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Saturday, June 29, 2019 - 22:49 SGT
Posted By: Gilbert


I had been planning on a review of Total War: Three Kingdoms, but got my evenings caught up in other unfinished business instead. Having last played Ancient Domains of Mystery (ADOM) in my secondary school days some twenty years back, I was pleasantly surprised to discover that the ASCII-based roguelike had been revitalized with sprite graphics on Steam.

Before continuing, what's a roguelike? Well, from Wikipedia, it's "a subgenre of role-playing video game characterized by a dungeon crawl through procedurally generated levels, turn-based gameplay, tile-based graphics, and permanent death of the player character". The other elements aren't particularly remarkable, and have persisted in popular RPGs of various stripes such as Final Fantasy, Fallout, Baldur's Gate, Witcher, etc. However, in all these games, character death is rectifiable by simply loading the last save - yes, the final boss might be ridiculous, but victory is nigh-guaranteed with some additional grinding of items and experience levels, or sheer dumb luck in combat. Diablo for one markets their Hardcore permadeath mode as a special challenge. To old-school roguelike players, however, it's just Tuesday.

Okay, there's always the option to savescum - i.e. simulate the normal savegame paradigm of other RPGs - by manually maintaining savefiles in ADOM, but it's against the spirit of the game. The modern paid Steam version of ADOM has introduced a "Story Mode" that allows reloading after death for the newer generation of strawberries, but that takes all the thrill out of it. No, I'm going to play it the classic way - when men were real men, and were reduced to blubbering wrecks after their pimped-out character representing hundreds of hours of hard work perishes due to a cat running over their keyboard.

Fair warning: the following narration unavoidably involves some spoilers for ADOM, but in fairness, it's unknown whether anyone has legitimately won the game without external help. Could be a fine challenge for a retiree, but I'm not sure if they'll have much of their hair left, before long.

To dip my feet back in, I began with probably the easiest-to-sustain combination: Candle-born Trollish Healer. Surviving wasn't any trouble, but as with all good trolls, gaining experience points was a drag. Also tried out a Dwarven Paladin, before my first serious attempt with a Gray Elven Archer. She got as far as the top level of the Pyramid, before discovering that being surrounded by mummies and jackal demons was no fun. Whoops.

Nonetheless, playing an archer allowed an appreciation of ranged classes in general, following the logic that if hostile mobs can't reach you, then pesky details such as hitpoints and armour becomes mostly irrelevant (until they do, as I realized). Next up was an attempt at combining the best of all worlds, with a Hurthling (i.e. repackaged hobbit/halfling) Wizard. With a racial predisposition towards slinging stones, the plan was to develop this cheap talent together with spellcasting ability. It all went very well indeed, and Baggins reached level 36 (out of a maximum 50) without much trouble. His ignominious end arrived when he tried to shave it too close in learning a new spell whilst Strength of Atlas was expiring, and got crushed beneath his overloaded backpack. That really sucked.

After hammering my face into the keyboard for awhile, I took stock of what I had learnt, and concluded that extending play for more than a couple of hours at a stretch was a major factor - the longer one plays, the more corners get cut, and unnecessary risks start to creep in. Not much of a problem with conventional RPGs, but ADOM's an entirely different beast.

Well, I went for the Small Cave start with a bunch of new Hurthling Wizards after that, but none survived to the High Mountain Village; I washed my hands of the short bastards after running out of LOTR-related names, and rolled up Gimli, the Dwarven Weaponsmith. This is his story.

Gimli's Tinder profile
(Source: gatherer.wizards.com)

With takings not being too swell at the forges thanks to the internecine Gold Wars, I figured I'd have a go at this "saving the world" gig, and packed a couple of my best warhammers for the trip to the Drakalor Chain. It's 2d3 damage in either hand - very respectable. Not to forget the anvil, of course. What would a smith be, without one?

Made my first stop at the sleepy little hamlet of Terinyo, as all the guidebooks advise, and stocked up on a couple of large rations. Briefly pondered heading northwest upon observing all the hurthling footprints on that path, before realizing that none of them came back. Resolved to play it safe in the Infinite Dungeon for early levelling - when in doubt, simply escape upstairs or downstairs. This got me some remarkably sweet gear, including a ring of speed [+0, +4] {+5 speed}, a worn pair of seven league boots, and the quicksilver bracers. Cool, that's the bracers slot sorted, then.

It was all going quite productively, I daresay, and I was building quite the stash of useful knick-knacks in Terinyo... only to find it all gone on my third trip there. My anvil!

"Alrighty, 'fess up, you lads." I told the villagers. "Who nicked all my gear? I'll look the other way if it just turns up - I'm not even here to turn a profit, guys."

Well, there were a lot of shifty looks and denials, but no confessions, though I did note that the resident village fool Yggaz was happily quaffing some primo Black Label whisky. No civic consciousness at all, these peasants. Here I am, trying to save reality as they know it, and they pilfer my stores!

Fine, no point getting worked up over it - got the village elder's quest to learn Bridge Building and Healing, and discovered an altar on the sixth level of the Village Dungeon. Time to farm some piety through live sacrifices! The whole business of luring monsters over the altar to sac them got old quickly, but I kept it up, and eventually successfully got precrowned at character level 11. Basically, suck up to a patron deity enough, and he'll reward you with an artifact. Now, artifacts are typically high-quality items with rare attributes and all, but one of their best properties is that of being indestructible. Unlike many other RPGs, gear in ADOM can be destroyed in normal use, and sometimes at an astonishing rate.

Now the proud owner of the rune-covered halberd "Wyrmlance", I made sure to wield it once in a while to train up some weapons proficiency in polearms. I somehow scrounged up another anvil from somewhere soon enough, together with assorted rings of resistance, and was thus willing to let bygones be bygones. Couldn't learn any spells from the several spellbooks found due to low Literacy skill, very unfortunately, and attempts to procure a blink dog corpse to obtain teleport control failed miserably too, likely due to the lack of the Food Preservation skill. This dropped my alignment down to Neutral from Lawful, luckily repairable through some quick sacrifices.

It was time to venture further, and I sought out the moldy dungeon for the very useful tome of donors, from which I got the very useful death ray and confusion resistances in the first two readings. Unwilling to play pool roulette, I continued farming up better gear, and found a very nice suit of white adamantium full plate armour. Thus encased, I popped over to the Ice Queen Domain - another new area - and couldn't resist clearing the ice statue rooms. Managed to complete the frost jarl quest with some difficulty, which included running like mad from the titans in the greater vault on the fourth level.

One piece of advice here: due to the permanent nature of death in ADOM, it is understandably wise to have a means of reliably avoiding danger, because even the strongest characters can easily get trapped in unwinnable fights. In practice, this tends to be access to either teleportation or invisibility. I had the latter effect available from a ring, which saved my bacon against those twenty-five feet tall freaks out for my ass. Oh, and the cats. Those wild cats and cave lions are allowed to attack you, but slay one of them in self-defence, and the cat lord will eventually seek to claw you to shreds. Completely unfair, I tell ya. Fortunately, being a dwarf with nice armour, I could afford to allow them to wail on me for a few turns.

Next plan of action was to descend the main Caverns of Chaos, to gain the dwarven portal quest, such that I could complete it about when the experience level limit for the Pyramid came around. Managed to stock up on enough stomafilla herbs to last the remainder of the visit in the Big Room, despite not knowing the Herbalism skill. Note to future adventurers, for whom starvation is a looming menace: buy out the stocks of cooked lizards from the ratling traders on the Arena level. They might be an acquired taste, but each one is as nutritious as a standard iron ration, while weighing like thirty times less.

There are almost too many ways to handle the food situation nowadays really, with the Fungal Caves also yielding a guaranteed renewable source through an artifact. I snagged the cornucopia, which additionally granted the Fate smiles and luck intrinsics, and a massive +13 to the Mana attribute. Not that I had managed to learn any spells yet, thanks to poor Literacy scores; worse, since I had raised it above 50, I was unable to get the potion of literacy from the elder as a quest reward, despite protestations that we were all dwarves here.

But fine, what did book-mugging ever do for me anyway? Swinging hammers is where it's at! I had by then upgraded to an adamantium warhammer and shield, and picked up a large eternium hammer with 2d10+10 damage in Darkforge. This, as it turned out, would be my primary weapon for the remainder of this adventure. Darkforge itself was tolerably comfortable, and the one-on-one steel golem duels gave pretty good experience. Completed the Pyramid and dwarven portal quests next, and also the old barbarian's Courage quest; never quite figured out how he keeps track of my kills, when I can't even recall the number myself.

This, as it happened, was also a trying period. Some of my best equipment had gotten destroyed in quick succession, including the seven league boots, my cloak of protection, and even the white adamantium full plate (that last didn't even make much sense - surely there should have been something left to salvage?). I was actually seriously considering quitting the adventuring business due to the indignity of it all, but resolved to at least give the greater vault another go - they're rumoured to usually contain several useful artifacts. Now shielded with Rolf's Saviour, the assorted giants and titans nonetheless remained very tough going... up until I found an unprepossessing gilded amulet. It changed everything.

Recall, hit point (HP) recovery is a major limiting factor to advancement in ADOM. In more forgiving realms, HP either regenerates reasonably quickly, or sources of restoration such as potions are abundant and/or readily purchasable. None of these are true in ADOM. There is no reliable method of getting more healing potions - well, other than maybe some very tedious work with Jharod, and even that has prerequisites - herbs are situational, and natural healing is extremely slow. To put it into perspective, healing a single HP can take many dozens of turns, while a single successful attack from a powerful mob such as a giant can easily take dozens of HP in a turn. One solution, as mentioned, is simply not to get into a position to be hurt, by relying upon ranged attacks and spells. Unfortunately, I had no real recourse to either, and my main body armour at this point - the ancient mummy wrapping - was not particularly impressive in terms of raw protection, despite its many useful intrinsics.

Enter the amulet of indomitable life. In addition to a very good +4 to both DV and PV, and incredible +10 to Toughness (which grants plenty of additional HP at maximum), it regenerates a HP every turn. The quality of life that this single ability grants can hardly be understated. Now, while other gear such as bracers of regeneration grant the same effect, they remain vulnerable to the ever-looming threat of item destruction.

With the amulet, even titans could be taken down in a reasonable amount of time, and clearing the greater vault produced two more artifacts: the circlet of the pure mind and the vibrating rapier, "Hornet's Sting". Now, neither were that impressive as equipment statistically, but +8 Willpower and the (albeit random) ability to teleport remained welcome.

Given this haul, it was time to descend further down the main dungeon, but other that that, I was itching to do some smithing - that's the whole point about being a Weaponsmith, after all. Quite unfortunately, I hadn't managed to locate any forges (other than in Darkforge, which remains a decidedly subpar place to smith, due to the heavy background corruption and annoying mobs). Glod, the resident smith in the Dwarven Village, owned one, but the stingy git would charge 2500 gold a pop for its use. As such, I thought to try the ol' insurance scam of sorts. It goes as follows: the dwarven elder's last quest involves slaying a greater daemon that's been terrorizing the village; it would be sad, therefore, if the daemon slaughtered a certain rent-seeking dwarf in its rampage, no?

And thus the epic duel began - I lured the greater daemon to the forge building, where it somehow ignored Glod - who frankly was an easier target - to flail at me. While it didn't hurt too much, the accumulated damage remained annoying. I had given up on Plan Free Forge and made to end the daemon, when a critically-wounded dwarven guardian staggered out from my blind spot, and expired after impaling himself on my hammer. On cue, the village alarm rang.

Oh, come on.

The penalty for killing a village inhabitant, intentionally or not, was self-proclaimed shopkeeper-turned-lawbringer Waldenbrook summoning muscular dwarves to exact vengeance. The minions weren't much trouble by this point, but shopkeepers can be nasty business, and I wasn't about to stick about to find out. On went the ring of invisibility, and I snuck to visit the dwarven elder to get his opinion on my accidental manslaughter. Turns out, he understood.

"Oh, accidents happen. Here's your reward, Big Punch, and good luck with saving the world."

"Great, how about calling Waldenbrook off my ass?"

"No can do, he's on a power trip."

"Fine, how about that potion of literacy then? I'll tank the GRE or ACT or whatever test you have, if you need justification."


Well, it was worth a try, I suppose. Now, careful readers might have surmised that I'm of Lawful alignment, i.e. a goody-two-shoes, save for a very brief dip into neutrality. Then, how does the failed Glod manoeuvre - which sounds shady at best - come into this? It turns out that the definition of law is... not always intuitive, in these parts. For example, sneak up and bisect a cutpurse or similar low-life with a sword, and the Lawful deity Morodwyn will be all a-ok with it. In fact, sacrifice the cutpurse on an altar, and you'll get piety brownie points. However, pickpocket the guy? That's naughty.

The loss of Waldenbrook's shop as a buyer of strange items was regrettable, but then he was a bit of a gouger. Given that I had gotten my skill trainings from Bart for the golden gladius, there wasn't much left for me in Dwarftown anyway. I stashed Big Punch and Judge & Jury - as well as my potions of cure corruption - in the cleared Ogre Cave, before searching about the chain a bit more... and found a forge on the second level of a random dungeon near the Gremlin Cave. I pacified the level somewhat and dropped my anvil there, but held off smithing for lack of good-enough (i.e. eternium) items.

My main concern, at this stage, was whether to try and save Khelavaster. Without an amulet of life saving to hand to him, descending below the 16th level of the main caverns would cause the sage to die, and forfeit his very nice rewards. However, since there's no guarantee that such an amulet - or even a source of a wish - would appear, there was no way to advance the big quest without bypassing Khelly, dead or alive. I decided to go about my crowning earlier than the originally-planned character level 32 (which would have eliminated fire immunity as a possible outcome), and received Perion's mithril plate mail, which gave +19 to PV, and +9 Charisma besides. To be entirely honest, smithed-up eternium plate mail or full plate would likely be superior eventually, but needs must.

Then, great good luck! I had ducked into the crumbling dungeon for one last go at finding a way to preserve Khelly, and found an ordinary ring almost immediately, from a ghost lord. Yep, ring of djinni summoning! Not about to take any chances, I kept the ring under my artifact elemental gauntlets - having freed Griff Bloodaxe for the portal quest already - until I was face to face with Khelly, and wished for the requisite amulet right in his face. Stashed his reward of scrolls of corruption removal in the Ogre Cave too.

Next on my bucket list was the Tomb of the High Kings for the Eternal Guardian's ring, and not wanting to haul logs down six levels to fail to build a bridge with my crappy skill in that respect, I went looking for a wand of cold. There was one guaranteed in the dungeon of the Ice Queen Domain, but I noped out real quick once an ultimate doppelganger turned up. They're probably the only monster that even the strongest melee fighter really, really doesn't want to fight mano-a-mano, due to their faithful copying of attributes and entirely-unfair percentage-based damage. Thankfully, I found a couple of wands not too long after, built the ice bridge across the piranha lake, and took care of the skeletal king easily enough (yay, circlet and intrinsics)

Given that I was on the surface already, I figured to try the Tower of Eternal Flames next, it being the only elemental temple not sited in the caverns. I had dropped most of my gear in the top level of the caverns, but would quickly lose my cloak of protection and best longbow to the flames. The fighting itself was routine - nothing had been truly challenging since my first attempt at the greater vault in the Ice Queen Domain - though I was surprised by a tension room of, get this, frost giants. How does that even make sense?

Digging across to the temple proper on the top floor was easy enough with high Mining skill (a dwarven specialty), and I was soon face to face with the big nasty - the Ancient Chaos Wyrm. I had quite sensibly been fighting around a corner to avoid the wyrm's energy blasts, but there was no chickening out now, and I first smashed a potion of blindness on its face, to hopefully buy a few free attacks. Time for Wyrmlance to show its power, I figured, and gingerly stabbed with the pointy end...

One hit kill.

Huh, that was a bit of a downer. Now, to get what I came for. I stepped around the corner, and was immediately met by a deluge of fire blasts from the wyrm's underlings, which happened to cook its corpse; by the time I took another step to the corpse itself, it had been destroyed by the blasts. Kind of humiliating, to be honest. Not like it'll have to live it down, though. Grabbed the Chaos Orb of Elemental Fire and immediately equipped it for a +10 Strength boost, and scooted back to the caverns at character level 30 to prepare for the big dive. Drank a potion of insight to track my intrinsic status, and confirmed that I had all the important resistances, as well as shock immunity from the crowning. Looking forward to the Blue Dragon Caves already given that and Wyrmlance, then.

My cat-avoiding patience would finally run out in the dwarven graveyard while searching for the Water Temple, after getting teleported into a mass of mobs. Couldn't be helped. Smashed the Snake from Beyond, and ate its corpse for +4 Dexterity and Mana, and two corruptions: mouth tentacles and shrouded eyes. Technically, neither were particularly bad, but I didn't want to run around with Appearance at 1, given how it affects further corruption nowadays. Popped back to my Ogre Cave stash to consume a couple of mushrooms of purity to remove these afflictions.

Spotted a non-hostile ki-rin in the Eternal Guardian level, with the Guardian allowing passage upon verifying the ring. Had faced down a diamond golem, which turned out not to be that scary after all, and also a tension room of shadow wyrms, where a dropped potion of gain attributes got fried before I could react. Reminded myself once again to fight around corners wherever possible.

Checked out the Integrated Resort shop below the Eternal Guardian level, but unfortunately didn't spot any item of particular interest, even after identifying a number of promising prospects. I didn't want to bother with amassing cash at this point either, and soon descended further, to discover an altar on the next level, and a forge after that. Extremely convenient, given the shortcut to the surface via Darkforge about here.

Popped up to retrieve the crown of science - not that I had much use for it - and attained character level 32 and intrinsic fire immunity after killing an ancient black dragon on D:33. An ancient blue dragon would drop a wand of destruction too, and some chaos knight dropped an ultra-heavy eternium plate armour weighing 1920 stones, along with other sweet loot like eternium boots and green truesilver plate. Polished off the bunny master quickly with teleportation, and found the cat lord generated neutral, which was something of a relief.

Finally, it was time to do some smithing! Being too lazy to retrieve my anvil from the other dungeon, I bought one for about 30k gold pieces from the Integrated Resort, and melted my collected spare eternium gear into a few dozen ingots, with the ultra-heavy plate yielding fifteen by itself. This allowed me to smith up my eternium boots from [+0, +5] to [+6, +10], which was probably enough to have me favour it over the seven league boots, had that survived.

This done, I decided to finish up the remaining useful surface quests, while farming wilderness chaos knight encounters for more eternium in passing. Completed the Blup quest - though I neglected to receive the trident anyway - and gave up on Barnabas ever restocking. Said hi to Khelavaster and some guilty villagers in Terinyo, with Yggaz swapping my three potions of booze for healing this time - but given he's supplied me with at least one potion of gain attributes, I guess I can't be too disappointed. Received the Unicorn quest and completed it easily save for a 110 damage critical hit, and unexpectedly found a map fragment from a random lizardman encounter.

Time for the final descent, then. I smithed up a recently-found eternium girdle from [+0, +4] to [+6, +8], and after replacing my girdle of strength, I was walking about with a PV of 83. Gave up replacing the doors to the forge after awhile, but took some pleasure in slaying an intruding cave tiger, without the cat lord to worry about. Found a cavernous level below the cat lord level, and hammered a titan down without resorting to backing up. There was a lesser golem vault on D:38, where I made character level 34 after disposing of more titans, eternium golems, and a karmic dragon.

The Air Temple was on D:40, which was uneventful but for the loss of another very good cloak. I was running out of skills to raise by this time, and was reduced to raising Literacy, point by painful point. D:38 would have another ultimate doppelganger, which was turned into an ettin and dealt with by potion of exchange. Figured that I might as well learn some spells given my improved Literacy status, and revisited my spellbook stashes around the map, though only a couple of bolt spells, Lightning Ball, Light and Teleport would ever be really used. Grabbed my remaining corruption mitigation scrolls and potions from the Ogre Cave. Had a tad of bother with quickling kings, where I was thankful for having learnt Lightning Ball.

Only about ten dungeon levels remaining. Found and converted another altar on D:41, and sacced some gold to bring piety back up. D:43 had a lesser vault of red dragons, where Wyrmlance happily feasted. Got a spellbook of Cure Light Wounds, which might have been better received had I not gotten the amulet, and also a tract of order from the great red wyrm, Thrunderuxur. Also found a large eternium shield [+11, +7] that was strictly better than Rolf's Saviour, and an eternium warhammer of slaughtering that somehow managed to produce less damage on average than my large eternium hammer. I didn't have too many ingots left for smithing them up, sadly, and so pressed on.

Regained the mists of chaos corruption about this time, and got constantly surrounded by earth elementals and grues in the Earth Temple - but it wasn't as if they could get through my armour's PV rating anyway. Ate the Ancient Stone Beast corpse for +2 Strength, +4 Toughness, and four corruptions that took all my remaining potions to remove. Not sure whether it was a good tradeoff. Reached character level 40 in a greater air elemental room on D:45 for a further +8 Toughness, which had me at some 800 HP, and +156 to-hit, 2d10+81 damage on berserk tactics with my favourite hammer.

More experience delivered itself, with a greater giant/titan vault turned up on the next dungeon level, and level 41 was reached before even really stepping within. Learned Magic Missile and Magic Map from dropped spellbooks, and found a couple of great blue wyrms - Okla & Oondarabadekes - on D:47. Encountered a greater moloch on D:48, but really, they're a cinch as long as there's room to retreat. Get a hit in, immediately retreat, and they'll never get an attack in. Otherwise, they can do hundreds of damage in a single strike.

The end was nearing, with only the Mana Temple remaining at the bottom of the Unreal Cave system, where I gained the bronze skin corruption - one of the better ones, I guess. Got ambushed by greater earth elementals, which turned out much the same as the Earth Temple, and quickling kings - once a real irritation - were zapped with Lightning Balls. Got rid of my first balor for 92k experience, along with another greater moloch. Discovered that I had picked up the mana battery corruption too, which drained all wands when I dropped them in preparation for the Blue Dragon Caves. Having 499 max PP as a consolation wasn't that bad, and I really only needed the wand of destruction by this late stage.

The caves were more varied than expected, what with a ghost king room - their ageing attacks wouldn't trigger against 91 PV, though. A third greater moloch gave me perhaps the biggest scare of the entire adventure here, with a 500 damage critical hit, that had me immediately praying for HP restoration. Surprisingly, giant rust monsters would be just about the only other monsters that could reliably damage me, though at least there wouldn't be any vulnerable worn equipment that could be corroded. Dealt with an ancient karmic dragon with missiles, found, blessed and drank several potions of gain attributes, and read a scroll to get rid of poison hands/bronze bones, before completing Sharad-Waador's quest.

All that Wyrmlance-poking of blue dragons had maxed out my character at level 50, and I moreover found the glowing green cloak "Venom Mantle", which settled my remaining cloak and acid troubles. I had also found a long bow of accuracy (+10, +5), and gathered over 880k gold without even trying, which was really starting to weigh me down. With 23 potions of holy water, I blessed and ate the remaining mushrooms of energy, and blessed all my gear, because why not. Realized that I had forgotten the potions of uselessness, and surfaced to the borderland settlement shop to grab them. Drank three potions and read two scrolls to remove all corruptions but tough scales, which left me with my last two scrolls of corruption removal. Well, no more dallying about - time to complete the Mana Temple, and close the Chaos Gate.

Incongruously, there would be a pet shop selling figurines of wondrous power right before the Mana Temple, and I figured, why not have some fun? Spent about half of the 100k gold that I had kept on a couple of great karmic wyrm figurines, and a greater titan figurine. Summoned the wyrms and greater titan on the Mana Temple level, and predictably got all my PP drained, before managing to get to the entrance proper - but then again, I wasn't a Wizard, so no big deal. Sadly, the greater titan got killed early on due to a misunderstanding over a fireball trap, but the two great karmic wyrms managed to accidentally slay the chaos archmage Nuurag-Vaarn, before I managed to close in myself. Well done, boys!

Sadly, the wyrms were unable to follow me down to D:49, and as such I left them to mop up the Mana Temple. Didn't consume the chaos archmage corpse due to corruption concerns either - simply using all five Chaos Orbs on D:48 gave me the sulphur corrpution once more - and also because extra Mana wouldn't be of much use anyway. Dug around for some rocks to propel myself on D:49, but ended up resorting to arrows, which turned out to be much more effective. The potion of uselessness gift was the bracers of pure might, which conveniently mitigated the corruption issue, and compensated for the loss of the Strength boost from the Chaos Orb of Elemental Fire to boot. Final showdown time!

So, just for the record, I had 1007 HP, 755 PP and 96 PV entering D:50, with 53 DV in berserk mode, and 132 DV in coward mode - not that I had to resort to that. The chaos mutants were mostly a yawn, though they yielded a nice potion of cure corruption, and potion of gain attributes. I wasn't about to take any unnecessary risks, not now, and carefully cleared first the bottom corridor, and then the top, without disturbing the central chamber. It was really kind of anti-climactic, as I was never down by more than about 30 HP at a go.

With both corridors cleared, it was time for the cheese victory. I pulled the bottom lever, and immediately zapped it with my recharged wand of destruction, destroying both the activated lever and a huge chunk of the chamber wall at once. I then teleported to the top lever and repeated the same, before teleporting to the exit. Yeah, I just wanted to record my first win - playing with Fistanarius will have to wait.

World saved, thanks to Gimli! Visited the unicorn glade to clear all remaining corruptions, visited Terinyo one last time, and exited the Drakalor Chain. Memorial file follows, for completeness (realized that I had failed to pick up a bunch of artifacts, such as the lead great axe and Nature's Companion; probably wouldn't have made much of a difference regardless):

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Friday, June 21, 2019 - 23:13 SGT
Posted By: Gilbert

Cab Chat

My biggest indulgence these days is probably hitching Grab rides somewhat more often, instead of the MRT (whose head honcho's departure had been prematurely disclosed by The State's Times, but eh, it's transfer muppet season!). This occasionally results in a conversation when the driver's up for it, which can be all the more refreshing for the transience of the relationship - the jawboning's done when the destination is reached, usually within twenty minutes, with no expectation of anything more. Might not be a bad way to pass the time someday - one of my grandparents was a taxi driver - were it not for the fact that I fully expect vehicles to be automated by the time I'm retired.

This particular session involved some of the usual jibing at academic research, particularly the practical outcomes thereof ("wah, if project doesn't work, also nevermind one"); granted, the drive for internationally-recognized pure research has been critiqued by no less than the Minister of Education, which I'd say pierces right to the core mission of our universities. Can they be Ivies in the making, or are they doomed to be fallbacks for top scholars (related: EJMR discussion on economics)?

There was common ground to be found in movies at least, with the topic shifting easily from A.I. to Fast & Furious and Terminator (which seriously might not be too far off). The highlight however came when the Grabbie brought up cryptocurrency by himself, the first time this had happened. It wasn't a laudatory mention, rather more on how the price movements were "crazy" because they were "backed by nothing"... unlike the US dollar and Japanese yen etc.

Well, correcting misperceptions on what the current dollar and yen actually are backed by would have taken too long, and thus I merely smiled and nodded. By the way, Facebook has just announced its own Libra stablecoin-expy, which I'd gather will be rather more acceptable to the layman (oh, backed by Facebook lah!); not that the big B requires much help, given how it's advancing back to five figures, almost completely under the radar until very recently.

Yes, the good times are a-rollin', with Donald Doppelgänger slated to be Britain's last great hope, as foreshadowed in the Brexit analysis (in all honesty, they're very alike in behaviour and mannerism, disregarding protestations by the knockoff). But really, just rip the bandage off and leave already - it won't be that painful, and anyway, your closest pals are always ready to accommodate you, from across the Atlantic.

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Monday, June 10, 2019 - 19:14 SGT
Posted By: Gilbert

Mixed Bag

"In a country as rich as Singapore with no absolute poverty, economic inequality just means some people have become richer than others..."

- Brook & Watkins, for The State's Times

Gee, I suppose the stubborn refusal to define a poverty line might have helped justify the bold assertion on a total lack of absolute poverty from the Ayn Rand Institute here. The libertarians did make their point about how inequality might not be undesirable as long as everyone gets by, but the ease with which that last assumption got accepted was bemusing nonetheless. This did at least get questioned in the forums, which pointed out Prof Tommy Koh's indirect acknowledgement of absolute poverty in last year's IPS conference - coincidentally, the one in which he skewered The State's Times for biased reporting.

Tellingly, the above article came right as a couple of local Catholic churches announced that they were allowing homeless to bunk in for the night - which could be interpreted both ways in the existence of absolute poverty debate. The move towards mixing residents of varying economic statuses in the same block is probably a step in the right direction - and as it turns out, it doesn't even cost much if anything to zhng one's HDB flat to condo standards. Automated bicycle storage may however be an example of public sector funding inefficiencies - how many are there willing to cough up S$48 a month for vaulting their bike? At that pricing, they could get a whole new bike every few months, and it's not like they get the convenience of islandwide availability either, as was the case with the mostly-exited rental services.

As it turns out, trying to help the needy out can be a thankless task here, from how an undergrad's initiative to collect five-cent coins got roundly panned. But, as the government's selling: does a problem even officially exist, if one simply chooses not to own up to it?

Money Management

After receiving a call from a DBS representative touting their Multiplier account some weeks back, I agreed to meet up with him to go over the terms & conditions. The lure was tantalizing - rather than a paltry 0.05% p.a. interest on a regular savings account, the Multiplier account offers up to 3.80%! Given that I had been familiar with poor fixed deposit rates of 2% or less from a decade or so ago, I could not help but be curious about the catch here. As it turns out, there are a few.

Firstly, the interest rate applies only for the first S$50000 (recently extended to S$100000, with some further conditions). Secondly, the maximum 3.80% interest rate applies only if over S$30000 in transactions are made per month, with four conditions being met: salary crediting (compulsory), and three of credit card spending, mortgage payments, insurance and investments. If the transaction volume is lower, or if fewer than three of the optional conditions are met, the interest applied decreases accordingly.

From this, the bank's intentions might be deduced: the generous interest offered is a loss leader for their ancillary services, in particular insurance & investments. Consider the analogy: if one spends on something he doesn't really need, just because of the generous cashback on his credit card, does he really benefit? Note that the maximum interest obtainable per annum - S$3650 from an effective 3.65% interest rate - can realistically only be obtained by taking out some mammoth policies; from another direction, how many people chasing interest on S$100k, naturally spend over S$30k a month?

That said, Singaporeans are, if nothing else, always up for maximizing offers; the relevant EDMW thread has tons of tips on how to best exploit the system, which extends to cycling cheap term insurance policies yearly to satisfy the insurance component. Others seem to have been suckered into dabbling with equities for the investments component, at which I can only imagine some smug moustache-twirling from the bankers. Like, the additional bonus interest from the second S$50000 for a third category is but S$150 a year; it may not be nothing, but does optimization to that extent make sense?

Well, it wasn't as if the representative was much interested in selling me term insurance at any rate, as it quickly became apparent that he was angling more a more lucrative whole life-type signup, same as the rest of them. In any case, the unsuccessful spiel concluded with the revelation that an in-person meeting was not, after all, necessary for account activation - that could be achieved via the i-banking app. Fair deal for an extra thousand or so a year, I'd say.

Virtualization Marches On

In another blow to the physical (e.g. land, retail space, electronic hardware) as commodity, Google has announced its Stadia cloud gaming-as-a-service. Before this, gaming had arguably driven much of the computer hardware market, most significantly with graphic processing unit (GPU) cards, but also other components such as RAM and the CPU - the everyday user running Word and Excel would probably do just fine with a PC from fifteen years ago, really. And this is before we get to the pricey dedicated consoles: the Xboxes, PlayStations, Nintendoes etc, that get obsoleted every so often.

Enter Google and the age of abundant fibre bandwidth. Stadia's approach is for Google to deal with all the hardware headaches invisibly - no more agonizing about whether to upgrade GPUs or consoles. Instead, all users have to do is to connect to Stadia via Chrome (they've implemented Remote Desktop directly as a Chrome tab recently, which I'd suspect is related), and select a game (which also eliminates installation, compatibility and disk space headaches). Any user instructions (e.g. keystrokes, mouse clicks) are then sent to the Stadia servers for interpretation (greatly reducing hacking opportunities), with the full HD screen output streamed live back to the user, kind of like with Netflix.

Let's view this development in light of the last big leap in games distribution: Valve's Steam. Launched back in 2003, Steam was itself driven by bandwidth availability, after they realized that having customers download games, instead of buying them on a CD-ROM, was feasible. The benefits were clear: no more worrying about losing physical CDs, and far less bother with bug fixes and patch applications. Unsurprisingly, Steam's rise and dominance has led to the impending demise of brick-and-mortar games retailers such as Gamestop, who seem destined to go the way of Blockbuster.

Retail hardware such as GPUs and consoles remained afloat, though, since Steam merely distributed the software, and required the processing to be done locally. This is no longer the case with Stadia, and if their cloud gaming paradigm takes off, one would expect the end of the retail hardware market, since all users would require would be input devices such as a keyboard/mouse/gamepad, and screen.

Personally, I wouldn't have guessed that bandwidth had progressed to this extent, and I'd wager that purists might bemoan the added latency on twitch reaction games (the sort that checks out refresh rates on monitors, at least). The broader issue here would be the increasing trend away from local control; yes, if there's any firm that can sponsor hardware for everyone - Stadia will have a free tier - it's probably Google (see: Gmail). However, this would appear be leading to a world where an individual's data and virtual identity is entirely under the purview of corporate interests. And from how Google has been handicapping ad blockers to safeguard their main revenue stream, I'm uncertain if they can be trusted on this trend.

One thing I'm willing to bet on, though - watch for China to release a Qiuchang clone in a year or two.

Stemcells vs. Organs

The latest outrage for the American set is on the TRUMP administration's curtailing of funding for medical research that utilizes tissue from aborted fetuses, which ties neatly into the whole abortion uproar that's been making the rounds (note: a former Hwa Chong alumni is all for empowerment in this regard). The reaction was expectedly near-uniformly negative amongst the usual Reddit bunch. I reproduce a selection of representative comments here:

"Polio vaccine... was created decades ago via fetal tissue research. Experts estimate that tens of millions - hundreds of millions of lives have been saved due to said vaccines."

"So instead of it being used in research that could save lives, it's going to be discarded. And... this is a victory to pro lifers? I'm honestly perplexed."

"Drumpf's crusade against science is going to cost lives!"

The most pertinent parallel that occurred to me did not, however, warrant a mention - that of organ harvesting from executed prisoners in China; the abhorrence against this is so strong amongst scientists, it seems, that there has been a call for the retraction of over 400 scientific papers over concerns that such organs had been unethically used for research.

The insistence by Chinese authorities that the prisoners were legally condemned to die in any case, and that their organs might as well be put to life-saving use, does not seem to have found nearly as much purchase amongst Redditors; an obvious objection would be that if organ harvesting were officially legitimized - and profited from - then the relevant authorities might just employ the death penalty more freely, to keep up with demand. Indeed, this profit-seeking motive has been observed with the private prison industry in America.

Given this, is it not out of the realm of possibility that a demand for fetal tissue could nudge some medical institutions towards encouraging abortions, more than they would otherwise have had? Whither the distinction between unliving tissue, and unliving organs?

Grants & Tenure

Some interesting recent research from the MIT Sloan School of Management on how academic grants are awarded suggests that "broad" and general terms are positively correlated with better outcomes, as compared to "narrow" topic-specific words. Examples given were "bacteria"/"detection" (broad) as compared to "community"/"health" (narrow). Frankly, I'd have guessed it went the other way around; anyhow, the message of the paper was on gender: female scientists, so it seems, tend to use narrower terms than males, which resulted in lower grant proposal scores. This was deemed a discovery of sufficient impact to have been featured in Nature and Science.

While I have admittedly been unable to access the paywalled working paper itself, my own suspicion is that the division may be less broad/narrow, and more technical/non-technical; I'll be keeping an eye out for the final published version. That said, academia was always supposed to be more a marathon than a sprint - former U.S. President Jimmy Carter has just made tenure at Emory after 37 years there, at the tender age of 94. What's the big hurry, huh?

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Friday, May 31, 2019 - 20:31 SGT
Posted By: Gilbert

Fingers & Wicks

I'm torn as to whether a spoiler warning is really required for John Wick 3, frankly. You know the guy - lethal with guns, but any sharp object will do in a pinch (don't let him borrow your pencil). Parabellum doesn't deviate from that formula, but starts him off gently against a basketball giant, in unmistakable homage to Bruce Lee vs. Kareem Abdul Jabbar. Persona non grata amongst the criminal underworld after having violated Holy Ground à la Highlander regulations in the last instalment, Wick goes on to espouse an admirable dedication to ethnic diversity, by brutally slaughtering a bunch of Chinese gangsters in an antique store, before moving on to Caucasian/Hispanic generic toughs in a stable.

At its heart, however, the John Wick series exists as the greatest tribute to man/dog love since Lassie. Guy gets home-burgled, that's one thing. Vintage ride got stolen? Shrug, this ain't Fast & Furious, and ya gotta take the lows with the highs in da hood. But they shot his puppy?

One implacable murder machine coming, stat.

Our brave Pup Avenger soon finds the going too hot for him, which feeds into his backstory reveal - he's a Belarusian orphan, who happens to have one last ticket to call in from home. He expends it for a boat to Casablanca, where he catches up with an old flame and fellow K-9 admirer, who agrees to arrange a meet-up with her nominal boss, after some cashing-in of blood-oaths. The Master of the Mint dispenses some sage advice (follow the Little Dog star - sure, real subtle there), before shooting one of his visitor's dogs, after being refused it as a gift. Bring back any memories?

Yeah, wasn't a smart move. Much shooty-stabby and groin-gnawing ensues, after which Wick gets dumped in the desert to seek out The Elder, who seems to be the biggest boss of it all. Back in New York, the High Table has sent a suitably-androgynous Adjudicator to express their displeasure at Wick's continued survival (but really, a US$14 million bounty's on the low side for such a legend), and she duly recruits the nearest sushi shop to her cause. Of course, they're all ninjas, and Wick's adoptive mum gets literally stigmatized for her pains. Wick's past acquaintances don't get off easy either, with both Winston and the Bowery King given a week to retire.

The Japanese influence begins to seriously sink in now, as Wick is requested by The Elder to chop a finger off as penance. It soon transpires that the Adjudicator had made a serious miscalculation: she had basically hired the John Wick fan club to kill him. Head sushi chef tries to cozy up with Wick in the Continental, and all but asks him for an autograph. His main underlings have, like, two or three clear openings to slice Wick apart or headstomp him in the following gauntlet, but desist, probably out of fear on what head sushi chef would do to them if they stole his date. A slightly-embarrassed Wick has the decency to spare them in due course, and the final showdown ends with chef fanboy demonstrating proper seppuku form. That's some impressive plot armour going on there.

Well, one doesn't watch John Wick for the realism, so I'll probably be back for the fourth movie (scheduled for two years hence). Myself, I'm pumped for Ip Man 4 next. It's been plagued by the same powercreep problems; our Wing Chun master started out with some no-name Japanese soldier in the first film, went on to a British brawler in the second, and then throws down with freakin' Iron Mike Tyson in the third. It was always gonna be hard to top that - who could they bring in? Dave Bautista? Dwayne Johnson? Captain Marvel?

As it turned out, the producers exceeded all my expectations.

It's Ip Man versus FLAMING GROOT
(Original source: r/movies)

Chart Wicks

Thousand-buck swings
(Source: bitcoinwisdom.io)

The Bitcoin price chart candlesticks and wicks have been burgeoning recently, with the meme US$9000 level again breached yesterday, before immediately creashing back down to US$8000. Mayhaps a little earlier than I had expected, but with Malaysia the latest to propose a return to gold, the case for crypto might be getting more compelling...

Finger Fun

John Wick might have lost a finger, but on the bright side, at least it might save him from being banned for life from stadiums. Yes, that's exactly what the Chicago Cubs did, after one of their fans went all okie-dokie on live television; for that, he might as well have flipped the bird - heck, he probably would have gotten off lighter with that.

The magnificent 4chan trolls are probably rolling on the floor laughing at how their OK sign prank succeeded beyond their wildest imaginings, as they associated a previously-innocuous hand gesture with white supremacy through some cleverly-positioned social media campaigning, amply aided (as they had expected) by the PC outrage mob:

One doesn't achieve this level of trolling without much practice
(Source: twitter.com)

Emboldened by their flawless victory, said glorious trolls are targeting the Twitter hashtag next; having dubbed it the Fashtag with a convincing reconstruction of its fascist origins, the Internet's greatest troll machine is currently working its MEME MAGIC, with Twitter shareholders at their absolute mercy. But why stop there? Indeed, there have also been rumblings of WP in Trudeau's yoga pose (the arms form the W, and the legs the P, you can't unsee it), as well as the double V for Victory sign (they obviously come together to form a W). No pointing or knife-handing either, because they reference the 14 Words.

Who knew having fingers could be so complicated?

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Saturday, May 25, 2019 - 21:59 SGT
Posted By: Gilbert

Future Peek

In the interests of rehabilitating my reputation slightly (but not really), this blog post will be about improving the world - and in serviceable ways, mind. Fittingly given that this was written on Vesak Day, the first item on the menu is plant-based meat, with Our Most Successful Investment Firm having picked the right horse for once with their backing of Impossible Foods, who are rolling out their burgers locally to rave reviews.

The environmental benefits of faux meat over meat-meat are obvious - it begins with a close to 90% reduction in carbon footprint - more or less inevitable given the huge inefficiencies involved with using plants as animal feed - without even considering animal suffering. While there remain certain nutritional concerns, particularly about the use of soy leghemoglobin, I'd gather that mass-produced plant-based meat would be the most significant agricultural development since the Green Revolution of the 1950s (but please do not push vegan sensibilities on babies). And unlike solar and other renewables, there appears rather less handwaving over reliability concerns and the like.

Ideally, prices would continue to fall as the faux meat producers scale up and refine their techniques, given that there's no lack of demand currently. Who knows, in the near future, there may be no difference when ordering veg or meat for cai png (a sure marker of social, or at least financial, class) at the economy rice stalls, since they would be the same...

Revisualizing Transport

Not long after the collapse of the bike-sharing industry here, Grab's been introducing electric scooters on campus (safety helmets included recently). I'd expect would-be riders to come to the same realization, however: much of Singapore is simply no place for bikes/e-scooters - in the absence of dedicated bike lanes, cyclists and scooterists would have to either weave between pedestrians (which has seen its fair share of accidents), or risk the ire of motorists (to similar road rages). We've covered this some seven years ago, actually, and it's no surprise that cycling has never quite taken off on campus, even as scooters have had their speed capped at a sad 10km/h.

To reiterate the main observation then: modern conventional vehicles are ridiculously over-engineered. To move a human (average weight: 80kg) from point A to B, the average car hauls along a frame of some 1400kg; the robustness afforded by such vehicle designs are basically overkill in well-maintained urban environments. What really makes sense would be far lighter and cheaper go-kart-style builds, which would be particularly suited to autonomous operation from a safety perspective (getting hit at 80km/h by a 100kg+ payload is much preferable to that from a 1400kg+ one), without even going into the energy savings (both in construction and operation) for the environmentally-conscious.

The problem, of course, is the initial buy-in: even relative visionaries such as Tesla have remained wedded to the traditional concept of unnecessarily-weighty cars, given the necessity of fitting into the existing road use paradigm. As such, implementation of electric karts would probably be most suited to the campuses of rich tech firms... or alternatively, countries with a meek, captive citizenry that would tamely go along with whatever their government mandates. I say that we should not pass up on this incredible opportunity.


This blog has never shied away from presenting opinions on controversial topics, and today's pick is - abortion. Before the discussion, I will first present my currently-held stand, which I believe happens to be quite close to the status quo: abortion should be allowed in the first trimester for any reason, and in the second trimester under extenuating circumstances (health of mother, rape, incest). I am aware that this opinion is fundamentally subjective - but, on with the background.

The evergreen debate over abortion has reignited over the passing of new abortion laws by several U.S. states, but most prominently Alabama, which moved to impose a total abortion ban with no exceptions; in contrast, other states such as Missouri have set the limit at eight weeks, with Georgia, Kentucky, Mississippi and Ohio basing their bills on the presence of an embryotic heartbeat, i.e. six weeks (N.B. coming to Singapore too!). These proposed laws have all been contested by pro-choice groups, on the basis that such restrictions on abortion are illegal under Roe vs. Wade. The objections were in fact entirely expected by the various bills' sponsors, whose not-so-hidden intentions are to use the challenges to bring the matter of abortion before SCOTUS for a second hearing.

Before continuing the discussion, we define two extremal stands on abortion. The strong pro-life stance asserts that a fetus is human at the moment of conception, and any efforts to remove it from that point onwards would therefore be considered murder. At the other end of the spectrum, the strong pro-choice stance has the fetus not being a person, until birth. Given this, the mother is free to abort it at any point prior to that, for whatever reason at all. All other possible stances on abortion then fall between these two limiting points, disregarding preventive contraception and the killing of viable babies after birth (which, it seems, is a thing for today's Democrats)

Oh, okay then.
(Source: r/politicalhumor)

We might as well delve into the landmark Roe vs. Wade ruling here. Contrary to popular understanding, it doesn't grant a blanket right to abortion come what may, and instead sets parameters that individual states have to obey. No prohibitions could be imposed in the first trimester (i.e. abortions had to be allowed in the first three months), and abortion could only be permitted to save the life of the mother in the third trimester (from the seventh month onwards, i.e. effectively prohibited). This left the widest latitude for interpretation with regards to the second trimester. This middle three months has been where most previous activism has raged around, with more liberal states tending towards allowing abortion during this period, and more conservative states towards preventing it.

It might be noted that this trimester-based classification aligns quite closely with my current view, which is no coincidence. In practice, setting a cutoff much earlier than three months would be effectively banning abortion, since it is quite possible that a pregnancy can go unnoticed for some time. At the other end, fetuses are generally acknowledged to be viable after the second trimester, with a 50-50 chance of survival at 24 weeks, and a greater than 90% chance at 27 weeks.

Note that the polarization of attitudes on abortion has also seen pro-choice legislators push on third trimester abortion rights, with a Governor copping much derision for his statement that, if a baby were born after a failed attempt at abortion, that "the infant would be resuscitated if that's what the mother and the family desired, and then a discussion would ensue between the physicians and the mother". This was quite understandably taken as a licence to kill perfectly-healthy babies, which thankfully remains distasteful to the population at large.

Slippery slope...
(Source: baby-lonbee.com)

This scenario, as it happens, relates to perhaps the strongest defence for abortion - the mother's bodily autonomy. Once the baby is born - whether intentionally or due to a failed abortion - the autonomy argument no longer applies. Definitely, there can still be a hardship argument, in that the baby imposes time and financial costs, but such costs cannot justify the death of the child, whether a day old, or ten years old. Personally, if such a thing as morality exists, not murdering newborns must be some sort of a minimal baseline to meet.

Still on bodily autonomy, I must confess that I had never been very convinced by the famous violinist thought experiment, in which it is argued that a woman kidnapped to provide dialysis for an unconscious violinist for nine months, is not actually obliged to do so. In most cases, a more accurate refinement of this analogy would have the woman meeting the violinist at a party, and the duo fooling about with melding their circulatory systems, with full knowledge of what could happen (i.e. said violinist becoming dependant). Further on this, it can be noted that restrictions on bodily autonomy have commonly been imposed by the state (e.g. imprisonment, conscription)

Related to this is the self-harm argument - so the logic goes, if abortion were outlawed, unwilling mothers could simply attempt it themselves in an unsafe manner (e.g. by coathanger), and possibly perish. Here, it might again be noted that the crux of the argument remains the status of the fetus - if the fetus is a person, then abortion is unjustified. For the sake of argument, consider an adult that hates a child for some reason. The adult credibly threatens to cut himself, or otherwise attempt suicide, until the child is killed. While a regrettable state of affairs, this does not appear valid justification for killing the child. Of course, if it were merely a clump of cells, then anything goes. Note that the "mother's health" exception tends to be viewed with suspicion by pro-lifers, who regard it as allowing an easy cop-out for late terminations.

While this is no place to delve into all the intricacies, suffice to say that the pro-life stance, as I understood it, is pretty straightforward: the fetus is a human as much as any helpless quadriplegic in a coma, full stop, and any attempt to define a cut-off point in the development of the fetus would be arbitrary. Consider a comatose person whom qualified doctors have judged to be almost certain to recover consciousness within nine months. Is there any call to take him off life support now?

Photos of mum not included
(Source: r/videos)

Recall, the pro-choice counter to this would be the bodily autonomy of the mother, which is where futurology comes in. Roe vs. Wade, in considering fetal viability as a key concept in their ruling, has also opened the door to reinterpretation as viability improves with technology - the current record is just under 22 weeks, but one can envisage the possibility of extracorporeal pregnancy with artificial wombs becoming commonplace. Frankly, if the tech becomes established, carrying babies to term the natural way could well be considered regressive, like how hardcore anti-vaxxers are regarded today (though making them would probably still be done traditionally, because fun); if and when this happens, we might discover exactly how far the autonomy reasoning goes.

And a final thought experiment to end off: one five year-old, against a thousand viable frozen embryos. Or three non-pregnant women with the five year-old, against three pregnant women. Does it matter? What's the difference?

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Saturday, May 18, 2019 - 22:02 SGT
Posted By: Gilbert

Buddy Flick

Me: *closes door* It's refreshing to have people over once in a while, Mr. Ham. Nephews included. I always like to think of myself as being good at tutoring children. Like, for history, I like to go over the story of the Immortal Queen Elizabeth of the Seven Kingdoms, who rose to prominence due to her unmatched skill at dual-wielding sword and handbag, whilst telepathically controlling an army of killer robots - all backed up by photographic evidence, mind. Sure, so the kids might not score very highly in exams, but I like to imagine that I'm imparting something much more important: critical thinking.

Heh heh heh
(Source: time.com)

Speaking of education, the College Board will be including an "adversity score" with their SAT assessment, incorporating features such as the crime and poverty level of the student's neighbourhood. The last time Singapore did this for entry to desirable schools, wealthy parents merely domiciled their offspring within the requisite radius, which is what I'd expect would happen in the States too.

Okay, okay, on to Pokémon Detective Pikachu, Mr. Ham. As you were saying, it sure reminded me of us - young, intrepid Pokémon hunters back in the day.

Hamchu: Righto, only I'm more adorable than Pikachu, and you're dorkier than that guy.

Me: Modesty was never your strong suit, Hamchu. I almost forgot why I stopped doing the rounds with you.

Hamchu: Hey, don't blame not being able to keep up with my scintillating intellect. These insensitive put-downs are good for ya, human. Can't improve if you don't know what you're poor at. Fortunately, there's no lack of such areas for further attention. *condescending pat pat*

Me: Eh, speak for yourself. I sure don't see you running and jumping about like that Pikachu can.

Hamchu: I dunno, I can do maybe three kneebends.


Hamchu: Fine, two.

Me: And it's not like you get a cool evolution.

Hamchu: *swivels around* Ta-dah! You didn't notice, but Hamzilla at your service!

Me: That's not an evolution, you just put on weight.

Hamchu: You too.

Me: Fair enough. You can't charge a handphone like Pikachu can, though.

*Hamchu retrieves powerbank from cheek pouch*

Me: Huh. Well played, I'm genuinely impressed.

Hamchu: Don't mention it. And seriously, I have so much in common with Pikachu - he's not modest, I'm not modest too. He wears a deerstalker, I wear a bowler hat. We both love caffeine. Neither of us wear pants, and I'm proud of it. But, I'm so totally the type of Pokémon that invites others back to his apartment after the first date.

Me: ...I didn't need to know that.

Also weak to chin scritchies

Hamchu: Now you know anyway. And come to think of it, the film was predicated on humans and Pokémon not being able to communicate, whereas I, Hamchu, have always been conversant in both English and Mandarin. While you, human, remain hopeless in hamsterese. What do you say to that, huh?

Me: Hmmm...

Hamchu: Don't even think about it, human. This isn't something you can pick up through an hour a day on Duolingo. Hamsterese is intricate, nuanced, a work of divinely-inspired art, as opposed to what passes for language amongst hairless apekind. Humans simply don't have the internal cultivation to attempt it.

*squeeze squeeze*

Okay, maybe a few useful phrases. Here goes. *chirp chirpp chirrrrppp*

Me: *chirp chirrp chirrrppp*

Hamchu: This is my disappointed Hamchu face.

Me: So what did it mean?

Hamchu: "Hello, gormless human", or alternatively, "Gimme sunflower seed". From you, however, it was some unholy cross between invective and unintelligible squeaking.

Me: Aren't those two meanings somewhat far apart?

Hamchu: *sighs* It's a feature of hamsterese, not found in far less sophisticated human languages. Here, let's try a slightly longer example. *chirpp chirp chirpp chirp chirppp*

Me: Sounds Greek to me.

Hamchu: That's "A human shall be judged by the plumpness of his hamster", or "Gimme another sunflower seed".

Me: Actually, I think I'm getting the hang of it.

Hamchu: *ccchirp chiirp chirp chirppppp*

Me: Here, sunflower seed.

Hamchu: *deposits seed in cheek pouch* My word, fast learner, ain't ya? We may make something of you yet, human.

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Monday, May 13, 2019 - 22:05 SGT
Posted By: Gilbert

The Mystery And Madness of Modern Monetary Theory

It was unfair, I felt, for Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez's opponents to hold her college dance moves against her (they were pretty decent, I thought). The same goes for her provisional adoption of audience-specific speech features - politicos gotta do what politicos do. It is, however, fair to knock her asinine policy suggestions, such as the Green New Deal that fittingly obtained a grand total of exactly zero votes in the U.S. Senate; astoudingly, the elimination of farting cows wasn't even the greater part of the lunacy on display in that proposal. That distinction must belong to the proposed funding mechanism: Modern Monetary Theory (MMT).

So, what is MMT? Its essential idea is that since the government can create new fiat money at will, government expenditure does not - and should not - depend on taxation. In other words, if the government wants to pay for some assumed-socially-beneficial project (e.g. solar power plants, tertiary education, universal healthcare, bovine buttplugs), they can just print the cash and pay for it.

Note that the above assertion that governments can, indeed, print as much fiat money as they want is not at all controversial. The problem, as any competent economics undergraduate - or any right-thinking citizen - would immediately identify is: sure, maybe there's no strict need to tax to spend, but this is just additional money chasing an unchanged amount of goods and services. As such, wouldn't price levels simply increase (i.e. the inflation rate rise) as a consequence? To this, the MMT advocates have a ready answer - to combat any inflation, simply raise taxes.

Wait, what?

Let's try to interpret this charitably - MMT agrees with conventional basic economics that creating money tends to create inflation; the difference is that instead of trying to predict the effect and budget for it beforehand by pre-emptive taxation, MMT proposes that any inflation can be dealt with after it arrives. Interestingly, this by itself isn't that crazy either - inflation in America has for instance been lower than expected in recent years, despite all the quantitative easing, probably due to the consolidation of wealth by the already-rich.

MMT Compared

Stripped to the bone, one realises that the major thrust of MMT is simply towards transferring control of production and ownership to the state. Consider the following scenario: the state wishes to build a school. Under a sound money regime, the state would have to tax the people (i.e. convince them to give up their gold, silver, etc) to pay for the land and construction costs. Under the current fiat money regime, the state likewise has to either tax (admittedly in fiat dollars, which can indeed theoretically be created at will) or issue bonds (i.e. borrow from the future). Under an MMT regime, the state simply prints the required monies and observes what happens.

A couple of important clarifications here. Firstly, we do not deny that the provision of education is generally a worthy deed. Secondly, it is acknowledged that in all three regimes (sound money, fiat money, MMT), "the state" ultimately does not produce anything by itself ex nihilo; the state merely redirects the resources and effort of its citizens. The key distinction rests in the upfront transparency of the appropriation. Under sound money, the people know exactly what is being taken (e.g. one gold coin per family); as such, there can be - and in fact were - nasty pushbacks against authorities, up to and including revolutions, if such taxes were felt to be onerous.

Within existing fiat money systems, despite it being true that governments can create money at will (i.e. directly monetize debt), there has been a studied reluctance - at least in thus-far-surviving economic regimes - to rely on this power. Instead, they tend to follow two defining principles. Firstly, control over fiat money supply is devolved to an independent entity, generally a central bank (e.g. the Federal Reserve), that is supposed to be able to tighten the pursestrings over the exhortations of the spenders (i.e. the rest of the government). Secondly, there is a commitment towards recognizing the very real costs of such spendings, through borrowing (by open market operations) instead of simply printing money, the contemporary version of having a bondsman whisper in the ear of the all-conquering bankers in their triumph - you haven't earned this yet. Admittedly, from the national debt figures, this discipline has hardly been absolute - but it was something.

Under MMT, however, any remaining pretensions towards respecting the costs of spending are further abandoned. Superficially, MMT is free - no upfront taxes, no need even to borrow; it is not difficult to see how such a system could be popular, at least initially. Of course, the costs don't actually disappear - they are just obscured in inflation. More critically, presentations of MMT by Ocasio-Cortez and her ilk appear to discount oversight over money creation. Arguments tend to be along the lines of "climate change is an existential problem, we will therefore pay anything it takes".

This is a dumb idea. It happens to not even be a new idea.

A Tale As Old As Time

"The Bitcoin community ironically supports MMT in order to accelerate the decline of traditional financial institutions. I can't believe people take MMT seriously."

- identity_zero, Hacker News

Back last August, we have explained the cyclical nature of monetary systems in history, from representative to fiat and back again. The story seldom differs much - a state first conducts its business with some sound money or its representation, before realizing that chartalism (and the ensuing additional power & control) would be so much more convenient by fiat (removing as it does the distasteful need for murdering one's creditors, as King Philip of France did with the Knights Templar). There were always the concomitant excuses, some of them even good. The flaws then arose from the administrators, and while not strictly unavoidable, tended to pop up sooner or later; once it is established that money is basically make-believe, it seems, people are uniformly driven to regard "then just make more of it" as a legitimate solution to challenges.

This process can happen either overtly through unabashed industrial-scale printing, as has happened recently in Zimbabwe and Venezuela, or more insidiously with pseudo-intellectual backing, as we have seen with MMT. Re-releases follow the same script either way: the state claims more and more control over production through issuance of fiat money, before discovering that both resource allocation and corralling of inflation are a lot trickier than they thought. Realising this, former users of the fiat currency get out as quickly as they can, the currency collapses under mismanagement, and citizens turn to sounder money for their needs, until next time...

The debate over MMT, one realises, is inextricably tied to that of the government's intended role - the more a state is expected to intervene directly in production decisions (as in a command economy) as opposed to private citizens, the more it will be aligned towards MMT. If MMT is implemented in the manner that Ocasio-Cortez and Sanders are supporting, the separation between the monetary (the Fed) and fiscal (the executive/legislative branches) levers of government would likely no longer be respected. The usual outcome, regardless of the nobility of the original intent, is seldom pretty for most, as Commiessar Ham and Secretary Robo have realized.

In Search Of A Neutral Monetary Standard

"So my real estate finance manager classmate objected to real estate prices being a risk. She told the professor in front of the class that if things ever get bad, the Chinese government will step in and take care of everyone. This prof advises the government about their economic risks and she's telling him there's no risk."

- PakG1, Hacker News,
on the perceived safety of "real-estate-money" in China,
where some 80% of private wealth is held
(hmm, does this remind us of somewhere closer to home..?)

We might, then, recognize the matter of money as a perpetual struggle between self-determination by individuals and smaller communities, and hegemonic states. With state-issued fiat money, individuals are at the mercy of the state, in that they have to trust the state not to dilute their wealth through the ever-convenient creation of new fiat. An obvious recourse, certainly, would be for citizens to transfer their wealth out of the fiat money, and into harder assets (e.g. foreign real estate), as much as possible. As covered in January and before, this behaviour can be interpreted as individuals choosing to store value in a non-fiat money; instinctively, people understand that unlike fiat money that can be created at a whim for whatever excuse, property and precious metals and the like cannot be manipulated thus. It has also been noted that the "inflation tax on wealth", has as such tended to fall more on the poor than the rich, since the rich would tend to hold a far smaller proportion of their wealth in freely-creatable fiat money (clever them).

An interesting hypothesis would then be whether the end of a sound, representative reserve money (Nixon's termination of the gold convertibility of the US dollar in 1971) has been a major factor in the broad-based rise of property prices and housing costs since then. Greatly simplified, there is some subconscious (and well-founded) baseline level of demand for a sound monetary base, one that is independent of state machinations. Gold has famously filled much of this role for millenia, but has (once again) been ousted by the reigning hegemon [Nixon 1971]. Since then, all substantial paper currencies have been essentially pure fiat (make-believe).

However, given that the baseline demand for sound, independent monetary backing has not actually changed, it was just a question of where that displaced demand would manifest. While it could not easily return to gold and other precious metals, due to concerted international efforts to break that relationship, it remained far too strong to simply disappear; therefore, the demand merely diffused into various hard assets, but most significantly the real estate sector, with houses and apartments serving as a "proxy sound money"; which explains why their being uninhabited is of no concern to many owners, since that is no longer their main function.

Flight to Alternative Monies (save end-WW2 bump)
(Original source: observationsandnotes.blogspot.com)

This de-facto elevation of real estate as an alternative money (and not merely pensions, as suggested back in 2016) has been tacitly encouraged by many governments, given its ubiquity as a resource (a country is defined by its land boundaries, after all). This conception of "real estate as sound money" has in many places been ingrained to the extent that there is a popular expectation that the state will stabilize its value - which, you see, is what one might expect of a money, and not of a general investment (see: Hyflux).

To be explicit, this attitude has taken root locally (with 99-year public housing now breaching S$1.2 million) and in China (with Shenzhen to adopt Singapore's housing [i.e. alt-monetary] policy instead of Hong Kong's... which, to be frank, is an easy upgrade), and has been - dare we say - irresponsibly fanned with semi-official promises that "property prices will only go up". This is clearly hardly tenable, especially for limited-time leases, and has belatedly been recognized by measures such as limiting CPF loan quanta for aging flats. In response, the government's just expanded the integrated resorts casinos by up to 1800 new slot machines on top of their existing 2500 bandits, which is exactly where the little guys get raked over the coals (although our national funds aren't above a spot of gambling themselves). I sure hope this works out.

The appeal of cryptoeconomics - note Bitcoin's price bursting back above US$7000 after a half-year slump - should then be apparent to more open-minded and historically-inclined students of the dismal science: crypto serves as a flagless and neutral sound money, that has been explicitly designed to excel on many of its classical properties. As discussed back in 2018, this presents an inextricable dilemma for central banksters: if they ban crypto-money, they'll get locked out of the new sector entirely; if they allow crypto-money, their control of the economy via fiat measures (e.g. negative interest rates, which the IMF seems to be resorting to) naturally weakens.

Given that the idea of cryptos can't be un-invented, our expectation is that states will eventually seek resumed control through ownership of the asset, as China and Russia are returning to with gold. This is evidenced by the increasing legitimization of crypto by the financial establishment, with Fidelity - a Top 5 global asset manager - next to offer crypto trading. An interesting property of crypto is that financial shenanigans, such as rehypothecation with "paper gold", should be in theory harder to get away with, given the innate transparency of blockchains; myself, I'm just eager to see how various governments deal with the new sound money.

Unus Sed Leo

A Sow who had delivered a whole litter of piglets loudly demanded of her: "How many sons have you had at a birth?"

The Lioness laughed at her and said:
"One, but that one is a lion!

- Aesop's Fables, The Sow and the Lioness
[N.B. Also employed by Taleb to explain
(stubborn) minority rule]

And like clockwork, Bitfinex's back at it again. Having lost 120000 Bitcoins back in 2016, the naughty ruffians behind the exchange have managed to get US$850 million tied up in a rogue payment processor this time, and stand accused of transferring funds from the Tether stablecoin backing to cover those missing funds. Say what you will about Bitfinex's past deficiencies in computer security and character judgment, you can't accuse them of being short on chutzpah, and their latest maneuver has seen them simply up and raise a billion bucks - mostly predicated on the next few years' of profits - just like that. Cheeky fellas - but I like them.

Trade War, As Expected

The most surprising thing about the expanding U.S.-China trade war, it seems to me, is how few surprises there actually were. The key parameters were all out in the open since at least early 2016, when we called an eventual American trade war victory, having observed that even if they don't win much in the short term, China's economy will be by far the harder hit. Remember, if GEOTUS has a signature platform, this is it.

In-depth analysis will be deferred, as the tariff slap-fight plays out in this game of chicken.

The Bowl That Was Promised

Yeah, so maybe the final season of Game of Thrones absolutely mangled the plot, but hey, at least we got the Gregor vs. Sandor fanservice bout. And just to add on to last week's Kengan Asura recommendation (how did the resemblance between Hatsumi Sen and Hokuto no Ken's Juza get left out?), it turns out that there may be unofficial Fight Clubs going on in our secondary schools, from a recently-viral video. Thin guy had reasonably good technique, I thought, although red guy could have done much better had he tightened his punches, or used his weight to take it to the ground; he seemed slightly reluctant, to be fair. Glad to see them hug it out at the end, unlike with that higher-level duel a few years back, when only one fellow had a parang. Extremely unsporting, if I may say so, despite the passable footwork and overall much grander atmosphere.

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