Akame ga Kill!

Spoiler-free anime review

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Akame ga Kill! is one of the most shallow shows I’ve ever watched. The plot isn’t too impressive. The characters have one-dimensional personalities with little backstory and there’s almost zero character development. Everything that unfolds, every character’s motivations and feelings and outcomes, are essentially meaningless. Things just happen in a way that allows you to watch simple, gory, tactical, epic clashes between cool personalities, with some other supporting content in between.

In my opinion, the first episode showed the most promise and only two or three other episodes were as appealing. Despite all the shortcomings of this show, I rate it 7 out of 10 overall because it provides unadulterated, mindless, action-packed entertainment without being pretensive about its purpose or trying to promise things it can’t deliver; sometimes this is desirable in a show.

One week of addiction to solitaire

I’ve used a solitaire (Klondike) app called Solitaire: Super Challenges for probably a year or so. Firstly, I must say it’s an excellent app. It has the cleanest interface I’ve ever seen in terms of game playability, far better than any desktop or browser-based implementation I’ve come across. There’s a daily challenge thing which feels quite satisfying to keep up. You can choose to be dealt a game that’s guaranteed to be winnable. The main downside to this app is the presence of ads, which seem to be getting more and more intrusive. My favorite feature of this app is how tapping on a card automatically generates a legal move of that card (if possible), with moving to foundation being the top priority. I have no idea why popular PC-based solitaire games don’t offer this, since it means you don’t have to waste time dragging your mouse, and since auto-move makes the correct choice for what you’d want at least 80% of the time. You can also see the three top cards in the waste, even if you can only play one. This is very helpful for running through the stock very quickly and undoing if you need something.

To put things into perspective, the smoothness of the game interface means that I can often win games in 80 seconds, with really fast games ending in 60 seconds. In comparison, with a popular site like World of Solitaire, my mean, mode, and shortest win times probably take more than twice as long.

I only recently discovered that the app also has player vs player tournaments with a weekly leaderboard. I was instantly addicted after trying it out, and after a bit of practice I set out to reach the top 100 for the new week. I ended at 37th place (out of over 10,000 players) with a score of 7000. Some random comments about it:

  • There are four tournament modes. The game variants are turn one and turn three. For each of these, there’s a 1vs1 mode or a four player tournament with the lowest scoring player being knocked out each round. Winning 1vs1 scores 10 points for the leaderboard, winning the four player mode (which requires not losing two round then winning the last round) scores 30 points.
  • Within each game, you score 1 point for each foundation card, or 2 if you’re the first player to clear that specific card. (All players are dealt the same cards, of course.) You get 50 points for being the first player to finish. (Note: it’s virtually impossible to be the first to win the game and not be the overall winner.) Since not all games are winnable, this means that speed is a very important factor, especially with turn three solitaire, where sometimes only a couple of cards are playable. You can undo moves, but you can’t undo a move that scored points. This means that for turn three, there’s a definite trade-off between winning fast points through speed (in case the game isn’t realistically winnable) and accurate play. In my opinion, it’s best to go for the speed approach, since in many games evenly matched players will reach the same dead end state and the player who reached it faster wins. Psychology is definitely a part of tournament games. In a heads-up match you can see your opponent’s foundation cards, so if you’re ahead you can see whether your opponent plays a greedy strategy in terms of making all possible legal moves (before actually verifying if they’re safe to make), in which case you should also do the same. Or if you’re behind and you’re bound to lose if you both reach a dead end state, then you can chose to go for a different game tree where you hope they get stuck and you can outscore them even without the bonus points.
  • If you lose a mode, you get locked out of that mode for 30 minutes. You can watch an ad (typically up to 30 seconds long) to bypass the cooldown, and you can do this up to three times per day for each mode.
  • After playing over 700 rounds (in over 400 tournaments), I feel like I’ve noticeably improved my overall skill, though it’s hard to know for sure since playing on any other platform would make a big difference in terms of performance. For example, I’ve honed my instincts for this specific app, often making multiple correct moves within a second without actually processing it through conscious thought first. There are also many skills specific to how you score points in the player vs player mode. In terms of more general skills, my memory-based card tracking has probably improved too.
  • I must have played over 20 hours throughout the week, since it would be hard to win faster than one round every two minutes.
  • Ads occur frequently but they’re kind of bearable. Also, you can watch ads to gain magic wands (or whatever they are) that moves a random card from tableau to foundation. This can allow you to move a game from an unwinnable state to a winnable state, which is a huge advantage.
  • Tapping speed is definitely an important factor. I’ve won numerous games where my opponent was ahead of me but I surpassed them purely due to tapping speed. For example, tournament games don’t support the auto-collect since all cards are worth points, and I can usually manually finish the game within seven seconds with over four moves per second, whereas the majority of players (even players who are clearly better than me) are more than two times slower than me. Running through the stock really quickly (using undo where necessary) is also a key strategy in unwinnable games.
  • Unfortunately, the game isn’t very balanced in the sense that few games are close (especially for turn one). For example, you’re implicitly shown the relative ranks of your opponents at the start of a four person tournament, and in most cases that exactly predicts the order in which people get knocked out.
  • I definitely have room for improvement, but I’ve also won a fair share of games against players ranked higher than me, including players tentatively in the top 10 with twice as many points as me. I think I can safely say that at a certain skill level, how much you play matters more than your in-game performance. As a skilled player, in most cases you’re not at risk of losing anyway so it’s more of a grind.
  • The longest win streak I bothered to count was 19 games.
  • There is some suspicious behavior in the top 5, with a few people becoming leaders without having actually climbed the leaderboard. Later their names disappear from the scoreboard, often with new unfamiliar names replacing them. It would seem either they have some way of changing names that I don’t know about, or they cheat and later get kicked off the leaderboard entirely.
  • For some reason, I rarely see/notice other people using magic wands. In my 700+ rounds I’ve used dozens of magic wands so it seems strange that I’ve only detected other people using it twice. It’s hard to tell though since there’s no obvious indicator when others use it. Maybe people are less tolerant of ads than me.

I’ve definitely wondered what it is that compelled me to reach the top 100 leaderboard. It’s not like I really needed to prove anything or that achieving or not achieving my goal implied anything meaningful about my skill level. (For example, I can guarantee that any human player in the top 100 must have spent at least 10 hours playing.) To state the obvious, I enjoy solitaire and it was a good distraction for me during a week full of physical chores. But I could have played non-competitively. I didn’t have to have a goal. I didn’t have to put in so many hours just to make my arbitrary goal happen. As I hinted at, the competitive element within each tournament is not really that challenging. You’re facing an opponent(s) in a round, but regardless of whether you win or lose, the real race is in the leaderboard.

It has to be stated: I enjoy the fact that I can win easily most of the time. But I also enjoy playing against more skilled players. There’s a sense of haste and purpose, regardless of the real difficulty of winning. The competitive element has made me a better player, since I never had such specific incentives to optimize my play when it was just daily challenges. I enjoy the psychological battle, the breaking of natural rules and fate using magic at opportune moments, the thrill of luck as a factor, and the idea that skill can usually beat luck.

I guess I liked that I could achieve my goal if I wanted to, that by and large I controlled and determined my own success. That’s a feeling that’s been very much absent from my everyday life in many ways. Perhaps I enjoy the affirmation of my skill, yet this does not exactly justify solitaire tournaments over other games, where I often do not enjoy playing much less skilled players. I guess the macro goal of winning as fast as possible changes my preference for playing challenging matches since there is a sense of higher purpose and context that can’t be spoiled as easily, and this idea does transfer to other games.

It should be enough

Sometimes, it should be enough to know that you are capable of doing something without actually doing it. People often say “You should try [moderately impressive-sounding but arbitrary activity]; you’re smart enough to do it.” It’s commonly directed at “gifted children” in particular or people who seem highly intelligent but don’t appear to apply themselves at anything impressive as far as the observer is aware.

As far as I can tell, the suggestion is usually well-meaning, but I think the mentality itself is potentially harmful. I grew up as an overachiever who felt like achievements were the only way to “redeem” my sense of self-worth. Of course, it never worked out that way. These days, I don’t believe that the sort of pride you can get based primarily on impressing others is truly sustainable, or at least it doesn’t work for me personally.

But what about proving things to yourself?

Before addressing this question, here’s a mildly related parody.

Key quote:

The whole point of running a marathon is to be able to tell people you’ve run a marathon. Otherwise, just go for a long run.

I’ve only run a half marathon before but this argument is pretty convincing, I admit. Of course, there are many differences between running at an organized event and just going for a long run. A varied course, accurate course distance, competitive elements, water stations, motivational build-up to the event, safety measures, excitement of the environment, etc; there are many advantages over running dozens of laps in the same field. Even so, in my case, there were really only two things I cared about:

  • My ability to say that I had run a half marathon.
  • Trying my best and hopefully achieving a reasonable time.

Although people run for health reasons, running a marathon itself is not exactly a healthy thing (but the training for it can be). I certainly was not doing it for health reasons, but to “have another achievement I could list” and to “prove myself”.

Is it healthy to prove things to yourself?

I did end up achieving a half marathon time I was proud of: the average time for men. For a long time, I thought about attempting a full marathon with just the goal of finishing at all. I am pretty curious about whether I’d hit the infamous “wall” of marathon running. If anything, being able to experience the wall at all would have been a success in my eyes.

I still have not attempted the full marathon in the mean time. My biggest concern is that I’m very susceptible to blood blisters when running for too long, and that unpredictable element would be the most likely barrier to achieving my goal of either finishing or hitting the wall on the day. Something that training couldn’t really help overcome. I know that running a marathon would have harmful effects on me in the same way I used to play badminton once each week and be injured for a few days after every time.

In the end, I’m doubtful that trading off your physical well-being for a gain in confidence is a worthy choice. That time when I confronted my fear of heights and completed a course I didn’t think I would be able to, it’s still etched in my mind as an example where I regretted proving myself to myself. I think you have to pick your battles, especially tasks or goals that are worth pursuing regardless of the outcome.

 

Brother Stranger

I’ve been wondering for a long time what makes my brother more socially successful than me. We both tend to be quiet and reserved, but he’s slightly shyer and talks less when meeting someone for the first time, while I put more effort into socializing and am more intentional with my interactions.

The other day, I observed my brother as if through the eyes of a stranger. I didn’t do this intentionally; sometimes I just zone out and finally see what has always been in front of me for what it is in context. For one thing, the way my brother contorts his face very strangely while thinking and responding and sometimes at random always puzzled me. At any given point in time, his expression might be interpreted as extreme pain or anger. I see now that this behavior, in combination with his charming and unpredictable smile, gives him an aura of compassion and genuineness. I’ve noticed over multiple occasions that, given almost identical opportunities, people can warm up to him within the face of a single conversation. Such a phenomenon is relatively rare in my own case.

I think that I make a good friend, but my interactions almost never lead to friendship. As sub-optimal as I admit my social skills are, I don’t think my friendship style is the reason why I’m socially not very successful. I think that first impressions are very powerful, and that after just ten seconds of conversation, people can already pick up on my brother’s gentle and trustworthy side through his facial expressions. I have to admit that I never saw those qualities in him myself until a few years ago, for various reasons.

Anyhow, I think it’s a matter of building rapport, which is something I seem to fail catastrophically at. Unlike my brother, whose varied expressions show that he is emotionally responsive and an attentive listener, the non-verbal feedback I give people is less substantial and sometimes cryptic. I smile less, I have a more intimidating gaze, and I always seem to nod at the times when people aren’t looking at me. As is stereotypical for INTPs, my face and eyes are primarily used to facilitate thinking, remembering, visualizing, and picking words. I have a hard time converting thoughts to words, so there simply isn’t much remaining real estate that I can use to convey things on an emotional basis. Someone who appears overly serious, struggles to pick their words, and relays facts and ideas rather than what they believe or feel—how can they come to establish the impression of a being who is sensitive and compassionate on the inside, in spite of their body language betraying appearances?

 

Simply put, getting to know me better is a risk that few people seem interested or inclined to take. This isn’t so much a complaint as a realization that: most people just see the tangible things in front of them, and they’re more comfortable with what they can understand/misunderstand/stereotype or relate to. It gives me the idea that I may need to simplify or adapt the impression I portray. Be less technical, be less honest, act more extroverted, be comfortable with being misunderstood and placed in the wrong box, and explicitly change my body language patterns. These would all help me to establish rapport. No matter how I conduct myself, people won’t see the real me unless they get to know me. At least if I appear more approachable, more people might give me that chance to express my genuine character further on.

I’ve never felt so embarrassed about my terrible lying skills

I’m extremely bad at lying, and the truth is that I think this is a personal flaw worth remedying. There are lots of drawbacks of not being able to lie, especially if you are frequently exposed to other dishonest cultures:

  • You can’t lie to people when they ask you to lie to make them feel better
  • You’re likely to slip up or have less bargaining power during interviews and negotiations
  • You can’t make the dubious insurance claims that everyone else does
  • Your stories aren’t as interesting
  • You will get on the wrong side of people who accept a modest level of honesty as an appropriate form of communication
  • People won’t believe you anyway
  • You’ll appear less confident and have a height disadvantage compared to everyone else in online profiles
  • You’ll suck at games that require lying

 

Today, I got really unlucky. I played a variant of Mafia with about 12 people, mostly strangers. I was a mafia member in the first round. My mafia teammate and I lost the first round quite quickly; we were both outed on the basis of sound, though I’m pretty sure the sound my accusers detected was simply the host walking beside me. Anyhow, when I got accused, this particularly intuitive and outspoken girl was accusing me on the basis of my facial expression. (In this variant, whoever gets accused first has at least 50% chance of getting lynched, simply because it’s compulsory to vote for someone and within only a few minutes of discussion. You’re in trouble even if you get blindly accused. There are also three pretty overpowered town roles compared to the standard rules, but that’s no excuse.) If I smiled, she said I was guilty because I couldn’t help smiling, and if I stopped smiling, she accused me of trying not to smile. I could feel my cheeks twitching, though I’m glad people can’t actually see that. Anyhow, I was very unconvincing and the game ended just like that.

In the second round, four out of six roles were retained by the same people. I got accused on the first day of voting by the intuitive girl again, who was a spy this time. She was partly fishing, but it was effective. My face felt exactly the same, and the only reason I wasn’t lynched right there was because my teammate saved me by throwing another accusation out. The first vote was a draw against me and the other accused, so I nearly got eliminated on the first day of voting, until the other person got voted out in the revote. My teammate fell under suspicion the next day (but we successfully killed the intuitive girl this time with the doctor’s guaranteed heal already used) and was voted out. There were still people sure it was me. It’s a wonder that I made it to the day where I would make the winning kill that night, and people turned against the “vigilante” during that day’s vote. Unfortunately, their ability is to kill whoever they choose when they die, and he killed me right before what would have been my winning night. I never stood a chance, since he suspected me from the start and would have chosen to kill me no matter when or how he died.

Getting better at lying has always been on my long list of things that will make me a better person. I’m somewhat insecure about it, and it’s now been bumped up significantly in priority after this incident.

Cold Shower Challenge: conclusions

It works. Try it.

I took on the 30-day Cold Shower Challenge a few months ago. I haven’t written about it until now but I did complete the challenge, and in fact I’ve kept taking cold showers ever since.

I don’t want to mince my words, so I’ll start with the main conclusion.

Would I recommend cold shower therapy to other people?

Absolutely. I think it is 100% worth trying for a month. There are a lot of people who will vouch for it. All that needs to be said is “try it and see”. There’s not much point in me trying to convince people it’s worthwhile, since the anecdotal evidence speaks for itself. It can’t possibly be a bad thing to try.

How effective is it?

My first 30 days of cold showers amounted to the most productive 30-day period in my life. It was amazing. I was motivated and decisive. I took on problems without overthinking. However, my profound new level of productivity did decline as the novelty of the feeling of cold showers started to wear off after a few weeks.

In the end, I kept going because I concluded that taking cold showers is better than not taking cold showers. Cold showers won’t solve all your motivation/discipline problems, but if I had to put an arbitrary number on it, I’d say that it helps me by 20% or maybe more. Combining this with other things, like daily habits and meditation is what pays off for me, as the benefits stack up noticeably.

How does it “work”?

It’s somewhat pointless to theorize about the multiple benefits of cold showers. To summarize the main benefit, I’d put it this way:

If procrastination is about a feeling of discomfort in not wanting to do something that you think you should do, then cold showers help you become more aware of that feeling of discomfort and lowers the “activation energy” required for you to say “okay fine I’ll just do it” in response.

How does it feel?

The first week of cold showers was a bit tough. I definitely wondered whether it would ever get easier. My answer is that it does, not only mentally but perhaps also physically. I think that the sensation of pain in response to cold decreases after a few weeks. Sometimes, taking cold showers has its distinctly enjoyable sensations now.

Practical advice: preventing itchiness and increasing immersion

For the first week or so, I was itchy all over due to taking cold showers. Not everyone reacts this way, and apparently it’s due to soap not being fully cleared off your pores or something. Anyhow, this was my solution:

  • Take some days where you shower without soap. Washing your hair with shampoo is fine.
  • Incorporate the “Scottish shower”. Start with a cold shower with soap or body wash. Once you’re done, rinse with hot water. 30 seconds is enough, although I can admit to taking much longer on occasion. End with a cold shower where your body feels cold again.

I have confirmed that rinsing with hot water directly prevents the itching, since 30 seconds of rinsing is enough, and intense scrubbing in cold water using shower gloves improved things but still left some itch.

The Scottish shower thing might seem a bit like cheating, but it really isn’t. It doesn’t take away from the fact that you have to immerse yourself in a cold shower, and it doesn’t take away the fresh feeling you get from ending with a cold shower. I also think it’s a great way to ease into the sensation of cold water. When you first start taking cold showers, the cold water is met with panic and the desire to scream. A week in, you’re still screaming but kind of okay with it, but it’s still quite difficult to just submit to the cold water without dancing around or anything. Warming up with hot water first prepares you well. My back is the most sensitive to the cold, but switching the stream from hot to cold triggers an enjoyable sensation without the panic, even when it starts freezing.

Basically, it’s so much easier to reach a calm state of full submission by finishing with a Scottish shower than it is to do it right at the start.

The ‘bystander effect’ is a lie

The “bystander effect” is one of those things that, when I read about it, I instantly sensed it was garbage theory, and it turns out it was. My bullshit detector does not trigger often, but when it does, it is accurate even when I cannot be logically sure. I’m more comfortable with evidence and logic, so I decided to examine the available information before jumping to conclusions.

The formulation of the bystander effect is problematic even at first glance.

The bystander effect is a social psychological phenomenon in which individuals are less likely to help a victim when other people are present. The greater the number of bystanders, the less likely it is that any one of them will help.

The first part seems entirely sensible and natural. The second part seems unlikely and unproven. Overall, it just doesn’t stand up to common sense.

If there’s a group of people near a victim in danger, are they all going to call an ambulance? Can two people perform CPR at the same time? Only a finite amount of help is practical or needed, so it’s baffling to frame the decrease in likelihood of each individual to help as anything surprising. What “effect” is there?

The definition of the bystander effect I’ve chosen is somewhat sensationalist and misleading. Firstly, the experiments that researchers performed contradicts the second claim. If 70% of people offer help as the sole bystander, but only 40% of people offer when there are other bystanders, then the theoretical probability of receiving any help increases as there are more people. You might attribute an unfortunate incident to the bystander effect, but I hope no one actually believes the second sentence of that definition to be a defensible statement.

The first part of the definition is also problematic. If I said “People are less likely to donate to charity when swimming,” is that accurate? It’s probably true, but it’s misleading to suggest that people don’t donate to charity because they’re swimming. All you could say is that people don’t donate to charity when they’re physically unable to in the moment. Likewise, is the fact that other people are present the primary reason why in some situations, bystanders are less likely to help? Is the same person less willing to offer help simply because there are more people? Basically, no. There are many factors, some of which are related to there being more people, but social group membership/identity is one of the key factors that can affect whether the effect is observed or if the opposite is observed.

In short, there’s not much evidence supporting the common definition of the bystander effect. That said, the first researchers Latané and Darley were not trying to prove something quite so obviously flawed; and they went on to theorize about other characteristics of bystander interaction/non-interaction. However, their interest was driven by the topic of the murder of Kitty Genovese, and some degree of fault lies with them for the fact that they, and subsequently most psychology textbooks thereafter, have grossly misrepresented the facts of the case.

There weren’t 38 witnesses, more like several at most. The relevant witnesses could not have watched for long, and they did call for help. And Kitty was still alive when police arrived. The bystander effect is founded on one giant myth. It’s not false just because it was based on a multitude of lies, but it also happens to be false.

Recommended reading: The Kitty Genovese murder and the social psychology of helping: the parable of the 38 witnesses. (R Manning, 2007.)