From the archives: March 2009

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The spreadsheets of Catan

Tuesday, 31 March 2009 — 8:11am | Board games, Mathematics

From Andrew Curry and Wired comes this comprehensive article on Settlers of Catan, a superb piece of board game journalism if I’ve ever seen one, and a must-read for players of all levels. It’s got a bit of everything: a look at why Settlers fit the market like a glove, a little about designer Klaus Teuber, an overview of the “German style” of board game design of which Settlers is the most prominent ambassador, and a peek into the complexity underlying the game’s infamously balanced mechanics.

This caught my attention:

In 2006, Brian Reynolds, a founder of Maryland software company Big Huge Games and the programmer who developed the AI behind the addictive computer classic Sid Meier’s Civilization II, set out to make an Xbox 360 version of Settlers. To help programmers develop the game’s AI, Teuber spent months exploring the mathematics of his most famous creation, charting the probability of every event in the game. The odds of a six or eight being rolled are almost 1 in 3 for example, while the chance of a four being rolled is 1 in 12. There is a 2-in-25 chance of drawing a Year of Plenty development card. Teuber created elaborate logic chains and probability matrices in a complex Excel spreadsheet so the videogame developers could see how every possible move and roll of the dice—from the impact of the Robber to the odds of getting wheat in a given scenario—compared. The end result was a sort of blueprint for the game that gave Big Huge Games a head start and showed just how complex the underlying math was. “It was the biggest, gnarliest spreadsheet I had ever seen,” Reynolds says.

I want to see this.

One of the best things that happened to the Civilization series was how in Civilization IV, lead designer Soren Johnson laid the mathematics and AI bare for everyone to see, expanding on a series tradition in the Sid Meier games to make all the data easily accessible (and therefore modifiable).

Settlers is elegant enough that I’m sure people have already figured out the math through a spot of reverse engineering; it’s really not that hard. But I’d love to see Teuber’s spreadsheet for its immense historical value as a design document alone. Surely there was a calculated rationale to everything from the fifteen-road limit to the assignment of three ore/brick hexes instead of four—and I often wonder if the perpetual endgame glut of sheep is here as an intentional crimp.

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Austin McBride’s piano comedy hour

Monday, 23 March 2009 — 6:27am | Jazz, Music, Pianism

It’s difficult in the age of YouTube, weblogs, self-publication, and the Cult of the Amateur, but I try my level best never to crap all over people who are bad at what they do. Not everybody has the talent to be worth their salt in what they like doing, but people on the cusp of development have room to improve, and it doesn’t do any good to put them down. I’m sure that by strictly professional standards, I’m not very good at what I do either. In fact, I believe quite strongly that one of the essential steps to the mastery of a chosen skill—creative, competitive, or otherwise—is when you reach a stage where you understand how far you have to go before you can honestly consider yourself among the experts, even (and especially) if the casual observer can’t tell the difference.

When a shockingly incompetent amateur poses as a professional source of wisdom, is oblivious to said incompetence, and puts it on display for everyone to see in the form of an instructional video—well, that’s comedy, and it is my duty as a responsible citizen to point and guffaw as hard as I can so no poor fool gets suckered.

Meet Austin McBride, the worst “jazz” “pianist” on the Internet.

Ever wondered what it would be like to hear Sarah Palin deliver a lecture about foreign policy? That’s Austin McBride.

There is a very real possibility that he’s a sick comic genius. The timing of his musical offences is almost too perfect: the consistent pattern in his minute-long videos is to begin with a mangled explanation that might sound plausible to the absolute beginner, and follow it up with a punch line of an “experimental” demonstration.

Who else could come up with gems like this:

But I’ve seen intentional jazz parodies. (Hans Groiner comes to mind.) Intentional parodies are musically literate enough to be deliberate about straying as far from the elements of jazz as possible, and leaving a trail of stylistic breadcrumbs to make it obvious. This fellow—well, I suppose he also offers tutorials on breakdancing and bouncing golf balls on clubs, but I’m still not convinced it’s a joke.

More likely, Austin McBride is a tone-deaf scrub who’s never heard a bar of jazz in his life. And if anything he’s doing is reflective of the general perception of what jazz sounds like—a bunch of nonsense licks and blues scales over repetitive block chords—we, as a civilization, are in a serious heap of trouble.

[Edit (9/29): Given the amount of traffic this page gets from people curious about Mr McBride, it behooves me to acknowledge that it has since become clear the whole shebang was a joke. If you are still on the fence, please consult this video, where he sports a deliberately ridiculous beatnik outfit and plays in five while counting in four.]

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Wednesday Book Club: Spiritus Mundi

Wednesday, 18 March 2009 — 11:28pm | Book Club, Literary theory, Literature

This week’s selection: Spiritus Mundi: Essays on Literature, Myth, and Society (1976) by Northrop Frye.

In brief: This collection of a dozen variegated essays—some broadly accessible, others strictly for the interest of literary scholars—is a grab bag of erudite criticism that serves as thorough sampling of Frye’s one-man theory show. The academic pieces, which attempt to deduce overarching mythic cosmologies from the poetic output of writers such as Milton and Blake, are an ample demonstration of Frye’s method. Far more compelling, however, are the pieces that argue for the continued relevance of the imagination following its dislodgment from the objective world of science and history.

(The Wednesday Book Club is an ongoing initiative of mine to write a book review every week. I invite you to peruse the index. For more on Spiritus Mundi, keep reading below.)

Continued »

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Wednesday Book Club: Cat’s Cradle

Wednesday, 11 March 2009 — 11:25pm | Book Club, Literature

This week’s selection: Cat’s Cradle (1963) by Kurt Vonnegut.

In brief: Vonnegut’s apocalyptic Cold War satire is an easily digestible exercise in absurdist humour, though the whole is scarcely greater than the sum of its parts. The novel, while consistently amusing, stops short of delivering on its thematic promise to examine science and religion at the end of the world in moral, humanistic terms.

(The Wednesday Book Club is an ongoing initiative of mine to write a book review every week. I invite you to peruse the index. For more on Cat’s Cradle, keep reading below.)

Continued »

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Tales of Prolongia

Sunday, 8 March 2009 — 6:11am | Game music, Music

Some of you may be aware that a number of years ago, I dabbled in rearranging melodies from various electronic games, primarily those for Nintendo (entertainment) systems. In 2005, a gentleman in the community by the name of Kyle Crouse approached me about submitting a track to his album-length project, a compilation of rearranged versions of virtually every cue on the soundtracks to Namco’s Tales of Phantasia (SNES) and Tales of Symphonia (GameCube).

They are silly games, but good ones, especially once you get over how the writers and localizers apparently drew names from Norse mythology out of a hat and pinned them on characters, mountains, and magical cities at random like tails on paper donkeys. I put my name up for one of the rather incidental but catchy tracks from the Symphonia score, partly because all the good ones were taken, and whipped something up on my Clavinova one evening in July. As I recall, I skipped a Shakespeare play to do it.

Four years later, Mr Crouse has finally released his project—which I suspect is literally the work of his whole adult life—as Summoning of Spirits: An Arrangement of Music from Tales of Phantasia and Tales of Symphonia. It is fifty-three tracks in length, which I’m told amounts to over five hours of music.

Here’s the YouTube announcement video, with ten minutes of audio samples. (Try not to think about how this project was conceived before anyone knew what YouTube was.)

My contribution is “Continental Divide”—Disc 4, Track 2. I selected the title because the original track comes from a point in the game where the characters cross between two symbiotic worlds that are rapidly drifting apart. A continental divide, in geography, is the border that lies between two watersheds; if you take the Continental Divide of the Americas, for example, the water flows to the Pacific on one side, and the Atlantic on the other. Symphonia-trained ears will pick up on some of the character motifs that I tried to weave in contrapuntally.

Please excuse my sloppy clarinet technique—I was out of practice for years at the time, and I would have re-recorded it had I not lost my raw audio data along with everything else on my old computer. And do enjoy the rest of the album; I should too, eventually.

Related reading:

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