All posts made in Sep. 2002:

McCargow's comments about our break-in a few days ago are true in all ways bar one. We do in fact have all of the following: farting gnome; sinister dancing clown; giant cardboard dog's head (wearable). However our estate agent wrote to us saying they wouldn't pay 26 pence to send us a receipt, not the claimed 30p.

"A group of 5 messagebirds drops onto the far platform of my desk, their last communicative chirps to each other fading as they stow their wings carefully, flush with their ovoid bodies. I notice immediately from the yellow chevrons on the middle bird's wings that it has come from the Department of Public Perceptions, and will be, in their eyes at least, of the highest priority." There's a new Upsideclone up today, by Simon Batistoni, and it's one I've been impatient to publish since it landed in the submissions queue a few weeks ago -- read: Message Centre. (And if you liked that, there's more of his writing out there.)

For anyone who doesn't know: Upsideclown and Upsideclone are two writing sites. 'Clown is a group of six (used to be seven), myself and five friends. We've been going two years, knocking them out at twice a week, have printed a book which is likely to be reprinted (and has been read in the desert). 'Clone is the year-old sister 'site with an open submissions policy (you can find submissions details at the bottom of Message Centre) with some regulars and some not-so regulars, and it's all good and unusual stuff. Both 'sites also publish by email, subscription info is at the bottom of each front page. We do it cos it's fun to write, not for an audience and not because we have to. It's silly, serious, mostly fiction but sometimes not, experimental, or just a story. All of that is why I love it. And occasionally, like today's Upsideclone, it's just really really good.

Tagmetics. "The central concept is the tagmeme, defined by the relation between a syntactic 'slot' or function, such as subject or object, and a class of units, such as noun phrase or pronoun, that can 'fill' it. Constructions, or syntagmemes, are accordingly characterized by sequences of obligatory and optional tagmemes: e.g. that of The people were leaving by one in which there is an obligatory subject slot, filled by the noun phrase, followed by an obligatory predicate slot, filled by a verb phrase". Even though I don't understand it, it's still a beautiful word.

Not since I was young have I been fooled and surprised by an optical illusion. Until now [via scribot].

The Potential of Local Currency [via riothero]. I need to learn more about the concept and meaning of currency.

Groupthink: "a mode of thinking that people engage in when they are deeply involved in a cohesive group, when the members' strivings for unanimity override their motivation to realistically appraise alternative courses of action" [via kottke]. Consider, if your brain is a highly cohesive group of with different incentive operating in different places, isn't groupthink the same process you undergo as an individual? Once the decision is made (because the brain has to decide) it's more difficult to see alternatives?

The Guardian Best British blog competition results are out.

I've just discovered Tranquility. Best game ever. Divorce yourself from time and space. Navigate by the music. Wow. Update: I've been playing for another hour. Feeling quite lost, spaced out. When they finally get around to building VR, this should be the first game implemented, lean to move, breathe out to sink. It would be killer. Incredible.

"Letterboxing is an old English pastime combining orienteering and treasure-hunting skills with craftsmanship and inventiveness ... Traditionally, this is a nice countryside rambling activity. Now we're going to do it in the city" -- Urban Letterboxing [thanks Warren]. (Some friends and I tried the dead letter drop idea round London a while back. It's harder than you'd think to find a good place.)

A beautiful new issue of This is a Magazine is now on the shelves. (Including some bizarrely b3taish giant kittens, about half way through.)

"Nor did she know how far their awareness spread out beyond her like filamentary tentacle to the remotest corners of universes she had never dreamed of; nor that she saw them as human-formed only because her eyes expected to. If she were to perceive their true form, they would seem more like architecture than organism, like huge structures composed of intelligence and feeling". From The Subtle Knife by Philip Pullman [good Pullman interview, with spoilers].

Barely related, You Can Call Me Al. "He looks around, around/ He sees angels in the architecture/ Spinning in infinity/ He says Amen! and Halleluiah!"

Look, here is a weblogger who makes me laugh! Note: this is rare. Not You, The Other One has a list of all-too-believable dating schemes that don't work and, even better, Ten Reasons Why I Am Better Than Your Man. In a word, lol.

Two tangents. One: I've been doing my best to say "lol" recently instead of actually laughing out loud. It hasn't made me many friends. Two: The name of that weblog and other UK weblogs only serve to strengthen my theory that weblog names are the real-life equivalents of Culture ship names [see also, A Few Notes on the Culture by the author of the sci-fi series, Iain M Banks].

The Best Jokes Are Dangerous, An Interview with Kurt Vonnegut parts one, two and three. I don't know how he does it, because he's reckless, deliberately so, but what he says is poetic, moving, and he realises it. Fantastic author.

Wicked: Colossal Cave Adventure page [via MeFi]. The game that changed the way we viewed narrative. Just imagine how much the idea of a text adventure has influenced things. I'm happily surprised to find out that the game is based on a real cave. Also from that MetaFilter thread is Zork as a 404 page. Oh. My. God.

Awesome essay on Helvetica, Univers and Palatino [via robotwisdom]. (Rathering surprisingly, it's by James 'Kibo' Parry [why Kibo is a legend].)

Ah now, I like this (well, kind of). Logitech's new 'io' digital pen captures everything you write with it (on Anoto digital paper), all downloadable to your computer when you drop the pen in a cradle. The special paper doesn't bother me so much. Anoto is such a neat idea and usable in so many other ways that this is just a way of getting the pens out there; one day the pens will be used for checking active checkboxes in magazines (read Wired about Anoto). No, paper is fine. But the tricks they missed: The pen is Windows only. It downloads as special .PEN files which have to be exported to images. Why? Image capture is a generic device for USB -- why bother tightly binding the pen to the computer? Let it download images to any computer, present and future, and enable other people to easily write application making use of the pen. Logitech don't need to force the software on people to make them remember the brand, they're carrying the damn thing around in a pocket! Text seems to me to be the half of it, sketches are where it's at. Sell decent sketchbooks full of digital paper, high quality ink in the pens. That's the market. (But the cool feature the pen does have: the software files your notes based on which checkbox you tick on the special paper. That's neat.)

Other one of the products released at DemoMobile is the Canesta Keyboard Perception Chipset. Basically it's a piece of hardware that can recognise gestures. Coupled with the projection unit and a lightsource, the chip recognises fingers over a picture of a keyboard projected on a surface: a virtual keyboard. And these three are being sold for use in other gadgets -- phones, PDAs. Wicked.

Dan cityofsound posts more about the rules of GTA3 changing as the game moves on. Now how this relates to rules and what they are I'm not sure, but GTA3 feels to me to be at a different position on the game-spectrum than, say, chess. Closer to the real-life end. Which is why I particularly like the term "social topography". Nice.

From the bots list, some nice ideas for tech support IM bots making use of domain specific bot identities. But far cuter are stooge bots: one, two, three.

Sort-of-related is the story of the IM networks wanting to get paid. Maybe the problem is the relatively small number of networks -- there seems to be a level where competition doesn't effectively lower prices, and the competitors feel they're within reach of a monopoly so either make cartels or play hardball. Compare this to when there are hundreds of players in a market: the mobile phone situation in Finland is brilliant (just look at Nokia); the internet itself is treated as a shared common-land rather than large pipes joined only by tollbooths.

In this interview with Peter Morville he gives a nice definition of Information Architecture, part of which reads "An emerging discipline and community of practice focused on bringing principles of design and architecture to the digital landscape".

When I walked into the Waterstones bookshop on Piccadilly with Phil a few weeks ago, directly inside the front door I found myself in a small lobby. Made of glass, the lobby sat as a bubble inside the grand entrance to the shop and could be exited (into the bookshop itself) by two doors on the right and left. Standing facing forward: the glass encouraged me to look directly into the bookshop, the view obscured by posters. Now my attention was directly ahead, the lobby doors were just outside my peripheral vision. After looking around and leaving the lobby, I was pointed at the corner of the room, no longer at the grand shop that was ahead of me. Naturally, I thought this was ridiculous. A website would never be constructed like this, I said. My gaze was being drawn away from the navigation options, the posters ahead of me (in prime real estate) weren't targetted or the most important thing I should see, and obscured the main proposition. Going deeper I was left directed away from the shop floorplan (site map) and a confused user. Why don't they learn how to use geography and location like Information Architects learn how to use the www?, I said, Information Architects know how to move people around a site, how to design it for comfort and familiarity. Designers in the real world could learn a lot from websites.

It was a full ten minutes before it occurred to me that the designers of the shop were in fact architects, and that the term Information Architecture was a derivation from that.

Think of the Children: "We want the law changed to make it illegal to murder children and bury them in woodland" [via As Above].

Okay, games again. I'm intrigued about what rules actually are. In a nomic, where you take turns in generating new rules, are you actually generating rules, or some other kind of thing? Is it instead the case that a nomic is just the extreme of having very few rules, and rules are (by definition) immutable, unbreakable things? If rules are just things that can be done, like roads on a roadmap, then the second level of rules are just like directions. And all of them depend on the geography. But I don't like these metaphors: geography, rules, the things that grow from rules... they interact in all kinds of ways, change each other, feel like different parts of the same spectrum. Thinking.

cityofsound points to some beautiful short plays about London. Tiny Plays.

(I'm back from Knoydart, remotest Scotland. The autoblogger will continue posting for a day while I catch my breath (and a thousand emails), but normal service will be resumed shortly.)

Hearts, Clubs, Diamonds, Spades: Players Who Suit Muds. Excellent paper on MUDs and the types of players in them. Four are identified, and the dynamics between them explored. Recommended.

Two fantastic posts on anil dash about Tablet PCs and how people relate to them, and how gui widgets should be in hardware. Good thinking.

Potential Methodologies for MUDs, at Game Studies. All my hot buttons, all at once. It's difficult to pick a single point out of this wide-ranging article on how to play and the players of MUDs, but the three aspects deserve a mention. Mortensen identifies three influences on how the game is player: the technical aspect (the limitations/built-ins of the game software); the In Character culture (the influence of the game win-state and incentives); and the Out Of Character culture (social interaction, morality).

There's more to say here than I can write down, but for the moment compare these: One. Popper's three worlds (objective, subjective, social; or: of-game, in-game, in-players). Two. The geography of a game (immutable laws of physics, or the board itself, depending on whether the "game" is a board-game or Real Life); the rules of a game (win-states and rules explicitly set by the game, eg get a line of three crosses, or take Berlin); the morality of the players (rules implicitly set by the game, that is, agreeing to obey the explicit rules, or declining to bomb civilians). Interesting.

Lying Mofo is genius [via haddock].

Lots of good desktop wallpaper at Mac Desktops.

The Prime Number Maze: "The maze you are about to enter is one determined completely by the distribution of the prime numbers". Hey, get this: the rules of distribution of prime numbers are unknown, but does that make the game less fun?

presents is always lovely, and a dig through the years of archives is well worthwhile.

I really must keep an eye on this. The Humane Environment is Raskin's open-source implementation of his ideas on the ideal human-computer interface, as defined in his book. A Summary of The Humane Interface is available.

Sims, BattleBots, Cellular Automata, God and Go, A Conversation with Will Wright. Fascinating interview about behaviour modelling, especially in The Sims. The site this is on, the International Journal of Computer Game Research, is impressively chock-full of good reading material.

Computer circuit evolution: scientists have been "stunned" as a network of transistors systematically bred to be an oscillator turned out to be picking up radio waves. Well. Yeah. I seem to remember a while back about a programmable gate array that didn't even have a third of the gates hooked up to the circuit, but would stop running if they were removed. It turned out the system was making use of the edge conditions of the transition between high (1) and low (0) current, and the electromagnetic fields produced by the rest of the circuit. Both things we carefully ignore in our modelled, binary world.

I'm not surprised. The constraints were too simple -- evolution will produce a system that is maximally complex (because the physical universe supplies complexity for free) but the easiest to breed. Attributes such as abstraction (binary) and repeating patterns are inserted when there are more evolutionary constrains: that a circuit has to be able to share patterns, work in many environment, be easily adaptable. In our model-of-a-universe inserting these attributes is easy, it's sub-optimal design and one of our constraints is: make something that's easy given what you've already got. That's a powerful one, right there.

Okay, it occurs to me that I've been simplistic thinking that the main abstraction point in communication is time: that is, that the main difference between talking/listening and any other media is that the message is delayed before being passed on, by recording a voice or writing something down. This is wrong.

There's a whole spectrum of abstractions, of break points, to be made, across time and many other dimension slices. With books, the abstraction is that they're really easy to copy and recopy. However, if the text is a message reference, it's referencing an immutable message. A website is a mutable message that maintains the same reference. That's a different slice. A radio programme is broadcast once and appears in multiple places simultaneously, that's a slice in a different place.

But trying to model this (because a description of what is is maximally complex and no better than looking at the thing itself. A model can be analysed): Consider a message sent between my mind and your mind. A break point is where this message can be handled, changed and referenced. One way of looking at this is how far from the source the message is changable. So a tv programme is alterable up to broadcast so it can have many people involved in creating it. A web page is alterable to the time of download. The mechanisms used for these different abstraction levels vary: writing, recording, using a message reference. But these are all tools to maintain control of a message for different lengths of its transit. That's a possible model.

Great phrase from Understanding Media: The age of the iron whim.

Apple have published a developer's howto on installing Perl 5.8 on Mac OS X, which may or may not be a good idea because scripts you distribute might not work on the default install. Me, I'm waiting for the new version of Fink, a package manager for unix software on the Mac. It's the easiest way to get everything installed, and there's even a pretty front-end.

Superb barcode posters

Firstly, I am better than your kids. Secondly, CrashBonsai. Both are funny [and both via dutchbint].

Last night's excitement: Meeting JC Herz (summary of one of her talks, at, and boring her half to death with UK Local Government and questions about game design and evolutionary ecology metaphors. More on the thoughts from that in a week or two, when I've had time to percolate (and come back from holiday).

Last Saturday night's excitement: A street protest by the Worker's Communist Party of Iran just round the corner from my house. Again, stories later.

The only way I can sum up today is with the fact that this morning I accidentally dressed in all brown clothes, leaving me looking like I'm wearing a retro-futurist cardigan and cords combo jumpsuit. It's not improved.

Fields (in the magnetic sense, or gravity) would be a better metaphor for rules, as opposed to nodes and arcs, the following of a road map. The Earth circles the sun, but it's not a path it's following, it's a balance between forces. I'd like to see a modern, simple, tic-tac-toesque field theory game. Maybe chess is like this -- some moves are allowed, but so foolish they might-as-well be forbidden. Some moves carry a greater cost (because they break strong anti-stupid-move incentives) but might well pay off. Sometimes the best way forward is obvious. And the incentive fields shift and change with every move and every piece of knowledge about the opponent. I wonder how a chess-playing computer using a field theory of pushes and pulls would work, instead of the current brute force approach? I understand that's how trained chess players play anyway, by recognising patterns, actual and potential, and the struggles between them. Is chess the simplest this kind of game can be?

Thank you Kevan, and thank you Tom. I'm enormously touched.

(Before you read this, read today's earlier post about games.)

Kevan, who has done more good thinking about games than I, replies in email to my earlier post about games. He provides some links to nomics (games that change the rules from within the game) more complex than I knew about.

Synchroncity at cityofsound: Modelling Urban Behaviour Amidst Networked Ultraviolence talks about how Grand Theft Auto 3 probes the edges of games. The city changes over time; you can alter your environment in expected ways. (Some superb links in that post to, to discussions about the game universe.)

So I'm gradually more convinced that rules in games are black-and-white approximations of what is really combinations of costs and least-resistances in an incentive space. Breaking a rule (or rather, paying a cost (say, spending hours gathering weapons to break down a wall -- I've never played GTA3) to not follow the rule-habit) should have a consequence within the game, whereas games like Monopoly undergo system crash if their rules are broken (that's crash as in environmental crash, a downward spiral). Furthermore rules shouldn't always be explicitly made or broken. In the real world even a move may reinforce or weaken rules, or even make new ones. And by 'move' I mean the process of following a least-resistance path.

On a sort-of tangent, and because I've been reading a lot about the REST www-architecture recently, we could couch the old-style rules-and-moves version of games like this: A move is like a GET on a resource on the www, an idempotent request, it always has the same result. A GET returns a resource which says which other resources you can move to Setting a rule is a POST, it places the rule on the server (in the game) but how it actually gets merged into the resource-database is up to the server itself.

But this is the node-arc model, the filesystem model. This is treating a game as if it's moving around a map, and ties in with the sameness of interfaces. And games aren't/shouldn't/don't-have-to-be like this! At the very least making a move doesn't just alter the physical pieces-on-the-board representation, it adds that move into the history of the game. But more than that a move may change the rules themselves, as a side-effect, without the player intending it.

So I've been reading about games and I'm rather taken by the definition of one as a social engagement in which all parties know the rules upfront. This is as opposed to the stock market, or war. Naturally I'm trying to think of new types of games, and the methodical approach is to look for places where an abstraction or break can be made, cf the written word breaks the time dependency of speaking and hearing, or the duplicating printing press breaks the one-to-oneness of communication.

My first angle is that games, even a game of noughts and crosses (tic tac toe) doesn't have all the rules written down. We're time-bound, the way we interpret the rules depends on history, the opponent. There's no rule that says "Do not change the win-state rule and declare you've won," yet we don't do that. So firstly, would it be possible to make a completely unambiguous game, one where the entire state of the game was spelt out in the arrangement of the board?

Secondly. The reason for spelling out the rules of morality, fair play, time-binding and so on, is that I'd like to change them. Would it be possible to have a game where the codified morality of the players was changed, instead of the rules or the positions of the pieces?

Which comes onto thirdly. How about changing the axis along which the game is played? An autogenerated chess-like game has a random board starting point, random win-state, random rules and random morality. An artificial intelligence program on a computer learns how to play the game, and plays entire games against itself. The role of the players is to change the factors of the universe in which the game is played: the rules, the win-state, etc.

Fourthly. I know there are already games in which the rules change within the game itself, where the players make the win-state and the rules as they go along. But for me there's not enough time binding for some reason. What if you didn't know all the rules when you started? (And maybe computer God-sims are a genuinely new kind of game, because you don't know the natural laws there.) And more just like the real world, what if the only win-state was that your opponent agreed you'd won?

Now this is the difficult one. A game like this wouldn't work with a game like Monopoly. If I just declared that I was going to put hotels on all the purple squares and you owed me money, the game would degenerate until we ended up fighting.

But in the real world it is possible to break the rules, and the fact that's done changes the nature of the game. If I break the rules and suddenly decide that the best way to win is to bomb your civilians, the nature of the game has changed completely. That rule was always there to be broken though, why wasn't it broken before? It's because of incentive spaces, pushes and pulls, costs.

And there are certain rules that can't be broken in the real world: geography, not having more than one thing in the same place at the same time (unless you make your tanks out of bosons), matter neither being created nor destroyed. But there are rules like not killing civilians which are more mutable.

Maybe what I'm after is a game in which the rules have more time-binding (time within the game) not less. And where the moves themselves effect the incentive space in which the rules exist.

It seems to me that rules are an approximation of pushes and pulls; that if this was linguistics then the real world would be optimality theory. Rules are just the bottom of potential wells.

So given all of that. How to make a game of tic tac toe that has no rules except geography and a mutable incentive space that changes based on past moves, and no win-state except your opponent agreeing you've won? And how to make a game which uses present-day technology effectively to change the axis we can play along, one that has a mutable morality? Answers on a postcard please.

On the subject of comicbook movies, "what's this about Ben Affleck being Daredevil?" I say to Dan. He replies: "Yes. Silly, isn't it? I mean, a film of Daredevil is basically silly, since his superpowers are completely non-visual, unless you keep going into 'radar sense cam', where the screen is pitch dark but things go ping. Daredevil is a bit shit, anyway. He's blind, but his heightened senses and 'radar sense' allow him to behave as if he can see. So, basically, he's just a bloke. It's like having a dwarf whose height is doubled by a radioactive explosion". Does anybody know any Hollywood executives? I smell a pitch coming on.