Archive for May, 2012

Syp, the fellow who runs Bio Break and who spearheaded this whole Newbie Blogger Initiative, has a great summary post of the proceedings thisaway:

NBI: Month Wrapup

There are a lot of new blogs and plenty of advice floating around thanks to this bit of blogging fertilization.  I’ll probably make a post sometime in the next few weeks about some of my new favorites.  Thanks, everyone, for stopping by and participating.

If I might offer one final bit of pithy advice, it would be this:

Do good.

Not “do well”, since it’s not about your quality of writing.  Do good.

It’s not enough just to follow Wheaton’s Rule and “don’t be a dick“, though that’s a good start.  Make your contribution to the world something that will make it (and you) better.

As a corollary, when the temptation to rant or indulge in flame wars with trolls inevitably rears its head, resist.  That doesn’t mean you let them win.  Your blog is your corner of the internet where you’re a near-sovereign and you can delete comments from people who don’t understand common courtesy.  But even if you run a Wild West saloon of a place, where anything and everything goes, don’t let yourself fall into the trap of fighting.  You can’t cure stupid, you can’t fix jerks, you can’t correct the internet.

Save your righteous crusader energy for something you can actually fix and do good with.  This blogging thing isn’t worth the stress of dealing with idiots.  Spend your most precious time with your family and friends.  (Remembering that you can make friends online, certainly.)

Fair winds, all!

Oh, and some music for the road, courtesy of the Bastion folk.

Set Sail, Come Home

Edited to add:  Bastion is part of the newest Humble Bundlecomplete with soundtrack!  Seriously, that’s a sweet deal, and you get some other good games along with it like LIMBO and Psychonauts.  I cannot recommend Bastion enough, for both the game and the music.

Ooh, a nice live performance of a pair of the songs… very cool.  I’m a fan of acoustic performances.  That’s where you really see how much talent (or not) the artists have.


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I’ve played a wide variety of games in my day.  These MMO things tend to want to monopolize your time, but I’m just not wired that way.  Some might consider World of Warcraft’s Azeroth or RIFT’s Telara to be home, then, for the social roots they put down there.  Me, I don’t really have such a “home”, but no MMO feels more comfortable to me than Puzzle Pirates.

I have several characters there, but my “main” character and identity on their forums is Silveransom.  I’ve actually spent almost as much time on the forums and community art and game design projects as I have in the game proper.  To this day, my greatest “achievement” in the game is getting some of my art in as an Easter Egg, this little Croatian-inspired beauty.  It’s no big deal in the grand scheme of Life, but the game and the community have been good to me, and I’ve had fun chipping in.

It’s not a traditional DIKU-flavored MMO, but it’s the first one that really wound up capturing my imagination.  I actually made friends there.  I started playing more than six years ago, and it has consistently been the one game I can go back to and feel comfortable.  To be fair, I did try World of Warcraft thanks to a ten day friend pass shortly after trying Puzzle Pirates, so that wasn’t my only MMO at the time, but even then, the clear dichotomy between the DIKU level-grinding loot-heavy pedigree in WoW and the different design of Puzzle Pirates was very clear, and I had a strong preference for the latter, even though I really liked the sense of world that WoW offered (as I’ve noted a few times, especially here).

Anyway, as is so often the case when I’ve occupied a space for a length of time, whether it be mental space or physical space, I’ve developed habits and traditions in Puzzle Pirates.  The very first sloop I bought was second hand, one a crewmate didn’t need any more.  She left a piece of small driftwood up in the bow of the ship.  It’s technically furniture in Puzzle Pirates, so it was placed there on purpose sometime, but she had just forgotten it.  She let me keep it, though.

Thing is, that piece of driftwood, possibly the cheapest bit of furniture in the game, became a tradition.  That little sloop was my transitional vehicle from a newbie in the game world to a pirate, more or less in control of his own destiny.  That ship was freedom, and that little personality quirk of a piece of wood in the bow was inextricably tied to that phase of my Puzzle Pirates experience.  It was, in its own way, a symbol of my change from a lowly deckhand who might just have washed up on shore, clinging to a piece of driftwood, to a ship’s master, boldly sailing into dangerous waters.  To be sure, there are other, bigger ships (like my favorite ship, the Longship that I painted and renamed the Silver Dragon), and other transitional phases in the game, like when I scored my first Ultimate trophy (in Rumbling, on my alternate Silveransom character on the test ocean), but y’know, those “firsts” stick with you.

As such, I’ve had occasion to give a sloop to other pirates once in a while, and I always leave a bit of driftwood on the ship for them.  Is it silly?  Of course.  Is it fun?  Yes.  Will they remember it?  I hope so.  It’s the little touches like that that remind people of where they have been and why.  That’s important for charting a course to the future.  To be sure, the future will happen whether or not you’re ready, but if you know where you’ve been and why, you can position yourself better for when it does come.

So what does this have to do with blogging?  Well, tradition is a strong tool in maintaining information through generations.  It can also be a strong tool in reserving headspace in readers, carving out your own little niche in the blogging hivemind.  The human mind is geared to find patterns.  Traditions are patterns, ranging from the tenuous to the tedious, perhaps, but the whole point is that they are repeated events.  And people remember them, for better or worse.  If you do something more than once, especially with any sense of regularity, you may well be establishing a tradition.  Memes had a start somewhere, for that matter, but they grow because they are repeated and shared.  The tradition goes viral.

If you are trying to maintain a tone or tradition for your blog, maybe you use a particular “signoff” line like Mark Rosewater’s Magic The Gathering articles.  Maybe you just maintain a role or character for your posts, like Warchief Garrosh.  Maybe you post a random My Little Pony cartoon or a photo.  Whatever the case, you’ve done something patterned, consistent, and readers will remember it.

So go, have fun, and maybe, just maybe, carry over or establish a tradition.  You might have fun with it, and your readers might have fun with it.  That’s one of the best parts of blogging, when you share something fun with those people out there.

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I wrote a fair bit about the dice-based combat system I’m using in my Zomblobs! game last time, but I wanted to add this smaller coda about criticals and what I see as an “underdog” mechanic within my system.

Variety is the spice of life

Many games use the idea of “critical” strikes (sometimes called “crits”) to spice up combat a little.  As the theory goes, these critical strikes do some extra bit of damage or cause some bonus, representing the “lucky strike” of hitting a foe’s funny bone or artery.  The WoWPedia has a good definition of how criticals work in World of Warcraft for a little more detail, noting that each game does things a little differently.

If variable damage and hit accuracy rates are the salt that makes games a bit more interesting by dodging perfectly deterministic combat resolution, criticals are the cayenne pepper that makes the occasional bite something really special.  In practical terms, they not only serve the purpose of instilling variety, but they also give game designers another handle to tweak as they fiddle around with balance and even the game’s flavor/feel.  They give players more chances to have memorable “lucky rolls” that turn the tide of an otherwise unwinnable game… or more reasons to curse their luck.

This balance between luck and tactical decisions can be a tricky one.  I really want Zomblobs! to have a very strong tactical element, and for luck to be minimal, though I see some gameplay value in dice rolling and simulating the chaos of combat that actually does wind up being somewhat less than perfectly controlled.  The core dice rolling system of “successes” on attack and defense cover most of what I want to do with randomness.  Each point of attack or defense has a 2/3 chance of succeeding, which is enough to make attack decisions somewhat risky without being too crazily uncontrolled.  (It might actually be too big of a chance of failure, but 5/6 chance of success might be too small a chance of failure, and I’m trying to stick with common six-sided dice.  As ever, playtesting will be crucial to nailing down the right feel.)

Criticals are layered on top of this thusly:

Criticals in Zomblobs! happen when all of the dice you roll show the same number.  If that happens, you are considered to have rolled an extra successful die for the combat.  This means one more attack point added to your attack total, or one more defense point added to your defense total.  This also means rolling all 1s or all 2s, which would otherwise leave you with a 0 attack or defense total, will actually give you a total of 1 for attack or defense.  Consider this the “lucky unlucky strike”.

Most curiously, these criticals are easier to score the fewer dice you roll.  Weaker attacks have greater potential to hit a little bigger.  This particular “crit” design is therefore more of an “underdog” mechanism, rather than a “win more” mechanism.  Instead of harder hits probably hitting even harder, it’s the weak hits that are most likely to slip in a little extra punch.  It’s not quite the “slow blade” that can win a Dune-flavored shield knife fight, but it’s another tactical consideration that should keep someone from always just using their biggest attacks.

At least, that’s the theory.  Playtesting will hammer this all out, and the design may need to change.  Still, for now, I like the core combat chances, and I think criticals will add the occasional spike of fun, while boosting the “underdog” attacks ever so slightly.  This should also have the effect of speeding up the game a little bit, as the lower attack value Actions (which usually are also faster, with a lower Time Tick cost, meaning units who use them will act more frequently) gain a little extra potential punch.

It should also make some tactical decisions more interesting:  do you go for the 3-Power attack and hope you roll well for the basic successes or go for the 2-Power attack and hope for doubles?  This sort of decision, where there’s a good statistical case to be made, but it’s beyond casual calculation, is an opportunity for players to play “by their gut” or do some number crunching on the side and really min-max their game… or maybe just bring some lucky dice.

Whatever the case, it’s an implementation of criticals that seems unique to me, so I want to see it work.  Designing Zomblobs! is itself a bit of a game, or at least a puzzle.  That’s the fun of game design in my book.  Wiring all the variables together into an enjoyable machine is great fun.

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Rowan’s post today of some cool word art done by Lilpeanut reminded me of Wordle, a curious Java-based word art toy.  It strikes me that Wordle is not just a fun little toy, but also a potentially useful diagnostic tool for analyzing your blogging.

Specifically, I looked at this, a Wordle cloud of my then-current RSS feed before this post.  Noting that word size is determined by how often that word is used, it looks like I use the word “something” perhaps overmuch, and “just” just a few more times than might be necessary.

Tish Tosh Tesh Wordle

This isn’t to say that a perfect even distribution of words is ideal or necessary, but I look at it like I look at my “artist’s crutch”.  When I’m in a drawing rut, I tend to just grab the same old familiar tools (in my case a ballpoint pen and a sketchbook) and start doodling the same old things (the old standbys; familiar monster faces, figure drawing poses, whatever).  It’s an artistic crutch that I fall back on instead of pushing myself into new territory that might expand my skillset and mental palette.

Most creative types do this.  We don’t usually write, draw, paint or whatever at full creativity all the time.  We find stuff we’re good at and fall back on it when we’re at a low ebb in our creativity.  You can see this in fine art (Frank Frazetta), literature (Isaac Asimov), movies (Tim Burton), TV (Joss Whedon) or any artist’s body of work, to some degree or another.  It’s nice to be consistently good at something, but it’s also important to keep learning.

Blogging is a creative endeavor (some more creative than others), so it’s good to shake up the formula or habits once in a while (like this silly post of mine answering a challenge from Big Bear Butt).  It keeps you sharp, and keeps readers from being bored.

At least, that’s the hope.  Sometimes there’s a fine line between “creative” and “dumb parlor trick” or “incoherent”.

Anyway, food for thought.  I like to provide that, at least.

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I’ve noted the Storybricks project before, but I wanted to make mention of it specifically instead of in passing.

Psychochild’s recent article on it has a good summary of what’s afoot, so I’ll first point you to that:

Precise terminology, or: a game vs. a toolset

Then there’s the Kickstarter page for Storybricks.  If you’ve been itching for more control in storytelling in the MMO space, this is a great way to put your money where your mouth is.  I’ve pledged to support it, since this is just the sort of tool I would love to see.  I’ll admit, I don’t have all that much time these days to really go play with the Unity-based existing playable alpha, but this is something I want to see work, so I’m on board with what the team is doing.

They actually contacted me a while back regarding Storybricks, and at the time, my concern was about the nonverbal parts of storytelling and interpersonal communication.  My specialty in college was animation, so naturally I figured that such would be crucial to really nailing the sense of character that will sell a story well.  They were aware of this, and have addressed it in a few articles… here’s one via Massively, and here’s another also via Massively, but I know there are others somewhere.

Further, recently they announced that animation legends Don Bluth and Gary Goldman signed on to advise the team on animation concerns.

How in the world did you guys do that, by the way?

Anyway, while I’m more a fan of Glen Keane‘s style, Bluth and Goldman understand animation, so the Storybricks team is in good hands on that front.

If you’re interested in making MMOs more interesting, giving NPCs more character and empowering players to tell stories in the MMO venue, please check out Storybricks.  I think you’ll find a lot to like.

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I’ve been spoiled by hyperlinks.

They have changed the way I research and the way I write.  I’ve spoken many times to different people, noting that education is fostered by the human brain making connections between disparate data.  That was sort of the “Sherlock Holmes” schtick, pulling arcane data from pockets of his memory to make connections nobody else did, thereby properly fitting together the puzzle in front of him.  We learn more when we make connections.  (Incidentally, that’s true socially, which is why this blogging thing has value beyond just blathering.)  It’s even biological.  Neurons function by making connections, that’s how the brain functions and how memory works.

Once upon a time, back in junior high and high school, I wrote a lot of papers.  I learned how to write to a specific length instead of write what the topic needed, how to use bigger and more words when smaller or fewer would do, how to use paragraphs and carriage returns to get a little extra length, and as Calvin notes, that  the purpose of writing is to inflate weak ideas, obscure poor reasoning, and inhibit clarity. With a little practice, writing can be an intimidating and impenetrable fog! To this day, I’m sure it could be argued that I am rather more… verbose… than needs be, and that I parse things a little differently than most, but I do blame this more on the vast amount of reading I’ve done than the excruciating amount of writing for assignments that I’ve done.  By the time I was writing for my college Technical Writing class, I was actually cutting back on what I wrote so I didn’t go over the required length by 25% or more.  Of course, being a Technical Writing class, it was still about obscuring data and sounding educated, rather than educating the reader.  We certainly can’t have those uneducated people actually understanding what we college educated folk do.

Ahemhemhem.   Tangential diatribe aside, noting that sarcasm and tone don’t always carry over the interweb tubes, I’d note that blogging and writing in general are all about communication.  If you’re writing to show you’re smarter than the reader, well… that’s communication, but it’s pretty rude.  I know, I know, it’s just how textbooks work, but that doesn’t mean it’s right or even useful.

Anyway, back to linking (tangents are part of the concept of linking, incidentally; they are one way to pull in relevant information and expand your knowledge base), I’ve done a LOT of writing, and most of the time, I needed to cite my references.  Usually that was done with footnotes or endnotes.  I’ve fallen headlong into habits of citing my references, parenthetical asides and running tangents.  I’d like to think that’s good practice (the citations, at least), but it really can get a wee bit messy sometimes with all the superscripts or subscripts.  These days, though, I don’t use those, I just put in a hyperlink where it’s relevant.

If anything, this actually cuts down on my parenthetical asides.  I just plow on through my topic at hand, plugging in links where I’d previously have needed to explain something for a paragraph or so.  I can just trust that what I write makes sense on its own to anyone sufficiently well versed in the topic, and those who aren’t have a handy dandy link there to go catch up with.  It’s a sort of conversational shorthand, a way to appeal to a wider audience without breaking the flow of the text, and without indulging in full blown pedant mode, explaining everything in excruciating, formal detail.  This actually makes teaching in person harder… I get into a habit of assuming my audience knows what I’m talking about, and when they clearly don’t, I don’t have the time in real time to tell them to go read a link, I have to go back and explain things.  I’ve mentioned before that the persistent, asynchronous nature of blogs is a good thing, right?  I could explain everything, as I am very familiar with teaching methods, the scientific method and realllly tedious term papers, but I’ve found that writing is much more entertaining and flows better when I’m not stuck in “explain everything” mode.

Links are a crucial reflection of my thought process.  Perhaps that means I’m unfocused, but it really is my experience that chasing tangents and making those intellectual connections is the backbone of how I manage information and retain it for future use.  I loathe memorization, as a rote series of data points with no context is little more than GIGO, just data to regurgitate for a test somewhere.  It’s only by placing data in context with other information that I begin to care about it and retain it.  To this day, the only thing I remember of history before high school is memorizing the U.S. presidents and their dates of service.  I don’t remember the list, I remember how much I hated memorization.  (This song would have made it so much more fun.)  It was only in high school that teachers finally started putting the pieces together and teaching context, and boom, suddenly history was fascinating.  It all started making sense because of the links between disparate bits of data.  We chased down implications and unintended consequences, we looked at political ripples, we chased down echoes, sometimes hundreds of years later.  That’s all awesome stuff, but it gets lost in the memorization shuffle.  As kids, we were ever learning (and forgetting) data, never learning wisdom.

So, while links on the internet can and often are merely traffic-inducing plugs, for better or worse (as Wilhelm humorously notes), I think they are a great reflection of how the human mind works.  I also have to wonder on occasion if this whole ADHD craze is unfortunate sometimes.  I think it’s healthy to flit between topics and chase down implications and connections.  The trick may be to pull it all together in the end, but if we’re not mentally flitting about a bit, we’re not going to see the bigger picture.  My fourth grade teacher taught us how to “brainstorm” and see where our associative processes took us.  In retrospect, that was a very valuable lesson to learn at a relatively young age.

In a way, the “blogosphere” functions like a sort of shared brain.  Ideas can spark between writers, each bringing a different viewpoint to the process.  Links between blogs and references are like the connections between neurons, and since blogs are more or less persistent, once those links are forged, there’s a good chance that at least some of us learned something, and perhaps most importantly, that someone can come to it later and also learn.  Perhaps we can think of it as the wetware Skynet or something.

So, if you’re new to blogging, use those links!  Leverage the hivemind, jack your voice into the conversation.  When you’re reading someone else’s blog, chase some of the links sometimes, and see what’s out there to learn.  Learn how to read fast and think faster, making those links in your own brain.

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All this New Blogger Initiative stuff has reminded me of one of the common pithy bits of supposed “wisdom” that I’ve heard since junior high, when “inspirational” speakers try to tell us good little empty-headed starry-eyed students what to do with our lives and careers.  Perhaps you’ve heard this one before?

Find a job doing what you love, and you’ll never work a day in your life.

It’s my experience that this is not only shallow and semantic, but the philosophy is actively bad for long term health.

There are a few aspects to this:

  • Turning a love or hobby into a job is effectively ceding control of that interest to those who write the checks.  Whether you’re working for The Man as a cog in a machine, or The Herd as an entrepreneurial wizard, you’re still tying your love to money.  That always changes things.  And, as the EASpouse storm made more aware, and this story of Free Radical underlines (hattip to Anjin), passion is easily exploited by unsavory management, canny to optimize assets and maximize revenue.
  • Jobs and work are usually crucial to staying alive; paying the bills, food and shelter, that sort of thing.  Money is almost always a necessity for mere survival, and work is usually how you get it.  That’s healthy, as I reckon it, because I think work itself is a good principle, but the last thing you should want to do with an interest you love is make it something you must do, rather than something you want to do.  It then crosses the threshold into an imposition on your time and energy, rather than something you approach at your leisure.  It controls you, rather than you controlling it.
  • One of the best ways to lose interest in something is to see how other people screw it up.  Hobbyists and wage slaves both have to deal with people at some level, but again, when money is involved, you’re letting someone else have inordinate say in your interest.  No longer are they just a passive voice that can be debated or ignored.  No, customers and corporate controllers cannot be ignored, and when you don’t agree, sticking to your guns can have a real monetary impact.  Maybe that’s a tradeoff worth making sometimes, but it inevitably changes the tenor of how you approach your work.

I’d argue that this applies to your motivation to blogging as well.  To be sure, you can start a blog with the intention of making it a revenue stream, but then it’s a job.  That’s OK, but it’s different from just blogging for the sheer love of communication and shared ideas.

I don’t do what I do here for money.  I work a day job doing something else (I’m an artist at Wahoo/NinjaBee studios), and write here as occasion permits.  Sure, I’ll do some side projects that will occasionally net me a little spending money, like some of my Shapeways or Zazzle/CafePress merchandise, and I’d certainly be pleased to make some money with some of my game designs someday, but that’s just icing on the cake.  I designed Alpha Hex for a contest, and have been refining it in fits and spurts ever since.  I designed Zomblobs! because I wanted to play it and maybe even see others play it.  I’m writing a series of novels because I want the story told.  In other words, I follow a maxim something like this:

Find a job you’d be happy doing, so you can pay for the things you really want to be doing.

Initially, I wanted to work in movies.  I grew up on Disney animation (and I’m introducing my children to DuckTales), lots of drawing and tons and tons of reading.  Animation is what my BFA degree was geared for, and I did very well in the program.  Maybe I will yet work in film someday, but I know what goes on in that particular sausage factory, and I’m OK with not being a part of it, though I’ll toy with the idea of making my own movies sometimes.  I also wanted to get a Ph.D. in Astrophysics, simply for the sheer love I have for the science, but I took a hard look at the politically charged career paths there and decided I’d maintain the love as an indie and try to pass it on to my children, rather than get burned out by the pragmatic concerns of a career in the sciences, rather than just working on science because it interests me.

I think this is partially what drives indie game developers, at least at some level.  Making games for the sheer love of making games has a tendency to produce some great stuff.  I’d hold up Minecraft as an obvious example, but there are plenty of others.  The Rampant Coyote is my touchpoint for getting a bead on good indie games, though the Humble Bundle and Indie Royale are good to check now and then.

That’s not to say that projects like Psychochild’s Storybricks are somehow lessened by monetary concerns, or devoid of passion.  No, it just means that Storybricks, for all its indie pedigree and passion, is still being worked on as a commercial product.  Psychochild and his intrepid coworkers are working at making the tech interesting and useful, not noodling around in a garage somewhere for the sheer joy of tinkering.  I stress that there is absolutely nothing wrong with this, in fact, it’s the wellspring of human progress, the backbone of capitalism.  Working on something with the aim of making money with it can be an honorable pursuit.  This whole Kickstarter thing even taps into the market in new ways, letting customers echo their support of passionate developers instead of waiting for the AAA venture capital machine to churn out homogenized focus-group approved games.  (And yes, I’ve pledged support for Storybricks; it really looks like a sweet project.)  There’s plenty of love out there on commercial projects, and I suspect that the vast majority of them start as labors of love.

It’s just not the same thing as working on something because you love the work, the thing or both.  Money changes the priorities somewhere along the line, sometimes in subtle ways, sometimes gross, sometimes for the worse, sometimes for the better.  (Money changes how we handle things as consumers, too.  It’s not just a producer thing.)

I’ve told my wife on occasion that even if I were independently wealthy, living off of a mine of oil or something in my back yard, I’d still be working hard, just on different things.  I’d push the design of Zomblobs! even more, and develop its sister game that I’ve had rattling around in my mind.  I’d make a steampunk fabrication lab behind the house.  (Probably not by the oil well, though.)  I’d write and illustrate more books.  As it is, I’m doing those things when I can, in small ways, but if I didn’t have to work for a living, I’d simply have more time for the things I love to do.  I’d still love to work and produce things I consider valuable, it would just have a different tenor to the process.  If money could be made with the fruits of my labor, hey, that’s a bonus, but it wouldn’t be the reason for working.  I’d be working because I value what I’d be doing and what I’d be producing.

Maybe it’s all in my head, but I’ll tell you this:  when I am compelled by circumstance to do something, it is a task that I may well grow to resent, no matter how much I might like it initially.  When I choose to do something, to act on my own rather than be acted upon, my love for the task is not ground away as I go, but rather, it grows.

Those times when I don’t feel like posting on this blog, I don’t.  It starts to feel like an obligation sometimes, whether I’m feeling pressure to post something so I can keep people coming (I do want to share my game designs, after all), or when I feel like I want to comment on some topic of the month but can’t work up the right words, or some other circumstance where I’m not writing but I feel like I should be… those are times when blogging feels like a job, not something I do because it’s fun.  It’s much harder to write at that point.  I’m not of a mind that you have to push through it and post anyway.  If you do that, you’re treating it like it’s a job, and again, it inevitably colors your attitude.  Sure, there still might be something good in those posts, but they have a different feel to them, and in my experience, they aren’t as strong or as interesting.

There’s definitely something to be said for liking your job.  I like mine, and I’m happy with what I produce.  Working at a job you don’t like gets old fast.  That aside, I’m firmly of the mind that hobbies and labors of love need to be spontaneous and self-directed, or else they change into something else.  That something else might be good as well, but it’s different.  There is great value in doing something simply for the sake of doing it.  Like a schoolchild needs recess and time to just be free, adults need time to be away from imposition and obligation.

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