Non-Spoilery Shinteki Report

Yay! That was awesome!

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Book Report: The Doomfarers of Coramonde

This book has everything: wizardry, parallel worlds, lizard men, a dragon, ogres, magical swords, a flying saucer, romance, court intrigue, an armored personnel carrier, death scenes, a dude who was raised by wolves, ... It was a fine book to pick up as a dollar paperback. It was light and cheap; I was not encumbered when I brought it to Houston. It entertained me. I left it in Houston with no regrets after I finished reading it. Part of the plot involves US soldiers parallel-worldlishly transported to a fantasy world. They help save the world. Well, that world, anyhow. I expected this to be a bigger part of the book--hey, here are some characters I can identify with more easily than these princes, wizards, and such. But strangely, they're pulled in... and don't do that much, plot-wise.

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Jotting Notes on DeeAnn Soles GC Summit 2009 Presentation: Being GC

[DeeAnn Sole of Team Snout spoke at the GC Summit 2009. You remember when I volunteered on the Hogwart's Game, I followed around this one lady who, operationally, had the whole game in her head? The lady who knew what was coming up, who had to start prepping what, who was out driving where? That was DeeAnn. When she gave this talk, I didn't take notes . I just now watched the video, and this time I took notes. I'm paraphrasing, except the stuff in [square brackets] which is my snide commentary.]

  • Originally wanted to give this talk to let potential GCs know what it was like. But looking out at the audience--it's people who have already run games. Preaching to the choir.
  • Forming a GC Team: People you can get along with. Not just folks from your team. We poach from Drunken Spider and elsewhere.
  • Defining the target. Most important step! [If The Game were a software development project, this would be figuring out the Product Requirements] Figure out what you want. Part of this--make sure everyone on GC has a compelling reason to want to work on this. Think about game style, theme, size, budget, date. Priorities: MUST have, cool, WIBNI.
    • Question wha-you resolve this in one meeting? Answer Nah, it takes us two or three. [This surprises audience] Well, OK, we might be sending ideas around by email for a few months before the meetings. The meetings: getting everyone together in one room, make sure we really are talking about the same thing.
    • Question are these things resolved by the time you're at the "go/no go" decision? Answer More than resolved
  • Next, set up meetings. Snout meets weekly. This keeps up momentum. Some folks are motivated by deadlines--so give them a regular deadline. As game approaches, meet more often. Twice a week. Twice a week plus weekends. In days leading up to game: If you can be here, be here! Please! We're not freaks: bowlers do this leading up to the end of league.
  • Assign folks to each major area
    • Nagger (PM)
    • GameStart
    • Route
    • Puzzles & Activities
    • Theme/Story
    • EndGame
    • Gadget/Software
    • Commo
    • Applications & Pre-Game
    • Money & Logisitics
    One person might do a few things. But for each general area, there's someone responsible for it. [Surjective but not injective... uhm, depending on which way you're flipping the relation around]
  • (Question about applications) I have to set up a system, a fair system, let teams know what the system is. You've been armed with all the information, go to town. I can't choose. It would have killed me to choose between 35 different teams. or 60 team. After our 16th slot in the Hogwarts Game filled up in 16 hours, I was crying trying to figure out how to fit in 4 or 8 more. Until Curtis said "snap out of it!"
  • Go/No go decision: Do NOT announce until after this. Are we still having fun? Can we finish this beast?
    • Question Has there ever been a no-go that meant no announcement? [Yeah, is this question meant to be a question that people might say "no" to? Or does this just make folks commit to the group with witnesses?] I was no-go for Midnight Madness. We have always been positive. For Hogwarts we did have a little bit of a discussion--we were close: I think 5 people were "go" and 3 people were "no go". So we talked about why the "no gos". People were all "This role is too big for me" "I don't think we can get this done" So we reallocated. Sometimes you need to haul on the brakes. Sometimes people need to step out. [And better if they do that early on before you're relying on them for too much]
  • Business-y stuff
    • Whether to get insurance: if something goes wrong, does anyone on GC have something that they can't afford to lose? If so, get insurance.
      • Yours could be the game where someone falls down a mineshaft.
      • In my first game, in Amnesia, one of the players scrambled out on slippery rocks by a crevasse. I'm looking down, there's surf crashing. I'm thinking: if he slides, it is over, we are never going to be able to rescue him. He will die.
      • In Justice Unlimited, I didn't once worry about someone falling down in the park while playing tag and breaking their leg. I worried about people climbing trees, the play equipment--but I didn't once worry about people running in the grass. But it happened.
      So we get event insurance. We get the sport one. In Midnight Madness, it was 25% of our budget--but it was worth it.
      • Remark from Linda Holman, Shinteki to get permission to use some places, you need insurance. Some of them might require that you have some amount of insurance.
      • Question from Burninator Corey does the insurance cost scale with the # of players? Answer the insurance we looked at for Midnight Madness, the cost was the same up to 1000 people. They covered seven days--we only used two. It was $540. Hogwarts was $500, with people going more places. Yeah, and there were sites that needed us to be covered.
      • Question from Burninator Corey You say Team Snout is insured. Is Team Snout a legal entity? Answer Yes. An unincorporated association recognized in California.
      If there's a particular person who's responsible for the game, you might instead go for Personal Umbrella Insurance.
    • Money: we spend it before we get it from teams. GC members end up loaning $ until after game. Submit receipts! If there's going to be something expensive, we put that off until after we get money from teams. But we've been building stuff for months before that.
    • Banks won't take checks that aren't addressed to a real person. (nervous laughter--probably from the Ghost Patrol table). I thought it would be cool if we could take checks for Homicide, but I called up the bank and they said "That's money laundering!" and that was the end of that. You can set up a business entity for your team. Then teams can fill out checks to Team Snout. But it takes time to set up an entity--and effort, and maybe money.
      • Audience suggestion: set up a Paypal account for GC. Behind the scenes, it goes to a person. But to the players, it seems to be going to GC.
      • Chris Dunphy, Radiks question: If GC is trying to stay anonymous, then what? Answer: I've never tried to remain anonymous, I cannot answer this question. [Oh sure, that's what you say when you're on camera.] Answer from Alexandra: You can do a DBA [Doing Business As]. In San Francisco, it costs about $25, and you file a notice in the paper. You can take that DBA to a bank. So... some effort. And some paperwork. And you have to dissolve your DBA when you're done with it. [Hey, why is Chris Dunphy asking about how to anonymously run a game? Has anyone tried putting a tracking beacon on his trailer? How do we know that he's really traveling around the country? could he be faking footage of national landmarks, suspiciously using stills when Cherie appears "in frame", pretending to "travel" there while actually hiding out in a house in Palo Alto, planning a game?]
      • Sean Gugler points out: In Midnight Madness, wanted to remain anonymous for a while. Teams that were accepted didn't know who GC was--until the pre-game Captains meeting "bring your checkbook".
    • Nasty surprise: all that $ that teams pay you? The IRS says that's income. Now, you can also deduct your hobby expenses--but only the part that's over 2% of your adjusted gross income. So if your "real income" was $50K last year, you eat the first $1K of expenses. [Ouch.] IRS cares whether it's a business or a hobby-- Oh Curtis wants me to tell you the professional golfer story or about the writer who was researching prostitutes.
    • Anyhow Team Snout files its own taxes because it's a separate entity. And I think JPT does too. Team Snout is a non-profit. Its taxes are kind of a nightmare to deal with. But it exists separate from any of us. If you think you're gonna do a lot of games, you might want to do that. But it's a lot of effort. You might just want to say "You know what--I'll just pay the money for the hobby."
    • Keep records. So you know who to pay back.
  • When you're feeling overwhelmed: Scale back. Look back at that Priority List. Are you freaking out over a WIBNI? Cut it out. Teams don't know about stuff that isn't there. No one shows up to a Game expecting Don Luskin. Ask for help Game community will help. People not in the game will help--because this stuff sounds like fun. Remember the fun.
  • Quality Control
    • Get a fresh pair of eyes to look. Every single time we didn't do a Quality Control check--it got us.
    • "Only GC thinks that's funny" It always starts with someone saying "Hey, wouldn't it be funny if we made the teams do _____?" Everybody laughs. As soon as you hear everyone around the table laughing, you need the alarm bells to go off in your head. You need to step back and say "Would I want to run naked through a fountain if I was a player?" [No.] Would teams like it? Might someone get arrested? Remember the rules of Team Snout:
      • Nobody dies
      • Nobody goes to jail
      • Nobody bleeds
      ...and sometimes we don't make that, but those are our rules. There was a broken leg in one of the games. And Jeff did injure himself. But other than that...
  • Question from Chris Dunphy any examples of "Only GC thinks that's funny?" Answer Yeah. We had a puzzle where we gave teams a CD and a phone book. In the phone book, we had Red, and in the CD we had Herring. We had people looking at red things for a long time. It was in our first game--we thought it was hilarious at the time--to tell you something was a red herring. But what we actually ended up doing was sending them through every red thing they could find. It took hours.
  • Another disaster: we had someone on GC make a last-minute edit to a puzzle. They checked there own work. Of course there was a typo. So we had to call up every team, go out, fix up their puzzle for them.
  • We had a math error in one of our formulas. That threw our timing off for hours and hours. We wanted every team to see our "showpiece" puzzle--and had to re-route teams on the fly to make that happen.
  • Question from Burninator Corey How many people are on Team Snout for GC? Answer Different each time. Curtis and I. Sean's almost always on. I don't want to get by without seven people. But that's my personal approach--because there will be a lot of activities and I don't want to be responsible for everything. I've heard of teams that have done it successfully with two. I sure wouldn't want to be them, but I've heard of them. Thinking like a PM: If I have more people, we can do more in less time.
  • Question from Burninator Corey You know all this business stuff--how did you happen to end up talking to accountants? Answer I researched on my own. For example, as a non-profit, exempt from California franchise tax. But the California franchise people don't all know this. I know that because I read through the paperwork. Got a frickin scary letter saying that we owed tax--called up tax people, finally got routed to the guy who deals with non-profits, pointed out what kind we were and he said--yeah you're right, they just did your paperwork wrong.
  • Comment from Linda Holman, Shinteki If you're freaking out about insurance or business: you can always ask other GCs.

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Book Report: The Fall of Advertising and the Rise of PR

This book, written by PR consultants tells you why your business is spending too much money on advertising and should spend money on PR instead.

Advertising lacks credibility. E.g., when I see an oil company billboard advertising their nature-loving 'green" activities, that doesn't convince me of much. Advertising does OK at reminding me that those companies exist, though.

This book's thesis is that if you have a new story to tell, you want to use P.R. There are journalists out there looking for new stories. They'd love to hear from you about your new whatsit.

But if you try to use advertising, then (a) you're telling people something new via a medium that they don't trust--they won't trust your story; (b) you're no longer "news" that a journalist can report--why bother to report something that's being advertised widely? So you won't get P.R.-ish publicity.

This book doesn't point out P.R.'s own credibility problems. Plenty of P.R. channels are losing credibility, too. Nowadays, a trusted news outlet is one that warns you where its message is coming from--investigative journalism involving checking more than one source is pretty sparse.

They also don't talk about highly-directed advertising; their criticism is for mass advertising. It's not clear what they think about, say, showing ads for fishing lures on Google searches for [trout]. (But this book was written back in 2002, so I guess that's excusable)

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Book Report: Un Lun Dun

Before I launch into a complain-y whine about a book, I want to remind myself that there are good things in life. Yesterday was a good day. (I didn't even have to use my A.K.) There were good comics at the comic book store: Phonogram, Castle Waiting, The Boys, and a new-to-me League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (but apparently it's been out long enough for Jess Nevins to annotate, so I could just enjoy all the references without having to hunt them down). At the Ferry Building, I thought I was just stopping off for bread and coffee, but saw clumps of folks clutching orange pieces of paper and running around looking intently for something. I shadowed some of them and it quickly became obvious that these folks were playing in the Great Urban Race. One pair of them let me look at their question sheet in exchange for directions--it made me glad I wasn't playing. Lots of trivia, a substitution cipher--tangentially close to my thing, but not my thing. But after I'd finished drinking my coffee, I ran into Joe Fendel, who was playing, plus his brother. Then on the subway ride home, I ran into Bryan Clair's parents, and we chatted a bit. Living in a big city, you don't really expect to run into people you know, but it's fun when it happens. At home I took care of some errands, so I even felt kind of productive. So, those are good things.

Anyhow, book report. Anyhow, Un Lun Dun. Yeah.

This book, about a girl who is swept up in a world of horrific adventure in a not-quite-London which exists parallel to real-London, is nevertheless not Neil Gaiman's Neverwhere. It's better than Neverwhere was. But I'm nevertheless not willing to forgive it for being another book about a girl who is swept up in a world of horrific adventure in a not-quite-London which exists parallel to real-London.

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Jotting notes on Scott Blomquists' GC Summit 2009 Lecture "An Analytic Framework for Estimating Puzzle Quality"

[I re-watched another 2009 GC Summit lecture. In this one, Scott Blomquist of Team Sharkbait talks about measuring puzzle quality. It's kinda a measure of puzzle simplicity--avoiding putting stuff in the puzzle which suggests red herrings. As with my previous set of notes, I paraphrase the speaker except that I have my own comments in [square brackets]]

  • Fair warning--this isn't something that lets you plug in a puzzle and get back a difficulty number. It just helps you subjectively judge.
  • He really wants our help fleshing out the idea. [Now I feel bad. I thought about this for a few minutes and then stopped.]
  • We're talking about information reduction puzzles. [Start with a huge field of dots, reduce it to "GO TO PULGAS WATER TEMPLE"]
  • We're not talking about constraint puzzles, though the Theory might cover them. [Theory vs Sledgehammer: Fight!]
  • How can we describe these puzzles?
    • Information Streams. The starting data is an information stream. But we'll create more of them through...
    • Transformation Steps. Transforming information from one form to another. [_ _ .   _ _ _ -> "GO"]
  • Sample puzzle for analysis: a bunch of automobile mfr logos scattered. E.g., 8 Mercedes Benz logos.
  • What's our information stream? Audience starts calling out
    • page of car badges
    • information about mfrs
    • position of logos
    • counts of logos
    Whoa whoa hey you guys are getting ahead of things. Let's start with just one stream: a page of car badges
  • OK, those things that you people were yelling out. Those are actually transformations. E.g.,
    • identify mfr names
    • describe locations
    • count
  • Information streams accumulate; they don't go away. You might hope that teams will forget about the "extra" streams as they tunnel through the next layer of your puzzle, but teams still get distracted by those streams.
  • This puzzle was originally on a grid. Teams really, really wanted to use location. They wasted a lot of time. [Argh]
  • OK, let's look at counts. And mfr names. And using count to index into mfr name. Also ordering by count. Hey, cool, we solved the puzzle!
  • OK, so how do we measure puzzle quality?
  • Teams are faced with decisions. Let's look at their decision tree.
  • page of badges
    • describe locations
    • count logos
    • id mfr names
      • order by count
      • index by count
        • order by count
  • Q: How do you decide that teams won't follow location branch? A: Judgement. [I hope he's right. I thought about constellation, ordering by "northmost" logo.]
  • Danger signs of a bad puzzle: Broad tree. Links of tree are weak--non-obvious, error-prone. Lack of confirmation at intermediate steps. Obvious streams not used. Abuse of the "Aha!" transform.
  • If you hand teams a CD, that's a broad tree. [Heck yeah.]
  • Unfortunately, don't know a way to measure a good puzzle.
  • Projects another sample puzzle: So what would be a minimal puzzle withou (brief interruption as someone calls out the answer)
  • There's a Puzzle Theory Google Group. There's a Puzzle Theory Wiki.
  • Queston time!
  • Q: Corey points out: red herring removal ain't automatic. If you give teams a bunch of text strings, sorted alphabetically, a good team will say "oh, it's sorted alphabetically, so this order doesn't matter", but a not-so-good team will still wonder "why did alfa come before benz here?" A: Yeah. Lay out your tree. Then playtest and find out about transforms you didn't anticipate.
  • Sean Gugler points out: I call those steps "layers". [Yeah.] If there's a red herring branch, maybe you can tweak it to a mini-solution that redirects to the right way. I've been calling those "signposts".
  • Teresa points out: We have this phrase "billions to three". You start out handed a puzzle, there's a billion options. And the team reduces that. Also, This graph seems like a great start for your help system.
  • Q: Corey brings the discrete math: Teresa called this a graph and I think she's right--it's a graph [vs always a tree], because teams will try to re-use products of previous "dead ends". A: Yeah, and do teams worry about the dead-ends that they don't use? Like, if there was a signpost that they never hit, do they wonder why that extra data was in there?
  • Red says: We think about it this way, in tems of layers. Have talked w/John Owens about how you even talk about this stuff. Might want to think about how you represent the solution. [hey yeah in car logo example, maybe I ordered the mfrs, and then indexed. I still get the answer out, but I took a different path through the tree. Maybe that's what Corey was getting at?]

Has anyone tried mapping out everything that teams could try on a puzzle and turning that into a help system? That seems hard when I think about it, but maybe no harder than coming up with a help system in general.

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Book Report: Myth-Nomers and Im-Pervections

I read this book years ago, but I read it again more recently. It was on sale as a tiny paperback. Sometimes it's useful to have a pocket book that, you know, fits in your pocket. That way you can still bring something to read with you even if you don't want to lug around your manpurs^W backpack. So I picked up this book and I read it. It was good!

It's a sequel in Robert Aspirin's Myth series. In this episode, our hero Skeeve grows up, takes responsibility for his actions, and thus becomes a better leader. Yes, this is a magical fantasy book with wizards and trolls and such. And yet, in this book, the protagonist succeeds by becoming more mature. This book was probably sneakily educational the first time I read it.

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Texas Travelog

A while back, I asked for Texas travel advice and y'all had good advice. Where by "y'all" I mean "Curtis" Thank you, Curtis! (I think Darcy told me to go to Austin; this advice was disqualified on the grounds of "My Texas travel guide drew a blank on things to do in Austin") So I went to Texas. And I came back with results.

Let me be clear: the main thing I found out is that my plan to use census data to pick a vacation spot was a bad plan.

Anyhow, you can read the whole thing: Texas 2009. Or see it. It's mostly photos. I gave up on trying to impose a narrative on this one. I ended up leaving out some detaily stuff that I might normally include, but maybe wasn't so interesting. I ate at a Waffle House! That's pretty exotic cuisine for me. But maybe folks aren't so excited to read about it.

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Book Report: Microsoft Rebooted

This book is about changing a company's culture. It's about Microsoft. It's about Gates and Ballmer shifting the company's culture as they had to comply with the various legal judgments against the company.

According to this book, the original Microsoft culture was based on winning by any means necessary. I don't think that's true. I think that Microsofties with that attitude made many important industry-changing decisions. I think that Microsofties with that attitude made illegal deals with OEMs that abused monopoly power and sank a company I worked for. I'm not denying that such an attitude existed within parts of Microsoft. But I don't think that attitude permeated the company as this book would have me think. I've met too many Microsofties and ex-Microsofties who were happy to win by, you know, creating products that customers wanted.

Anyhow, this book is about how Gates and Ballmer decided to mature Microsoft out of this win-by-any-means-necessary attitude towards another model, a model that would be more stable, more appropriate for a large company. Listening to customers instead of cramming new versions down their throats. To make this attitude shift, Gates had to retire from the CEO position, no-one was going to believe him as the bearer of "nice-guy" guidance. So Ballmer had to step in, because it required a new face to deliver such a new message. And...

Wow, did it really require a massive shift in the company to get people to stop making illegal deals?

This book is based on interviews with high-level executives at Microsoft. I wonder if the "Let's abuse our monopoly powers" attitude was prevalent at the executive level. Maybe the executives thus assumed that this attitude was company-wide? And so they thought they had to totally shake up the company?

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Jotting notes on Teresa Torres' GC Summit 2009 Lecture "GC Transparency"

[A few months back, I went to the 2009 GC Summit, where Game Control people exchange philosophy, anecdotes, and techniques. I didn't take notes then. I retain things better when I take notes. So this morning I watched the video of Teresa Torres' lecture. And I'm jotting notes here. When I'm noting my own thoughts vs jotting notes on what Teresa said, [my thoughts are in square editorial-ish brackets]]

GC Transparency

  • Why the Muppet Movie Game has a blog
  • She's working on a game and working at a startup. [OMG no WAI I would die]
  • Want people to run games. Want them to know what running a game is like.
  • Traditionally, GC has been secretive. It's cool that a GC can run a game and you don't know who it is until you reach the end.
  • Inspired by Curtis' letter to aspiring GCs
  • Why be transparent? Let aspiring GCs know what's involved.
  • Even if a team isn't an aspiring GC, let them know what's involved. [Don't think for a second that that shit is easy.]
  • Let teams know what the game will be like so they can decide whether they want to play in it. [If we come up whining at the end that the puzzle difficulty was not up to WPC standards, Teresa will kick us in the shins]
  • Wanted to blog day-do-day existence. "ambitious goal". Want to blog the ups and downs. [blogging when you're down ain't easy, though.]
  • Running a game is like...
    • ...planning a wedding
    • ...starting a company
  • she wakes up at 3 in the morning about something that she forgot to do at work. a fortnight before the lecture, she woke up at 3am because--she forgot to write a blog post [presumably for the muppet movie game blog] They're analogous! [OMG no WAI I would die]
  • A while back, there was a flurry of [dum ^W ignorant] questions on the mailing list: why don't GCs take on more teams in their games? why not run your game twice? Those things aren't very feasible. [Damn right.] One of the things we wanted do through our blog is help explain why.
  • Game weekend takes tons of energy. You're not going to repeat that next weekend. Next weekend, you're sleeping.
  • So... let folks see the GC perspective, written while GC is in the thick of it.
  • After a lady gives birth, she'll say she never wants to have a baby again. Three weeks later, they love their new baby and saying Awww it wasn't so bad. Right? Running a game is the same way: you forget the pain.
  • Demand for games is going up. Different games have different styles. So we're telling people about our game so that only folks who want to play our style of game will sign up. [Hmm. Good luck with that.]
  • Maintaining operational secrecy while blogging. So what to share...
    • GC's motivation. Is it great puzzles? Great theming? Great locations?
      • Goonies Game was all about theme. All puzzles had to fit the theme! Except, uhm, for the puzzle we ended up writing during the game weekend because Blood and Bones was breaking the game
      • Dragonhunt paperless
      • Snout does an endgame where all the team can get together [so I can exhaustedly collapse while surrounded by cool people]
      • Overnightmare flow control
      Used to have some idea of GC's game philosophy based on the team's comments on previous games.
    • Discuss your thought process
      • Orange Snood has philosophical debates about what the game is. You can blog about some of this without giving away too much. E.g., you don't have to say how the help system is going to work. [Heck, depending on how the help system will work, you could probably announce that ahead of time without spoiling anything.]
      • They've been blogging about scouting for clue sites. [I think a plurality of posts have been about this. Does that mean that's an especially important topic for this GC? Or that it's something they can blog about w/out giving away too much? Or ...?]
      • Every potential blog post leads to debate w/in GC: how much to share? This is probably why there haven't been so many blog posts.
  • You can leave comments on our blog! Part of promoting transparency is promoting discussion! [And yet here I am jotting these notes over on my blog because... that's easier and I'm lazy and... oh well]
  • Question is the blog a pre-clue? Answer No, that's not our style.
  • Question Even if you're transparent and say "We're running a game. Blood and Bones will hate this game", Blood and Bones will still apply. Teams will still apply. Answer OK, when 60 teams apply to your game it's going to be tough. I want to decide based on good fit. Not first-come-first-serve, not solving millions of puzzles. In Goonies, we did interviews, it worked really really well. GC does this as a labor of love. Talking w/teams is a good way to make sure that they share your philosophy, that they'll enjoy your game and that you'll enjoy GCing them. [The logistics of setting up 60 team interviews... OMG no WAI. Hmm, well maybe if you let out-of-towner teams in w/out the interview. Hmm.]
  • Applause!

[So... my best chance of getting into the Muppet Movie Game is convincing all other potential teams that they won't like the game? Say, did I ever mention some of the conversation between Mystic Fish and Orange Snood when we were going through the scrabble puzzles in No More Secrets? Yeah, we were talking about game philosophy. The Orange Snood folks were saying "This game has been pretty interesting. That's a real problem. When we run a game, we try to run a really boring game. Like, capture the essence of non-interestingness, you know?"... What's that? You're not buying it? OK, never mind.]

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Book Report: Elephant Tramp

George "Slim" Lewis was an animal trainer in the depression-era USA. He rode the rails from circus to circus, handling elephants. He specialized in unruly elephants. Thus, this book has a "thriller" aspect to it. You're reading along and every so often, someone gets swatted across a room. Or gored by tusks. Or crushed against a wall. Or sat on--sat on really, really hard. This book reminds you that elephants are not always nice, and that they are tremendous.

It's a tough book to read if you like animals. Back in those days, it was accepted practice to use an elephant hook. (I guess this is the same thing as an ankus.) It's difficult to read a narrated description of giving an elephant a shallow cut that will take days to heal. This man--he feels affection for elephants, he just learned that cutting them was a way to get their attention & respect in a hurry. He sticks by elephants when various zookeepers and entertainment industry promoters are ready to kill and/or abandon them. Elephants had it rough in this country.

There are stories about elephants, about circus life. I learned that "The Greatest Show on Earth" earned its title--at least it had an order of magnitude more elephants than most circuses did. There were also glimpses of life at some of the smaller circuses, and some of the strange politics around city zoos.

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Rerun, sort of: 25 random things meme

[A few months back, I posted a note on Facebook. It went a little something like this.]

How it is supposed to work....but don't feel obligated: once you've been tagged, you are supposed to write a note with 25 random things, facts, habits, or goals about you. At the end, choose people to be tagged. You have to tag the person who tagged you. If I tagged you, it's because I want to know more about you.

(To do this, go to “notes” under tabs on your profile page, paste these instructions in the body of the note, type your 25 random things, tag 25 people (in the right hand corner of the app) then click publish.)

0. Like many computer programmers, I start counting at zero.
1. I'm allergic to douglas fir. I found out about this from an allergy test in which I was poked with many needles. I'm not sure how the allergy testing people fit a douglas fir into that tiny needle.
2. I am allergic to cats and dogs but pet them anyhow. And then I wash my hands to rid them of dander. Really, you should wash your hands after you pet a dog or cat anyhow. Dogs like to roll in poop, you know. I'm not saying that's wrong, I'm just saying you should consider it.
3. I once bought four traffic cones. I still have them, for no good reason.
4. If it looks like I'm thinking deeply, I'm probably thinking about burritos.
5. I am a USA citizen over age 25 who does not own a television.
6. I am a USA citizen over age 25 who does not own a car.
7. I am a USA citizen over age 25 who does not own a burrito AT THE MOMENT but I hope to rectify this soon, albeit temporarily.
8. I usually have a piece of paper with me with the Morse code, Braille, and Semaphore flag alphabets. This comes in handy more often than you would think, but still not very often.
9. My usual breakfast: two peanut butter sandwiches.
10. If needed, I can find something to complain about in any situation.
11. I don't have a personality as such. I imitate the people around me.
12. I get a haircut at least once per year whether I need it or not.
13. I'm not superstitious about the number 13. That might be because I start counting at zero.
14. The prospect of going bald appeals to me. I think I'd look more distinguished and could get away with more stuff.
15. I believe in finishing what I start. I could be out procuring a burrito RIGHT NOW, but I'm determined to finish writing this list first. Also, it's raining.
16. I used to visit Facebook once a day, but now only visit it when I get some notification or other--and I ignore most of those, too. Twitter and Friendfeed have replaced Facebook in my life.
17. I play in the Bay Area Night Game, Shinteki, and The Game.
18. I sat on a bee once and hope I never do again.
19. I am tall. Scientific studies have found that my height makes people more likely to think of me as a "leader". I have found that my height makes me more prone to head injuries. It logically follows that human society is doomed.
20. I have been stung by bees in other places, too. I wasn't fond of any of them, either, you understand. I'm just saying that one bee sting was especially bad, is all.
21. I used to be pretty unforgiving until I ran an iterated genetic algorithm that played the Prisoner's Dilemma; it changed my thinking.
22. I make funny faces when no-one is looking.
23. Every so often, maybe at a new job, maybe at a party "mixer", someone asks me to give an interesting fact about myself. I keep quiet about the things which might lead to undue interest from law enforcement officers.
24. I cuss casually.
25. Like many computer programmers, I am prone to "fencepost" errors.

[Fun fact: It is a pain in the !@@ to find an old Facebook posting.]

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Book Report: The Eyre Affair

This book is set in a parallel universe. In this universe, mad science reigns. People care about literature! There are vampires! It's all different from our universe! And yet somehow similar!

You'd think I would love this. Yet, I did not love this.

People talk about a concept called the "uncanny valley". It comes up when you try to make things that are like people. Like if you try to make an android. Or if you write a computer program that tries to hold a conversation over IM chat. If you make something that looks totally like a machine, people interact with it neutrally, as if it were a tool. If you slap a cartoonish smiley face on it, people react to the thing positively. People like cartoony things. If you make it seem a little more human, people react to it more warmly. But... if you create something that seems almost human but not quite, then people react against it strongly.

I want to propose a new concept, the "unsilly valley". This refers to a work of art that approaches the absurd, does not quite achieve it, and is thus trapped in a strange zone: too strange to inform, too normal to be interesting.

I think The Eyre Affair falls in this zone.

It's a popular book. I suspect it's popular with people who like the idea of an alternate universe in which more people care about literature. But in the book's world, Dickens is an example of stuff worth caring about. C'mon, really, Dickens? I can only suspend my disbelief so far.

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Puzzle Hunts are Everywhere, which helps explain how we kept showing up at clue sites

Behold my notes from the excellent BANG XX. Yes, that game was a while ago. Hey, if I publish the notes for BANG 20 before BANG 21 starts, that's not late, right? What's that you say? Something about nonsequential nonsensical numbering systems? I'm not listening to you, I've got my fingers in my ears.

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Book Report: Pattern Recognition

I'd heard that William Gibson had written Pattern Recognition, this book that wasn't science fiction. So I didn't read it. That was years ago.

More recently, I read Spook Country that wasn't exactly science fiction. It had some science-fictiony elements, but they were just a few years out. I'd been tricked into reading non-science fiction by an author I thought of as locked in a genre! But I'd liked it anyhow. So I gave Pattern Recognition a try. OMG, it is awesome! It is better than science fiction--like Douglas Coupland, Gibson has teased out some aspects of real life which are even better than science fiction.

  • signals intelligence
  • historical computing devices
  • the decline of undirected brand-based advertising
  • the rise of astroturfy viral marketing
  • did I mention Curta?

Oh yeah--and there's a plot and characters and plenty of references to pattern recognition, both as it relates to signals intelligence and to other things. So you can feel all brainy and literary as you read along and pick up on allusions and tsk at characters who make bad decisions.

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