Saturday, April 30


Sun's been talking at it's last couple analyst conferences, and on its executive blogs, about how the next step in 'grid computing' is the display grid. They then wank on about SunRays (desktop thin client on a honkin'big backend) and the power of VoIP and so on.

Well, while Sun was talking, someone else went out and did it. Now, this is a Cory Doctorow BoingBoing post, so grain of salt and YMMV and so on, but still. This is here. This works.

Thursday, April 28

Apologies if this entry doesn't make any sense

I just happened across This article on constructive argument. Admittedly, it's in the context of arcane and esoteric details of strategy in a game that star trek nerds think is nerdy, but the point holds -- giving good reasons for your position turns a pissing contest into a source of new knowledge.

Tuesday, April 26

Tim Bray on Truth

I was poking around Tim Bray's blog just now and I came across his manifesto on Truth. Good points for a public blog that's a public face for a very large company, written by an non-anonymous (nymous?) engineer. Not as universal as he makes it out to be, though; perhaps it's appropriate in its context, but I can think of a number of situations where the kind of Truth he's talking about hurts more than it helps.

I don't know if I have a point here.

Friday, April 22

Pop music, spam, frozen food, and product quality in general

For reasons I don't fully fathom, I was singing old Tragically Hip songs to myself this morning. When I got to work, I looked through my (rather impressive, if I do say so myself) desktop collection of CDs for the some old Hip albums. I didn't find any (I think they're at home). But I did find some contemporaneous albums from Our Lady Peace, which is another late-90s early-21st-century CanRock band that got limited play south of the border after exploding in treacly chunks of ubiquitous, radio-friendly distorted guitar all over the Canadian airwaves.

You'd think from my description there that I'm about to pull a Pitchfork on OLP here, sneer, and dismiss them as too 'Hoi Polloi' for a jaded, cultured man such as myself. And I have to say, it's tempting. The thing is, I actually enjoy their music. Even with lyrics like
There's nothing left to prove / there's nothing I won't do / there's nothing like the pain / I feel for you / there's / nothing left to hide / there's nothing left to fear / I am always here
I still enjoy the music! In fact, if I was at home I'd probably be rocking out in my living room. (Rocking out is discouraged at the office. Don't ask me to share how I know this.)

There's two ways to approach my liking OLP's music: either it doesn't actually suck, or it sucks and I like it anyway. I hold it's the latter, actually; if it's wrong to like hooky stadium-rock power chords layered under a mediocre but oh so angsty frontman's voice, then I don't wanna be right. I choose to set my quality bar for music such that OLP gets a passing grade.

So how did this happen? How is it that something as popular (admittedly, in a smallish Canadian market) as Our Lady Peace is also decent? What happened to the assumed negative relationship between popularity and quality? Could it be that there's actual positive pressure on quality, even in the mass market? I don't have a direct answer for this, but spam (the email kind) and frozen food also seem to exhibit this same behaviour. The only spam that gets through the spam filters at my ISP and at work with any regularity is stuff that's actually legible English; sometimes the occasional "saturday spaghetti incredible anguish china basketball" gibberish message comes through, but not very frequently. It's almost as if the spammers are discovering that the best way to write an email that actually gets read -- an email that has the chance of generating a sale -- is to write it with sufficient erudition as for it to be indistinguishable from email that I actually want to read. Similarly, most of the cookbooks on my shelves say something to the effect of "If you can't get fresh, use frozen; it's almost as good, and besides it's available year-round." You mean I can have blueberries whenever I want, and people who cook for a living won't frown at me? Score!

So it seems that there are ways in which the market (or is that The Market?) exerts positive quality pressures. People don't buy crap frozen fruit. At least in the mid-90s, radio music was listenable. Even spam's getting higher-quality, for heaven's sake.

How do we extend this pressure to the rest of the public sphere? Is this a Long Tail argument in disguise -- the more I can find, the more I'll like -- and hence mostly only applicable to information consumables like music, or is there something that can be done to raise the general quality of the goods that (as "productive members of society") we consume?

Thursday, April 21

Fashion SWAT!

Something Awful is on my list of daily reads. I don't often read the full front page, though it occasionally amuses; what draws me back time after time, though, is the promise of a Feature Article that's actually laugh-out-loud funny. As I think back, the articles reach good-syndicated-cartoon levels of humour every time and actual laugh-out-loud funny probably twice a month. Pretty good ratios, for a free website. Of course, they run some pretty bad ads, and some of the articles are not work safe, but at least the front page is.


One author in particular amuses me greatly every time he shows up, and that's Dr. David Thorpe. (Note: Doctor Thorpe may not be a real doctor.) He's one of the contributors to the always-funny Fashion SWAT articles, the fourth of which appeared today. They're great.

Soundbites on Sun's and IBM's corporate culture

Some Sun engineer posted about some of the differences between the corporate cultures of Sun and IBM. It's pretty heavily Sun-jingoistic, so grain of salt and all, but it's still pretty funny.

And where he's not parroting executive messaging, he captures the zeitgeist well.

Thanks for the link, James.

Wednesday, April 20

Cyberpunk Roleplaying

Cory Doctorow blogged about cyberpunk roleplaying the other day, and as Fraxas could probably tell you, boy does that take me back.
As a genre, cyberpunk has the kind of potential for wish-fulfillment and adventure that appeals to a lot of us, and it's a short step from daydreaming about embedded neural interfaces, reflex augmentation, and dystopian gang-wars to playing them out in collaborative gaming experiences
Before I go further, I'd like to preface this post with an introduction. And before the introduction, a prelude. And before the prelude, a disclaimer. We all know that roleplaying is horribly geeky. But you already now that we play Magic:the Gathering --online, no less-- so the damage is already done. Besides, we wear our geekiness on our sleeves. No longer are we awkward teenagers, starved for acceptance. We are confident, married, and hygenic adults; therefore, there is no shame in the following admission.

Like Cory, Fraxas and I are both lapsed roleplayers. In fact, we maintained a campaign that lasted 7 years of real world time and 20-some years in the world of our game, a fantastic cyberpunk vehicle called Underground that has since dropped off the face of the planet. Here are the last remaining remnants of this game to be found on the web:

  • The publisher's abandoned order site
  • An old unfavourable review of the game - maybe I'll rebut it sometime
  • An old semi-favourable review
  • The book's pen-and-paper database entry
  • The Amazon page for the rulebook, including some customer reviews
In his post, Cory Doctorow raves over the details and flavour of a particular game, but the completeness of its rulespace makes him a little uneasy:
The rules then take apart all the themes in every flavor of cyberpunk, post-cyberpunk, SIngularity and what-have-you fiction and expose their formulaic roots, literally reducing them to numerical expressions of, for example, the comparative bad-assness of Hiro Protagonist's Metaverse bike and Molly Mirrorshades's retracting claws. It made me a little squeamish, seeing it all turned into quantities and formulae like that. . .
Quantities and formulae. I have two things to say about that as they related to the old High-School Era Underground Campaign.

First, it's exactly the quantities and formulae that form roleplaying's initial appeal to the budding Grade Nine geek. As in, we already really liked all the tropes of cyberbunk (or fantasy, or perhaps vampire-gothism) But what really hooked us was this: our first encounter with an RPG rulebook, leafing through the oversize pages, absorbing all the rules, filtering the numbers and equations through our geeky forebrains. In other words, it was the action of rules-processing that triggerred us into believing that we could be part of that world; the mathematical rules, tailored to our minds, confined our imaginations to a sector of plausibility, and hence roleplayability. The Underground book excelled in this case; funny, colourful, bitingly satirical, and full of near-future dystopian cyberpunky goodness, bundled with a logarithmic rules scheme that made for fast game-action.

My second point is this: the rules --the quantities and formulae-- hamstring the estrwhile roleplayer as speedily as they entince him. The concepts of mini-maxing, hack-n-slashing, or metagaming in any sense surface very quickly in pen-and-paper roleplaying, and those are plenty of reasons to let the Quanties and Formulae make you feel queasy. But good gamers don't let that happen, or at the very least, they don't let it interfere with quality of narrative and gameplay.

What is roleplaying? It's basically improvisational, collaborative storytelling. That's all it is, really. Not everybody needs dice for that - Fraxas and I abandoned the dice very early in our campaign. In so doing, we also pretty much ignored the "rules." We even came to ignore the provided framework and setting of the game itself (as GM, in a twist on the player, I moved the action ahead 9 years, effectively changing the world), chosing to craft one of our own as we went along.

So while we no longer feel ashamed of our geekiness, it turns out that roleplaying isn't necessarily that geeky. Sure, when you call it roleplaying, you're conjuring images of fat unwashed men pretending to be elves or munchkins in their parent's basement. But "improvisational, collaborative storytelling"? I'll bet some of the world's greatest stories were conceived in just that fashion.

Monday, April 11

Gottman, Gladwell, Hofstadter, and new leaves

Over the past week, I've started reading 3 books. Two of them I got for my birthday (Thanks, Mom and Dad!) and the other, my wife got out of the library.

They are:

Now, at a glance those books don't seem to have a lot to do with one another. Hofstadter's book is a Pulitzer-prize-winning, discursive romp though the metadisciplines of Artificial Intelligence and Cognitive Science. Gladwell's pamphletbook is an examination of the degree to which humans make decisions unconsciously. Gottman's book is a manual for improving your social relationships. Of course, since I've just juxtaposted them for you, chances are you're probably thinking they aren't totally dissimilar -- but I'm finding more similarities than differences.

Hofstadter: "Think about how thinking happens!"
Gladwell: "Think about how much you don't think!"
Gottman: "Think more about things you don't think about!"

I haven't gotten far enough into any of the books to determine whether the central memes are any more tightly linked than I've just pointed out, but I'll keep you all posted.

Thanks, random work person!

There was a copy of Make on a (somewhat) randomly placed coffee table that's next to the copy machine here at the office. It had a sticky note on it:
Well, I'm no fool. I picked it up. So now I have a free copy of Make 1, potentially covered in all sorts of grody human particles but also potentially not.

I'm young. I have a strong immune system. I'll take the chance.

Tuesday, April 5

A Milkman Dan cartoon my my birthday! Can it be?

Why, yes, it can.

Milkman Dan's always been my favourite Red Meat character. He's a jovial sociopath, with little to lose and less to prove. He's great, for certain well-defined values of great.

What concinnity he'd appear on the birthday of one of his biggest fans!

Monday, April 4

"When they said they needed a systems architecture specialist, they weren't kidding!"

Arc de (nerd) Triomphe.

ok, that's two jokes, three if you count the picture itself -- which I'm inclined to do.

Product Reviews by MetaEfficient

Product Reviews by MetaEfficient makes me happy. I wish I'd found out about it earlier. Their tagline:
Why not opt for the best? We continuously search out products that are more effective and healthier for individuals and the world.

If nerdiness is wrong, I don't want to be right.

The inestimable (no, really, inestimable. Try to estimate him. You can't!) Oz linked me to a new Charlie Stross story and an article on him. I haven't read the story yet, but the article made me giggle and snerk like a nerd at the uncool kids' lunch table. On a Monday morning! I haven't been this entertained in a long time. Of course, it's all a big in-joke, and probably only hilarious to me, but still. The mainstream hasn't made me laugh that hard in a long, long time.

Edit: OK, I've read the story now and it is as scary as the article is funny. seriously mindfuck scary. Also, when I say above "the mainstream...", I mean to contrast the above article with the mainstream, not to imply that Locus is somehow mainstream. Though it is mainstream SF. Or so I'm told.

Friday, April 1

Guild Wars as an MMO-without-the-suck

Gamasutra is carrying an interview with one of the Guild Wars designers (free registration required; it's worth it, though, if you're at all interested in game design). It's a friendly interview -- no hard-hitting questions or uncomfortable silences here. That said, there might very well be some discomfort at some other developers, though.

The point of the article is that the Guild Wars guys have put together a Massively Multiplayer Online Game that you keep coming back to because it's fun, rather than because it's addictive. Now, we've all heard of 'addictive games' -- people talk about Tetris, and Diamond Mine (aka Bejeweled), and Civilization in all its incarnations, as addictive games. But in each of those games, you want to keep playing because you want to keep getting better at it, or because you want to find out what happens next. You're interested in playing the game. With the MMOGs currently on the market, Guild Wars being the notable exception, the addiction has a different character.

With current MMOGs, you want to keep playing not because the game is really fun to play (though it sometimes is), but because
  • you're paying a subscription fee for the month, so frugality demands you make maximum usage of the system
  • you want to advance in the game, because really it's a race with your peers to the top of the ladder
  • you were playing for a good three hours before you finally hooked up with 4 or 5 people you can stand to fight beside, and you want that experience to last as long as possible, sleep be damned.
Note that those three reasons aren't directly related to the gameplay itself or to the player's skill. They're meta-reasons. And (trust me!) it's way, way harder to justify to someone who isn't addicted why it is you're spending $15 a month on something that you mostly don't enjoy. Heck, it's hard to justify to yourself!

The thing is, before Guild Wars, there weren't any games out there that let me roleplay a wizard with arcane powers, or kill fantasy creatures in a 3D setting with my real-life friends, that didn't require a subscription. And I like roleplaying a wizard. I like slaughtering relatively realistic orcs and zombies and fairy queens. I just don't like the sucky parts that, up until Guild Wars, came along with that.

I think I'll go buy the game.

Macros Considered Harmful


I posted a comment on Jeremy's blog just now that I feel like I should have posted here. In a nutshell, Jeremy thinks macros are good and I agree with him, as far as he goes -- but I also think that, as a software engineering practice, it's a mistake to take advantage of them in non-throwaway code. And all code that you don't delete immediately after you run it is non-throwaway.