Where the blog driver learns to step lightly

Thursday, 30 December 2010 — 7:39am

As 2010 nears its close and I begin to comprehend just how little I produced in this space all year, I think the time has come to reconsider the purpose of the blog—not this blog, nor any specific blog, but the blog as a medium.

Over the lifetime of Nick’s Café Canadien, which is now well into its seventh year of operation, I’ve toyed with several different approaches to what kind of content I publish and how I go about organizing it. As my dissatisfied longtime readers know, the trend has been towards the lengthier, more polished, and considerably more sporadic.

It became apparent early on that this would never be a good place to syndicate a constant stream of news and online articles with few remarks of my own. For one thing, I refuse to turn this space into a specialist journal about one subject alone: that’s a good way to build a news readership, yes, but a bit impersonal and not reflective of my interests. There are better places to go for that sort of thing. Bundled with this is the problem of frequency: the more I post, the more unique and witty titles I have to concoct, and those are in short supply.

Blogging took off at the turn of the millennium when website folks realized that sometimes, you just want a painless way to push new content without bothering with anything beyond the text. Many of its functions have now been supplanted by services that specialize even further in specific online tasks. What was once a thriving personal blogosphere among the students I knew as an undergraduate collapsed with the rise of Facebook, which offered easy photo sharing along with relative (if now decaying) privacy. My experiment earlier this year—using Nick’s Café to deposit semi-regular bags of links—itself collapsed when I concluded that if all I’m doing is passing things on as I read them, then as a rule of thumb, more Twitter, less clutter. There are easier platforms than blogs to “have what he’s having”, so to speak.

When career journalists got in on the blogging game, they saved their best work for media willing to pay them—something that I think has contributed to their attitude towards a blog as a subsidiary portfolio: on the ball, topical, with a scent of casual Friday about it. Their professional output delivered them a ready-made base of readers, and for this kind of audience the side-of-fries school of blogging makes perfect sense. Not so, I think, for those more interested in analysis than reportage, particularly outside the world of word limits and hard deadlines.

The function of a nonprofessional blog today, as I see it, is to get away from the hustle and bustle of social networks and have a podium to yourself. I turned to blogging in the first place because the anarchy of discussion forums was no longer satisfying: forums brought people with similar obsessions together, yes, but the rapid-fire debates were not conducive to essay-length thoughts or to drawing the attention of passersby from outside the community. Blogging isn’t a night at the pub with your fellow philosophes; it’s more like Speakers’ Corner in Hyde Park.

I’m told there is an article in the current issue of Wired, not yet in the online edition, about precisely this: that blogs are by and large becoming a place for infrequent but developed thoughts, rather than brief and pithy remarks. A moment of searching, however, uncovers this article from 2008 (“Twitter, Flickr, Facebook Make Blogs Look So 2004”), which in retrospect seems less prescient than premature.

For my part, I’m quite happy with the shift in the blogging form towards essay-length thoughts—a place where there’s a morsel of sharing thanks to the power of hyperlinks, yet where the primary purpose is not to share, but to produce the objects to be shared.

This is my roundabout manner of promising that I do, in fact, have some things on the way.

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Suggested reading, resuscitative edition

Thursday, 30 September 2010 — 4:44pm | Assorted links, J.R.R. Tolkien, Journalism, Literature, Music, Science, Video games

This space has suffered the longest drought of real and substantial content in its brief history, and I find it encouraging that several of my readers have seen fit to remind me of the fact. I could lay the blame upon the drain on my verbal facilities known as my masters dissertation, or perhaps my summertime adventures sans ordinateur, but the truth is a far more familiar one: the articles I’ve sketched out in my head are too big to write down. They will show up someday, if only in unfinished fragments pretending to stand alone; so keep an eye on the RSS feed and when they arrive, we may promptly rejoice together.

Link-dumping has never been an adequate stand-in for commentary of my own, and if you want to read what I read you are better off checking Twitter (the only circumstance where that is ever the case). Nevertheless, here is a slice of the pileup.

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Suggested reading, immemorial edition

Thursday, 24 June 2010 — 3:30am | Animation, Assorted links, Computing, Film, Game music, Jazz, Journalism, Mathematics, Music, Pianism, Video games

I’ve been neglecting this space for over two months. Unfortunately for my capacity to keep up with the world in written words, they have been two very interesting months. Had I posted a bag of links on a weekly basis—and this is already the laziest of projects, the most modest of ambitions I have ever had for this journal—the entries for the latter half of April and the first half of May could have been expended entirely on the British general election (with an inset for Thailand’s redshirt revolt) and still failed to capture the play-by-play thrills on the ground.

Somewhere along the way, I penned a dissertation of sorts, but let’s not talk about that. Here is the crust of readings that has built up in the meantime. There are more, but the list below was becoming rather overgrown and at some point I had to stop.

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Suggested reading, spine-tingling edition

Monday, 19 April 2010 — 12:38pm | Assorted links, Film, Harry Potter, Journalism, Literature, Mathematics, Science

Last week here in the United Kingdom was Chiropractic Awareness Week, so let’s all be aware of the good news: the British Chiropractic Association has finally dropped the battering ram of its libel action against science writer Simon Singh, who had the nerve to call some of their purported treatments bogus. (I guess you could say the BCA backed out.) The lawsuit specifically targeted Mr Singh (as opposed to The Guardian, which published the contested article) in order to drain his resources with the abetment of Britain’s libel laws, and the case has become a cause célèbre exposing this country’s need for libel reform. Be sure to read Singh’s reaction to the news and Ben Goldacre’s column on the wider problem.


  • J.K. Rowling, writing in the capacity of a former single mother living on welfare, isn’t buying what David Cameron is selling. In a somewhat frivolous response, Toby Young leaps on the Tory nostalgia of the Harry Potter books, pointing to Hogwarts’ Etonian idyll while somehow neglecting to mention the conspicuously nuclear families; but anyone who paid attention to Rowling’s finer points (which doesn’t include Mr Young, I’m afraid) knows full well her politics aren’t what he thinks they are.

  • Film editor Todd Miro savages Hollywood colour grading for taking us into a nightmare world of orange and teal.

  • Roger Ebert articulates his controversial belief that video games can never be art—not for the first time, though it’s nice to finally see him elaborate on it in one place. I’m of the opinion that the entire semantic quagmire is easily evaded if we adopt an instrumental definition of art. Regardless of whether video games are even theoretically comparable to the great works of other media, our only way of getting at qualitative findings about creativity and beauty in game design is to borrow from the language of art, so we may as well consider them as such.

  • While on the subject of aesthetics: over at Gödel’s Lost Letter, R.J. Lipton’s fantastic computing science blog, are some germinal sketches of how one might study great mathematical proofs as great art.

  • The International Spy Museum briefs us on Josephine Baker, the actress-heroine of the French Resistance.

  • Paul Wells visits the Canadian forces in Kandahar and reports on the shift in the tone and strategy of their counterinsurgency efforts. This is one of the best pieces of journalism I’ve read on the present state of the war in Afghanistan and I can’t recommend it enough.

  • Strange Maps documents two wonderful specimens of literary cartography: back covers of mystery paperbacks, and a poster for a Shakespeare conference in France depicting a town that looks like the Bard.

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The greedy strategeme, pt. 1

Thursday, 15 April 2010 — 1:37pm | Board games, Science, Video games

Civilization veteran Soren Johnson, one of the foremost designers of strategy games and AI today and certainly one of the best writers on the subject, often remarks that the theme of a game is not to be confused with its meaning (slides here). Diplomacy may cast its players as the great powers of pre-1914 Europe, but it’s about simultaneity. StarCraft may put you in charge of Heinlein-esque space marines and alien civilizations, but it’s about asymmetry. If the theme and mechanics harmoniously cohere, then the mechanics can shed light on the theme in the way that art sheds light on the world. Pre-war Europe is an intriguing setting for Diplomacy because in all their backroom double-dealing, the empires didn’t take turns. Aliens are a good fit for StarCraft because you can map anything onto aliens, be it the collectivist swarm-by-numbers ethos of the Zerg or the judicious high-tech investment of the Protoss.

I am partial to this view, predominantly for reasons of aesthetics. If we are to conceive of game design as an art form, it does not suffice to decompose games into the artistry of constituent parts—the music, the models and sprites, the cinematic sequences, on rare occasion the writing. The aesthetics have to come from the specific properties that make something a game, whether it is played with a board and dice, a deck of cards, or a mouse and keyboard—and those properties come from the mechanics.

But that’s neither here nor there; I won’t elaborate today. Instead I want to turn to my favourite of Johnson’s examples: the evolution game. For your fill of Darwinian game mechanics, look not to Spore (which Johnson worked on), a game that is nominally about evolution from microbe to intergalactic juggernaut, but is actually about special creation. Back when I first played it, I wrote, perhaps a tad generously:

Let’s not bury our heads in the sand: by placing creature design into the player’s hands instead of leaving it up to random mutation, Spore inherently owes a lot to intelligent design. There’s still room for a real game about evolution in the Darwinian sense, where you set certain environmental constraints and preconditions, let a species run loose, and see if it survives in an ecosystem full of other models—kind of like how some engineers pit robots in mortal battle, but with adaptation.

Spore is a lot more creationistic than I gave it credit for; consider that the functional components of your custom-made species—the mouths, the horns, the flagella—are interchangeable parts from a specified, modular set, which is precisely what we would expect from a designing agent but not at all what we would expect from natural selection. But never mind all that. The evolution game exists, says Johnson, and it’s called World of Warcraft.

I would contend, however, that the Darwinian features Johnson ascribes to WoW are equally prevalent in most games with competitive and highly interactive player populations, provided there is sufficient strategic depth worth talking about. WoW is an evolution game because its core mechanic is community. Where there is a community of players and a developed metagame of optimal practices, strategic decisions are memes that compete for survival. Let’s call them strategemes.

Strategemes include everything from chess openings to Scrabble vocabulary: they are transmissible units of knowledge that players learn, study, and adopt—and crucially, copy. Copying them is not seen as unfair, but as an advantageous and often essential behaviour. They leave room for mutation, and we can perceive a frequency distribution of variations over a population of players and games.

But where does natural selection come into play? Let’s look at the exemplar we get from Johnson: the WoW talent tree.

Continued »

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