Category: Uncategorized

Getting Your Habits, Projects, and To-Dos Under Control through Gamification

I am officially obsessed with Habitica. Why? Because I’ve taken my vitamins almost every day for the 10+ months I’ve been a member. I’ve also been consistently studying Spanish every day, reading poetry, clearing up clutter, being more productive with my writing, exercising, eating more fruits and vegetables, and getting work done on my house—all at a much faster and more consistent rate than I would have without Habitica. How do I know that? Because, for example, I’ve been meaning to study Spanish consistently for years, but I never quite get to it. And I’ve found myself skipping vitamins for days and even weeks in the past.

I can also tell how much I’ve accomplished because I’m a level 90 warrior, a Beast Master, and I’ve gotten every bit of gear out of the enchanted armoire. Yeah! Woo! I think of Habitica as especially powerful for My avatar and current stats in Habitica.gamers, because the app/site works a lot like a video game, in some ways. It’s limited enough that it’s unlikely to become something you spend major time doing every day, but still engaging enough—through quests and challenges, guilds and parties, and developing your character—that it keeps you coming back. At least, it’s worked that way for me.

The challenges are a part of Habitica that I especially like. Each challenge is hosted in a guild, though there are many challenges hosted in the Tavern, which is essentially the general guild that everyone belongs to. You can join whichever challenges appeal to you, and the dailies, habits, and to-dos associated with it are placed in your task lists. They can focus on almost anything, including reading, fitness and diet, work or school productivity, gardening, hiking, various hobbies, pets, and even psychological or health issues, including addiction. If you win a challenge, you get a permanent notation in your User Achievements list—and sometimes you can win gems. If you respond well to deadlines (some challenges have specific time limits, while others are long-term), and if competition is your thing, these challenges can be especially powerful.

Sample daily activitiesMore generally, completing your various tasks each day earns you points, gold, and “drops,” which include pet eggs, potions for hatching them, and food for feeding them. If you’re in a party (a small group of people who can chat and participate in quests together), you also do damage to the target of your quest with every task completed. And with your party counting on you, not just to do damage to the baddie but to avoid doing damage to them, there’s plenty of incentive to stay focused and get your stuff done.

The site also gets the need to keep it fresh for experienced users. There are new pieces of equipment added monthly to the enchanted armoire; quarterly seasonal grand galas, which include special gear, potions, and other game features; and there are occasional world-wide bosses that everyone fights. Plus, if you subscribe (not required), you get some extra goodies.

One of my favorite things of all, though, is the ability to create challenges. Anyone can create them (read up on the details first, if you want to get started!), and if they’re created in a public guild, anyone can participate. Over the last few months, I’ve created challenges for hiking, donating blood, eating more fruits and veggies, home improvement projects, walking across bridges (bridges are cool!), and more. These challenges help motivate me, but they also motivate different people around the world to go out and do things. Right now, there are 67 people participating in my October Hike challenge, 120 people in the Donate Blood challenge, and 85 people are joining me in my efforts to eat more fruits and veggies. For some of the challenges, I assign people the task of reporting to the guild on how their challenge went. Responses are often thoughtful and fascinating—and sometimes inspiring. And they always leave me feeling like I’ve been able to help make a positive difference in someone’s life—which is really, really cool. Some examples:One of the quest bosses that you and your party can do battle with.

September hike challenge: I was so excited about this challenge. I love to hike, but sometimes have a hard time finding the motivation. But! this challenge helped me find a new favorite hiking spot, a trail in the state park close to my house that I haven’t ever had a chance to hike before. It’s about 5 miles, and follows a lake. So beautiful with fall approaching!!

I just completed the October hike with my fiancée and it was amazing. We were in Beaver Creek CO and hiked to a small beaver pond. It was serene- exactly what I needed with all of the Q4 pressure at work. There’s nothing like a good hike to clear the mind of negativity and provide some perspective about all the things there are to be grateful for. We live on a beautiful planet – do not let anyone tell you otherwise!

A second thank you to @Meriah! We’re halfway through October and I’ve eaten more fruits and veggies in two weeks than the last three months. But like, literally, I can NOT miss a daily and have found myself at the end of the day like “Oh crap, I need a veggie, what can I eat???” I’ve scarfed down more raw tomatoes with salt (yum!) than I care to admit. 😀 I’m super happy you’ll continue this next month. Thank you!

So, if this sounds like something that might work for you, come join us! The Newbie info on the Habitica Wiki is invaluable. And check out the Challenge…Accepted guild when you join—some of my favorite challenges are there!

Solving the gun problem

  1. First, let us all acknowledge that we have a gun problem. We can’t, of course—not unanimously. There are a lot of people who think what’s going on is fine. Maybe natural selection. If only all those people had been armed, they could have defended themselves—right? Except that police officers are killed all the time, and they’re armed. Look at Dallas, for example. (It’s worth noting that the number of LEOs killed in the line of duty has been lower in the last few years, which is great news. But most people can agree that we have a gun problem: There are too many people with guns who simply shouldn’t have them.
  2. So, what do we do about it? Pass federal laws restricting certain people from owning guns. We already do this, of course. Felons, undocumented immigrants, those committed to mental institutions, and anyone dishonorably discharged from the military, for example, can’t legally own guns. But the list ought to be longer.
  3. The list of people who shouldn’t have guns, in my opinion:
    1. People who are severely mentally ill. Not someone who’s being treated for anxiety or mild depression or getting treatment to help them cope with a tragedy, for example, though the question of whether to take guns from people who may be suicidal is worth asking. I’m mainly concerned in this list with keeping guns away from people who kill other By mentally ill, I’m including the Virginia Tech shooter, the Colorado theater shooter, the Newtown shooter, and the mother in Texas who shot her two daughters to hurt her husband. (Using their names helps no one, and encourages others to commit similar crimes, so I’m not going to do it.) All of these people showed clear signs that they were a threat, and authorities of various sorts were aware of them but did, or could do, nothing.
    2. People with convictions for violent crimes of any kind.
    3. People with restraining orders against them.newtown-victims
    4. People who have publicly threatened to kill anyone, including elected officials. I’m looking at you, Ted Nugent—but also the vast hordes on Twitter and Facebook who plausibly threaten others. This is a complicated one, I freely admit, because of that whole first amendment thing, but I think it’s reasonable to assume that people who proclaim their intent to kill actually mean it, and should be stopped, as far as is possible. Asking people to stop publicly threatening others if they want to keep their guns is hardly a huge burden.
    5. People who have demonstrated that they can’t handle handguns safely, including anyone caught engaging in celebratory gunfire (which has been known to kill people), anyone who’s ever shot themselves “accidentally”—the proper term is “negligently”–anyone who’s ever shot someone else negligently, and anyone who has allowed easy access to their firearms to someone else, resulting in injury. This includes people who allow small children access to their guns, resulting in death and injury.
    6. And there should be a way for people with anger issues and antisocial personality problems (I’m not a professional, so there are probably better terms) to be referred for counseling and evaluation for inclusion on the list. I’m thinking here of people receiving warnings, “counseling,” and possible firing at work for behavioral issues, which can turn into workplace shootings. The man who killed a Virginia newscaster and her cameraman is an example, as well as a plethora of others.
    7. People who violate hunting laws that involve firearms.
    8. What am I missing? Should people with drug convictions be on this list? DUIs? Trespassing and property crimes? Nonviolent hate crimes? What about the guy at work who tells racist or sexist or homophobic jokes? Where should the line be drawn?
  4. It is possible that some of the above people (though by no means all of them) could have their firearms access rights returned after an extensive waiting period, application process, and retraining regimen. And they should be on a 1-strike probationary status permanently. People who make “minor” mistakes could potentially have their firearms rights removed for a year (or some other period), as well.
  5. In order to make this practical, we need a national database to record and track all of these people. There will also need to be an appeal process. Realistically, every process is prone to error, so there should be a way for people to get their weapons and weapons rights back if they were taken unfairly.
  6. Along with this national database, some other new laws should be implemented. According to a study recently published in The Lancet, doi:10.1016/S0140-6736(15)01026-0, there are state-level laws that are highly effective in reducing homicides committed with firearms. According to the press release about the study (which I’m using because it’s much more clearly phrased): “Laws requiring firearm identification through ballistic imprinting or microstamping were found to reduce the projected mortality risk by 84 percent; ammunition background checks, by 82 percent; and universal background checks for all gun purchases, by 61 percent.” The study also identified several laws that seem to increase homicides with firearms, including the stand-your-ground laws. Some folks will argue that the study is limited, and of course that’s true. Every study is limited. But it’s hard to argue against any of these three laws—and it seems readily apparent that they will help control the flow of guns and ammunition to the people who shouldn’t have them. There simply isn’t a good argument against any of these laws. And of course, stand-your-ground laws should be repealed as well.
  7. There are other possibilities and other ideas that are worth looking into, such as adding education and training requirements for all people who own guns, and possibly licensing as well. But these five changes at the federal level (the database and three laws in #5, plus eliminating stand your ground laws) would make a real difference in reducing firearm-related shootings, and none of them involve taking guns away from stable, law-abiding citizens. So, how about if we start here and see how much progress we can make—and how many lives we can save?

Here’s the thing about the police…

I have interacted with a lot of police officers over the years, both as a citizen and through my work as a private investigator. Most of the police I have interacted with were highly professional and competent; a very small percentage were not. In light of recent (and not-so-recent) events, I decided to put some of my thoughts in writing.


Being a police officer is a difficult job for a lot of reasons. It’s dangerous, sometimes unappreciated, and it can be very stressful. At the same time, it’s also a great job, because police officers get to help people, have a lot of variety in their work, and it’s an exciting career. Part of the overall package is that it is absolutely essential for police officers to have a high standard of professionalism, and they must be calm in emergency situations.

What this means is that, even when someone is screaming at them, cursing them, slamming them with fists or a bag, trying to hurt themselves, and so on, police officers still need to be calm, professional, and do their best to de-escalate the situation. Because IT’S THEIR JOB. Their job isn’t to punish, to establish dominance, or to protect themselves at all costs. Their job is to stay calm, be Jon Stewart quoterespectful, and try as hard as they can to resolve every single encounter peacefully.

If an officer is being shot at, he or she can absolutely return fire. If someone is holding a knife to the throat of a spouse or child, the officer may have no choice but to kill the person in question, if they can’t disarm that person otherwise. If someone they believe committed a crime is running away, it is the responsibility of the police to chase them, and do their best to stop them without harm.

However, there have, obviously, been a lot of cases in the news lately where police have used lethal force to stop people (very often black people) who were unarmed, or not holding a weapon or threatening anyone, or who had toy guns. Some of these cases are unclear, but a great many others involved clear instances of police officers escalating situations, using force where none was called for, more force than was needed, shooting at the mere sight of something that looked like a gun, or otherwise acting inappropriately. These killings are wrong. They are criminal.

A lot of people will question the actions of the person who was killed. Some suggest the person should have been more respectful, or more compliant. No. Just NO. Being disrespectful isn’t a capital offense in this country—and even if it were, it’s not the officer’s job or right to execute someone for being disrespectful. Officers don’t have a right to shoot or choke or otherwise harm someone because they don’t instantly and unquestioningly comply with demands, either. What they do—what they are supposed to do—is calmly, coolly work through it. And if they can’t do that, they should not be police officers.

More, it’s the duty of police officers to protect the public—not just from criminals, but from police officers who don’t belong on the job. If they are willing to protect officers they know are racist, inappropriately aggressive, and even violent, they are betraying every bit of their job, their community, and their own honor. And we, the people, should do whatever we can to stop it—while supporting the police officers that do their very difficult job responsibly and professionally.


Tolstoy is a Pig

There was something that bothered me about War and Peace that was obscured for me, somehow, by all of the other things I wrote about previously. There is certainly a lot one could say about War and Peace, so that’s not really surprising. And this one thing: it’s something that’s probably pretty easy to simply ignore, because the character doesn’t matter very much. I know this is true because Tolstoy told me so, in a variety of ways. The only problem is, he’s wrong. And he’s also a pig for saying it.

The character in question is Sónya Rostova–a poor, orphaned girl who is raised alongside her cousins Natasha and Nikolai Rostova, who are two of the main characters. In part because they were raised together, Sónya and Nikolai fall in love. It seems, for a while, as if Tolstoy means for them to get together—though, in fairness, it’s clear from the start that Nikolai’s parents have other ideas. Still, Sónya has hope. Over the course of the novel, Sónya has other opportunities to marry, but she refuses them, remaining true to Nikolai. He, on the other hand…well, his father is terrible with money, and marrying Sónya would be financially inconvenient. Plus, you know, boys will be boys. (Tolstoy is a pig.)

Sonya and Nikolai, from the BBC production of War and Peace.

Sonya and Nikolai, from the BBC production of War and Peace.

While it didn’t strike me on first read, going back I realized that from her first introduction, Tolstoy describes Sónya as being like an animal: “By the grace of her movements, by the softness and flexibility of her small limbs, and by a certain coyness and reserve of manner, she reminded one of a pretty, half-grown kitten which promises to become a beautiful little cat.” And he continues the comparison. Poor Sónya also does quite a lot of crying, but she is, after all, only fifteen, and her true love is going off to war. Still, not long after this, Tolstoy passes judgement via Natasha and Nikolai’s younger brother: “You [girls] are all blubberers and understand nothing.”

In the interests of avoiding boring the both of us—and because I don’t want to do a whole lot of re-reading—I’m going to jump to the part in the second epilogue that annoys and offends me the most. In the title of that chapter, Tolstoy says simply: “Sónya a sterile flower.” Of course, she is no such thing—he has merely chosen to portray her in this manner. This is in part, I believe, because she was too insignificant (being poor) to bother disposing of properly; in part because she was so weak as to wait for Nikolai, even knowing their union was unlikely, and with evidence that Nikolai wasn’t being faithful; and in part because Tolstoy didn’t much seem to respect any of his female characters.

But, you know, it’s not Tolstoy’s fault. Natasha says, as if standing in for Tolstoy: “Formerly I very much wanted Nicholas to marry her, but I always had a sort of presentiment that it would not come off. She is a sterile flower, you know.” Precisely nothing is presented to explain or support this comment. It seems merely to be a sort of excuse for deciding that it’s acceptable for Nikolai to have thrown her over for another woman simply because she had money. But, cheer up—it’s OK! “Sometimes I think she doesn’t feel it as you or I would.” Why? Because she’s not really human—she’s just a sterile flower, of no use to anyone except to be pretty.My dogs have been trained to attack male chauvinist pigs such as you...Tolstoy/

Countess Mary (now Natasha’s sister in law—Nikolai’s wife) agrees with Natasha: “It really seemed that Sónya did not feel her position trying, and had grown quite reconciled to her lot as a sterile flower.” Perhaps the repetition in the mouth of a character known for her kindness and Christian morals is expected to make the comparison seem more valid, or less distasteful. It doesn’t. To emphasize Sónya’s inhuman, unfeeling nature, Mary further reflects: “She seemed to be fond not so much of individuals as of the family as a whole. Like a cat, she had attached herself not to the people but to the home. She waited on the old countess, petted and spoiled the children, was always ready to render the small services for which she had a gift.” At least Tolstoy vaguely recognizes some of this injustice, noting that “all this was unconsciously accepted from her with insufficient gratitude,” but that’s hardly redeeming. He seems to find it unfortunate, but not actually a problem or a tragedy.

There is more that can be said on this subject, but really, it’s too depressing. Poor Sónya is dehumanized, and we see yet again that wealth makes right, and a lack of wealth, regardless of one’s upbringing or inherent value, makes one truly valueless—unappreciated and even unwanted by those whom one serves with love. And of course, Sónya continued to serve the family diligently, in part because she simply had nowhere else to go. Her situation guaranteed that she would never be loved or married or have children of her own. And as Tolstoy himself notes, she would never be appreciated during her life—or, probably, remembered long after it.

In conclusion: Tolstoy is a pig.



War and Peace and Why I Wish I Hadn’t Read It

I wanted to read a good, literary, and long novel this past winter break. Sort of a palate cleanser after reading large numbers of 12ish-page student papers of varying (though sometimes excellent and rarely terrible) quality. Because I am an idiot, I selected War and Peace.

My friends, the book is long. And not merely long–it is also slow, repetitive, meandering, digressive, didactic, and in dire need of a vigorous edit. To make matters worse, the ebook copy I read was riddled with typos. Granted it was free, but a majority of the typos could have been located with a simple spell check. There is simply no excuse for such shoddy material being released online. While it was rarely more than annoying, it certainly left me thinking less of Simon & Schuster for putting their name on it. Another issue was that the editor saw fit to mine the footnotes with spoilers. That is the subject for another day’s (profanity-laced) rant.

The book is a rather odd mix of epic, soap opera, war story, historical analysis, and ramble. I learned a lot about an era of history I don’t know much about, albeit only a brief slice of it (the very early 1800s, including the French invasion of Russia in 1812). I gained some limited perspective on Russian society of that era, though the lives of the serfs–essentially slaves–aren’t given much consideration. (Like Jane Austen’s novels, for example, they aren’t meant to provide a view of the whole of society, though Tolstoy had more of an opportunity to see a wider swath of it than Austen did.)

Ridiculous Tolstoy quote: easy to say if you have money and freedom.

Ridiculous Tolstoy quote: easy to say if you have money and freedom.

Based on what little he did say about them, Tolstoy seemed to see the serfs as inherently inferior, and in need of management in the same way that cattle or estates need management. Up to a point–for example, if one sees serfs as employees–there’s some validity, but Tolstoy clearly approves heartily of the actions of one character who very tightly manages their personal lives as well. This character’s stern (and sometimes violent) management of his serfs causes them to respect him to the point that, Tolstoy says, “serfs from neighboring estates came to beg him to buy them.” This is no more than a fantasy justifying harsh treatment of enslaved people. Tolstoy was of his time, of course, but I would have preferred him to be a bit more enlightened. (The question of how much one can reasonably complain about this is an enormous one that I won’t try to tackle.)

The military episodes, of which there are many, have the sort of verisimilitude that Tolstoy’s own military experience would be expected to provide–including one of the more horrifying, distinctive, and powerful deaths in combat that I’ve read. (Because I’m not an ass, unlike a certain editor who shall remain nameless, I’m not naming names.) Tolstoy’s attitudes about war are quite clear: “war is the favorite pastime of the idle and frivolous.” Tolstoy’s understanding of the difficulties of communication and planning, in the absence of technology, are also incredibly useful—though not terribly relevant any longer. However, he focused so deeply and repeatedly upon his insistence of the chaotic and leaderless nature of war that it seemed more like a mania, in the end, than a carefully-reasoned and persuasive argument.

With respect to the characters…I didn’t find many of the people very likeable. The main female character is absurdly spoiled and coddled, leading to awful, selfish behavior. The main male character is genuinely dreadful for much of the novel, and even during his period of rehabilitation, he simply ignores a man about to be killed because it’s awkward for him. This is apparently OK because the man is a peasant, though he claims to care about him.

Few of the characters seem well suited to making the children they made, or raising them in any way that is likely to turn out well. As for the other characters and their overlapping stories, some were surely compelling. If you’re the sort of person who can simply skip the boring bits (I am not), I can see it appealing to fans of Downton Abbey, or of the novels of Austen, the Brontes, and Trollope. All things considered, though, I wouldn’t actually encourage anyone to read it. There is better stuff out there, by far, IMO.

The tome is ended with epilogues: three of them. Why? Well, the first is a seven-years-later segment that brings us up to date on Russia and, more importantly, the lives, loves, offspring, and evolving characters of the characters, now that they are somewhat older and not at war—for the moment. It’s entertaining, though it leaves many questions and frustrations. It’s not happily-ever-after, by any means, though it seems like Trollope’s conception of it. I felt sorry for many of the characters, and wished others would pull their heads out of their butts.

France's retreat from Russia, by W. Kossak.

France’s retreat from Russia, by W. Kossak.

The second epilogue…dear Lord, it took me so long to get through the second epilogue. It’s so dreadfully dull and repetitive, and some if it is nonsense. For example: “What causes historical events? Power. What is power? Power is the collective will of the people transferred to one person. Under what condition is the will of the people delegated to one person? On condition that that person expresses the will of the whole people. That is, power is power: in other words, power is a word the meaning of which we do not understand.” And also: “If any single action is due to free will, then not a single historical law can exist, nor any conception of historical events.” Setting aside the irony of him referring to “the whole people,” which he clearly doesn’t mean, what?

Tolstoy also wants to claim that history should be treated as a science, and that if the laws and influences determining human actions were known fully, we could abandon our foolish notions of free will. At least, I think he’s saying that. He’s contradictory at times. He does acknowledge that we cannot prove that we have free will, which seems true enough. But the rest…So painful. Don’t read epilogue two.

The third consists of Tolstoy discussing the book. He says: “What is War and Peace? It is not a novel, even less is it a poem, and still less an historical chronicle.” I think it’s difficult to argue that it’s not a historical novel—and he’s probably not the best person to judge, in any case. Tolstoy also discusses the very different needs and methods of historians and “artists”–meaning novelists. This section would, I think, be interesting for both of those types of people to read. He also, rather painfully, confirms what I noted before about his apparent attitudes about serfs. He thinks the tales of the horrors of the serf system are overblown. Sigh. Dear Tolstoy, I rather doubt it. After all, who wrote the materials you used for research? The serfs, or the people who owned them? Might those people have been a teensy bit biased? Yes. Yes, they were.

Historical note: serfdom was abolished in 1861, War and Peace was initially published in 1869, and Tolstoy lived until 1910, so he lived to see a great deal of change. He changed considerably, himself, over the years, though that’s a subject for another day and another author.

All that said: MAN, I’m glad it’s over. I have since read, among other books, Andy Weir’s The Martian. It kicked butt—check it out!