Friday, May 31, 2013

Cephalopod Coffeehouse: Surfaces and Essences

For the first installment of the Armchair Squid's free-for-all blog book club, I've been aiming to profile the new book by Douglas Hofstadter and Emmanuel Sander, Surfaces and Essences: Analogy as the Fuel and Fire of Thinking.  Problem is... I haven't finished this sucker yet!  It's almost a running gag that Hofstadter's books are long; this one clocks in at 592 pages and I've really only gotten to 135.  I considered switching from reading to skimming, to get further by now, but I don't want to short-change it.

I'm still thinking this book will be important in my ongoing quest to build a real-world version of Hesse's Glass Bead Game, so I'm intending to do a mini "progress report" with today's post, and just keep reading at my own pace.  The full review will come at some point.  :-)

Ah, Douglas Hofstadter.  He's becoming an internet meme for being the patron saint of "meta" (i.e., self-referentiality taken to the Nth degree).

His books have been considered difficult, but mind-expanding if approached with effort and earnestness.  Gödel-Escher-Bach (1979) won many awards for its mix of musings on intelligence (natural and un), complexity theory, and deep connections between far-flung fields.  G-E-B gave me an important weapon in my arsenal of Glass Bead Game concepts: it showed that the idea of "rising tension, followed by release" is central to a huge number of different kinds of human-created works of art and science -- especially sequential works that one experiences linearly in time.  I've blogged about that here and here.

Surfaces and Essences may be just as long and involved as G-E-B, but I think it's central thesis is much simpler to communicate:  Hofstadter and Sander claim that just about every step in a human being's thought process is governed by the making and manipulating of analogies.  They use a pretty broad definition of an "analogy:" any way of comparing something to something else, or noting that an idea has some commonality with another idea.  (They talk briefly about the formal logical kind of analogy -- sometimes known as the SAT analogy -- but these "jewels of precision and elegance" are only a tiny subset.)

The early chapters are full of interesting linguistic examples that show how we use words and phrases to help us define mental categories.  Once we have these (usually fuzzy-edged) categories swirling around in our brains, they help us approach new and unfamiliar situations.  When we see something new, we search our storehouse of categories for something similar to compare it to -- i.e., we search for apt analogies -- so we can make sense of the new data.  This is usually done unconsciously, all the time, as we navigate through life.  In some cases, the new data cause us to refine or redefine our categories; this happens much more frequently when we're very young and still learning to speak and understand others.

Above I mentioned "words and phrases," but it goes beyond that, to full stories.  Those can be useful categories, too.  If you see a colleague at work whom you know wanted to get a big promotion, then didn't get it, and then feigned relief at not having to go to boring meetings with all the higher-ups, you may recognize that immediately as an example of Aesop's fable of the fox and the sour grapes.  But making that connection is a very subtle thing.  Nobody can figure out how to teach a computer to recognize that kind of non-surface similarity, but our minds do it constantly.  Hofstadter and Sander go further to actually define sentient intelligence as the ability to size up a new situation quickly by identifying concepts that get to its core (i.e., that separate the relevant wheat from the useless chaff). In other words, intelligence is the ability to come up with strong and useful analogies!

Like I said, I'm only through the first few chapters.  There will be many more examples to come, and I'm especially excited to get to the chapters about how scientists, mathematicians, and artists have created super-insightful analogies that have rocked their fields to their foundations.  I'm also looking forward to the chapter titled "How We Manipulate Analogies," because I'm really wanting to know how I can exploit this knowledge to create a better Glass Bead Game!

More on this later!  :-)

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Can we call you Al, or maybe just Din?

This post is a (slightly early) contribution to Catacomb Librarian's Obscure RPG Appreciation Day. This entry may not be about a full-on Role Playing Game, but it's definitely an old-school game of collaborative fantasy adventuring and storytelling.  The version that I own was published in 1985, so it falls within the years of the challenge (even if it may be too late to be some peoples' idea of the "Golden Age" of tabletop gaming).  :-)

Tales of the Arabian Nights was written by Eric Goldberg, and is described on the back of the box as "A game of fateful voyages and fabulous stories."  On the surface, it's a hybrid of a board game (with players moving their counters around a fantasy map of Europe, Asia, and North Africa) and a choose-your-own-adventure book.  The latter comes into play with "The Book of Tales," a collection of 1400 snippets of text that one turns to as directed by the events on the board.

There are quite a few good, detailed reviews of Arabian Nights on the web --see here and here and here, for example -- so I won't go into too much detail about how it's played.  Suffice to say that the Book of Tales makes it just as easy to play the game solitaire as it does to have fun with two to six friends.  It also generates an absurdly large number of possible situations.  The goal is to explore the world, build up a store of wealth and life experience, and return to the home city of Baghdad in triumph.  Anyone who's seen a Sinbad or Aladdin movie, or read about the 1001 tales told by Sheherezad, knows what kind of adventures await the traveler.

The original 1985 version of the game is quite modular:  there is a basic game, with the simplest rules, and there are several add-ons that make it more interesting.  You can set up trade routes, accept the Sultan's challenge of a great Quest, or use your skills against the other players in new and sneaky ways.  However, the most interesting variant is the Storytelling Game, in which you get extra points for narrating the events that happen to your character in the most evocative and moving way.  I love the preface to the description of these rules:
"Warning: Don't be surprised if you feel a little awkward the first time you play this version of the game. YOU HAVE NEVER DONE THIS BEFORE! There aren't any other games like this. However, if you are the adventuresome type of person that will buy this game, you are the kind of person who likes innovation and new experiences."
Now, since the goal of Obscure RPG Appreciation Day isn't just to dust off old games, but to revive, rethink, and remix the heck out of them, I wanted to do something more than just review.  I got an idea from the extensive lists of possibilities in Arabian Nights for some random tables that may help Game Masters in other games generate interesting situations.  So, break out your big purple d30 and start rolling...

Source:  Studio Arkhein

Your player characters are coming across some random person.  Who is it?  What's their backstory?  How can a simple random encounter propel along the fun in new and interesting ways?  In other words,

What's up with this random NPC?

RECENT HISTORY:  They have recently --

(1) escaped from being kidnapped or held as a slave,
(2) attacked some other party and now are bloodied,
(3) hidden from a pursuer,
(4) made the bargain of the century,
(5) bartered away something precious, and realized they were cheated,
(6) beaten their servant,
(7) conversed with someone else known to the PCs,
(8) courted their true love,
(9) drank their fill and are barely able to walk,
(10) entered a secret chamber and emerged with a treasure,
(11) examined a clue in the area that the PCs may have missed,
(12) been following someone,
(13) groveled for their lives, and escaped to tell the tale,
(14) helped out a beggar,
(15) hired a new servant, and are regretting it,
(16) honored a new ruler, and are in that ruler's good graces,
(17) opened a secret tomb that has been locked for decades,
(18) prayed for their heart's desire, and got it,
(19) punished someone, unfairly,
(20) asked a question, and learned more than they bargained for,
(21) robbed a merchant,
(22) sought aid from nearby townspeople,
(23) snuck out of a place they shouldn't have been,
(24) studied an ancient tome and learned about a hidden treasure,
(25) traveled back from a far land,
(26) tricked another group of adventurers with a clever lie,
(27) used a powerful magic item, which backfired,
(28) waited a dozen years for a loved one, and was spurned,
(29) was offered a gift by a powerful person, turned it down, and was banished,
(30) saw a strange creature that nobody believes exists.

BASIC CHARACTER TRAITS:  The NPC is a ___ type of person:

(1) beautiful
(2) foolish
(3) crafty
(4) hypnotic
(5) wise
(6) practical joker
(7) needy
(8) bumbling
(9) kindly
(10) bloodthirsty
(11) wealthy
(12) playful
(13) fearful
(14) sad
(15) strange
(16) mysterious
(17) talkative
(18) destitute
(19) lovesick
(20) wicked
(21) puissant
(22) greedy
(23) repentant
(24) skillful
(25) possessed
(26) dangerous
(27) noble
(28) mad
(29) lonely
(30) happy

CURRENT STATUS:  The NPC is now --

(1) Accursed  (bad luck always happens to him/her)
(2) in Beast Form  (transformed into an ape-like creature)
(3) Beloved  (someone out there is obsessed with the NPC)
(4) Blessed  (fantastic luck; opposite of "Accursed")
(5) Crippled  (moves at one-third normal rate)
(6) Determined  (nothing will change his/her course of action)
(7) Diseased  (and possibly contagious; don't get too close!)
(8) Enslaved  (by a cruel master)
(9) Ensorcelled  (doing some wizard's bidding; unable to break free)
(10) Envious  (NPC is hotly jealous of a rival)
(11) Fated  (NPC knows a grim prophecy involving his/her own future)
(12) Grief Stricken  (broken hearted and unable to eat/sleep well)
(13) Imprisoned  (or just released/escaped, depending on where PCs find the NPC)
(14) Insane  (at times, he/she seems normal, but just wait!)
(15) Lost  (on his/her way home, the NPC has gone way off course)
(16) Love Struck  (NPC is enthralled and will do anything to win the beloved)
(17) Married  (roll for whether happily or unhappily)
(18) Newly Rich  (and ready to spend it all)
(19) On Pilgrimage  (in the midst of a voyage to a holy site)
(20) Outlaw  (on the lam from the law... choose nearby town where crime took place)
(21) Pursued  (by a jealous rival)
(22) Respected  (what? you don't know this NPC?  he/she is a local hero!)
(23) wearing a Robe of Honor  (which gains him/her entrance to the best places)
(24) Scorned  (very publicly humiliated for doing something foolish)
(25) Sex-Changed  (victim of bad magic... but who will believe him/her?)
(26) Sultan  (or other kind of king, in disguise)
(27) Ugly  (hideous visage, but quick-witted and kindly)
(28) Under Geas  (NPC must fulfill a task: part oath, part curse)
(29) Vizier  (or other right-hand man to king, on a secret mission)
(30) Wounded  (you don't want to see what's up his sleeve)

Note:  The "recent history" entries come from the actions that you can choose in response to an encounter, listed at the top of the Arabian Nights Reaction Matrices.  The descriptive adjectives also come from those matrices.  The "current status" entries are from, well, the list of possible Statuses (Stati?) that an Arabian Nights character can have at any one time.

Have fun with these!  And check out the game if you get a chance.  There's also a newer version from 2009, which I haven't seen up close.  It's said they added hundreds of new options to the Book of Tales, but also streamlined the game and removed some of the optional add-on rules.

Saturday, May 25, 2013

Spring Sprucing

There was some dust beginning to settle around here, so a bit of light sweeping and general clean-up was called for...

First, a new banner header -- only the second in this blog's history!  The background image is a gorgeous view of the night sky from the Las Campanas Observatory in Chile, taken by Yuri Beletsky.  I cropped it and played around with the colors slightly.  The full original image, along with explanations for the various foreground and background features, is here.

The new typeface for the name of the blog is from the belovedly cheesy 1978 TV show Battlestar Galactica.  I always loved the weird ways that series mashed up futuristic space opera with ancient Egyptian visual motifs and quasi-Mormon spiritual tropes.

And the star maps were pretty cool, too... yeah, the star maps...

Lastly, if you click on "April A-Z" up there, right under the banner, you'll now get a list of this year's April challenge posts (in addition to last year's).  For anyone coming to the blog recently, my theme for the April blogging challenge was "An A to Z of Masters of the Imagination that You Oughtta Know About."  Each day I posted a brief profile of a super-creative artist, author, musician, magician, or whatever, along with some choice quotes or snippets that aimed to show you why I'm so enamored what they created.

Some responses to other blog challenges are coming up soon, so stay tuned!

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Random Destinations

In my last post I mentioned an old fractal algorithm for making randomized world maps for hypothetical planets.  I probably have some old printouts somewhere, but I remembered enough to reconstruct it and give it a whirl.  Here's an example...

Click for bigger version
Somebody who knows a thing or two about plate tectonics will surely see nothing at all realistic here, but it's pretty cool for about a half hour's work.  If anyone would like more details, I can easily send you a code written in IDL that will create as many random maps as you'd like.  (Creating the color image is a separate step; I could automate that in IDL too, but to make the above I just screen-captured it and played with the color table in xv.)

Seeing maps like this make me a bit wistful for the random "New Worlds" (i.e., alternate North & South Americas) generated by the old video game Seven Cities of Gold.  Ah, the Commodore 64...

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Billyuns and Billyuns

I was originally planning to do my Obscure RPG Appreciation Day (May 30) post about a quirky sci-fi game called Starfaring.  I've since switched to another topic, but I did want to talk a little bit about this one, too.  This quirky game of seat-of-the-pants interstellar exploration was written by Ken St. Andre and published in 1976.  Not only did this game precede nearly all other sci-fi RPGs, it was also released into the wild a full year before the coming explosion of space opera to be ushered in by some bearded dude from the Central Valley.

Starfaring has already been very ably reviewed by Grognardia, and the offbeat (very un-PC, slightly NSFW) charm of its no-budget illustration style was conveyed further by Jeff Rients.  Since I've never played the game, I didn't think I could add much to what's already been said out there about its rules or its jokey aesthetic.  Even though its sci-fi setting is highly evocative of Star Trek, I think it also presages a bit of the sci-fact wonder that this guy managed to communicate...

...just a few years after 1976.

For me, one of the most fun parts of Starfaring is its extensive tabular system for the Game Master (um, "Galaxy Master") to randomly create interesting solar systems for the players to explore.  In the latter part of the 1980s, this was something I was trying to do myself, with the seemingly infinite tools afforded to me by a spiffy 128K Mac.  In my first forays online, I also found something called the Universe Simulation Mailing List (USML) in which people exchanged ideas and programs to do similar things.

One thing that I never really thought much about was what I would do with the simulated stars, planets, and alien races, once I had created them!  A copy of Starfaring would have done me good at that time, whether or not I would've been able to convince my friends to sit down and play a game or two.  As it was, I didn't really finish constructing any elaborate alien realms, but I can still remember a lot about my fractal algorithm for making random world maps.  Maybe I'll have to try to code it up with the, ahem, slightly more powerful tools that are available today.

Another fascinating thing about both Starfaring and USML was that their creators were working with the certain knowledge of only 9 planets.  Today, astronomers know about more than 800 planets (and those are for sure, with more than 3000 other "candidates" awaiting firmer confirmation) circling hundreds of different stars.  There are some that may be very similar to our Earth, but there are many other weird types that sci-fi authors never dreamed possible.  Here's an animation of the orbits of just a few hundred of them.

And yes, there are some like this, too.

Prediction time:  In my lifetime (I'm in my mid-40s now, FYI) I'm saying there will be convincing data from an extrasolar planet that indicates that some kind of life exists on it.  Probably a combination of pure molecular oxygen (O2) in the atmosphere, liquid water covering much of its surface, and a signature of chlorophyll or some other photosynthetic molecule covering the rest of it.  Of course, the best bet about the details is that it'll really be something that nobody has yet imagined!  All of this is just beyond the reach of current telescopes, but a lot can be done in a few measly decades.  :-)

Saturday, May 4, 2013

May activities

After the whirlwind month of April, I hope that my posting to the blog won't take too much of a nose-dive.  Other arenas of life are demanding their fair share of time, too...  To keep things lively, there are two community activities that I'm planning to do at the end of this month:

(1) Cephalopod Coffeehouse

The esteemed Armchair Squid is hosting an online book club, in which each participant can choose their own favorite book (which was read during the current month) and post a review of it on the last day of the month.  I just started reading the new book by Douglas Hofstadter and Emmanuel Sander, Surfaces and Essences: Analogy as the Fuel and Fire of Thinking.  It's kind of a beast, though -- 592 pages chock full of philosophy and linguistics.  I hope to have it finished by the end of the month!  It looks fantastic, and it may end up being useful "glass bead game research" for me, too.

(2) Obscure RPG Appreciation Day

Hosted by the enigmatic Catacomb Librarian, this old-school role-playing game celebration aims to shine a light on the lesser-known, and hopefully not yet completely forgotten, games that often don't get their due in the shadow of their more famous older brother, Dungeons & Dragons.

The aim is to post a review (or rant, or some other related material) about a fantasy-themed RPG published between 1975 and 1989, on May 30.  That's just one day prior to Squid's book club deadline, so I hope to have this one 'in the can' a bit sooner than that.  I've identified my game, but won't be revealing its identity until the day of the post.  :-)