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.

Keepsake


I don't tend to buy a lot in the way of souvenirs and tchotchkes (that's for you, +Jason Imms ) when I travel. This is less because of any self restraint or ascetic principle, and more because wandering around malls, outdoor markets, and streets either high or low, holds little interest for me. Despite my reluctance to browse the wares of hawkers and vendors I have as seems inevitable when travelling picked up a few trinkets here and there.

For me the three most important attributes of a travel keepsake are relevance, durability, and size. Relevance is the least important of the three because the value of a keepsake is in its ability to act as a memory trigger. Strictly speaking there's no reason you couldn't buy a small model of the Eiffel Tower in Ulaanbaatar to remind you of your trip to Mongolia. Ten years down the track it would still trigger the same yurty recollections, but it feels more appropriate to buy something either based on, or somehow unique to, the place in which the object is being purchased. Size and durability are simply practical concerns for the traveller; I know people who have bought amazingly intricate things while travelling and managed to get them back home undamaged, but I can't be bothered providing the necessary care and attention.

The real reason that size and durability are important though, are for allowing a keepsake to fulfill its true purpose: being repeatedly lost and found. Take for example a small jade elephant I own, not much more than an inch in each direction, and carved in a simple fashion that doesn't leave any protruding parts that could be accidentally knocked off. It has a nice weight to it, and the smooth cold surfaces jade is known for. I bought it from a stall in Singapore after having it and a menagerie of miniature stone animals sit in my eyeline for half an hour while I ate lunch and drank my first sugarcane juice. I have no idea whatsoever where it is now. It popped up most recently about nine months ago in the back corner of a drawer, reminding me of that particular afternoon. Then, after resolving to put it somewhere more visible, I promptly lost it again. Some time in the next few months I'll be looking for tweezers or matches or some string, and I will stumble upon that little green pachyderm and it will carry me away from a cold Hobart morning to an insanely busy Singaporean street corner and the refreshing burst of sugarcane juice. And then I'll lose it again.