Friday, August 21, 2015

Gen Con 2015

I usually don't talk much about games to colleagues in my professional life, but I do happen to be mentoring a grad student who is very much into board & card games.  I knew she was taking a trip to Indianapolis last month, but it took longer than it should have to figure out where she was really going.  Here's a snippet from the email I sent her a few weeks ago:
I just put two and two together.  You said "a game convention in Indianapolis."  Understatement of the year!  I didn't realize until now that I should have translated that as "the legendary game convention started by Gary Gygax in the 60s, which I read about all the time in Dragon magazine as a kid, and dreamed about attending all through the late 70s and most of the 80s."  :-)  :-)
That's probably more than I've talked about games to colleagues in the last 25 years!  But what did my student hand me when I saw her this week?

Am I going to have to actually start playing again so I can use these?  We'll see!  :-)

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Church of the Big Gamble

Apologies for not a lot going on here lately.  I'll know the new direction I'm looking for when I see it.  :-)

The other day I came across a really thought-provoking blog post by Joey Vigour in defense of randomness in games.  It helped to explain some of my own (unformed) thoughts and predilections.

The basic idea is that there's a sweet spot between the two extremes of order and chaos.  Staying balanced on that knife-edge is difficult, but well worth it.  The more I thought about it, the more I'm sure this general idea applies to lots of things.  Let me just list a few of them...

Games:  Joey Vigour explained that including the "dark forces" of randomness (dice, cards, etc) in a game gives us a glimpse of the craziness of life.  I'll just let him tell you:
"So why do most game designers introduce an element of randomness to their games? I would argue that dark mystical (or at least unknown) forces are a game designer's ally because the introduction of chaos to a game causes our subconscious to be reminded of real life. Games are a simulacrum of life, but all the beautiful photo-realistic art and all the flavor text is still just fluff on top of the Spark that moves us emotionally. Understanding the Spark is the struggle of all artists: to know that there is unknowable, and to grasp at it in a comprehensive presentation."
Vigour also considers human strategizing as being in the same category with the dark forces of randomness -- after all, other people can sometimes be as inscrutable and hard to predict as a roll of the dice! -- so games like Chess can also invoke these feelings.  Still, too much of the human/random element in a game can be pointless and dreary (like never-ending games of Chutes and Ladders).  Too little of it gives you something easily solved, like Tic-Tac-Toe.

Stories:  The knife-edge between order and chaos is apparent in narratives, too.  Too much order gives us the logical tying and untying of plot-driven "knots."  I'm thinking of the inevitability of events in things like Greek and Shakespearean tragedies.  Fatalism can sometimes be interesting, but not in isolation.  Too much chaos is just surrealistic dada.  :-)

Life:  Too much order leads you right into a rut.  (Think of Mr. Incredible stuffed into his tiny car on a traffic-filled freeway... that had to be inspired by this song.)  Too much chaos means adrenalin and stress all the time, which is just plain not good for you, whether you're a superhero or not.

Music:  Goes without saying, I think.  Our ears and brains have evolved to respect the knife-edge between monotonous order and dissonant chaos.

There are probably so many other examples... enough to build a Glass Bead Game worthy of the ages, I'm sure.  By the way, the title of this post comes from old-school D&D; see here for more about my own history with it.

Back to Joey:
"So let’s embrace dice rolling, deck shuffling, hidden information, and mystery in games. It’s what our subconscious relates to anyway. It’s how we lose our forgetfulness and reconnect with hidden truths. It’s how we find ourselves. Anything less than that is just Tic-Tac-Toe."

Monday, June 15, 2015

Venus Paradise: Cyber Edition

I'm still not done thinking about the long-term goals of this blog, but there is one idea for a post that I've had for a few months, and I'd like to get it out there.  Does anyone remember these?

Some time in the early 1970s, I got a few of these color-pencil-by-numbers sets as Christmas gifts.  For young Cygnus, the color pencils were a godsend.  I loved the ubiquitous Crayola rainbow, but wax crayons left a lot to be desired.  They couldn't give you the fine lines of a pencil or pen... and if you stacked up a few of your creations on top of one another, the papers would stick together and get kind of goopy after a while.

I was fascinated by one particular brand... the Venus Paradise pencils, which had their own unique color palette.  Each color was assigned to an evocative name and a specific number in an esoteric sequence.  The numbers corresponded to the digits on the color-by-numbers outlines, but I don't remember filling in many of them.  I tended to just hoard the pencils and draw other stuff with them (and I still have some nubs left in a box somewhere).

So, a few months ago, I discovered a massive, labor-of-love web site for Crayloa crayon collectors.  Over the years I've also seen quite a few attempts at creating web-based color palettes out of the classic crayon colors.  But where's the digital love for Venus Paradise?  Someone might want to re-create their childhood color-pencil artwork as accurately as possible.  Okay, Cygnus (plus some image-grabbing software) to the rescue.

1. Deep Yellow:  (247, 210, 039),  #F7D227
2. Sarasota Orange:  (245, 120, 057),  #F57839
3. Poppy Red:  (231, 067, 069),  #E74345
4. Hollywood Cerise:  (255, 111, 145),  #FF6F91
5. Orchid Purple:  (089, 062, 103),  #593E67
6. Navy Blue:  (022, 057, 108),  #16396C
7. Peacock Blue:  (078, 195, 239),  #4EC3EF
8. Emerald Green:  (036, 179, 134),  #24B386
9. Deep Chrome Green:  (024, 092, 069),  #185C45
10. Photo Brown:  (136, 068, 032),  #884420
11. Chestnut Brown:  (067, 047, 026),  #432F1A
12. Midnight Black:  (017, 017, 016),  #111110
13. Ultramarine Blue:  (059, 123, 210),  #3B7BD2
14. Natural Flesh:  (246, 224, 181),  #F6E0B5
15. Lawn Green:  (056, 134, 079),  #38864F
16. French Green:  (203, 215, 087),  #CBD757
17. Smoke Gray:  (159, 153, 146),  #9F9992
18. Blush Pink:  (251, 133, 126),  #FB857E
19. Cherry Red:  (217, 057, 064),  #D93940
20. Arizona Topaz:  (243, 208, 119),  #F3D077
21. Indian Red:  (174, 064, 042),  #AE402A
22. Sky Magenta:  (208, 123, 154),  #D07B9A
23. Cotton White:  (254, 253, 253),  #FEFDFD
24. Lemon Yellow:  (253, 243, 132),  #FDF384
25. Bright Gold:  (195, 170, 117),  #C3AA75
26. Bright Silver:  (155, 185, 190),  #9BB9BE
27. Sky Blue:  (104, 192, 236),  #68C0EC

I so love those color names.  If I ever write a noir-ish crime drama, I'm sure I'll steal at least three or four character names from the above list.  I think #4 and #17 must be having an affair.

Here's what the digital RGB colors look like in graphical form:

Please do whatever you like with this information.  I'm still not sure why it's ending up on this blog.  I just know I had a blast putting it all together.  Right now, that's enough for me.

I should note that I never owned numbers 25 or 26.  According to the web, these two were the rarest colors of the bunch.  It took me a while to even find an image of #26 (see below... ain't it bee-u-tee-ful?).  For #25 I had to go slumming with online images of other brands to even begin to guess what "Bright Gold" might look like.  I'll find one someday!  :-)

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

No X, Y, Z

I'm so sorry, folks, but I'm going to have to cancel the last 3 posts of my (already stretched out) A-to-Z challenge.  I'll give you brief summaries of the ideas I had for X, Y, and Z, but I've just been too busy to devote the time needed to flesh them out into posts that I'd consider worthy to include with the rest.  We moved into a new house over the last few weeks, and I'm still looking forward to the day when I won't be seeing boxes & bins everywhere I look.  :-)

- - -

X is for eXtropy:  As some of you know, I've got a soft spot for the ultra-optimistic claims of the transhumanists.  I was planning on reading up on Max More's idea of Extropianism and letting you all know about the bits that I found most interesting.

- - -

Y is for Your Weird: I actually wrote a little bit on this one, so I'll let me-from-March explain more:

In March 1991, sci-fi author Bruce Sterling gave a speech at the Computer Game Developers' Conference in San Jose, California.  He titled it "The Wonderful Power of Storytelling" (full transcript here), but it's since come to be known as the "Follow Your Weird" speech.  Back in 2011, I blogged about some of the juicier quotes, but I thought I'd recall it here, since it's quite clearly a call to arms... a yelling, screaming screed of hope... a manifesto, for short.  :-)

Among many other things, Sterling tried to wean the video game programmers of the day away from trying to ape the tropes of story and narrative in their new medium.  If it's good enough, those things emerge naturally without the need for heavy-handedness.  His experience at being a genre writer is valuable...
We're not into science fiction because it's good literature, we're into it because it's weird.  Follow your weird, ladies and gentlemen.  Forget trying to pass for normal.  Follow your geekdom.  Embrace your nerditude.  In the immortal words of Lafcadio Hearn, a geek of incredible obscurity whose work is still in print after a hundred years, "woo the muse of the odd."  A good science fiction story is not a "good story" with a polite whiff of rocket fuel in it.  A good science fiction story is something that knows it is science fiction and plunges through that and comes roaring out of the other side.  Computer entertainment should not be more like movies, it shouldn't be more like books, it should be more like computer entertainment, SO MUCH MORE LIKE COMPUTER ENTERTAINMENT THAT IT RIPS THROUGH THE LIMITS AND IS SIMPLY IMPOSSIBLE TO IGNORE!
I planned on digging for more gems, but you know the story.

- - -

Z isn't quite for Zoas:  There was a bit of a bait-and-switch, here.  The title refers to William Blake's concept of Four Zoas, or four fundamental archangel-like principles in the universe.  Carl Jung may have gotten his love of alchemical quaternities from this unfinished poetical work...

However, the actual "manifesto" here was going to be Blake's earlier work, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell.  I've always loved its irreverence, energy, and long lists of pithy proverbs.

This one, I might come back to later.  In the mean time, I've got to do some re-evaluation of where I'd like this blog to go, topic-wise.  I'm still very much interested in the two main gaming related foundation stones that the blog was built on (RPGs and GBGs), but I think it might be time to broaden the field of view a bit more.  Let's see what's out there.

Friday, May 22, 2015

W is for the Wilburys

Well, it's all right, riding around in the breeze.
Well, it's all right, if you live the life you please.
Well, it's all right, doing the best you can.
Well, it's all right, as long as you lend a hand.

Is 1989's End of the Line a manifesto?  Glob if I know... but I do think it fits in with my theme.  It seems to encapsulate the hard-won wisdom from the lives of Bob, Jeff, Tom, George, and Roy, which is nothing to sneeze at...

You can sit around and wait for the phone to ring
(At the end of the line)
Waiting for someone to tell you everything
(At the end of the line)
Sit around and wonder what tomorrow will bring
(At the end of the line)
Maybe a diamond ring.

To quote a recent D&D blog post from Joe Bloch, "There's no DIY unless YDI."

But I really love how maturity and moderation seep through this song.  Yes, you've got to go out and do all the things.  But there are no guarantees that the results will be what you hoped they'd be.

Well, it's all right, even if they say you're wrong.
Well, it's all right, sometimes you gotta be strong.
Well, it's all right, as long as you got somewhere to lay. (*)
Well, it's all right, every day is Judgement Day.  (**)

Hmm, I still don't quite hear those exact lines.  (*) has always sounded to me like "...someone to lay with," and (**) really has got to be "...every day is just one day."  But the sentiments are pretty similar, no matter which lyrics website you believe.  :-)

Well, it's all right, even when push comes to shove.
Well, it's all right, if you got someone to love.

I won't quote the whole song.  Their mini-homage to Purple Haze was fun.  But I do have a special love for the above couplet because it was one of the last things Roy sang,

Well, it's all right, even if you're old and gray.
Well, it's all right, you still got something to say.

And that one because it was George,

Well, it's all right, remember to live and let live.
Well, it's all right, the best you can do is forgive.

And that one because I'm still so far from achieving it.

I had a big ending planned for this post, in which I'd compare the "life is a journey" metaphor in this song with some other ones that use the same idea.  But, eh, maybe another time... or in the comments.  (What are some of your favorite songs about the journey of life?)  For now, I'm going to go riding around in the breeze for a bit.
Well, it's all right, even if the sun don't shine.
Well, it's all right, we're going to the end of the line.

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

V is for Vision(ary)

This post was originally going to be about William Butler Yeats' strange philosophical stream of consciousness book called A Vision.  However, the more I dug into it, the more I got disillusioned with its rambling and random nature.  Almost an incomprehensible fever dream, in some places.  I still hope to revisit it and understand it better, someday, but it's no fiery manifesto.

So, good luck for me that, right around the end of March, I discovered a completely different kind of Vision.  Nobel-prize winning physicist Frank Wilczek was recently asked to give a talk on his predictions for physics 100 years in the future.  He wrote up a more formal version of that talk and posted it online last month.

I'm no particle physicist, so I didn't really appreciate the most esoteric parts about quantum gauge theory.  I did like that he quotes Heraclitus and Parmenides to contrast the "God's-eye" view of the universe with our own "ant's-eye" view, but I don't think I grokked the physics implications.  However, once he's done giving his opinions of supersymmetry and string theory, the essay gets weirder and better.

Wilczek notes that much of our progress in science has been leading to greater and greater abstraction.  Forces are better understood as aspects of energy conservation.  "Energies" may, in turn, be best understood as symmetries of pure information.  Wilczek has written before about how "its" (physical things) may come ultimately from abstract "bits," but here he notes an interesting irony.  In biology, the trend has been to reduce more and more abstract concepts (like the mind) to an interplay of matter.  However...
"...if physics evolves to describe matter in terms of information, as we discussed earlier, a circle of ideas will have closed.  Mind will have become more matter-like, and matter will have become more mind-like."
He's not done with the physics-biology connection.  Wilczek also predicts that technology will continue to learn lessons from the systems that evolution has honed over millions of years.  Thus, a prediction that our computers will become more brain-like, and our machines will become more body-like.

Again, he brings it full circle.  He predicts the flow will go in the other direction, too -- i.e., that we'll continue to enhance our biology (especially our crude sense of color vision) by using technology.  Two of his briefest predictions are the ones that I'm most fascinated by:
  • We will vastly expand the human sensorium, opening the doors of perception.
  • Artists and scientists will work together, to create new works of extraordinary beauty.
This technological expansion might also help us explore space without actually making the trip in person:
"As people acquire routine access to extremely capable distant sensors and actuators, their sense of identity will expand beyond the limits of their physical bodies.  An immersive experience of "being there" will not necessarily involve being there, physically.  This will be an important element of the expansion of human culture beyond Earth, since human bodies are very poorly suited to extraterrestrial environments.  One can imagine an expanding web of intelligence more easily than an expanding web of settlement, and I expect it will happen much sooner."
Lastly, Wilczek claims that with these expanded senses and powers, we will evolve to greater levels of humility.  Knowing more means having greater perspective about what we still don't understand.  We can only hope.  :-)

Monday, May 18, 2015

U is for Unitarian Universalism

The phrase "five smooth stones" comes from the Biblical account of David and Goliath.  Those rocks were all the puny shepherd had at hand when faced with a seemingly unbeatable foe.  However, I first heard this phrase in a pamphlet I picked up somewhere in Cambridge, Massachusetts.  Titled "The Five Smooth Stones of Religious Liberalism," it's a collection of excerpts from James Luther Adams' book On Being Human Religiously.

Adams was one of the chief American theologians of the modern Unitarian Universalist movement.  I don't know much about where the UU's fit into the larger tapestry of religion and/or New Age spirituality, but I've always kind of liked them.

Adams' Five Smooth Stones encapsulate a mini-manifesto of his conception of UU belief and practice.  Unfortunately, Adams never boiled them down into a short list like many of the others that I've highlighted so far.  Each "stone" in Adams' book was a full essay. Even that little pamphlet that I picked up 20 years ago contains 13 or 14 pages of dense, unillustrated text. :-)  If you search, you'll find some pithy encapsulations, but none that are authoritative.  Here's my own attempt to boil them down to a blog post.....

1. Revelation is continuous.  The Divine speaks to us in our time, just as in all previous times.  Because revelation is still not complete, "nothing is exempt from criticism."

2. Freedom of association.  This applies not only to person-to-person relationships (no coercion or slavery), but also to the relationship between pulpit and pew.  The whole reward & punishment scheme that some religions invoke is off the table.  Love, especially, can only be good and true when it's given freely.  It's all about trust.

3. A just & loving community.  All this talk about love and freedom is worthless without application to the real world.  It's difficult, though, since building a fair, equitable community sometimes means balancing freedom against responsibility.  Adams waxes very Biblical when talking about this; balancing the Old Testament prophets against Jesus' humble mustard seed.

4. Do good to be good.  In some theologies, virtue is elevated to being an abstract, absolute entity.  Not for Adams.  Goodness only exists when it's exercised and put into practice.  There's that real world again.  Do you really believe what you say you believe?  Put your money where your mouth is, mister.

5. Ultimate Optimism.  The universe may not provide everything we want or need, but it provides enough for us to do good, meaningful work in life.  The worst roadblocks are internal, and we can overcome them.  At least we have hope.