That asari mind control thing

I don’t know how this keeps popping up, and the only way I can explain it is with the ease with which humans fall for conspiracy theories, arguments that purport to “explain everything”, no matter how flimsy the evidence is and no matter how strong the counterevidence is.

But let’s examine the gory details.

“Theres a conversation on Ilium between a Salarian, Turian and Human where all 3 say that Asari look more like their own species than any other. Its also hinted at that Asari use their psuedo telepathy to alter how other species see them.

In conclusion: Asari are pleasure GELFs.”

~ A user on the ME3 forum

It’s a one-shot joke based on comments by three drunken guys ogling an asari stripper in a bar, who were likely not serious themselves. It’s amazing how many people make theories based on that one mention of supposed mind control.

To hopefully sink this theory, let’s look at the evidence for the null hypothesis: that asari actually look, within the fictional universe, the way they look in the game.

  • First of all, postulating such an extraordinary claim — that a species doesn’t really look the way we see it — by itself requires extraordinary evidence, so the burden of proof lies on the proponents of this hypothesis.
  • What would be the purpose of such an ability in the first place? If the idea is to appear to each species as an attractive potential mate, they fail at that even for humans (the image we see). Never mind that blue skin and head tendrils are decidedly not attractive traits to many humans — why do they always appear female-shaped? Wouldn’t it make more sense if they looked male-shaped to women?
  • Apparently this postulated ability also works on cameras, holographic projectors, monitors and printers everywhere, because drawings, still images, and video footage of asari look like we would expect them to look.
  • The ability would have to extend to their clothing, which would need to be made in the dimentions of their real appearance rather than the projected human-like appearance. There is no evidence of this. Furthermore, Liara in ME1 wears human armor, while the other three alien squadmates each use armor custom-made for their species.
  • If this ability really existed, it would have been studied and catalogued centuries ago. Instead, everyone except our bachelor party trio is completely silent about it — including Dr. Chakwas, who has been tending to Liara and said by her to have good understanding of asari physiology.
  • The ability to alter other beings’ perception without consent would not be tolerated by other species, and a countermeasure would be developed.

That about covers it. Based on this evidence, we should assume that their appearance in the games is their real appearance. Why, then, they look so human-like? I don’t know. Maybe the developers know; maybe they don’t. Normally I would say “widespread humanoids are a genre convention”, but seeing how BioWare doesn’t like using tropes verbatim without at least giving them some justification that makes sense in context…

Ah, Valve, How Charming

Valve has consistently been remaining the voice of reason in the PC game industry.

In a situation where Activision has been systematically crippling Blizzard games with DRM, Ubisoft caused a drop of their PC sales with their own folly (with pirates as a scapegoat, of course), and EA is pressing on BioWare to turn their RPGs into shooters (to say nothing of the spyware vomit that is Origin), Valve’s Gabe Newell isn’t afraid to state the obvious.

He’s fundamentally right. Digital distribution is a competition between publishers and… people who can offer the same services cheaper. I’ve been saying this a lot, and I’ll say it again: DRM, ultimately, does nothing but complicate life for legitimate customers.

In general, we think there is a fundamental misconception about piracy. Piracy is almost always a service problem and not a pricing problem. For example, if a pirate offers a product anywhere in the world, 24 x 7, purchasable from the convenience of your personal computer, and the legal provider says the product is region-locked, will come to your country 3 months after the US release, and can only be purchased at a brick and mortar store, then the pirate’s service is more valuable. Most DRM solutions diminish the value of the product by either directly restricting a customers use or by creating uncertainty.

Our goal is to create greater service value than pirates, and this has been successful enough for us that piracy is basically a non-issue for our company. For example, prior to entering the Russian market, we were told that Russia was a waste of time because everyone would pirate our products. Russia is now about to become our largest market in Europe.

I can see why.

Back in 2004, when Steam was introduced as a distribution platform with the release of Half-Life 2, the situation seemed hopeless. Russia was still covered with a network of semi-legal stores selling pirated games in heaps. Piracy was second nature for Russian software users through the nineties and early 2000s. Most people couldn’t afford licensed software or thought the prices were outrageous. It was not competitive. A lot of it still is. How many Russians do you know who have bought a retail copy of Windows? Or bought music in an online store? As long as there is no practical reason to prefer licensed versions, piracy will continue.

Meanwhile, back in those years, the prevalent forms of Internet access in Russia were dial-up and per-traffic billing plans for Ethernet ISPs. My ISP charged $0.05 per megabyte downloaded. Steam has an offline mode, sure, but Steam games, even those bought in retail, insist on downloading all available updates at first activation.

Under these conditions, introducing Steam in Russia seemed like tactical suicide.

And indeed, back then, Steam was widely unpopular around the world, and especially in Russia. Howeve, it has proven to be the right solution in the long term. Today, however, in the age of cheap and reliable Internet access, Steam has shown its true appeal.

Traditional DRM only makes users’ lives worse. With region locks, requirements for a CD in the drive, for perpetual Internet access (Ubisoft really shot itself in the foot with this one), registration forms, rootkits in the system, and so on. Under these conditions, pirated versions start looking more appealing — at least for purely single-player games. World of Warcraft, for example, has little to fear because you pay for an online service, one that private servers simply cannot hope to match.

Steam is a service, first and foremost. The convenience of having your games bound to your account, now and forever, on any computer you access. Automatic updates. No annoying third party DRM… usually (yes, I’m looking at you, Ubisoft). No tying to physical media.

Today’s Steam, a far cry from the messy state it was released in, found acceptance first and foremost in games where pirates couldn’t hope to compete with it. This includes, first and foremost, multiplayer games, where Steam provides instant tools for building communities. Even for single player games, now it is often more convenient to find a game on Steam than run around the city looking for a retail copy, or searching Google for a torrent.

I’m not saying Steam is perfect. A lot of its UI decisions are counterintuitive even now. Localization is often an issue: sometimes, for odd reasons, a Steam release is missing either the English version or the Russian version. (Steam has often allowed me to play English versions of foreign games, which I generally prefer, when only Russian versions are available in retail.) And now, since September, Valve has forced publishers to cut their prices in Russia. Not everyone likes this. Some publishers have decided not to release their games in Steam for CIS countries for this reason. I personally find it ridiculous. If the lowered price isn’t acceptable for you, let me pay the European price, just as long as I get worldwide access to the game. Why should I be treated as a second-class customer just because I have a Russian IP?

Nevertheless. Thank you, Valve. For not being evil.

And Another Quote for Today

Of course, the real problem isn’t women bishops, it’s bishops at all; or, rather, the creation of a set of people called ‘clergy’ and saying they are in some way different from non-clergy. Whether women are allowed in the clergy club is rather an insignificant point when the main theological failing is to have set up the club in the first place (and was compounded by not getting rid of the club properly in the seventeenth century when you had the chance).


Sounds Familiar…

Amati, the last woman to race in Formula One, described her experience there for F1 Racing Magazine, saying: “It’s a male environment and they want to keep it that way – the drivers, the journalists, everyone. Only one person came up to me and offered me his hand at my first GP in South Africa – and that was Ayrton Senna. He came over and said, ‘Welcome Giovanna, I’m glad you’re here. My congratulations.’ The others ignored me, and when I failed they shrugged and said it was because I was a woman.” True Champions, it seems, are sometimes proven as Greats not just on track…


On Skyrim and Hype

Recently I’ve been unnerved. The pre-election craze left me to spend two evenings doing nothing but reading about recent political events, and it seems that no matter what scenario unravels — a more peaceful or more violent one — the common people will be the ones who lose.

Anyway, still bitter after the My Little Pony hype — a show that I would just ignore otherwise, but which I got to utterly hate despite never watching it because of its obsessed fandom — I decided to finally take a peek at the next big thing, well, you know, that game with number five which is a sequel to the big thing of five years ago, more or less the same thing but with number four.

Hype has its downsides, and I’ve learned to set my expectations low by default when taking a look at big things, because a lot of the hype comes from blinded fanboys who refuse to see any fault in their precious franchise and from mainstream critics, who basically have to write positive reviews lest they lose the press benefits. But that’s just repeating the obvious banalities by this point.

Sometimes I get pleasantly surprised. Often I don’t. I thought Mass Effect was a genuinely great franchise despite my initially low expectations (I expected a bland KOTOR clone with silly implausibilities galore), and I thought Dragon Age was solid but needlessly dragging, unforgiving, and retreading on BioWare’s earlier grounds that had become cliche by that point. Certainly not the avatar of perfection on this sinful Earth whose very piss smells of nectar and makes flowers blossom. On the other hand, I installed the much-maligned Dragon Age II fully thinking it’d be good but not my kind of game, and well… it’s actually good, story-wise and presentation-wise, and my greatest issue with the game is the patently ridiculous and unfair encounter design: somehow they managed to make combat even worse than in DA1. (I’m expecting inquisitors with stakes and bonfires any time now.)

Even Portal, which I would call the overall best game I’ve played (first game, not second), would probably have ended up in my blacklist had I not had the fortune to play it before the hype wave started. But I was fortunate to play it when it was still not a big thing. I was looking for something to play while taking a break from Episode Two, and I thought I could as well try this puzzle game bundled with it. It was before the cake and companion cube craze started. The rest is history. Portal 2, on the other hand, was a big thing from the very start. I preordered it knowing exactly what to expect — more of the same, more puzzles, more portals, more Chell, more GLaDOS, more black humor — and that was exactly what I got, no more, no less. I don’t really have a problem with Portal 2 — it’s Valve’s best executed game from a technical standpoint. But story-wise it’s a sequel to a game that didn’t really need a sequel, and one that made the story of the first part retroactively impossible to take seriously, turning all of Aperture Science into a cartoonish farce.

Anyway, the great and bountiful Skyrim.

I’ll be brief. It’s atmospheric, yes. The music especially captures the mood from the get go. As a sightseeing exercise, a sort of fantasy Google Street View, or for someone who wants to actually pretend to be a denizen of a fantasy world — as opposed to realizing they’re a real person playing through someone else’s story — it may be the way to go.

Let me reiterate, Skyrim is not a bad game. It has its players and I think they deserve the right to enjoy a game they like. But it’s not my thing. It doesn’t inspire me, it doesn’t capture my imagination or instill a sense of awae in me. To my eye, it’s just unmemorable, in a “so okay it’s average” way.

One thing BioWare and Obsidian games in general did well is inspiring you to care about the world even in sequels. I’ll be honest: I started Skyrim completely new to the TES franchise. The earlier big things, namely Morrowind and Oblivion, passed by me.

I can start a BioWare or Obsidian game and immediately feel engaged, even when I don’t know anything about the setting. Here, after ten minutes of a scripted scene where I ride a cart while listening to small talk without being able to do as much as turn my head — a scene that would make Valve scratch their heads, then scrap the prologue and start over — I’m suddenly dumped into the world as ye olde Adventurer Classic, the one that fetches bear asses to ungrateful villagers, and I just find it hard to care, or to even understand why I’m supposed to care about these empty forests and bare hills, with bland and unmemorable NPCs in between.


I heard that the focus is on immersion and exploration, but well, to immerse yourself into a setting and explore it, you first somehow have to start caring about it, which brings me back to square one.

And I’m probably a minority on this one, but to me, a game (except for little timekillers like Tetris and Minesweeper) is first and foremost a work of literature — like movies and TV series, but with different media possibilities and conventions in each form. And I prefer a game to have a story: a clear beginning, end, and a suitably complex storyline with a fleshed-out cast of characters in between. The TES series is… quite different and, again, there’s nothing wrong with that, but it’s just not what I like in games.

Speaking of conventions, Skyrim deserves a special award for quite possibly the messiest video game UI I’ve seen. I’m not a designer by any means, but I’ve read essays and saw quite a lot of desktop software, and my experience as a programmer has taught me to distinguish good UIs from bad UIs. Bluntly, Skyrim doesn’t have a good UI. It breaks too many principles to count, the most important of which is the principle of least surprise. Conventions don’t exist for this game. Keys do unexpected things, widgets behave in an unexpected way, and just about every screen — trade, inventory, spells, you count them — is done in a “new and improved” way that goes completely against existing RPG traditions. I understand developers’ need to feel original, but originality shouldn’t get in the way of usability. Conventions exist for a reason: they let users easily get used to a new interface. Bethesda instead preferred to confuse the heck out of the user in the name of looking “trendy”.

With that said, I’m back to hacking and fireballing my way through the remainder of Dark Messiah. This game might not have been gushed by critics and fans, but I would prefer even a bad game (not that this is a bad game) that at least tries something interesting, anything at all, to a game that appeals to reviewers with form while feeling trite and hollow on the inside.

Adieu, Gmail

(Crossposted from

Normally, I don’t care for Google+, or Facebook, or other similar “social” noise. I once had a Facebook profile before it became, well, the Facebook of today and was still a relatively low-profile place which I could conveniently use for my and other people’s contact details.

Normally, I also pay little attention to the privacy concerns surrounding Google’s web services since pretty much their inception.

However, the recent pseudonymity controversy demonstrated that Google’s “don’t be evil” motto did not pass a reality check. Google has demonstrated that it would rather allow the jerkassery to continue than listen to the concerns of the very community Google+ is supposed to be supporting. Typically for a corporation, money — in this case, advertising revenue — won over civility and common sense.

It is always sad to see a corporation damage its popular support through bulldozing tactics, because ultimately it harms both the corporation and the community. When Wikia, capitalizing on the success of the wiki model, unilaterally imposed its new skin on hosted wikis against the wishes of their contributions, it caused many of them to fork the projects — including the flagship, WoWWiki — and move elsewhere. The result was dissipation, confusion, and the reduction of Wikia’s role as the leading host for specialized wikis. The remains of forked projects remained as rotting carcasses — again against the wishes of the community. Wikia would rather profit from advertisements on dead but popularly visited wikis than put them out of their misery.

Google, likewise, had the potential to be a great all-in-one Internet company, trusted by casual users and power users alike. There were a few things about its web services that made me raise an eyebrow in the past: increasingly obtrusive integration (no, please, don’t add annoying useless “features” to Gmail unless I enable them explicitly), censorship on YouTube (which I left earlier, seeing how many videos were blocked in Russia or vice versa, enabled _only_ on Russia), personal censorship of search results, Gmail privacy concerns, and so on. Instead, they chose the path of alienating themselves — the corporate equivalent of sticking your fingers in your ears and saying “la la la, not listening”. It’s a tragedy — both for Google and for the users.

So be it, then. As I said, I wouldn’t use Google+ even without the real name policy, since I don’t care about that particular site, but the trend is worrying and Google’s behavior — from addressing the wrong problem to silencing its own employees — is extremely offputting. I find it better to jump ship now than later regret postponing it too much.

Under different circumstances, I wouldn’t consider leaving Gmail. From a technical perspective, it’s a fast, reliable, and highly flexible mail service. If I only cared about the technical perspective, I’d stay and recommend it to others. But I care about ethics. Luckily, I used my email address almost exclusively, rather than my Gmail address directly, so all it required was pointing my Launchpad account to the newly enabled account managed by my hosting provider.

Here’s a possible lesson to be learned: keep your online identity in your own hands. Count on the possibility you’ll want to switch services, and manage your online handles in a way that they can be easily redirected to another service provider, if needed. In programming terms, keep the interface separate from the implementation.


Last Friday, I discovered the ladies’ room on my floor was out of that rough, cheap grey substance that could only charitably be called “toilet paper”. Knowing how long it takes for the staff to do anything (we’re talking about a building that was too cheap to turn on heating until late November, leaving us freezing in the office), during my break, I went to the nearby shop and bought four rolls of good, soft toilet paper, leaving them there as a hint to stop “saving on matches”, as we Russians say.

Today I found out that only the one roll I unpacked remained on the counter, while the pack with the three other rolls vanished without a trace. Out of curiosity, I went to the men’s room to look if some of them were moved there, only to see that its supply of toilet paper was running out as well and nobody even thought of putting another roll there, even from the three spare ones I provided.


It’s been almost three days since my last lasering session, and that skin inflammation over my jawbone is still not going away.

Now I’m jokingly wondering if Paragon points would heal it…