Oct 4 2011

Darwinism run riot

I used to do some research in the field of genetic algorithms. This still fascinates me, especially the little edge case stories of amazing results, like the possibly apocryphal story of a guy doing GA work with field-programmable gate arrays (FPGA). He was trying to do some basic signal processing — I believe it was trying to recognize the word “yes” but my interweb search skills are failing me this morning — and using a GA to program the FPGA to do this. This entails basically coding the FPGA with a hundred or so random variations, testing it, taking the best 10, permuting those somehow (usually by splicing pieces of the winners together and adding a small amount of random permutation), and then testing the new 100.

Repeat until success.

The end result was a working “yes” recognizer (which we expect — GAs do work). In fact there were several. All but one were pretty comprehensible when reverse engineered. But one was very hard to understand — there was substantial logic on the chip that was never reached by execution, but if that logic was removed, the recognizer failed! It turns out this was some radio-frequency leakage or reflection from that logic that made the functional logic work — a side effect. Of course this was a very fragile effect, and changing the temperature by a few degrees either way ground it to a halt. But this story is highly illustrative of several facts about and Darwinistic system:

First, it exploits side effects. It doesn’t matter what the logical way to stick the allowed building blocks together is, it will use any unintentional properties to optimize the solution. Tricky!

Second, it hinges entirely on the selection criteria: how you pick which individuals in a generation to move forward to the next generation. So when your criteria is “how well does it recognize the word, ‘yes'”, then what you get is a good “yes” recognizer. Period. No other factors will be considered.

This means that when analyzing any Darwinian system, you need to drill down to the atomic unit of selection, which is why Dawkins’ revelation that gene reproduction is at the heart of understanding biological Darwinism is so profound. It sounds ridiculous, as though genes have some will and agenda, but really it’s just a clear statement of the root selection mechanism. All the more interesting things about behaviour and results of the system derive from it,  though in much the same way that Newtonian physics derives from, ultimately, sub-atomic behaviour. It does, and that’s useful, but not handy for shooting pool.

Unfortunately, there are many (and some are unknowing) wielders of Darwinian pool who think they are doing one thing when a deep analysis of selection criteria would reveal that they are doing something different. And that good results can be side effects or transient behaviour in the system.

We are often led to believe that Darwinism leads to “good” results at least in part because, in the biological realm, it led to us. This is artificial, however, and you should have alarm bells going off whenever anyone applies a value like “good” or “bad” to a Darwinian result. It just does what it does and things don’t get “better” in any deliberate sense. Sure they got better for us, for a while, anyway, but this is no guarantee of continued awesomeness. What it does guarantee is propagation of a lot of genes (and, actually, any other self-reproducing material). As soon as humanity is generally detrimental to gene propagation, we’ll be corrected for. Nothing special about us monkeys.

So the crux of a Darwinian algorithm is a set of reproducers, some criteria for selection and rejection, and reproduction with variation. If you have this in any context you get progress towards optimizing meeting the selection criteria. In computer science this is pretty easy to pin down because it’s probably one line in the code. In the real world, though, because the atomic unit of reproduction (a gene) is so far removed from the selection mechanisms (animal-scale interaction) it’s probably impossible to untangle. It’s also a moving target. If you optimize for evading lions and lions go extinct, you’ll have new dominant pressures. And the real world is a dynamic web of interconnecting pressures. very very tricky stuff.

This looks like a science post. It’s actually a political post.


May 8 2011

Workflow and releases

Hollowpoint was stalled for a long time and, while I have plenty of “I am really busy” excuses, I think the real excuse has to be, “my workflow sucked”. A night or two ago, however, it came together and it did so by leveraging good industrial tools rather than by softly hacking together ways to talk nice to each other. So this is not about how you can reach your inner Protestant but rather an acknowledgement that when you own multi-thousand dollar tools you should pay attention.

I’m practically a communist. I think that the capitalist system does a lot of things really well, but that there are some weird edge cases confronting us that demonstrate its impending failure–or ours, if we cling to it despite the failing. Anyway, I don’t want to talk about that but rather use it to explain my difficulty in accepting that an industry-standard tool might get something as soft as collaboration right.

The thing is that it’s pretty easy to sell collaboration and brainstorming tools based on how amazing the end user suspects they will be rather than on how amazing they actually will be. There are a lot of reasons for this, but a lot of it is related to how pretty something is (mind mapping software springs to mind here, which is rarely more interesting than putting my editor in outline mode, but I have a topologist’s need to make doughnuts out of coffee mugs) and how well organized things seems to be. Well, getting work done isn’t really about pretty or tidy or organized. These things can help spur some enthusiasm but they do not bear directly on getting the job done.

We have been exchanging drafts and notes using PDF, marking up with comments using Acrobat. This is mostly because we have it, so we use it. We didn’t buy it (or get granted it, in the most recent iteration) for this purpose, but if there’s a screwdriver in the toolkit and you have a screw that needs screwing, well, there it is.

So we had a tool but still no good workflow, and the ad hoc method I was using was making the process extremely tedious. And then I set my suspicion of clever tools aside and looked at what I had here in this product, and I found that it supports a workflow. One that works. I raised an eyebrow, Spocklike, and tried out the review tagging in comments.

So, instead of reading the PDF and looking for comments, I split the window into the PDF image and a review comments list. Now the comments are clearer — rather than reading a marked up document I am reading comments that refer to the PDF as an example. The work is inverted and I’m now concentrating on the part I care about rather than the part I read a thousands times.

That’s already pretty good. But now I also see that I can reply to comments and tag them as accepted, rejected, completed, deferred…all kinds of possibilities. And as I save it (in Dropbox, so the reviewer can instantly see comments on comments) I realize that what I have here is a laser-focused discussion forum with the document as background. And suddenly I am banging out the comments one at a time, with great focus and with clarity in my responses. Yes, do that bit, click done. No, don’t agree, note why. Yes, do, done. No. Don’t understand please send more info. Yes, do, done. Yes, do, done.

In two sittings I had all comments addressed in a review cycle that has taken me months to even look at with any real industry. And that’s not because I had something nifty I wanted to take out for a spin, but rather because I had something extremely powerful at my fingertips that I had been suspicious of until now.

From now on, that’s certainly how I’m handling peer-review edits. I recognize that this limits my reviewers to those who have the same expensive tools, but that happens to be okay in this context. It might not be in another and that would (will?) be frustrating. So now here is my list of tools that have totally been worth the money:

  • Good typefaces,
  • InDesign,
  • Illustrator,
  • Acrobat (double points for being useful in ways I didn’t anticipate),
  • Dropbox,
  • Dropbox,
  • Dropbox.

So thank you Adobe, you corporate motherfuckers. You know what you’re doing and I will pay more attention.


Mar 11 2011

Positive feedback loops often suck

I talked about positive feedback loops in game design once in the distant past. They are potential disasters because they are self-reinforcing and not in a stable way. More correctly, they are self-escalating: whatever they are doing, barring outside forces, it’s going to get more like that. You know when people say “too much of a good thing”?

Anyway, here’s your positive feedback loop of the day. After pondering it I have only one question and while I insist it’s not rhetorical, it should at least demand certain kinds of answers.

Here’s the question then: what budget line items in a government’s budget are more important than education? For extra credit, what items are bad governments predisposed to reduce, if we assume that bad government is profitable for members of that government?


Feb 14 2011

Ideas regarding theory and theoryism

You are probably familiar with the Big Theory and The Forge and Simulationism. I’m not, really, but rather am more in the larger camp of people who are vaguely aware of it, have been baffled by a couple of the essays, impressed by a couple more, but generally uninterested in further discussion of it/them. I’ve been in flamewars related to it and have thought about it a great deal. I have two significant problems with it and I don’t think either are controversial and neither are really direct criticism of it (which is good because I have already admitted partial bafflement) or its application. I think, however, that discussing these issues might be revealing on two axes, which we will see are further multiplied. We will discuss many axes, none of which are actual axes.

I will talk specifically about Simulationism, without discussing it in detail, because I don’t understand it. I don’t, however, care much about what it means exactly, because my complaints are at once tangential to and deeper than just criticising its definition.

My first problem is political. We will pause while you laugh this off as obvious.

The political problem starts at “ism”. I have talked about this before but I do a lot of technical writing and sometimes repetition is powerful. So here you go. The problem with isms is that they create ists.

This is not the intent of the Grand Model. I think it’s even stated explicitly several times. It doesn’t matter, however, because it’s like saying you didn’t expect water damage when you turned on the sprinkler system. That’s what happens, even if you intended something different. That’s what happens even when you accomplished the explicit goal.

This is because isms are about ists. The suffix means that. The language works that way. So when you describe and ism it is automatic that readers think about whether they subscribe to it as a philosophy and whether their sworn enemies do. They become ists or counter-ists as soon as they barely understand the ism. It takes genuine intellectual work to not do this and (HMI1 auditor hat on) it is broken to force people to do that work. You have given the wrong tool because this one makes ists.

So my first beef with Simulationism (and the other isms in the Humungous Idea) is that it is intrinsically, by feature of the language, divisive. It does not declare what it intends to declare (though I suspect the word and specifically its suffix was not chosen at random and did indeed intend exactly this at first) and instead has destructive side effects. Words matter.2

My second strangely tangential problem (today) is that the attempts to define Simulationism are amazingly muddy and bizarre. Learned adherents describe multiple contradictory things as definitive of Simulationism. The essay appears to say several things and one can’t help but wonder if it’s not really a bucket for “everything else” or “stuff that doesn’t fit elsewhere”. However, the quality of this and related essays is not really what I’m interested in here. My problem is (again linguistic, in a way) that it’s an especially distracting mis-use of the word “simulation”.

All games are simulations.

All games attempt to simulate something. They can be more or less abstract and the subject being simulated can even be more or less abstract. But they are all simulations and so all game designers (and most players) are in this sense simulationists. Our hobby is simulating things. What simulation seems to be asserting, however, is that certain kinds of simulation are favoured. And this is muddy because the thing being simulated is pinned down on at least two axes, and the position on each axis is a range and not a point. And so there is a kind of region of simulation for any given game that is the polygon created by connecting these points (somewhere between square occupying the whole graph and a point for some hypothetical laser-sharp game). If you try to graph your favourite games I think you will see just how muddy this space is.

I’ll offer two axes to play with (be careful with these axes3). A game simulates some range of conceptual space between Setting and Theme. It also simulates some range of tactical space between Story and Physics.

The conceptual space is the space that the game simulates as a whole. This is what, as a gestalt 4, the game intends to fabricate. For example, a Star Trek game probably tries hardest to simulate the setting of the old TV show5. A clever one might, however, identify the theatrical dramatic structure of the old series and the way in which it is mirrored in a lot of written science-fiction at the time. One might want to pin down that essential feature, where a modern issue is addressed by cloaking it in space+alien+gadgets. This is a far more thematic space.

So I think we can easily see how any given game might express its dedication to this kind of simulation as an interval rather than a point, though of course degenerating to a point. Joshua C. Newman’s fascinating work, Shock: Social Science Fiction is close to a point on the thematic scale, and pretty far down the extreme. Most games are more likely to lean towards a small range on the setting side. Actually now I’m wondering if this isn’t its own graph — those intervals imply multiple axes.6 Oh well, I’ll leave that for another day maybe.

The other axis of simulation is more familiar. This is the opposition of story simulation and physical simulation. These do need to be in opposition because every attempt I have seen to reconcile them has been crap. It looks like a rocket on a submarine. Rockets are cool. Submarines are cool. Rocket-powered submarines are awesome, but not in the sense of “useful”.

FATE is ostensibly a story simulator, using aspects to simulate effects by drawing them into play only when there is a dramatic outcome and paying with drama-enabling currency. It is also one of the most common submarines to suddenly sport rockets. I’ve bolted a few rockets on it myself occasionally (though for meta-genre7 reasons).

D&D is a physical simulation. You can tell because when you criticize the system you ask questions like “would that really happen?” and “would it really hurt that much to fall 10 feet?” You never ask “why do I have to make a saving throw if both outcomes are boring?” You make a saving through because a physical effect is being simulated. You drank two potions. Now we find out what happens when you mix them. In your belly. Actually that’s not a good example of “boring” but it does underline physical simulation–a very different question is being asked and answered. Its justification is always the simulation of physical action. By contrast the story simulation is justified by pursuing the drama.

So that’s my issue with Simulationism. It’s a petty diatribe in a way — it’s the wrong word and it hides an essential and complex truth about games, and maybe that’s not all that interesting. Certainly, with my own understanding of simulation, you are stuck saying “oh I like this more sometimes but this more other times, and this other bit always irritates me” rather than “I am a Simulationist and you are a Gamist. Prepare to die, even though these two isms are actually intuitively very similar but you are trying to win while I am trying to create verisimilitude though I do also very much want to win within the context of this verisimilitude but I might win by dying at the right time, even though that might be treading on the space of the Narrativist and he and his might kill me in my sleep, for they are cowards but ruthless.”8 Or something like that.


  1. Human Machine Interface
  2. Hilarious allusion noted for posterity.
  3. Pink Floyd, for some of you.
  4. Bonus points for using “gestalt” I think.
  5. There is only one Star Trek, of course.
  6. Do you need to express these two design intentions as opposing? Does simulating setting better reduce the ability to simulate theme? Am I using “theme” correctly? I think there may be cases where setting and theme are interdependent but also many cases where they are not or where setting is deliberately absent from the game design and so not relevant. I’ll mark this as fuzzy and ill-thought. Remember that this blog is free.
  7. Note to self: talk about meta-genre some day. While there are genres of fiction like “science-fiction” there are also meta-genres in games. That is, a game might be in the genre of science-fiction but it (say Diaspora for example) might also be a meta-genre of games that emulate a particular kind of science-fiction–the meta-genre consists of games and not stories.
  8. I have deliberately mischaracterized these for much the same reason that I spell “definaaaaeeeeate” the way I do.

Jun 9 2010

WTF etc.

I almost got killed this morning.

That’s not actually all that unusual — I don’t drive, so I walk a lot, which exposes me to drivers, and drivers are notoriously lethal.

It’s raining moderately hard today and I was crossing the street (with the light — my guardian angel is in the form of a rigid little white man in mid-stride who hovers over my objective as I cross) when I heard the sick grind of tires slipping on wet pavement and then a little tap on my knee. Yet another driver had decided to turn left across an occupied pedestrian right-of-way while looking somewhere else. I was lucky — the driver was going (just) slow enough to stop and had recovered her senses in time to do it.

My reaction to things like this is now, “WHAT THE FUCK?”

That was my reaction in April of 2009 when someone’s dog charged out of their open apartment door and attacked my dog, tearing several deep holes in her neck. “What the FUCK?!” I yelled a lot at that time. When I gave the owner my vet bill she promised to pay right away and then skipped town, abandoning her apartment over a $350.00 bill and (much more heavily weighing on her, I expect) the disapproval of her neighbours who all came out that night to see what the fuck was going on. Some with small children hastily ushered back inside once the fuck was determined. I admit that when the culprit ran off without paying, I again muttered, “what the fuck?” 1

This is interesting to me because not very long ago my reaction to these sorts of things — people behaving badly — would be anger and acceptance. I would hate them and I would strongly desire revenge and I would even pursue it (within the law, of course) but I would essentially expect this behaviour and so rail against their evil ways. Now, however, my response is energetic bafflement. For some reason I expect more of people than I used to, which is also baffling.

For example, I expect the licensed operators of motor vehicles (heavy machinery in free motion on an uncontrolled guideway in close proximity to unprotected persons) to take the responsibility of this license pretty damned seriously. I expect them to look roughly in the direction they intend to travel and be aware of the various signal lights and signs mounted for their information.

I expect the owners of dogs that have a known behavioural problem to take some steps to ensure the safety of their neighbours and even people they don’t even know. A muzzle, at least, and good control over the entrance to their space. Maybe some training in the hopes that one day a mechanical safety won’t be necessary. Yes the dog was a pit bull. I love pit bulls. But the breed does attract some really crappy owners, and responds well (that is, in kind) to them.

But generally we write laws which absolve people of accountability for these things, though by side effect rather than intent. For example, we require people to license their dog so that the city can keep track of the animal and stuff. Problem is that no one knows (officially) that the dog exists until it’s licensed and irresponsible owners don’t license their dog. So the dogs we want to track (those of irresponsible owners) aren’t in the database and the responsible owners get a yearly bill for behaving well and the threat of removal of their pet should they miss a payment. Game designers will immediately see the flaw: crappy behaviour is rewarded and desired behaviour punished. What the fuck?

Similarly, even though every person is eventually a pedestrian (you have to get out of that car sometime, bub) killing one through failure to look in the direction you are travelling, especially if it’s a little wet and the dead guy not wearing a hat with flashing lights and howling sirens, will get you three points and a hundred dollar fine for failing to yield to a pedestrian right of way. The only way you get a ticket for that is if you hit someone or if a police car is present at a near miss and deigns to stop. At the time it is almost certain that this potential officer is self-identifying as “driver” and not “pedestrian” and consequently will ignore the near miss as a lucky day for the pedestrian rather than a punishable offense for the driver. Again our reward/punishment model fails us. If someone decides to expend the energy they might sue, I suppose, and get some cash for the dead guy. If it’s really egregious (like if alcohol was involved or if the driver has killed several pedestrians this year) then there might even be a suspension of the license. Again I am compelled to ask, what the fuck?

So that’s a pretty weak connection to game design and no connection at all to space and science-fiction and stuff. Sorry. Still got some adrenaline in me and it’s fueling plenty of bafflement. But it’s still interesting to me that I am so essentially optimistic — that I have such a high opinion of humanity — that I am baffled rather than angry. I expect so much more because people generally deliver. But we’ve gotten in the habit of rewarding bad behaviour or at least mis-punishing it, and so we’ve managed to construct frameworks in which people appear stupid and dangerous. A game designer would spot this in play-test if not before — it’s a pretty simple analysis, after all. What do you want to do? Does this mechanism do that? Now test it. Did it do that? Revise.

So now I of course wonder what bad behaviours I have that others WTF about. Everyone is inside this system. No one is immune, I guess.


  1. Hello, Shannon Kennedy, if you’re reading. I still live at the same place. A cheque is fine.

Feb 25 2010

Read a subversive political philosopher in public week

I’ve had plenty of pointers to “Read an RPG Book in Public Week”. The idea is that we are all so ashamed of our hobby that we would never read a book obviously related to it in public and that we should work to make it common place. Apparently by reading a book in public one week out of fifty-two. I’ve probably mis-characterised this effort for effect, but I think what follows, derived from that, still works.

Why are you ashamed to read an RPG book in public in the first place? Do you really believe that the rest of the world is so much more mature and serious than you that they have legitimate cause to look down on you? If not, then you never had any reason to hide. Grow up and read what you want where you want.1 If so, then you shouldn’t be reading RPGs at all — apparently they reveal that you are someone less than you want to be. Cut it out. Grow up. Become more mature and get out your copy of The Economist. That is, if your shame is legitimate then you should quit doing what you find shameful. If it’s not legitimate, then you should do what you want.

The counter is of course the repercussions of doing what you want — some will say that revealing their desire to imitate an elf for a few hours a week places their job at risk. If you think that, then you need to look really hard at the sentence you agreed with there. You are afraid of the repercussions of doing what you want, and what you want is harmless and fun. When we say we live in a free country — that democracy is delivering freedom of the best kind for the most people — is this really what we mean? How free are you if you can’t do what you want because you fear for your job and therefore the well-being of yourself and your family? Are you really this terrorized?

And the answer for a good many people is yes, they are this terrorized. There is no interesting way in which a person in this circumstance is free because there is no interesting way in which they can escape this terror. They are being dominated, albeit not by a conscious and deliberate dictator, and they have no hope of escape. Technically, most of you reading this are in the same boat — that is, the threat of destruction of your livelihood actually hangs over your head all the time (certainly it hangs over mine) — but some will choose not to be terrorized by it and some just haven’t thought about it in that fashion. And some will insist they are free despite the long list of things they dare not do for fear of angering their employer. Free how, exactly?

So to this end I suggest instead that the thing we are really missing right now is legitimate and intelligent political discourse, and the best place to start here is with the smart subversives. It’s a well known fact that socialism in all forms is intrinsically Evil. It’s a well known fact that the private sector can always perform more efficiently than government (even though a counter-argument is trivially arranged).2 So it’s time to start reading, in public, arguments against those facts. They might be wrong. They might not. You won’t be accidentally infected by them — reading something you believe you disagree with won’t change it essential content. If it’s flawed, you will probably find yourself unpersuaded. But there’s altogether too much avoidance of counter-argument altogether and rational, progressive, political discussion demands a reasoned and thoughtful consideration of all possibilities. And it warrants a re-consideration over time as things change.

Here’s one thing that’s changing (and yes, finally, we are on-topic for the blog): it is increasingly the case that private citizens can perform in realms previously accessible only to much larger organizations. And these organizations are either carefully not paying attention or are terrified or are angry or some combination of the three. A single person can now carry a written work all the way from idea to delivery, using their own intuition as a guide for pricing, form, and marketing. This is terrifying some small publishers because where the individual’s choices (and motives!) are different, this undermines the larger but still small entity — she’s formed her business on certain assumptions about the competition and these assumptions are eroding. And all of this is over course percolating up — the intelligent small publisher is now also realizing technological benefits and finding new niches (witness Evil Hat, for example, which embraces the support of individual self-publishers, finding a way to do the part they don’t want to and do it well and for a profit — good for everyone and not a result of fear).

And of course as individuals acquire more power over their labour (MARXISM ALERT) many of the Marxist and new-Marxist criticisms of modern capitalism similarly begin to erode (and I suspect this does or will terrify those organizations). Which is good because their criticisms were in many regards bang on — anyone who will not do what they want, despite it being harmless, because they fear for their livelihood is not free.

So here’s what I think you should do: you should refuse to be afraid and you should take steps to ensure that you don’t need to be afraid. You should read subversive political works in public. You should find ways that technology empowers you to do what you want. Because Rousseau didn’t foresee this when he said you might need to be forced to be free. He knew you might become comfortable in your chains but I don’t think he figured you’d fail to notice them. Even complain about them at the same time as fail to notice them. Marcuse saw it though.

So there’s two. John Stuart Mill is another good one. Read your Pathfinder stuff every other week of the year.


  1. I’ll note, though, that more acceptable forms of entertainment include American football and episodes of Family Guy. Make what you will of that.
  2. The optimized cost to do something is X. A private enterprise is profit-motivated, so the best it can ever do is X+P. A government enterprise is motivated by justifying its existence (to self-perpetuate — not a great motive) so the best it can ever do is the baseline plus the overhead cost to ensure perpetual existence (O), so X+O. You can argue now that P<O but it’s a tough argument since efficiency is likely to ensure perpetuation. And then you have the fact that a secondary interest of companies is to self-perpetuate (indeed, probably a huge source of unintentional sabotage).