) a lie.

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The problem is, at the same time you’ve gotten better, behind the scenes so did everything else.

Different games handle this a bit differently; most often, the stuff you’ve been murdering by the scores doesn’t get tougher, but you can now go to a new area with new things to kill, and those things are tougher.

It’s true, you can go back to old areas and “feel the power”, and some percentage of players do exactly this, but it’s not like even those players who do go back to visit past battlegrounds actually spend any substantial time there. And, why should they? It’s no longer a challenge, after all.

Even in professional game design circles, this mechanic is usually considered sacrosanct. Despite that it is a relic of pen-and-paper games designed around a human referee and a small handful of players sitting around a table, the leveling mechanic has become something akin to holy writ for the industry.

Objections of the leveling mechanic most often receive a blank stare or, at best an existential protest of, “But what would we replace it with?”

Ultima Online bucked this trend early on, and the first version of Guild Wars flirted heavily with leaving the leveling mechanic behind, but the these were outliers that the industry as a whole never embraced, at least not for the mechanic in question.

Progression is important in a video game, but in most games leveling offers more illusion than reality, and as such I would argue it’s at best a placebo (for the sake of literary argument let’s leave aside the fact that the placebo effect actually does have a chemical effect in your brain, but…anyways, back to the subject at hand).

The problem is that when you level up, the player’s experience stays the same. Yes, most games are clever enough to give you a brief period of feeling more powerful in whatever new area you are fighting in, but inevitably the difficulty starts edging up until you are again about where you were: enemies will still be taking more or less the same amount of time to defeat; enemies will still be defeating you in more or less the same number of hits.

There are, to be sure, a number of overlying approaches that can – and are – applied: Enemies may use different (or simply more) mechanics. The overall difficulty may edge up a tad. Players may gain a wider (or at least different) selection of tactical options. From a design point of view, these are genuine points of advancement, but the underlying leveling mechanic tends to overshadow these, meaning that designers rarely feel the need to fully develop these changing mechanics.

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Ultimately, there are two questions that have to be answered:

  1. How does the incoming gameplay change?
  2. How does the outgoing gameplay change?

Incoming gameplay elements are all the factors that are exterior to the player – does it take longer on average for a player to defeat an enemy? Does the player have less of a margin for error due to enemies doing more damage? Does the gameplay demand a greater degree or player dexterity? Does the player have to track more enemies at the same time? Are the tactics employed by the player’s challenges more widely varying, or simply more difficult?

Outgoing gameplay elements are all the factors that are internal to the player – does the player have more tactical options at his or her disposal? Does the player have more (or better) ways of dealing with (or cheating) defeat? Does the player have additional allies that can be deployed?

Note that damage and health, per se, are not included anywhere above. Yes, there is mention of changes in time to defeat or time to be defeated, but the fact that a “1000″ appears above an enemy’s head as opposed to a “900″ does not by itself mean anything if all the other numbers are also changing.

In other words, the numbers are an illusion; what deserves to be focused on is the gameplay experience.

Don’t get me wrong – this is really fucking hard. It’s easy to slap a bigger visual effect and an objectively meaningless but psychologically satisfying bigger number on an attack. It’s damned hard to come up with actual new gameplay. It’s even harder to come up enough new gameplay to satisfy players for the length of time games now strive to hold players for.

Because this is really hard, most games lean heavily on psychological tricks to make players feel like they are progressing, even when they aren’t:

  • New environments that are visually different.
  • Enemies that are graphically different.
  • Reputation grinds.
  • Larger numbers.
  • Carefully timed carrots to give special incentive to log in on sequential days.

Part of this is simply the result of the market. As games have moved to a persistent online model, players are much less likely to play a game for ten or twenty hours and then put it down, but now expect to get hundreds of hours of gameplay out of the same development dollars.

Similarly, the rise of the microtransaction behemoth means that development studios are under increasing pressure to keep players playing – no longer is it enough just to have a snappy marketing plan and a cool TV commercial or great cover art – now you have to deal with the player asking, “Well, what now?”

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There are a lot of ways this problem can be approached; I am certainly not going to claim to have the silver bullet. Hell, if there was a silver bullet, someone would have found it by now – there are an enormous number of very smart people in the industry.

One possible line of inquiry might simply be to break down the walls between gameplay aspects traditionally viewed as content and aspects traditionally viewed as systems. Guild Wars and Skyrim both represent philosophical efforts in this direction, whether the studios in question were conscious of this.

Another – kind of scary – approach would be to start asking some kind of scary questions: If the gameplay from, say, Level 1 to the level cap is essentially a completely different gameplay than the “End game” of raids or PvP or whatever, perhaps the solution is to simply do away with the former and make your entire game consist of the latter. Yes, this will require the solving of some very tricky problems, but it would serve to, perhaps, at last start to move the industry past this trap of illusionary advancement that ultimately serves neither players nor developers.

Comic credit to Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal. Check them out. They’re awesome.

Genetic Self-Analysis and the Plot to Live Forever

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My father’s father had an intense interest in genealogy, tracing back his ancestry to as far back as 15th century Switzerland. My own interest matched my basic interest in history, which is to say history back about a hundred years I find interesting, then I prefer to skip the following several centuries until halberds and crossbows were back in style.

This being the case, it’s not surprising that I became interested in 23andme‘s incredibly cheap ($99 USD) genetic analysis. It’s true, the FDA blocked them from providing medical analysis, but they still let you download the raw data, and it wasn’t hard to find third-party providers of medical info.

Now, I never had any particular doubts as to my parentage, and there was enough evidence of being a fairly generic European mutt that I wasn’t expecting anything terribly interesting on the genetic front.

What I got, however, was this:

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First, the minor surprise – basically no Scandinavian-specific DNA (apparently my ancestors were very good at running away from Vikings), and virtually no Southern European DNA either (a little surprising given my family’s connection with the Swiss Romansh, but it turns out most of the Romansh group actually wasn’t Roman, but Celtic and other groups).

So, okay, instead of a European Mutt I can now confidently call myself a “British Isles-Franco-German Mutt” instead. Workable.

But then I noticed something positively weird. Hidden there on my sixth chromosome was a patch of DNA from…Yakut?

You know, Eastern Siberia. Nomadic reindeer riders.

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At first, I couldn’t figure it out, and then a friend made what should have been the incredibly obvious connection: the Mongolian Empire’s invasion of Europe.

And, sure enough, when I read the 23andme ethnic analysis more closely, it pinned the date of the geographical estimates to about 500 years ago, which while about a hundred years after Ghengis Khan decided that riding across (and burning) Europe would make for an entertaining summer vacation, is still (in historical terms) spitting distance.

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Now, the Yakuts are not Mongols, although they are right next door, geographically speaking. While the details can obviously never be known, it seems pretty clear that somehow, some Yakut (or maybe half-Yakut) went along for the ride on one of the Mongol Empire’s several excursions.

Add in the trace amount of Eastern European DNA as well, and it all suddenly fits pretty well together. (Yeah, it’s not exactly hard to figure out how a Yakut warrior in a Mongol horde got together with an Eastern European, but let’s try not to think too hard about that and just try to imagine the best scenario for that…Um, unlikely historical romance…right, that’s it…)

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The medical results were trickier. With the FDA blocking 23andme’s reporting, I had to find third-party software that could do the same thing, which I proceeded to do.

These results were interesting – though definitely something no hypochondriac should ever, ever try themselves.

Dozens of indicators appear, and if you don’t read the fine print – meaning, x1.5 risk of getting some horrible disease sounds awful, but when you see that the base chance is 1/1000, it takes some pretty egregious stacking of bad genes to substantially change your odds.

After lots (lots) of analysis and a little ill-considered math, some of the more interesting pieces of the Heretical Genome:

The Bad Stuff

  • Higher risk of nicotine dependence (good thing I don’t smoke)
  • Higher risk of hypertension (true; I have just barely avoided falling into the hypertension category)
  • Higher risk for heart attack
  • Significantly higher intake of sugar (guilty as charged, though I am surprised there’s a genetic reason for this)
  • Obstructed airwaves (I did, in fact, have surgery a number of years ago for this)
  • The “Warrior Gene” associated with “aggressive and antisocial behavior” (this is definitely not me at all, unless one counts a tendency towards introversion as antisocial behavior; I also have a gene associated with empathy, so perhaps it just balances things out)

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The Neutral Stuff

  • Ultra fast metabolizer of drugs, including alcohol (this is funny, as it is something I am actually well known among my peers for – I get drunk fast, but I get sober just as fast)
  • Lots of bitterness receptors (explains my lack of enthusiasm for most beer)
  • Cilantro doesn’t taste like soap (true)
  • Blue-ish eyes, curly hair and white skin (I know, shocking…)
  • Less likely to be able to smell asparagus metabolites in urine (um…okay)

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The Good Stuff

  • Lower risk of Alzheimer’s disease (my grandfather died of this, so…comforting)
  • Lower risk of Parkinson’s disease
  • Lower risk of Dementia
  • Lower risk of age-related physical impairment
  • Lower risk of cocaine dependence (um…yay?)
  • Higher HDL (true)
  • Blood type O- (that is, universal donor – I’m a giver, not a taker)
  • Longer telomeres (these are the things that help you live longer)
  • Better memory (lies)
  • Higher levels of empathy
  • Low incidence of cystic fibrosis
  • Low incidence of hemophilia (damn it, there goes my dream of vampirism)
  • Low incidence of epilepsy
  • …As well as a bunch of resistances to diseases I generally have never heard of

So, in summary: I am going to live forever. Unless I die of a heart attack first.

All in all, I definitely recommend the exercise (assuming, of course, you can keep any hypochondriac tendencies at bay) both from a hereditary and a medical perspective.

For the latter, in particular, it helps to read what the information means very carefully, as even for a relative non-hypochondriac like myself, it’s easy to become alarmed at the inevitable sea of red negative associations. Then (unless, of course, you are that aforementioned hypochondriac) you do the math and realize that a change of 0.1% to 0.3% chance of getting something horrible is no particular reason to panic.

Unless, of course, you have the bad math gene and just carried the decimal point two steps in the wrong direction…

Things I Have Learned from Minecraft

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If you haven’t heard about the PC/Xbox/iPad game Minecraft, none of this will make any sense. That’s okay. It’s just one of the greatest games of the last decade. Think Legos with zombies.

Naturally, it’s also sweeping the ranks of kids as one of the latest craze, though in my experience too many of their parents are letting them get away with playing on Creative mode. If you are one of these, toughen them up. Make them play on Survival mode or not at all.

Minecraft is a world of its own, and it has some very, very strange rules of life and physics.

These are the lessons I have learned in my journeys through the lands of Minecraft:

  1. If you punch a tree hard enough, it drops wood.
  2. It is impossible to fall from a cliff as long as you crouch down.
  3. Eating an entire loaf of bread all at once is a great way to heal from falling a hundred feet and almost dying.
  4. Destroying things actually takes a lot longer than building them. Unless you use explosives.
  5. Horses get hot and bothered if you feed them gold.
  6. Walking quietly behind people and whispering, “Ssssssssss…” is a great way of discovering which of your friends play Minecraft.
  7. If you try hard enough, you can swim up waterfalls.
  8. Zombie children are far more terrifying than grown-up zombies.
  9. “The chicken or the egg” is actually a very legitimate question.
  10. Throwing chicken eggs at walls is a great way to make baby chickens.
  11. Compasses don’t actually point north; they point towards the last bed you slept in. Possibly handy for one night stands.
  12. The world is as big as your RAM disk.
  13. Nothing is more terrifying than giant flying marshmallows. Nothing.
  14. Things really do go bump in the night. Well, more like moan in the night. And not in a sexy way. Unless you’re into rotten meat…not judging.
  15. You can carry 2308 things. They can be of any size at all, so long as there are only 2308.
  16. If you fall to your death or burn up trying to swim in lava, you will just wake up in bed, like it was all a dream, except you’re strangely naked and all your shit is gone.
  17. Gravity is actually kind of optional if you’re talking about dirt, clay, stone, wood or wool. Sand, shale or you, though, well, that’s a different story.
  18. Horses run faster than trains.
  19. Torches burn forever.
  20. Pigs take quite readily to being saddled.
  21. Pumpkins are amazingly effective at performing ancient Judaic Kabbalistic magic.
  22. The fastest way to reconstitute a rail line into transportable track sections is to pour a bucket of water on it.
  23. Conservation of mass does not apply when seeing how many head of cattle you can stuff in a 4×4 stockyard.
  24. Metal doors can only be opened with electronics.
  25. It is absolutely possible to build a tower of any height simply by repeatedly jumping and throwing dirt at your feet.
  26. Dipping apples in molten gold and then eating the resulting confection will heal you of any wounds up to and including missing limbs and organs dangling by a mere tendon from your body cavity.
  27. Skeletons like riding spiders.

I think this could form a great basis for a new drinking game – see how many of these things you can test in real life.

What, wondering where the drinking comes in? Come on, that should be obvious – that’s what you have to do before you think that is somehow a good idea.

The Video Game Pipeline

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The Problem

I tend to be a big advocate of strong and frequent communication with video game players.

Partially, this is because I think frequent communication provides a more human face for a development team, making players more tolerant of the inevitable missteps and more understanding of the limitations of the development process, as well as tending to improve the overall tenor of a game’s community. People like knowing that they’re being listened to, even when you often have to say, “Sorry, we can’t do that for X and Y reasons”. Partially, as well, frequent communication helps the developer by providing a strong stream of subjective feedback from a game’s most passionate players which is a good way of identifying legitimate problems that should be investigated and addressed.

It is true that the players who comment on forums, for example, represent a distinct minority, but even if they are not a demographically precise sampling of a game’s user base, if a significant majority of these players, self-selecting as they are – are evincing pain, it’s probably something worth looking at. Players (and sometimes executives) frequently lack the necessary context to be able to identify what are realistic solutions and what are not, so where a developer is willing to open up and communicate more aggressively, the average quality of proposed solutions tends to go up.

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One of the areas where players and developers often clash is over the speed of changes, new content, and bug fixes. Developers are (rarely) actually lazy, but the process and the pipeline to minimize risk of deployed issues is generally quite intense, but most players have very little insight into this. To a player, a bug that sits around for a month before being fixed can conjure up an engineer sitting with his or her feet up sipping Mountain Dew while playing League of Legends, when the truth is (usually) that there are a lot more steps a fix has to go through than players are aware of.

The exact process varies from development studio to development studio – length of release cycles, platform, company development philosophy, and other considerations all have a major impact on the exact structure, but here’s one example – in this case, for Gazillion‘s Marvel Heroes, where I currently work as the game’s Lead Content Designer – of some of the specifics of a development and deployment pipeline for those who have never been exposed to something like this.

The Pipeline

Gazillion’s development pipeline can be thought of as the synchronizing of two interlocking wheels, sort of like an Aztec calendar. One wheel is the code and data set that developers (designers, engineers, artists, audio folks, etc.) are all working on (the Development wheel), while the other wheel is the production deployment (the Deployment wheel).

Both wheels are turning at the same time, but they interlock with each other only occasionally; periodically, the deployment wheel takes a snapshot of what is on the development wheel, kicks that off to QA who then reports on what critical issues there are. Developers then have to fix – sometimes on each wheel separately through what is called a merge, sometimes directly into the wheel – any found issues.

The deployment wheel turns again and kicks off another wheel, it goes back to QA, rinse and repeat until you have a “good” build. Obviously, this takes a variable amount of time based on what issues arise. Once there is a good build, the deployment wheel turns yet again, and this time pushes it to the Test Center on a white list. Rinse, fix, repeat. Then another turn of the wheel and it goes to the Test Center sans white list. Rinse, fix, repeat. Once that’s finally good, then it goes to the Live service.

All this time the development wheel is turning, but you can see here how the development and deployment wheels can – depending on the timing – either be in synch or out of synch by as much as two – or even more – weeks.

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A two week cycle is, in the industry very aggressive and very risky; more common (and more safe) is more like a month to two months. Any single gamestopping issue can halt the entire deployment wheel, and until that issue is unjammed, it can’t go forward.

Looking at the patch notes is, as well, only a part of what is going on. The patch notes include everything that is (or is supposed to be, at least) player-facing, but there are a ton of things that go on under the hood from fulfillment services, integration with outside services (like Steam), website integration, server and client optimization, and so on. Any of these things can halt the entire process which is why it is impossible for us to absolutely guarantee a deployment date for any specific piece of content.

For major releases, as you can imagine, things can get very tight and very stressful since there you have an enormous amount of external visibility from the community, from Marvel, from Gazillion’s board, and from game sites. To be sure, we bake in as much extra time as we can to account for things, but by definition you can’t anticipate a Black Swan event.

Lamb Intestines and Western Anatolia

The village of Eğrigöz, near Emet.

During the planning phase of the Vlad Tepes World Tour I had been congratulating myself for not being in Turkey during Ramadan, something I knew would lead to complications in terms of services, particularly in more remote areas such as where we were headed next.

I, uh, apparently didn’t do my homework well enough.

We did actually arrive in Turkey after Ramadan was over. We neglected, however, to check for other holidays. Such as Kurban Bayramı, a festival I now fondly refer to as “The Festival of Lamb Intestines”.

Intestines on the ground beside a roadside fountain near Emet.

Intestines on the ground beside a roadside fountain near Emet.

The first inkling we had that something was not entirely right was the sight of animal intestines lying in the gutter in the Fatih neighborhood of Istanbul towards the very end of our stay in the city before heading into Western Anatolia to the town of Emet. At first, we just thought maybe we were near a butcher shop or a serial killer had been mistakenly set free.

Then we saw more intestines. Damn, that’s one dedicated serial killer.

By this time we were due on the (very) long bus to Emet, so without thinking too much of it we got on board the bus for a nice little ten hour or so bus trip down through Turkey’s interior where my seatmate, despite very little English and with little patience for my translation program insisted on taking us for tea at one of the stops and otherwise being a fascinating conversationalist, by which I mean we used a lot of hand signals and exchange of passports.

Ceramics from the province. Much of the ceramic tile work in Istanbul's mosques is from this region.

Ceramics from the province. Much of the ceramic tile work in Istanbul’s mosques is from this region.

(He was returning home from Saudi Arabia, a point made by enthusiastically showing me his passport stamp – I didn’t realize it at the time, but my guess is he was returning from the Hajj, a supposition supported by his generous use of prayer beads during the trip as he struggled to avoid murdering the small child seated behind us who spent most of the trip testing my seatmate’s patience).

Towards the end of the trip – Emet was the second to last stop, so most of the passengers had already disembarked as we entered the hills engulfing Emet and its boron mine (apparently, the source for a fairly impressive percentage of the world’s boron) – the bus attendant and bus driver on one side, and my traveling companions and I on the other spent a fascinating effort in technology and language difficulties as we passed my iPad with its Turkish translation program on it.

By fascinating effort, of course I mean hysterically funny and utterly hopeless effort. As it turns out, Turkish and English are grammatically very, very different. Specifically, Turkish is agglutinative, much like German or Classical Nahuatl (Aztec, which I studied in college). Where the translation programs extant today actually do a pretty credible job of translating things like Romanian to English, Turkish to English, well, let’s just say not so much.

View from the room at the Emet Thermal Resort & Spa.

View from the room at the Emet Thermal Resort & Spa.

We spent the better part of the last two hours of the trip trading the iPad back and forth between the two groups, scratching our heads and trying to translate the most bizarre sentences I have seen this side of an H.P. Lovecraft dream sequence.

Finally, as night quickly advanced over the hills, we arrived in Emet, our staging ground for a trip to some nearby Roman ruins (these had nothing to do with Vlad Țepeș but were well-preserved, close, and the location of the world’s first stock market) and, much more importantly to me, the ruins of Eğrigöz. More about that last later.

Emet isn’t exactly a hopping, cosmopolitan part of Turkey. It is known for exactly two things; a sprawling thermal spa resort, and a boron mine. Given the general lack of hotels in an area like this, we had booked a room in the thermal spa resort (though only one of us wound up taking advantage of the facilities – I was there for adventure, and I was deeply concerned that being too comfortable might negatively impact that).

IMG_0032Hiking through Emet after dark was an interesting experience of its own, and by the time we arrived at the resort we soon realized that rumors of some resort personnel speaking English was, perhaps, a little optimistic of an interpretation. To be sure, getting checked in was no problem, but how were they going to explain to three American travelers that the four-day long Lamb Intestine Festival meant that car rentals were closed, getting a driver was next to impossible, and if we wanted to see the ruins that I had just traveled thousands of miles across the world to see with only days left in Turkey, we might have to walk.

After an hour or so of sweating bullets I bit the bullet and called the friend from Turkey who had helped us earlier with both bus tickets and resort reservations (the Internet fails when you are navigating in a world of gender segregated buses and rampant online fraud, apparently) and put her on the phone with the man at the front desk.

Finally, the next morning we had it settled: a friend of the manager was willing to loan us a car. Well, and, as it turned out, a driver (whose name we never got and whom we later discovered was a taxi driver who decided earning a couple of hundred lira to drive some Americans around wasn’t a bad few hours work).

Which is how we made our way to Çavdarhisar, a small town that is distinguished in that it sits in the middle of the ruins of Aizanoi, most lately a Roman ruin, but in earlier times also a Byzantine and, even earlier, a Greek city.

Beneath the Temple of Zeus.

Beneath the Temple of Zeus.

Aizanoi’s ruins are in remarkably good shape, and consist primarily of a mostly-intact Temple of Zeus, a stock market, public baths, the theater-stadium, a necropolis and a sanctuary to the Anatolian Earth Mother goddess Meter Steunene, which unfortunately is largely buried and undergoing excavation, so wasn’t visible for viewing.

On the way back, our new friend and driver stopped at one of the ever-present roadside fountains and saw…this. Yes, more lamb intestines. With no common language it wasn’t until later with the help of a teacher we befriended at the resort that we learned the gist of it:

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From Wikipedia:

Eid al-Adha (Arabic: عيد الأضحى‎ ʿīd al-aḍḥā, “festival of the sacrifice”), also called Feast of the Sacrifice, the Major Festival, the Greater Eid, Kurban Bayram (Turkish: Kurban Bayramı; Bosnian: kurban-bajram), or Eid e Qurban (Persian: عید قربان‎), is the second of two religious holidays celebrated by Muslims worldwide each year.

It honours the willingness of Abraham (Ibrahim) to sacrifice his young first-born son Ishmael (Ismail])a as an act of submission to God’s command and his son’s acceptance to being sacrificed, before God intervened to provide Abraham with a lamb to sacrifice instead.

IMG_9791Ah-ha. That explains the lamb intestines everywhere.

Another interesting fact about this feast is that – as our Turkish friend explained to us in passable English – in Islam animals have no souls, but those animals who are sacrificed during the Feast of the Sacrifice are allowed into Heaven.

I didn’t ask the sheep we passed for their feelings on the matter; it seemed likely to be a touchy subject.

The final non-traveling day of our trip – not just in Turkey, but for the entire trip – we visited what was one of the three places I had determined to see on the trip, and the entirety of the reason for going to Turkey on this trip – the ruins of the Ottoman fortress of Eğrigöz (pronounced – as I unfortunately was to figure out only once I returned to the United States, “eh-ree-gooz” – though that explains the strange expressions I got from locals).

Surveyor's map of the fortress.  The village is on the left (west), the river on the right (east). With the exception of the western approach, sheer cliff face would discourage any thought of escape or assault.

Surveyor’s map of the fortress. The village is on the left (west), the river on the right (east). With the exception of the western approach, sheer cliff face would discourage any thought of escape or assault.

Eğrigöz (the fortress) sits adjacent a modern day village (also called Eğrigöz), perched up against the river on an incredibly steep outcropping. It is not, it should be noted, large – the entire walled area was only a couple of hundred feet probably, and as I later put together afterwards, the actual “citadel” part of it was a keep only modestly larger than Poenari Castle in Romania, Vlad Țepeș‘s prized fortress perched high in the Carpathian Mountains which we had visited the previous week.

Symbol of the Order of the Dragon, an anti-Ottoman, pro-Roman Catholic military order that Vlad's father belonged to - it is the origin of the name "Dracula", meaning "Son of the Dragon".

Symbol of the Order of the Dragon, an anti-Ottoman, pro-Roman Catholic military order that Vlad’s father belonged to – it is the origin of the name “Dracula”, meaning “Son of the Dragon”.

As a barely-minted teenager Vlad Țepeș and his younger brother Radu cel Frumos (the Handsome) were sent as hostages to their father’s good behavior, first to Edirne, the site of the Ottoman court (remember, this was still before Constantinople fell), and then later to the fortress of Eğrigöz in Western Anatolia, a common destination for hostage rulers’ children.

On arrival to Eğrigöz the value of the location was instantly obvious. Yes, it dominated the river valley it sat over, but it was also a brutally long way from Europe and any possible hope of rescue or escape. By comparison, Edirne would have been a cakewalk.

Vlad Țepeș and his brother were hostages, but they were noble hostages, and as such they were trained in academic and martial subjects with contact – it’s unclear whether at Eğrigöz, Edirne, or some other location – with the sultan’s son, Mehmed II (who would later, it should be noted, be the man who finally conquered Constantinople and moved the capital of the Ottoman Empire to Istanbul).

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There is precious little beyond this that we know of those years. We know Vlad was not fond of Mehmed, though it never got so bad as to interfere with Vlad in later years working out certain political “arrangements” with Mehmed’s father, Murad.

There are, as well, stories that Mehmed and Radu the Handsome – Vlad’s younger brother – got along, um, very, very well. (Naturally, these stories are vehemently denied by Turkish historians, but given Radu’s relative obscurity and the reverence with which Mehmed II would later be held in, it seems quite plausible).

Years later, Vlad would be freed, making political arrangements with the sultan and taking his hard-won knowledge of military tactics and Turkish to great effect when his boyhood companion, Mehmed II, marched into Wallachia and tried to burn down Vlad’s realm.

Gatehouse of Eğrigöz Fortess from below. The well-preserved gatehouse is all that remains of the central keep.

Gatehouse of Eğrigöz Fortess from below. The well-preserved gatehouse is all that remains of the central keep.

So there at the end of the Vlad Tepes World Tour, we hit not the very beginning, perhaps, but very close to Vlad’s beginning.

Perhaps, too, one can argue that Eğrigöz was a psychological birth of sorts for Vlad, as it was there that he learned about the enemies – Ottomans and his brother Radu alike – that would hound him for the remainder of his life. There, too, he learned the skills that would keep him alive through three reigns until his death led to his body staying in Wallachia, but his head making one final trip to Istanbul to give testament of his death to Mehmed II.

So after four days in Emet, my traveling companions and I made our way back to Istanbul, and from there onto a plane back home.

At least until next time. After all, we never did make it to Moldova or Giurgiu…