September 02013

September is nearly over, and it’s now been over a month since my first post. I think the end of each month is a good time to outline my own logistical concerns from last month and project what I’ll do going forward.


The Horse_ebooks creators to me, over the phone on the last day of horse_ebooks: “Now is not the time to run out of gas.” Goodbye, horse_ebooks.


My next post is going to be a post-mortem of a game that I’ve co-developed with some other folks- it will be debuting at the Hacking Arts festival in Boston.

Note: The 02013 was originally a typo but I like the Long Now vibe so I’m keeping it.


I’ll try to hold on to some of my favorite longform essays from elsewhere on the internet during October and share them. That seems like a nice thing to do for future end-of-month posts.

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Controlling Commonness

I took a break from “A Thousand Years of Nonlinear History” to breeze through “Mystery Teachings from the Living Earth” (I know). my reading hiatus on Nonlinear History will probably continue so that I can wrap Venkat’s new ebooks.  I hope to finish Nonlinear History in early October.


“Mystery Teachings” is one of those books I could not have really engaged with more than two years ago on its title alone. I was only even really able to engage it now because I enjoyed the author’s previous work- I mean, doesn’t the title sort of connote a vacuous New Age book for graying hippies? It’s dense and thought-provoking, though, very common for all of Greer’s work (crazy or no), and I especially enjoyed the first half of it. The second half appealed to me a little less. Either way this post probably smells of that book.


I also want to reiterate that I am still writing regularly here. Every person has a million words of shitty prose in them before they can ever really write something worth reading, and I’m still trying to knock those million out.



My posts are usually scheduled for a week or two ahead of when it is published (I started this post on 17 September). Last week’s posts were written three weeks ago.

Between then and now, I took a two-week break.


Since I started this blog, I cut out an hour everyday to write. At first “finding the time” was difficult, but the writing quickly became a habit. Once I stopped, I felt especially aware of that new time I gained. Obviously I don’t actually acquire new time- it’s the same time that I found “hard to find” weeks before.

The same sort of thing happens at home, where my vegetarian girlfriend usually cooks. I can go for long stretches eating her food without noticing the lack of meat (although I obviously did notice it at first). When I then go out to eat, my experience of eating meat seems different. I don’t think it would be that radical to suggest that I enjoy meat more when I have it less regularly.

Common things can almost become invisible and mechanical. Common things increase our tolerance and decrease our attention towards their continuing recurrence. Making common things scarcer makes them seem more ‘special’ and attracts attention to them. Scarce things are noticed and felt more by virtue of their uncommonness. Common things are only similarly noticed in their absence.

There are, I think, a few ways in which your behavior changes. Scarcity draws a lot of attention to itself. That’s the key finding that I think motivates everything. When you’re experiencing scarcity, your mind automatically focuses on that thing. That focus brings benefits, which we talk about. But it has some costs, too [..]

It’s almost too obvious to note that the market operates under a similar logic. But even without the familiar market terms, I expect that this principle was known for a very long time.

I imagine that even very old religious and cultural practices internalize this idea in habitual actions (common) and sacred rites/ceremonies (special). Fasting takes the normality of eating and makes it special through imposed abstinence. Of course, there are other good reasons I could speculate for a religious practice to demand fasting: common suffering/experience maybe, or to protect the tribe from tragedies of the commons during periods where food isn’t abundant (I have no evidence of this one!). It could just be another shibboleth, a way of controlling and identifying true believers from those who are unwilling to suffer to prove loyalty to the tribe through asceticism. And there is no law that says it isn’t a little bit of all of these reasons and many others. Either way, even if they weren’t explicitly spoken of, the idea of changing people’s behaviors towards a thing or action by imposing minimum or maximum limits is probably a dirt-old idea.

Playing Everything

“Loving [a thing] should make you a snob, not a cheerleader. And proper snobs are full of hate about what they love.”

-Eric Zimmerman



After this post, I’m going to start writing much shorter and more sporadic posts, I think. I’ll reduce the time from writing to posting so that I can talk about stuff I am actually currently doing. I am writing this on September 9th (I have my posts automatically scheduled), so I am entitling myself to a short vacation between now and publication of this post on the 19th. I’ll still have something for next Tuesday, anyway.

I’m glad I was able to push myself into getting so much text down. I wasn’t sure I was going to find the time and energy, but thanks to a little pushing by some of my “editors” and a little discipline I’ve been able to write consistently. It never really felt like a waste of time- writing is a great way to think through ideas (and obviously a good way to share them and get feedback, too).

This tenth post is a loose constellation of ideas on games, how I think about them, and how I got here.


Simon’s Ant

When you watch an ant follow a tortuous path across a beach, you might say, “How complicated!” Well, the ant is just trying to go home, and it’s got to climb over little sand dunes and around twigs. Its path is generally pointed toward its goal, and its maneuvers are simple, local responses to its environment. To simulate an ant, you don’t have to simulate that wiggly path, just the way it responds to obstacles.

Say you want to program a computer to simulate a person playing the piano. Sure, a Bach fugue or Mozart sonata is complicated. When people play them you see their fingers doing all these complicated things. But you can predict every motion if you know what the notes are. The complexity is in the notes. The fingers just do the few things that fingers can.

-Herbert Simon

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The Weird and the Banal

I’m sure this exists in some Umberto Eco book or something somewhere-

But imagine a man who is supernaturally bestowed with the power to truthfully answer any question someone else poses to him, but only on the terms that the question was posed. Our poor supergenius, call him Bert, cannot add new vocabulary that the asker doesn’t already use. He can’t draw or move to better convey his answers to others’ questions visually. Poorly posed questions about elan vital or phlogiston or angels on pinheads get warped answers, instead of denials of the premises (perhaps because if Bert had to deny all false or vague premises, he’d never be able to answer anyone’s questions at all). Even well-designed questions with direct answers might suffer from an “Up-Goer Five” effect, where Bert has to constrain the absolute truth to terms and ideas that already exist, leaving him frequently tongue-tied or unintelligible. There are clean-cut and simple answers that he cannot give especially well because of his inability to expand vocabulary or introduce new concepts. There are simple questions that he wished someone would ask but if never occurs to anyone to ask in the right way, most of the time. Many of what people bring to him as Big Questions are instead just very confused nonsense that he can only answer with his own tortured nonsense response.

We are not equipped to understand Bert.

Just as there are odors that dogs can smell and we cannot, as well as sounds that dogs can hear and we cannot, so too there are wavelengths of light we cannot see and flavors we cannot taste.

Why, then, given our brains wired the way they are, does the remark “Perhaps there are thoughts we cannot think” surprise you?

Evolution, so far, may possibly have blocked us from being able to think in some directions; there could be unthinkable thoughts.

-Richard Hamming, Bell Labs


An affordance is a possibility for action, latent in the designed artifact itself but recognizable and actionable to the user. Knobs and wheels afford turning. Buttons afford pressing. The possibility for the action is clear just by looking at it- at least, for someone who has already mapped the mechanics of an artifact to an experience they recognize.

One could  imagine an alien species with strange appendages and sensory organs, creating tools that seem very natural to them because of their history and what their bodies allow, tools that for humans are worse than unusable- they’re practically unfathomable.

I want to take a stab at thinking about what is and isn’t “fathomable”.

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Originally, this blog was a sort of challenge to write continuously for a little while. I’ve sort of got the hang of it, but I wanted to focus some effort on other things, so I am reducing my output after next week’s pretty sizable posts. I figured it wasn’t cheating by my own lights, since I only committed myself originally to one post per week, anyway.

Next week I’m back at more sprawling, loosely connected posts- about analogical reasoning, “unthinkable thoughts”, weird fiction, and finally a bit about videogames and game development.

This post is about some simple ideas that were missing (as formal ideas, anyway) from my toolkit until relatively recently.


I attended a lecture by Jon Kolko ~3 years ago. It was called “Right Time, Right Place: Applying the discipline of design to the emerging problems facing society“, and it re-framed the role of design as I saw it at the time. Kolko is interested in social entrepreneurship and using the lens of design to think rigorously about how to approach “wicked problems”. His presentations are accessible on his site, and his latest book is available to read online.

Kolko’s definition of design is “the creation of a representational dialogue between people and products, services and systems encountered in everyday human experience.” [Note: As I see it, “representational dialogue” is a superset of “procedural rhetoric.”] Design is an abductive problem-solving process that (usually) has a formal manifestation. This is a story about a party that I’ve been very late to.

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Reducing to Numbers

This post is a little on the short side. I was excited about next week’s posts (just finished next Tuesday’s post), and hopefully I’m still excited about them when they’re posted. This Thursday, I’m posting a semi-autobiographical post about abductive reasoning that sets the stage a bit. After next week, after two pretty sizable posts, I might rethink my blog and whether I want to switch to shorter, more sporadic posts now that I’m becoming satisfied with how I’ve grounded my outlook a little (and it only took about 15,000 words to reach that level of security!) I might move to one post per week, and my posts might shift from vague generalities to things I’m currently working on.

This post is partially adapted from old notes on two books: Policy Paradox by Deborah Stone and Debt: The First 5000 Years by David Graeber.


In my previous post, I argued that markets existed in some capacity as long as humans have, but that Markets as a philosophical object, a mature and manipulable thing, is much much newer (only centuries old). Being able to talk about “The Market” in the abstract, and use names and numbers to describe it and its actions as though it has agency all on its own, changes our behaviors regarding it. In the TIMN story, The Market concept rose out of necessity, to give a name to a solution to a problem with institutional form.

Likewise, the concept of zero was invented (or maybe discovered, if you’re into that) out of necessity, independently at several different points in history. There was a “base level” symbol in ancient Egyptian construction that may not be zero per se. Mesopotamians created a sort of placeholder for zero in large numbers, although they never used it alone or even at the end of numbers (you had to discern 16 from 160 by context). Zero as a complete concept and as a symbol likely first developed in India.

Naming and numbering often creates the first semblance of control over a thing. Counting is often a political act. Numbers are frequently rhetorical devices. When you count, you make value judgments about categorizing (what to include/exclude). When counting or measuring humans, counting creates political communities out of the counted.

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Developing Organizations

Note: I am writing every Tuesday and Thursday now. I noticed much more Thursday traffic than Tuesday traffic this week…


I am currently barely starting A Thousand Years of Nonlinear History (had a turbulent few weeks- my reading time took a serious hit). I’ve encountered attempts at historical accounts at a different perspective than human agency, but never one that has succeeded at going so long, with so much detail, without ever using the vocabulary of human interaction as a crutch. I’m too scared to write about the book yet, I’ll probably wait until I finish at least a part of it.

This post is about the evolution of artificial things over time.


Forced Moves and Good Tricks

I first read Daniel Dennett’s “Darwin’s Dangerous Idea” the same summer I read Herbert Simon’s “Sciences of the Artificial”, maybe six years ago. I generally see those two books as the starting point of my interest that informed my choices of college and majors and prospective career. The vocabulary of cranes and skyhooks and design space and satisficing and bounded rationality are permanently cached away as basic metaphors for understanding how I think about a bizarrely wide array of things. The fact that I haven’t mentioned them, several thousand words into subjects where they would’ve been appropriate, was entirely accidental.

Anyway, I’m starting with Dennett today.

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The Simulation Gap

I’ve got a few backlog posts, so I can say that for the time-being, I expect to post every Tuesday and Thursday. I’ve sorta impressed myself with how easily I’ve been able to write without killing myself with work or my other projects (so far). This is my Tuesday post.

Below is a bastardization abridged version of an older essay I once wrote. I wanted to introduce these ideas so I can call them up later with a link and a hand-wave. This post is about an idea called the Simulation Gap. The example I provide (Nuclear Power in SimCity 3000) was originally a much longer section from an essay I wrote about games as rhetoric in college, and also the basis of the presentation I made for our winning entry for Microsoft’s National “Imagine Cup” in 2012, which I’ll probably come back to in this blog sometime.



For those uninterested in justification or citation, here are the key points.

  • All simulations are simplifications, and what they prioritize to precisely emulate or roughly approximate or even include in the simulation can make an argument and affect an experience.
  • The “Simulation Gap” is the “gap between rule-based representation and player subjectivity.”
  • The difference between the simulation’s “view” and the player’s subjective understanding of the “model” is where rhetorical power in a game [or other artifacts] lies.
  • Procedural literacy is the ability to read and write procedural rhetorics, or as Bogost claims, “to craft and understand arguments mounted through unit operations represented in code”.
  • One good framework to use to explore the interaction between a game and a player is “MDA” or “Mechanic-Dynamic-Aesthetic“: A game’s rules (mechanics) regarding the players fuel emergent game behaviors (dynamics) that  in turn generate emergent game experiences (aesthetics).

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