Monday, December 16, 2013

Alphabet Terminus

That's the Alphabet Supremacy done. Didn't quite get all the posts done, but missed less than I thought I would at the start of the year.  Some time in the next few weeks I guess I'll record my thoughts on the whole thing. Overall it was fun, and nice to have +Jonathan Lange as a spur to keep going.

He, being far more diligent than I, has compiled all of this year's posts into a single handy table.  You can find it here.

Zenith

Most commonly it's only possible to say that something has reached its zenith post fact. You need to see it on the way down before it's reasonable to say that it has peaked. In fact, until something begins to decline one could argue that it can't have peaked. Sandwiches are probably as widespread and popular as they're ever going to be, but they haven't reached their zenith, they have plateaued. They have been at the same popularity for a long time, and it's hard to imagine that sandwiches will fall out of favour or achieve sacred significance without a major shift in global attitudes. Sometimes, though, decline is built into the system and it's possible to know you're in a golden age as it's happening, just waiting for it all to come to an end.

The boundaries are a little fuzzy, but from roughly 1998 to 2008, Australia was the best cricket team in the world. For most of that period we weren't the best by totalling up wins and losses and realising that one team was a few percentage points in front of the others; we were the best in the sense that nobody could beat us. Most teams couldn't even come close. From 1999-2001 Australia set the all time record for consecutive test match wins (16), then drew a few matches, won a few, even lost a series before matching the record again from 2005-2008. For comparison the next highest in the record books is eleven. During the same period we won three consecutive one day World Cups, the second one without losing a game, the third one without even a close match.

I knew at the time that it wouldn't last, couldn't last, but ten years is a long time to maintain the idea that decline is inevitable when all the evidence is to the contrary. A good player would retire and a player as good or even better would come in to replace him. We lost The Ashes to England, everyone assumed the era of Australia was over, and we then proceeded to beat them 5-0 when they toured Australia, something that hadn't been done since the 1920s.

People would say at various times during this unprecedented period of winning "I wish we'd lose a few games, it's boring knowing we're going to win". These were the same people, unsurprisingly, howling for blood when Australia lost several series in a row two or three years ago. Constant winning only seems boring in the middle of it. What people really want is the something that feels like a contest while it's happening, but with the secret knowledge that victory is inevitable. Once that assurance of victory goes away and you realise that you're be watching a five day game that will probably end in a loss, oh how you yearn for the "boredom" of excellence

During that same period other teams had players that were as good or better, but only one or two at a time, never eleven at once. So I know that I'll see Australia produce players just as good, but it's disappointing to think I'll never see a team as good as the one I spent ten years watching. After a few years of mediocrity, Australia is once again competitive, but not in a fashion that suggests long term success or short term excellence. I think most cricket fans recognise that Australian cricket has seen its zenith and while it won't be continual decline from here on out, there will always be part of me thinking "eh, I've seen better".

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Zombie

You may recall earlier in the year I discussed what I think about elves. My opinion towards zombies is fairly similar although for somewhat different reasons. In the end though what drives most of the anger in both cases is the laziness that it represents from the creator. Most of my exposure to, and hence frustration with, zombies comes from playing computer games, so I'm going to focus on zombies in games.

Point of order: I don't care why they started shambling around or what the designers call them, a zombie's a zombie. "Oh well technically they're not zombies, they're infected". Sod off, they're zombies. Mind control, plague, fungal infection, head crabs, virus, whatever. The end result is something that shambles/runs mindlessly around trying to eat people, and it's a zombie. I guess technically this my first problem with zombies: designers try to pretend they're not zombies.

First proper problem, now that we've all admitted that zombies are zombies. Zombies are visually lazy. It's reasonable enough to want to create a disturbing or distressing visual style. Doing so by having partially decayed and disfigured people as the main motif is the easy option. A regular person in day-to-day clothing but covered in blood and an empty ravenous expression is horrifying, sure, but is now so familiar as to be reassuring. Adding various "they're not zombies" flourishes just creates zombies with prosthetics. There are hundreds of talented artists in the games industry, and thousands who'd like to be. Let them use some of their creativity for something.

From a technical stand point zombies are lazy programming, relatively speaking. Zombies allow a variety of different parts of a team to use a bunch of their existing skills from dealing with human characters, which almost every game has, to get the zombie work done. It's the same reason so many fantasy and sci-fi game races are humanoid; things like animation are a whole lot easier. One of the advantages of zombies, for a programmer, is that they're proverbially mindless. See food, walk at food, hit food. I'm not going to claim that zombie AI is easy, but it's got to be substantially easier than writing the AI of intelligent enemies. It's also a modular kind of AI because zombies can start at the dumbest possible base level and add extra behaviours as allowed by time/budget. If there's a particularly troublesome reaction event, just cut it and say the zombies don't react to, for example, the sound of explosions because blah, blah, zombies, blah, blah.

For those focused on characters, narrative, and related issues zombies are lazy here too. Zombies are human shaped and so produce a twinge of player empathy without anyone having to go to the effort, narratively, of creating human characters. Most games struggle enough making the protagonist interesting, zombies are manna from heaven in reducing the number of characters that need to be developed. At the highest level, the world-building load is reduced. It explains why things are post-apocalyptic, who the enemy are, and why they're the enemy. When writing zombies there's no need to worry about enemy motivation, they eat brains, the player has brains. There's no need to worry about character motivation, the zombie will ceaselessly try to eat your brain, therefore the zombie must be killed. The morality issues go away. Nazis are well loved because it's easy to justify killing them. Zombies are on a whole new level, because they're not even people any more. Issues of morality about killing can be happily put to one side so that the story and gameplay don't clash.

Finally, and in some ways most importantly zombies are a really lazy, pandering market driven decision to make. The target demographics love zombies. Zombies are cool. Zombies mean blood and dismemberment and brutal animations of unusual implements being used to murder things. If things aren't going well, just add a zombie mode. If that's not enough, just replace the entire existing enemy concept with some zombies. Zombies can be anywhere. Space zombies. Western zombies. Bikini zombies. Nazi zombies. Zombie zombies. Choosing zombies doesn't guarantee sales, but it guarantees to pique the interest of a large and vocal part of the gaming community. And if you're a game designer and find yourself arguing that it's all right to have zombies because the game's not really about the zombies, here's an idea: if it's not about the zombies, take the zombies out.

Zombies are played out. There is no aspect of the zombie concept that hasn't been explored, and more than once. And the concept wasn't that interesting in the first place. They are as a genre what they are as a monster: a mindless husk of a once dynamic and vital entity.

Next week's final word will be, because it seems vaguely appropriate, zenith

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Yesterday

Note: yesterday was the correct day for this to be published but as the hour crept later, +Jonathan Lange and I looked at each other, febrile and bone weary, and agreed Sunday the 1st of December would be Alphabet Supremacy Armistice Day.

Back in school, the early years where there was only one teacher and there were pretty good odds on any given day of getting to do some finger painting, one of the weekly activities was the Monday morning writing. We'd get out our exercise books, the poorly cut ones with the lines far enough apart to house the handwriting of a seven year old, none of the fancy 8mm feint ruled lines that would define the later years, and write down what we did on the weekend.

(side story: I remember in grade two (age six) on one such occasion realising that it was possible to write down two different words that were both pronounced "week". I wondered, considering how many words didn't seem to be spelled the easiest way, whether perhaps it was properly spelled "weakend". In a cunning move I deliberately used the word weekend twice in my Monday composition, once with each spelling, which would thus force my teacher to point out the incorrectly spelled version. In hindsight I could have just asked but at that age adults were not, to me, beings one simply talked to. I was furious when my book was returned with a series of ticks and neither spelling corrected. It turned out the exercise was about getting children writing, and that spelling would be dealt with during spelling exercises. It annoyed me then, it still annoys me a quarter century later.)

This was one of my favourite parts of the week, it was when I could finally communicate with breathless excitement what I'd been doing for the last two days. I was not alone in my excitement, it seemed like most children couldn't wait to be asked to read out the amazing things they had done. Sometimes they had gone to the beach, perhaps climbed a tree and almost fallen out, or maybe even had their favourite meal for dinner on Sunday night. There was not a lot of flow to the narratives, I'm sure, mostly a lot of "Then I did this. Then I did that. Then mum said. Then the dog". Similes were unlikely to have featured prominently, although there was probably a little magical realism from the more fertile imaginations.

Long weekends were the goldmine. Oh, the things we did yesterday when asked on Tuesday. Tales of shacks, barbecues, and every stripe of activity you can think of that, in retrospect, desperate parents had come up with to get some peace and quiet. Yesterday was today but with excitement crackling off every surface and everything painted in only the brightest primary colours.

Thinking back, I wonder how I would report on the same day if asked now, when yesterday is today already faded to a foggy greyscale. I imagine it would be something like:
"What did you get up to yesterday?"
"Not a lot. You?"
"Not much."
Awkward pause.

Monday, November 25, 2013

Yoga

I've always thought of yoga more as a symptom than a pastime, an unavoidable tic developed by "morning people" types who have brightly coloured, healthy-breakfast-cereal-commercial, chirpy mornings. They have enjoyable, upbeat starts to their day, and then they head off to yoga.

How I imagine yoga types start the day:
Eyes snap open with a jaunty glimmer and a serene half-smile from yet another good night's sleep. Cancel the alarm before it comes on and wink at the little numbers. Better luck next time. A quick revitalising shower, then pull on the dressing gown and off to the kitchen. Humming along with the radio as the ingredients are sliced, diced, and placed with a flourish into the blender. Summer smoothie. A lesiurely ten minutes drinking and catching up on all the goings on, check the calendar, no surprises. A little self-satisfied grimace at the wheatgrass shot, the sacrifices we make, then back to the bedroom. Today's clothes were laid out the night before, gym bag packed on the dresser redolent with the crisp smell of fresh laundry. A few gentle stretches to loosen up the body and a glance in the mirror to check nothing's out of place. Nothing is. Flick aside the curtain and it looks as though it might just be gloves weather. Top drawer on the left. Hmm, red gloves today. Wallet in one pocket, phone in the other. Merry little jingle as they keys are picked up. Out into the bracing cold, another glorious day underway.

How I start the day:
Get jerked from sleep by the alarm. Hit snooze. No time for tea now. Hit snooze. No time for a shower now. Hit snooze. No time. Admit that the alarm's never going away. Stare at the little red digits in stunned rage for several seconds. Swing legs out of bed. Grope around in the darkness for clothes, any tshirt not covered by other clothes is fresh enough to wear. Ditto any sock that can't be located by smell. Rub fists in eyes, tense up shoulders, hit the light switch and wince. Walk to kitchen. Choose cereal based on box colour because it's too early for reading. Get milk. Avoid looking at expiry date. Tink of the spoon on the bowl. Crunch. Slurp. Tink. Crunch. Slurp. Too much milk as usual. Sluuuuurp. Check phone, no messages, two emails. Mark emails as read, still too early for reading. Into the front pocket. Find wallet. Wallet, wallet, wallet, fucking wallet. Get wallet. Back pocket. Get bag, shake to check for keys. Look in mirror, regret doing so. Open the door and get angry at the cold. Close the door and head down the street.

I'm not entirely sure I'd like to take up yoga, but I think I'd like the mornings.

Next week's word is yesterday.

Monday, November 18, 2013

Waste

It is an unavoidable truth that a fridge will always contain wasted food. From the overstocked cornucopia that is the dream of the fridge designers everywhere to the most Spartan shelves of the impoverished student, something currently being kept at manufacturer recommended temperature is either destined for waste or already waste. It's not deliberate, of course, but that doesn't stop it from being inevitable.

Often it's simple thoughtlessness. Making a soup for dinner that needs carrots, buy a bag of carrots, use two in the soup, end up with half a dozen spare carrots. If you don't take note of the spare carrots, they can sit in the crisper until they become more flexible than noodles waiting for somebody to think to make a carrot cake. And then, whether compost or rubbish, it's off to a bin of some sort.

For some food it's wrong place, wrong time. The milk that got bought just before everybody went on holiday for a month. Had people been there, it easily would have been used as intended, as it is it's either off to the bin or wait long enough for it to become yoghurt.

In other cases it's impossible to tell until it's too late that the transformation has occurred from food to waste. The soy sauce looked fine last week and soy sauce surely doesn't go off, but somehow there's now a thin film of blue green something growing on it. The truly brave might scrape it off and keep going, the rest of us sigh at the waste and head to the sink, then the bin.

Sometimes it's the waste of thrift, that mental niggle that tells us wasting leftover takeaway is unacceptable. A little too much left over to throw out in good conscience, but not enough left over to constitute a meal, or even a solid snack. So the container sits there until nobody can remember how long it's been there, at which point in the interest of personal safety, it's off to the bin.

Then there's the waste of self-deception. Low-fat zero sugar dairy-like diet snack tubs? Really? Was that ever going to be anything more than a token to assuage a guilty conscience? I suppose it could be argued that it hasn't gone to waste if it's provided some mental succour, but in a more real sense, it's now spoiled and needs to be thrown out.

Somewhere in the world there is probably something that approaches the Platonic ideal of a fridge, containing exactly as much food as required by the household to whom it belongs, and I congratulate the obsessive individual who manages to maintain such order. Congratulate but secretly doubt their humanity.

Monday, November 11, 2013

Winter

Winter, from the Proto-Germanic wentruz meaning "bloody miserable", is a strange season for me to talk about. I don't feel qualified. It's not that we don't have them here in Tasmania, it's just that they're not particularly impressive, and it's difficult to spot any sort of clear start or end point.

When the difference between the record low temperature in the middle of summer and the corresponding record low in the middle of summer is a measly six degrees, what can one really say about one season compared to another? There's no first snow, not even a turning of the leaves; there will be an uncharacteristically cold day here or there, and the trees react in uncertain dribs and drabs to these sporadic cold snaps until at some point you realise all the leaves are gone. Lacking any climatic cues, I mentally delineate winter as using the public holiday wasteland between the Queen's Birthday in early June and Show Day in mid October. When it's cold and dark, and you can't even get a free day off work, truly the world is at its lowest ebb.

More than the weather, the primary characteristic of winter for me is the daylight. Tasmania is hardly the land of the midnight sun, or I guess in winter the midday moon, but winter is defined by getting up in the dark and going home in the dark, even if you have a pretty slipshod approach to business hours. I get a cosy enjoyment of this phenomenon for about a week as the days reach their shortest, the singular contentment of moving through the cold and the dark from one warm sanctuary to the next, after which I find myself wishing I could see the sun a little more and the drizzle lit up by street lights a little less (the yearning normally lasts until I actually seen the sun and remember that I am the kind of person who needs to wear sunscreen if going out at night when there's a full moon).

People further north in Australia (the kind of Australia that gets put in tourism campaigns) seem to regard Tasmania as some sort of sub-Antarctic permafrost, but that's only because most of their winters peak at maybe-don't-wear-shorts-today cold. It gets cold here in winter but only definitely-wear-a-hoodie cold, never someone-go-chip-the-icicles-off-the-dog cold. And considering any half canny Tasmanian wouldn't leave home without some sort of warm clothing even on a glorious day in the middle of summer thanks to our gloriously fickle climate, hoodie-cold is not noticeably cold at all.

I think I'd like to go through a proper winter at some point, if only to get a point of reference, but I bet the novelty of snow and proper turns into bloody hindering awkward inconvenience pretty quickly.

Next week's word will be "waste".

Monday, November 4, 2013

Vehicle

"You can tell a lot about a man from his car," said Detective Inspector Crompton, eyeing the sleek black lines before them. He kept moving his hands as if to touch it but holding himself back.
"That so, sir?" replied DS Johnson rolling his eyes behind his superior's back. "Didn't know you went in for the Sherlock Holmes stuff. What's this one then? Banker? Lawyer? Left-handed croupier with a penchant for Dutch cigarettes?"
"How would I know?" Said Crompton, too busy looking over every inch of the vehicle to turn around. "Could be a rich man who bought it offhand, could be an enthusiast who scrimped and saved for years, could be a midlife crisis. What I meant, Johnson, is that we can run the plates, find out the owner and home address and start investigating. Like policemen." He paused. "Police officers. Whatever we are these days."
"Ah, of course, sir," Johnson kept his voice chipper but made exaggerated choking motions with his hands. For every piece of advice he got from the vastly more experienced Crompton there were a half a dozen unhelpful jibes. "Do you want me to do it now, sir? Only..." he left the rest of the sentence to fend for itself.
"Only what?" snapped Crompton, who was now lying on the ground looking under the car for, presumably, evidence.
"Only I would have thought " Johnson began in his best impersonation of a patient man, "given the car's in this garage and all it's pretty obvious where the car belongs. And to who."
"Whom." corrected Crompton, then frowned "Probably. Maybe 'who'. Hmm." He grunted, stood up and dusted off his long grey coat. "In the normal course of events that would be the correct assumption, sergeant. In this case I think you'll find what we have here is an impostor." DS Johnson scratched at one eyebrow pensively as if making a decision. After a few moments he lay down where Crompton had and looked under the car. Concrete. Oil stains. He stood back up, still young enough that it didn't require a grunt of extertion to do so.
"I give up sir," he said with reluctance, "how can you tell?"
"Garage door's open, and the car's jutting out the front a little," explained Crompton. "You'll notice at the back though it's flush up against those boxes. Whatever car goes in here normally is quite a bit shorter than this beauty."
"Well spotted, sir."
"I thought so."
"So someone's parked this car in the wrong garage?" asked Johnson skeptically. "Found out the door wouldn't close and just left it?"
"It is a strange situation," agreed Crompton, his voice muffled by the storage boxes he was busy rummaging through. A minute or two passed while Johnson wiggled his toes to get some warmth into them, unsure if Crompton wanted him to join in searching the boxes. Eventually Crompton finished poking around the back of the garage and finally squatted down next to the driver side window. He winced as his knees made a cracking noise, peered through the window, and shook his head sadly. "What do you think," he asked the sergeant, "murder?"
"Just going off the way his face has been smashed in and those bloody footprints leading out of the garage, sir, that was the way I was leaning."
"Me too, Johnson, me too."

Monday, October 28, 2013

Vocabulary

My brother is two years into getting a degree which I will misname (it’s molecular biology, or biochemistry, or something around about there). While talking to him about what is basically a topic I know nothing about, it has struck me on several occasions just how quickly one’s vocabulary is altered when starting to study a new field. Hundreds if not thousands of new words get thrown at you, and words you thought you knew take on new more technical meanings.  It can be easy to forget just how much of what you know isn’t general knowledge and there are a wide variety of ways in which studying or working in a specialist role (in any industry I guess) can affect your vocabulary.


Apparent Gibberish

For the most part necessary jargon, these are words that have been made up by experts in the field to encapsulate concepts into easily communicable snippets. It’s not really necessary for anyone who isn’t an algebraist to worry about what diffeomorphisms are, or for those algebraists to know anything about meristematic cells. Complaining about this kind of jargon is pointless; experts need to be able to talk at reasonable speeds to each other. It is however a small step from necessary new technical terms to


Bullshit

My general observation is that any free space that exists between the technical terms an expert uses for expediency and the understanding of the same topic held by the general populace will be filled with bullshit. Sometimes it is applied from the outside, so that something which is fundamentally complicated can have enough bullshit applied to the detailed areas to make it seem simple. Sometimes it is applied from the inside, intricate carvings of bullshit tacked on to something simple to make it sound complex to others.


Professional Slang

This is part convenience, part in-joke. Convenience in that it’s easier to say “box” than “computer”, in-joke in that while “duck punching” is a great term there are probably less colourful and more accurate names for it. These kind of idiomatic usages are inevitable in any industry and have a similar albeit more casual basic purpose as real technical terms. Unlike those technical terms, though, I think it’s unnecessarily exclusionary to use professional slang around people who don’t understand it.


Abducting Words

Pretty much all disciplines are guilty of this to some extent or another, probably because it’s easier to use an existing word than it is to make up a new one, but it’s also unhelpful. All the words that currently exist already have a meaning (often more than one), the last thing people trying to provide precision should be doing is adding extra meanings to existing words. Just how unhelpful this is really depends on the topic and the word.

Mathematics uses all sorts of everyday words like ring, field and group to describe mathematical structures. For example a ring in mathematics is, to quote Wikipedia, “...an abelian group with a second binary operation that is distributive over the abelian group operation and is associative.” The chance of confusion with a more prosaic definition of ring is nearly zero.

A computer scientist, on the other hand, using ‘overloaded’ in its programming-specific sense in a non-technical context is risking confusion. In everyday English, it is borderline meaningful to describe a word as overloaded. You could do it, but your meaning might not be clear. A programmer describing a word as overloaded means, roughly, that it has homonyms. If you don’t know this as a listener, you’re either going to be confused about meaning or completely nonplussed.

Next week's word is vehicle.


Monday, October 21, 2013

Ubiquitous

When I go out to dinner I am happy to let things get a little sugary; I am a dessert kind of guy. If I'm going to spend a lot of money on a meal and eat irresponsibly anyway, why not go the whole hog and finish off with a dessert? Sadly, a lot of restaurants seem to pay lip service to the dessert and regard it as little more than an item to checked off the Proper Restaurant List rather than something to take pride in.

There are three items you can rely on to make an appearance on a dessert menu, providing you can convince the waiting staff that you'd really like to see it. First is some sort of dried fruit and cheese situation, the skim milk of desserts. I've no doubt there is a type of person who likes a glass of port and a selection of cheeses to aid their digestion or whatnot but it's not a dessert. I'm not judging such people, it all sounds terribly sophisticated but as the restaurateur you're not fooling anyone with such a feeble attempt to bulk out the number of options on the menu.

Second is "I don't know, I think there's some ice cream out the back?" served in a bowl with a spoon. Always offered with a suggestion that maybe you could spare them the hassle and maybe just buy a tub from the shops on the way home.

Third is thrice damned sticky damned date damned pudding.

There is nothing wrong with sticky date pudding in principle, in fact I'm quite partial to a good sticky date pudding now and then. I'm less convinced that it is such a perfect dish that it deserves its position as the unquestioned lord of the dessert course.

I don't know what it is that has caused this ridiculous situation. Perhaps most chefs just have no interest in desserts and the sticky date pudding is the first item on the syllabus of Sweet Stuff 101. Perhaps the average chef is so enamoured of the possibilities of caramelising every vegetable known to man that there regular caramel has lost its glamour. Maybe the proportion of diners who want dessert is so vanishingly small that there's no margin in buying anything besides brown sugar and dates.

For all I know culinary courses exclude sweet foods, and dessert chefs are the SAS of cookery. "You want to know how to make a cheesecake? Kid, unless you want to end up like old No Face Freddy you'll leave that to the professionals."

Whatever the reason for it, for me the sticky date pudding sits as the ever present excuse to not bother with more varied and exotic options once the plates have been cleared away. Every time I see its name scratched in chalk on the dessert board I can't help but think "you've made your point, you sticky bastard, give someone else a chance."

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Underrated

If you have any interest in sport then you're probably familiar with Moneyball, a book/movie about the use of sabermetrics to identify and recruit underrated players in baseball. When the movie came out in Australia it prompted a wave of fans amongst the commentary fraternity of the AFL. The irony that a group of various ex-players and lifelong experts so fervently embraced a work that, at its core, debunks their profession seems to be lost on them.

The commentariat of the AFL has been particularly enamoured of the moneyball phenomenon. In many ways professionalism is new to the sport; it has only been a decade or so since serious team tactics common in most other professional sports rose to prominence in preference to simply letting the players go at it. A part of this process has been the even more recent rise of the analyst. Compared to normal commentators, analysts focus on backing up their observations with exhaustive statistics. The unsuitability of the AFL to statistical analysis compared to sports such as baseball is an interesting discussion, but I want to talk about the resultant fetishization of the unnoticed.

The almost inevitable result of the rise of statistical analysis of sport is the emergence of the ability (or at least perceived ability) to spot and prove the existence of underrated players. Nothing adds more to the credibility of a commentator than being able to explain why a player you never even notice is exerting far more influence on the game than is apparent to the layman.

While this is basically a good thing, the problem that comes about is a sort of brinkmanship in elevating the unnoticed. First the stars are dismissed, not that they're not important but that they're far less important than generally assumed. This results in a new tier of stars being brought into existence, the first level of underrated players. With time the celebration of these players becomes more widely accepted until it becomes necessary for the experts to claim that those players are not the unsung heroes of the game, but that in fact their accomplishments are only possible on the back of a newly discovered level of statistically elite players. And so it continues until those players whose skill or attitude mean they barely get to play a game are somehow being lauded as the real reasons for a team's success.

The most bizarre extension of this behaviour is the recent trend among commentators in the AFL to start talking about the underrating of the biggest stars in the game. It is weird to hear the same expert refer to the same player in the space of a week as likely to be remembered as one of the best fullback to ever play the game, but then claim that everybody underestimates the importance of his role in the team.

It's not that I'm against the idea of people using statistics to analyse sports, I am after all a numbers nerd and sports fan. I just find it annoying to watch people try to find some obscure combination of statistics to show some player is a secret superhero, just to be the first to do so.

Next week's word is ubiquitous.

Sunday, October 6, 2013

Type

This might be a slightly shorter post than normal because I am typing it properly. It may also be a bit fragmented because I'm focused more on moving my hand correctly than on what I'm actually writing. I never bothered to learn how to touch type and was never taught, so like many people I just muddled along and can type at a fair clip. Nevertheless there's the semi-regular need to look down at the keys and the deep shame that I've spent my entire professional life needing to type and doing it wrong. The problem has always been that there's no time to learn, especially not on the job. "Bice, why isn't that new feature finished?" "Oh, because I've been typing really slowly" is not a conversation I imagine ending well.

Things I have noticed so far:

  • There's a whole lot of programming keys that are in inconvenient places. This makes sense considering that the alphabet takes pride of place on a keyboard, but I imagine if I was going to be doing any serious programming while going through this process I'd probably rage quit an awful lot.
  • I feel that the thumbs are under utilised. Maybe it's that with game controllers and phones I'm more comfortable using my thumbs than people were when keyboards were invented, but just using them to thump the biggest key on the keyboard seems a waste. I'm not sure about the ergonomics of it, but I think a narrower spacebar with maybe enter and backspace to the left and right would save me having to flail my pinky about to get a new line or correct mistake.
  • Getting used to hitting keys with my little finger is going to take some time. My pinkies are by far my least dextrous digits (unless toes count as digits, and even then it's a close run thing) and they're working over time. 
  • I seem to adopt a far better posture touchtyping. It's probably because my hands need to be in a constant position, but it is, so far, a lot more difficult to type while sitting at a roguish angle.
  • Muscle usage is quite different in that extensive typing seems to put much more load through my forearms. I guess it's probably as much to do with the new posture as anything else.
  • I'm getting more typos, as would be expected, but I'm getting fewer extraneous keystrokes because my fingers are travelling less to keys. So that's nice.
  • Soooo slow.

While I'm bothering to learn I suppose it would make sense to learn Dvorak at the same time but I find it unsettling for the symbols on the keyboard not to match the symbols that appear on the screen when I type. Also I always roll my eyes when I ask to use someone's computer and they have to change the layout.

Overall I imagine if I keep this up I might get back to speed parity with my previous, more organic style within a few months. Or I'll give up.

Sunday, September 29, 2013

Thumb

The story of little Jack Horner is simple but simultaneously enigmatic. We know he was sitting in the corner. There may be a myriad of reasons to sit in a corner but the three most common are punishment, timidity, and stealth. It seems unlikely that Jack Horner was sent to the corner as punishment simply because he is there with a Christmas pie, and being sent to sit in the corner with an entire pie provides both carrot and stick and thus provides no lesson. Timidity is a valid explanation, after all he is either a child or naturally small and in therefore may well feel intimidated. This is especially true if the context of the rhyme is some sort of large celebration, which we may assume with some confidence given the presence of a Christmas pie. The presence of the pie doesn't in and of itself damage the premise of timidity, but it seems unlikely a small child would be given a whole pie, and equally unlikely that someone with social anxiety issues would take an entire pie, no matter how bountiful the fare. So then the most likely explanation is that of stealth. Jack stole the pie, or at least took more than would be considered polite and has retired to a secluded corner to feast on the spoils of his raid.

Regardless of his motivation for sitting in the corner, and of whether his pastry consumption was sanctioned by the relevant authorities, the actions of Jack Horner once he started eating are inexplicable. Who puts their thumb into a pie? Even if eaten without the aid of cutlery, the typical grip would be to rest some part of the base of the pie on the thumb (and potentially little finger), and to hold the side and top of the crust with the remaining fingers. This can be one or two handed depending on the size of the pie. A particularly barbaric diner might dig into the pie with his hands, but even in this case the obvious action is to scoop with the fingers leaving the thumb idle or, at best, holding already scooped pie contents in place. What possible motivation could a person have for simply plunging a thumb, with either care or recklessness, into a pie. We must assume for Jack's sake that the pie was not particularly hot, for otherwise it would be not only bizarre but also stupid to pursue the course of action he did.

So we are faced with a boy (or small man, it is unclear) sitting in a corner, his thumb knuckle-deep in a Christmas pie. Again we cannot be sure what sort of pie precisely this means. It might be a fruit mince pie, often associated with Christmas, or equally it could be a meat based Christmas pie (such as this one). It would seem more likely to be a fruit pie given he pulled out a plum but the idea of a plum in an English meat pie wouldn't shock me. In either case, it seems quite lucky that his thumb should neatly skewer a plum, and do so in such a way as to survive the thumb being extracted from the general slurry of the filling and through the more rigid crust. His final act, to congratulate himself, seems at first height of the inanity. Why congratulate oneself for an act of idiocy? And why be pleased to have retrieved a plum from a pie which one presumably can eat as much of as appetite dictates? The obvious explanation is that Jack doesn't like plums. He has removed (albeit using a non-traditional method) the ingredient he doesn't like and is now faced with a pristine pie to enjoy. Also possible is that he is congratulating himself belatedly for having stolen the pie in the first place. Using the expression "good boy" would suggest his moral compass is somewhat off balance, but taking satisfaction in one's work is not unusual.

Although little context is provided overall, most of the behaviour of little Jack Horner can be easily explained. All except the thumb. Thumbing a pie is inexplicable.

Next week's word is type.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Flimsy Excuses

I have missed two alphabet supremacy (still unsure on the capitalisation on it) posts in a row which is a poor effort. Being a professional level dodger, shirker and prevaricator I do of course have excuses. I am not providing them to avoid my rightfully (or wrongfully as it may be) earned forfeits but simply to have written something.

Week the first

There are many comforting feeling of laziness, from the simple having nothing to do to the exotic anticipatory thrill of maybe not having to do anything if the last hour of frenzied work functions as expected. The greatest of them is without a doubt being woken up in the morning by an alarm clock, briefly experiencing that sinking feeling of having to go to work, then remembering that it's a weekend or public holiday. This goes double if it's the middle of winter.

Other classics of the genre include: taking day off work and sitting around doing nothing beyond wallowing in the knowledge that everyone else is at work, having a social engagement of dubious quality cancelled at the last minute, the thrill of figuring out how long to wait before writing off the day when there's an office power outage, and the gap between one job finishing and the next one starting.

During the week of my first missed post I felt the powerful urge to dodge a responsibility. There is an obscure pleasure to be taken in not doing something that you should be doing. Some people experience this sensation as shame, do not trust them as they probably have a work ethic. I don't have many (any) responsibilities at the moment so I did the only thing I could and didn't write a blog post. In hindsight it was a poor substitute, some sort of laziness carob, but I worked with what I had.

Week the second

Sunday was day four of what has turned out to be a six day gastric event. My ability to sit at a keyboard, or indeed anywhere outside of a plumbed room, for more than fifteen contiguous minutes was seriously hampered. Enough said. Too much, probably.

I aim to be back this week.

Sunday, September 8, 2013

Rat

Rats aren't like mice. When I see mice in the house, my reaction is to feel a bit sad that they're going to get killed. They're cute little things and I wish them no ill will on principle, but I don't want to be eating a cupcake and having to make a determination on whether it’s topped with chocolate sprinkles or, well, not chocolate sprinkles. Rats on the other hand are an adversary to be vanquished.

My dad has been engaged in a running skirmish with a particularly large and devious brown rat for the last several years. Other rats have come and gone, often with a helping hand, but when my dad says The Rat there can be no mistaking that of which he speaks. Truth be told I'm pretty sure at this point that the battle of wits is with Son of Rat, or even Son of Rat Junior, but the genes of the original adversary remain.

It's not the mere fact of its existence that has caused the protracted man versus rodent trial by combat, but the brazen attitude of the protagonist. There is a large window in the lounge room, maybe six feet by five, which looks out onto a nice little flower bed. Four or five feet from the window is a bird bath where the starlings and silver-eyes used to come and bathe and delight onlookers. No more. The bird bath is now The Rat's watering hole. Around dusk each day where once butcher birds would drink and babble about the day, instead The Rat struts in to drink. To look out the window and see eye to eye with a rodent who could not care less about being in plain sight is not a soothing experience. It is the unspoken contract with outdoor vermin: you stay out of sight, we'll pretend you're not there. That it has the confidence to flaunt this tradition is untenable.

There were rat traps, effective at first, then ignored, then the food taken off them without being triggered. On one famous occasion a rat got caught in a trap and was then eaten by other rats, this is the nature of the foe. There is poison where appropriate (not, for example, where neighbourhood pets can get at it). The poison takes out the suckers but grizzled veterans like The Rat don't go near it. There was even, for a time, the blowgun, constructed from a piece of PVC pipe, some nails, and visions of Boys’ Own Adventure tales gone horribly domestic. Dad hit The Rat with a blowgun dart on one occasion, but only succeeded in making it angry.

There's no point bringing in the professionals. The backyard is large and verdant, populated with fruit trees, a variety of berries, and a giant walnut tree to provide them storage for winter. It would be, if not for the crotchety old man hell bent on genocide, rat heaven. The best an exterminator could do would be to give a few weeks respite. Even if the professionals could solve the problem, I think it's gone too far at this point. It’s personal.

Every so often dad updates me on the struggle and mostly I treat it as the description of a Tom & Jerry cartoon. Sometimes, though, I can’t help but wonder if I’m listening to the Ahab of suburbia.

Monday, September 2, 2013

Real

Let me tell you the problem with "real" Christians.

Man, I bet a few readers are already angry in anticipation of what I might write next. Those scare quotes look like a setup for some good old fashioned religion bashing, don't they? I bet +Jonathan Lange  read that and his chapter-and-verse gland went into overdrive, probably had some Irenaeus ready to go (I have no idea if Irenaeus is remotely relevant to modern theology, I'm guessing not). Sadly, it is not to be, the quotes are a little misleading. For starters I’m using Christian here solely because it’s the religion I have been most exposed to, feel free to find and replace with any other worldview if you’d prefer.

I used to be interested in religions, any and all, despite not being religious in the slightest. One part of it was the same curiosity that I have about almost everything and the history, mythology, and philosophy facets in particular tickled my fancy. The major part, though, was the idea that understanding religions would help me understand people better. The principle is simple enough: in their own ways every religion lays out some beliefs, from which some rituals and ethics are derived (this is not intended to be a full description of a religion, clearly, just the bit relevant to my point). It follows, roughly, that knowing somebody’s religion should say quite a lot about how they feel they ought to behave, if not how they actually behave.

Why did the interest fade? Never to be underestimated is my dilettante nature; there is no area of endeavour I cannot approach in a poorly structured and non-committal manner. That was a contributor, to be sure, but the primary cause was what I called the “real” Christian problem (before later finding out it was a subset of the “no true Scotsman” fallacy). I liked the idea of a person’s religion being a shorthand descriptor of some of their core values, but in the end it simply isn’t the case.

On the large scale this clearly isn’t true looking at some of the ideological differences between various denominations. On the small scale I have noticed no particular correlation in my acquaintances between faith and morality; I know good people and bad people on every point of the faith spectrum. In cases where the disagreements are small, within a certain bracket of deviation, they are explained as difference of interpretation and everybody is more or less happy. After all, a person’s relationship with God is personal and with personal relationships comes personal interpretation. When it comes to large differences, outrageous acts, or those questions of particularly strong emotion, the response turns into a variation on the same theme “someone who does/says/believes that is not a real Christian”. On occasion “good” may be substituted for “real” but the intent is the same.

This, then, is my problem. As somebody who is not a Christian and therefore in a very poor position to act as arbiter in such matters, who do I take advice from on who the “real” Christians are? For Catholics I guess the Pope would be the go to guy, although the differences between Benedict and Francis make me wonder how consistent the messaging is there. What about all the other denominations, is it by general acclaim? Who decides which fundamentalists are too fundamental, or which liberal dioceses are too liberal, or whether that’s even a decision that should be made? And if there isn’t anybody who can make the decision is the definition simply that anybody who believes themselves to be Christian is Christian? And if that's all it takes, what use is the word?

I imagine some people might read this and think “ah well, I can explain to Bice how I know that I'm a real Christian/Hindu/Rastafarian.” Please don’t. That urge means you missed my point, or more likely that I made my point badly. If you can explain how the classification problem is solved, go ahead.

Next week's word is rat.

Monday, August 26, 2013

Quixotic

As with every election I can remember, policy in Australia is equated with budgets. Australian electioneering seems to have to settings: slogans and balance sheets. Slogans by their nature speak for themselves and detailed costings are overwhelming to most voters (voters are also sometimes known as 'people' in case you're wondering). I have a sneaking suspicion this is because Australian politicians for the most part have the same natural talent for rhetoric as a howler monkey with severe social anxiety. They can be just about trusted to rote learn a sound bite, but long form oratory exceeds their capacity.

So once everybody has shouted "stop the boats" and "trust us" a few times, there's an awkward pause until somebody remembers to start shouting about costings. Apparently what the average Australian really wants, what school teachers around the nation have known, is to be presented with voluminous amounts of arithmetic. Not that this isn't important, mind you, just that it's unlikely most voters will brush up on their forensic accountancy skills before choosing who to vote for. Those are the choices though, three words or five hundred pages.

Policies are more complex (costings are complicated, but in the end they're just addition and subtraction); they require the politician responsible to be able to clearly explain a concept and, most inconveniently, the practical and ethical motivation behind it. On top of this a television news service needs to be willing to broadcast a single person talking for as long a several continuous minutes. Given these limitations I guess it is hardly surprising that what we get is slogns and budgets. As you may be able to tell I sometimes get wistful for a world in which the various parties would explain their social and economic foundations and I could leave it to the clever chaps in the treasury to sort out the numbers.

Then Clive Palmer joined in.

If you don't know Clive Palmer, he's the guy who's building a replica Titanic. A real full scale working replica. He's the guy who's putting scores of animatronic dinosaurs in one of his resorts to create a robotic Jurassic Park. Also, he's the guy who decided to start a political party named after himself (a feat matched of course by Bob Katter).

Clive wants my vote not because his ideas are better than those of his opponents, but because his opponents are "boring". He's not afraid to play Eye Of The Tiger as his entrance music, he's going to cut taxes, increase spending across the board, somehow end up with more money, and his solution to the "problem" of boat people is to buy them a plane ticket (honestly, that last one is kind of awesome). Clive is a National Living Treasure. Really.

Clive knows what Australia needs, at least he knows what the Australia he sees through his unique lense needs. It needs Clive. Watching Clive tilt not only at windmills, but at basically anything larger than a shoebox that crosses his path has almost been enough to change my mind. Maybe I don't want idealism and grand ideas, maybe I do just want a neat little accountant to mind the books.

Monday, August 19, 2013

Quick

I have been thinking this week about the endless geyser of vitriol that is Internet comments. There has been a steadily growing stream of stories about people getting abused on pretty much every social media platform available. It turns out that many people's first response to reading something that they don't like is to abuse/threaten/type incoherently at the person who says it in the most vile way they can think of. Personally, my reflexive action when I read a tweet is to think of some sort of glib joke. Mostly I don't follow through on that reaction because I feel that a few hundred smart ass comments a day probably has long term effects on one's soul. I am especially careful to filter my reaction when it's something I disagree with because that makes me far more likely to make an asshole comment rather than a smart ass one. There is a certain class of person, however, who prefers death threats and capitalised mis-spellings of every slur they know and these people are also unsurprisingly prolific in their abuse.

There are lots of fascinating aspects to explore when it comes to figuring out why people engage in such behaviour. There are obvious culprits like anonymity, access, entitlement, different social rules, and so on that discussed widely when talking about cyber-bullying and its close relatives. The one I find most interesting (for the purpose of this post at least) is the speed of it all. The Internet has obviously facilitated fast communication; that may not be the point of the Internet, but it's right up near the top of the list. I don't know exactly how long it would take to write a "*$&% U DUMB #%*)&% PIECE OF @#*@$@ IMMA #%^@^ #%^&*#^*" type comment, but I'd guess with the right (read: wrong) autocomplete, probably under five seconds. Combine this with the knowledge that the message will often be delivered (if not received) in under a second, the ability to satisfy whatever your knee-jerk reaction is to somebody else has increased by orders of magnitude over the last few years. There are lots of really good things about this but when it comes to the quality of the content being communicated I think it's provably bad. Simply put, second thoughts may not always be better, but even if they're only sometimes better not having them at all makes your overall communication quality (in terms of content) worse.

There is a reason people advise taking a deep breath before responding, or waiting a day between writing an angry email and sending it (or even better waiting a day before writing it in the first place). I wonder what the level of discussion in comment threads would be if you had a system where a person could not comment on a post/article/video within 24 hours of first reading/viewing it. A person comes along, reads the article, maybe reads the existing comments if there are any. They could then tag the post as one they want to respond to and get an automatic notification when they are allowed to respond. I'd probably cut it down from 24 hours once the first response has been made by the specific reader (ie they have to wait 24 hours for the first comment, but once they are engaged can respond to other people's comments after an hour), but the delays would be something you'd let the author set in the first place.

Obviously such a system would destroy "audience engagement" or whatever the correct term is for letting people spew thoughtless characters into a text box is, and would render a service like twitter meaningless, but I'd be interested to see the results in a blog or YouTube comments scenario where the author wants to engage in some sort of meaningful discussion with the audience. My premise is that most of the people willing to come back a day later aren't going to do so just to write "#@#& &^@#$% @#^#%$^".

Next week's word is quixotic.

Sunday, August 11, 2013

Pasta

I don't dislike pasta. On a scale of one to predictable Italian stereotype, pasta for me rates a solid five, maybe five and a half. The wide variety of forms are, when push comes to shove, largely cosmetic although not without some meaningful difference in sauce retaining capacity and beard friendliness. Hearty and easy to cook, pasta provides a reliable base for a proper meal. For any given mood, there is likely a pasta sauce that will scratch the itch if not completely satisfy.

Let's face it though, pasta is never at the top of the dinner list, it may have few flaws but it has nothing exceptional to commend it. Given the time and energy, meals would be a subtle mix of flavours and textures reflecting the creative intent of the cook and mood of the diners. Things would be sauteed, reduced, caramelized, and otherwise enhanced. On a cold Thursday night after a long day at work, however, you make pasta. You throw a couple of handfuls of crunchy yellow shrapnel into a saucepan and spend the time it takes to slightly undercook it pretending that the first four things you take out of the fridge will be a good accompaniment. This is the true role of pasta: fallback position. Sure, a little more effort can be expended to make a pasta dish good, but that same effort could be expended to be make something as good or better than pasta, leaving spaghetti mediocranara available for the next cold Thursday.

Why then, do restaurants persist in putting pasta on the menu? There is no such thing as great pasta. There's pasta that's better than average but it's not great. The very best pasta in the world is flour and water (maybe eggs) mixed together. It can't be made badly enough that there can be a really good version, you might as well claim to make the world's best glass of water. The sauce can be pretty good, but then again a similar or better sauce could be made and put on something you might actually want to eat, like a steak. So the meal itself is, by no fault of the restaurant, limited to being "yeah pretty good I guess". Combine that with the negative associations of being too enervated to cook something you are interested in eating, and what's left is the least appetizing and least impressive thing that could be put on a menu.

I know that sounds like my claims of liking pasta aren't wholly accurate but I just don't see the point in ordering something at a restaurant that you could easily make at home but choose not to because it feels like a cop out. If it's a cop out at home, what does that make it for a business whose only job is to cook? Might as well just put peanut butter toast on the menu and be done with it.

Monday, July 29, 2013

Occasion

Every morning on his way into the office building where he worked Timothy walked past, on the opposite side of the street to that which he customarily travelled, a shop that had always puzzled him. Most days it was a momentary puzzlement gone as soon as he rounded the corner, the idle repeated thought that occurs in such rote activities. On this occasion, however, his morning commute was thrown off axis by noisy men in workmen's vests tearing at the footpath where he normally walked. A yellow and black sign advised that pedestrians should use the other footpath and thus Timothy, who was not the kind of man to wilfully ignore such advice without good cause, duly used the other footpath.

So it was that Timothy found himself walking on the same side of the road as the shop which so intrigued him. It was a drab kind of shop front, its window taken up with a legend printed in plain white copperplate which read simply "Kelloby & Assoc. Occasion Planning". There were two things that caught in Timothy's mind each morning as he passed the strange little shop. The first was curiosity that the logo painter had decided to write "Assoc." instead of "Associates" when there was enough room for the entire word and more besides. The second was that the shop floor directly in front of the window (or behind, he supposed, depending on where one stood) was blocked by venetian blinds when it could, and in most shops would, be used to display some sort of material that promoted the qualities of the business owner.

Already disrupted by being on the wrong footpath Timothy decided he would completely destroy his morning routine and enter the shop of Mr (he presumed) Kelloby. He pushed on the dark green door and a small bell mounted above the door rang to announce his entrance, as is the custom. Inside he found himself presented with what looked like the office of an accountant, and furthermore that of an accountant who had no time for ornament. Two comfortable but plain chairs sat on one side of a heavy wooden desk. On the wall behind the desk were two framed certificates of some form of education, difficult to be specific due to the exquisite flourishes of the script in which they were written. Below the qualifications, and in a third chair from the same set as the two presumably intended for customers, sat a man. Short, well groomed, with impeccable moustaches and clear grey eyes, he was the kind of man one would trust to execute the will of an eccentric millionaire.

He also looked like the kind of man who would clean his glasses with great care using a special cloth, which he was in fact doing when Timothy entered. He stood and offered his hand.
"Good morning sir," his voice inserted itself into the quiet office with a minimum of fuss. "I am Percy Kelloby."
"Yes. Good, um, good morning. Timothy Brown," replied Timothy shaking the proffered hand.
"Please won't you take a seat?" Kelloby gestured at one of the empty chairs with a smooth but firm wave and waited politely for Timothy to sit before once more seating himself. He opened on of the notebooks and made a note of the name. "Well then, Mr Brown, how may Kelloby & Associates be of assistance?" Through some trick of tone Kelloby made it clear that the business name was definitely '& Associates' rather than 'and associates'.
"Truth be told, Mr Kelloby, I was simply curious as to what you do here."
"We do what it says in the window, my good man. We plan occasions."
"I don't want to seem rude but it seems such a, well, dull shop front for the planning of parties and weddings and such." Timothy adopted his most placatory tone, well aware that entering a business solely to impugn its owner was not good etiquette. Kelloby seemed unfazed.
"Yes, yes, I see the problem. We don't plan special occasions," it was clear the phrase was not one he enjoyed employing, "we plan all occasions."
"I don't quite follow you Mr Kelloby." Kelloby leaned back a little in his chair and tugged at the end of his nose with forefinger and thumb for a few seconds. When he spoke again it was with the attitude of a tutor.
"Consider, Mr Brown, this morning. You have the look of a professional about you, if you don't mind me saying so." Timothy shook his head slightly. "I assume it is your routine to take this road, but on the other side, to your destination and that those public improvements disrupted that routine." This time Timothy nodded his head, as yet unable to see the destination of Kelloby's reasoning. "There is no good reason that you should have been so disrupted by this event. It should be, and we at Kelloby & Associates firmly believe in fact it is, possible to not have day to day activities marred by such occasions." By this stage Kelloby was leaning slightly forward, fingers pressed together in a wedge formation pointed at Timothy. Timothy looked back in bemusement.
"Are you saying you provide daily planning, alerts, that kind of thing?"
"Nothing quite so prosaic. Are you a man of letters, Mr Brown?"
"I read from time to time, yes."
"You are perhaps then familiar with the literary form 'on this occasion, however'?"
"I suppose so, yes?"
"That phrase indicates nothing surer than deviation from the expected trajectory of events. The signal that some individual's desire for nothing more than a day of predictability and order is about to be crushed. The precursor to outbreaks of personal tragedy, strange events, or" it was only with great self control that Kelloby managed to keep the sneer from disturbing his moustaches, "adventure."
"I hadn't thought about it in that light to be honest."
"Perhaps you ought, Mr Brown. Perhaps you ought. Now think about this: we, for a reasonable fee, can make sure it never happens to you."
"How exactly?"
"Ah," said Kelloby beaming, "that is quite something."

Monday, July 22, 2013

Office

There’s a specific shade of blue-grey that is used on every cubicle partition in corporate Tasmania. Not all I suppose; one office I can think of had a depressing, faded orange instead, but the rest are blue-grey. There are dozens of models of partition. Some are designed to allow people see over them while seated to promote the ideal workplace atmosphere of unrestrained collaboration. Others are designed to only to be seen over when standing to promote the ideal workplace atmosphere of isolation, and also to make grown adults act like prairie dogs. All of them are covered with carpet, of course, to allow for the application of velcro dots so that Gantt charts can be more prominently displayed.

I’ve never understood the choice of colour. It’s the colour of an overcast winter morning in Hobart, the time of year that the sun isn’t quite all the way up when you leave the house. The clouds are doing little more than reflecting the grudging lights of houses making bleary-eyed breakfasts and cars creeping across the bridge. It’s not quite raining but there’s water hanging in the air, just enough to leave everybody uncomfortably damp when they finally arrive at the office.

When a work task is causing problems during the day, the last thing you want is to look away from the monitor and have your line of sight blocked by a constant forecast of the conditions that await your trip home. Blue may well be calming, and grey might promote a sense of professionalism, but mixing the two creates the colour code for dispirited.

For the most part the carpets are the same colour but a little darker to hide the coffee stains.

Next week's word is ontology. No it's not that would be terrible. It's odalisque ossuary oleaginous occasion.

Monday, July 15, 2013

Narration

There is only one this Australian political pundits love talking about more than a leadership spill, and that is a narrative. They talk with serious faces about the narrative of a campaign as if they've lost sight of the fact that a narrative is not real. A narrative is nothing more than the connective tissue used to describe a series of events, or in the case of political campaigns the grafting of connective tissue onto a melange of ideals, demagogy and slogans to create a sort of Frankenstein's candidate.

I have talked before about how much the issue of boat people (or asylum seekers, or refugees, or whatever they're being called now) annoys me. Not for the patently ridiculous fashion in which governments from both sides have handled the issue (I say ridiculous because inventing the idea of excising first parts and eventually all of a country from an invented thing called a migration zone reads more like Yes, Minister at its finest than a real policy) but because it continues to be regarded as being an issue at all.

In 2001 being tough on immigrants (especially brown ones) was a pretty good way to get people riled up and ready to vote. A couple of months later, after September 11, the merest hint that some of these so called refugees might be terrorists and then clamping down on them was enough to win an election. Since those heady times, the story of stopping terrorists changed slowly to a story about it being unfair to process 'queue jumpers' before those who followed the rules, and eventually to the current story about doing it for the protection of the refugees so that they don't take a risky trip that might see them drowned.

Although the story has slowly changed so that people feel warm and fuzzy about the awful bipartisan stance on the issue, boat people has never truly left the political discussion in Australia. I had begun to wonder over the last few years why exactly it still managed to be an issue considering both parties offered solutions so similar that only forensic study would be able to separate the two. Beyond the argument that Australian political discourse has finally reached the Titanium Tax Point there must be some reason it still gets talked about. A few days ago, my mother got a call from a polling agency and I found the answer.

I've never received a polling call before and nor has anyone I know, or at least they haven't talked to me about it. There were many questions about party preferences (political, not cocktail), preferred leaders and whatnot, but one question stood out as the answer to the boat people narrative problem. She was asked to list in order from one to five, the importance of a number of issues. There were only five options provided and alongside health care and education was border protection (which is a polite way of saying "stopping those horrible boat people").

It turns out that polls create a situation in which border protection must be a top five issue for anyone they poll and then the newspapers report with solemnity that border protection is one of the top five issues for the Australian electorate, and the politicians see it is an important issue to the electorate and so they continue to talk about it, and so the pollsters feel obliged to include it on their list of issues, and so on ad nauseum. Our country's political narrative has become a nationwide round of "no, you hang up first".

That's the last time I get on that particular soap box. Promise.

Monday, July 8, 2013

Negotiation

"Let me tell you a little something about how this is going to go," said Garth as he reached for a butterscotch from the obscenely expensive crystal dish on his desk. "You think you've got information I want and that's true enough as far as it goes. So in your mind's eye you see me being on the weak side of this exchange." He sucked noisily on the sugary lozenge. "You're thinking I'm going to play a game of bluff and bluster, but in the end I'll give you pretty much everything you want and you'll give me just enough to feel like I didn't get taken to the cleaners'. I imagine you've stood in front of a mirror practicing that look of supreme confidence, checking that you look just the right kind of indifferent when you check for dirt under your nails. Dirt that isn't there because you probably had someone clean them for you before you got here, because you've never done an honest day's work in your life. Not that there's anything wrong with that, I wouldn't have if I'd had a choice. Doing an honest day's work just means you don't have the imagination to do a more profitable day's work." He paused again, forcing the sweet repeatedly against his teeth so it made a sound like a clock ticking slowly.
"So what's my trick? You have the advantage and you know you do. I have every card in the deck but you're playing craps. Where can I possibly find a position of strength here? Or do I already have it? I was born with nothing and now I have, without boasting, pretty much everything. How many times along that road have I out maneuvered people who thought they were in a position of strength only to find themselves left with nothing?" He put his feet up on the desk and leaned back arms crossed behind his head.
"That's got you thinking hasn't it? I didn't have to do this myself, I have buildings full of people who can take care of something as simple as what you think this is. But here I am taking a personal interest and there must be a reason for that. Now that little seed of doubt has crept in, is starting to gnaw away at your confidence. It's nothing major, you're still pretty confident, but you're starting to wonder who's honoured to meet who in that photo with the president, and just how highly ranked the Chinese official I was owed a favour by must have been to get that statue out of the country. Just how much am I truly capable of?" He leaned forward, eyes hard.
"Maybe what you thought was a position of unassailable strength is starting to feel like a room with no door. The mantle of superiority is suffocating you, weighing heavy on your shoulders. Perhaps that information you thought was worth so much seems more of a burden." He shrugged and let the edge fall from his voice to be replaced with implacable resolve. "So this is how this is going to go. You're going to let me win and in exchange you get to lose. You get nothing more than knowing I could have made it worse for you. That's my final offer." There was silence as he regarded the empty office in front of him. After a few seconds, a boy of four or five years old crawled out from behind a potted ficus and walked over with crossed arms and a cross look. He put out his bottom lip and slapped the desk with two open hands.
"That's not how you're supposed to play hide and seek grandpa. It's not fair."
"I don't play Billy. I win. Now have a butterscotch."
"I don't wanna butterscotch."
"Have it your way."

Next week's word is narration.

Sunday, June 30, 2013

Middle

This week, 25 weeks and 24 posts in (stupid forgetting what day it is), is the mid point of the weekly writing challenge between +Jonathan Lange  and myself. To mark the occasion this week's post has been reserved for reflection on the Alphabet Supremacy so far.

Much as I like the idea of exercising, I like the idea of doing enough writing that I don't forget how to do it. Also much like exercising, my intentions to write typically bear no relation to the output. Ignoring lack of inspiration, I've had two main problems writing more posts on my blog in the past (assuming one believes few posts by me is a problem). The first is finishing posts and the second is publishing them.

My normal process for creating a blog post goes something like this: think of topic to write about, write initial draft, feel need to cover every argument and edge case a reader might think of, end up with way too much rambling text, realise that the core point is quite simple, tweet original premise, delete draft. The result is therefore a whole lot of posts that never get finished, or get finished as tweets.

In those rare cases I don't end up just tweeting my thoughts, the piece lies in draft limbo indefinitely because I worry about people's opinion. Not so much opinion on quality of writing but opinion on the quality of deciding to write about the topic. That's somewhat counter to how a lot of people blog but I know most of the people who read my blog posts and as such I feel like I shouldn't waste their time with things that aren't at least entertaining.

The Alphabet Supremacy has meant that I've published a lot more posts, and been able to ignore the usual "but who's going to enjoy it?" question that normally stops me hitting publish. Even if there's nothing riding on the quality of the posts, I'm happy to be getting in the habit of writing and publishing posts. I had hoped that writing the regular posts would have the side effect of me writing more off the cuff posts once I was in the flow of writing. That hasn't happened, which is further proof that I do almost nothing without some sort of push to do so. There's still six months to go, though, so maybe that will improve.

The downside of having a public reason to write more posts is that because I know most of the people reading know that I had to publish the post, I haven't given a lot of the posts even a cursory level of polish. To generalise, the amount of effort I've put into each post has decreased over time. In terms of keeping in practice with writing, churning out words without trying to make them good is only marginally better than not writing anything at all.

I think if I was to engage in another weekly writing challenge with Jonathan (or anybody else) I'd choose something a bit more structured. Sometimes a Sunday evening and a single word can be a bit hard to get to grips with, and is a contributing factor to some of my poorer posts. Each post being a response to the previous week or similar provides an easier point of entry to write something, and also gives readers a frame of reference when they start to read posts. Some way of encouraging posts that are actually good beyond simple self respect would also be good. I would however keep the financial element because I am currently running at a profit so it is clearly an excellent idea.

Here's what the tweet summary version of this post would have looked like:
"Because I need to write a post I don't agonise over quality but because I know people know I need to write a post I don't care about quality"

Sunday, June 23, 2013

Music


Back in the day, when I used to host a video game radio show with +Anders Russell, once in a while we would do a game music episode. While it was really a thinly veiled excuse to close the show out with Lil Jon's "Get Low" to annoy as many regular listeners as possible, it was also a way to expose people who wouldn't have otherwise heard it to the work of people like Jeremy Soule and Jesper Kyd. It's been many long years since we did that radio show, and the increased ability for anyone to make professional quality music (provided they have the talent of course) has meant that the expansion of the indie scene has created an explosion of great game music. Here's a rough playlist of what I'd include in a show now.

Austin Wintory has written several game soundtracks, but my clear two favourites are Journey and Monaco. Monaco's soundtrack consists of caper music, lots of fast and fun piano music that meshes perfectly with the chaotic hijinks of a four player round of Monaco.


In contrast Journey is a much more traditional soundtrack, with variations on a main theme. The soundtrack to Journey puts me in mind of what it would have sounded like if Marco Polo had taken a cello with him on his trek to Cathay. If the track below interests you, I highly recommend listening to the entire soundtrack.


Frozen Synapse is a great game, a tactics game that aesthetically exists in the same realm as Uplink or Ruthless.com, and with an electronic soundtrack that could be dropped into a Tron movie without anybody blinking an eye. I can't say definitively, but I'm pretty sure it's the first game soundtrack I ever purchased separately to the game itself.

Bastion is one of my favourite games ever. The soundtrack, described a little ridiculously by its creator Darren Korb as 'acoustic frontier trip hop', is as critical to creating the game world as the visual direction is. Rather than being an accompaniment to the action of the game, it feels more like a collection of folk music from a tradition that happens to be entirely fictional. A lot of people have talked and written about the impact of "Zia's Theme" when playing the game, but the best use of music in the game for me is when "Mother, I'm Here" is played. One of only two vocal tracks in the game, Korb has said that the idea behind the song was to create a memorial song, a kind of "Amazing Grace" for the Bastion world.


To save me writing (and you reading) too many unnecessary words, also worth checking out:
Anything from Hotline Miami if you're in the mood to go on a cocaine-fuelled rampage



Gunpoint's noir jazz


This wonderful piano interlude in The Swapper


Music to reflect on failure to from FTL


The bluegrass standards that punctuate the atmospheric ambience of Kentucky Route Zero


Finally, I couldn't write a game music post without including this gem from the Bioshock Infinite soundtrack, presented without comment.

Now that 25 of the total 50 alphabet supremacy posts have been completed, it seemed like a good time to reflect on the project so far. With that in mind, and having discussed it with +Jonathan Lange , next week's word will be middle, and we will both be looking at the project to date.

Edited to use a slightly larger player from bandcamp to show track progress.

Sunday, June 16, 2013

Laziness


Laziness is mostly a bad thing. Nobody ever sat in a job interview and answered the question "what are your greatest strengths?" by leaning back, thumping their feet up onto the table and saying with casual confidence "I guess I'd say collaborating well in team environments, working to deadlines, and being really lazy. Just incredibly, hard-to-fathom-its-true-depths lazy." Possibly someone did do that, there's no accounting for some people, but I don't imagine that they got the job. Laziness is in fact so widely recognised as a bad thing that it managed to make the list of the seven deadly sins. When considering all of the awful ways people can behave, making the top five-and-a-bit should be a pretty solid indicator that being lazy is nothing to take pride in. Then again according to the same list neither is pride.

Given it's clear that being lazy is bad, both in how it's regarded by others and also by how it negatively affects the person who is being lazy, why are so many people lazy so often? There's probably a large body of psychological and sociological research into the factors, both internal and external, that cause patterns of laziness in individuals. Of course I'm far too lazy to look into any of that stuff even though it's no further away than switching to the browser. Let's assume it's all compelling stuff, that it's not as basic as "because being lazy is easy", and that at best we all have to deal with occasional bouts of laziness. Is there anything positive that be taken out of such habits?

I think that there are indeed some lessons that can be taken from being lazy. Not from general day-to-day laziness, the laziness that forms the background hum of so many people's lives, but in the focused laziness of repeated difficult tasks. When being lazy in the workplace, for example, it is not enough to simply do nothing. Doing nothing will (in most jobs) result in no longer having the job. Doing as little as possible is more palatable but at the same time it is often clear to others when you are doing as little as possible, which it turn makes for an unpleasant workplace environment. When everybody thinks/knows you're being lazy, it is very difficult to be lazy.

The trick is to do a good amount of work with as little effort as possible. This is where the negative aspects of laziness are transformed into gleaming pearls of efficiency. It might seem difficult to believe that something as self-defeating and shortsighted as real laziness can teach you useful skills, but as someone who has been a platinum level lazy bastard for the better part of twenty years I feel I'm in a position to provide some insights. Provided in no particular order of value:

  • That's five hundred words. I'm out.

Monday, June 10, 2013

Oops

I have no alphabet supremacy post for this week because, honestly, I forgot it was Sunday. That's pretty much the level of awareness I operate at when I'm not working.

In tribute to this fact, next week's word will be laziness.

Monday, June 3, 2013

HAL It Ain't


When Microsoft announced the Xbox One, they mentioned that the Kinect (the microphone and camera part of the console) will be able to power up the Xbox when a user says "Xbox". To do so the microphone obviously has to be on all the time. Cue privacy concerns. I'm not going to talk about the validity or magnitude of the concerns, because I think it's a personal decision for the consumer, and that most of the arguments being bandied about are facile. What I wanted to comment on is the shortcomings technology like the Kinect highlight in the English language.

If a person was to hire, in a moment of utter decadence, a servant whose only job was to stand in the corner of the living room and turn on a device when they heard "Xbox" then it's fair to say that the servant is listening for a word. In order for the servant to perform the assigned task they have to process all the sound in the room, understand which parts are words, and explicitly filter out every word that isn't "Xbox", because that's how people work. By side effect, the servant would hear (and by connotation comprehend) everything said by every person in the room. Privacy would be an obvious and genuine concern.

Let's assume, tinfoil hats off, that the Kinect will be doing only what Microsoft says: listening until it hears the word it knows, "Xbox", and then turning itself on. This is where the language falls down. We don't have verbs that convey what's happening in this situation. The Kinect doesn't "listen", "hear", have a definition of "word", or in any meaningful sense "know". These are all words that imply agency, intent, and some degree of intelligence.

A computer, as technology stands today, has none of these properties. Although the level of processing going on to interpret the commands is a lot more complex, there is no difference between the Kinect interpreting (another verb loaded with agency) a sound-based signal from a person and a burst of infrared in a pattern it recognises (yet another) from a remote control. Using these active verbs isn't sloppy use of the language, it's trying to use the language to convey behaviours that it simply does not have the ability to convey in a concise manner.

Inanimate objects able to respond in complex ways to a wide variety of sensory input are a modern invention, so all we have available in English to describe such devices are the words originally ascribed to intelligent entities. It is similar to the way scientists of all types end describing complex systems as "trying", "wanting" or "choosing" to do things in a way that implies sentient forces which are not part of the model. The words describe the process correctly but for people listening it's hard not to include some of the linguistic baggage.

To a degree, every internet enabled device a person uses presents some sort of privacy concern, and it's probably not outrageous to worry that the Kinect might do more than it says on the box. Even in the worst case, though, it won't be "listening" to anything.