Category Archives: Uncategorized

RMarkdown/knitr etc Considered Harmful

Typically, I write my scientific reports in Latex. A makefile orchestrates all my analysis in stages, and some steps produce latex fragments that appear in the final document. A typical step reads the previous steps’s appropriate data into R, performs a single calculation, model training or evaluation, or generates a figure while simultaneously writing out the appropriate fragment of Latex that describes the process, including quantitative details when necessary.

I like this because each step is simple to understand, its dependencies are clearly documented by the makefile, and the reporting on the step is located right where the code is. And Make automatically handles rebuilding the appropriate parts of my document when I tell it to.

Contrast this with RMarkdown, which encourages the scientist to pile state into the document willy-nilly. Steps which depend on one another can be separated by large regions of text and code. As you develop your Markdown file, the strong temptation is to evaluate fragments of code in your interpreter, which can lead to hard to understand bugs and unreproducible results.

Most notebook style authoring tools have this problem.

I suppose its a classic story of usability vs correctness and as usual, I don’t know why I expect correctness to win.

Being a Dad Rules

A few nights ago I dreamed that I was standing on the edge of a giant sunken waterway, some kind of vast floodwater system in which six inches or so of water flowed at a good clip over cobblestones slick with moss. In it, someone was running around, chasing an animal or other creature.

I was high above.

Suddenly they were down there with my son. They were horseplaying, and they swung him around by his feet and tossed him out into the deeper water. I screamed “He can’t swim you asshole” and desperately tried to plan the fastest route down (it was so far down) so that I could get to him before he drowned. I woke up in an awful panic, which took half an hour to go away.

Quantum Mechanics for Babies

I had a kid a year and a half ago. Because I’m a physicist, people bought me “physics for babies” books. We’ve got two: General Relativity for Babies and Quantum Mechanics for Babies. To be totally frank, neither book is particularly good, but the General Relativity one is a lot better and I think this serves as an interesting framing device for talking about the two theories. In particular, the character of quantum mechanics is extremely difficult to explain because it is, to a large extent, apparently abstract and detached from the physics as such.

All of the ideas in General Relativity for Babies are either intuitive or map neatly by analogy onto intuitive things. We, more or less, perceive mass directly and the sense of warped space is pretty easily given by a heavy object sitting on a bed. Of course, that hardly gives any sense of the unusual way that GR tells us that mass warps space-time, the way that events perceived by an external observer slow to a crawl as they enter ever more curved space time, or the way that a similar effect over the entire observed universe as one approaches the speed of light. But in a way, none of these things are metaphysically revisionary the way quantum mechanics is. Whatever distortions we see due to relativistic effects, they always preserve a causal account of things which is fundamentally familiar. In this way, GR underlines our typical perception of the universe, even if it stretches it out or otherwise distorts it.

Quantum Mechanics, on the other hand, involves a variety of phase transitions in thinking that are difficult to convey by any analogy, partly because it seems like at least some of the content of the theory has nothing to do with physics at all and instead derives entirely from a naive application of some basic principles about probabilistic explanation. This is a theme in R.I.G. Hughes’ book on the interpretation of the theory: that the unusual features of Quantum Mechanics inhere not so much in any physical circumstance but derive instead from using vector spaces to represent exhaustive, mutually exclusive events related to one another by some probabilistic process.

Ok, sure. But how would I explain Quantum Mechanics to a child? Like this:

  • It turns out that very small things are difficult to describe.
  • When we try, we find that we can only predict the probability of certain outcomes, sort of like how you can only predict that a coin will land heads or tails, but not which side.
  • Except in special cases, the exact result of a measurement is unknown, but the relative chance of each possible outcome can be known.
  • In the special case that we do know an outcome will occur, there are always other measurements which we only have probabilistic predictions about (no dispersion free states).
  • We use something called a wave function to calculate the probabilities of different outcomes. A wave function can be many things, but you can think of it as a field of values over all of space. The values tell us something about the probability of measurements.
  • In many situations, the physics combined with the wave function, tell us that for certain kinds of measurements, only certain values are observable. This is why we call the theory “Quantum” Mechanics – “Quantum” is a word which means “a discrete value.”
  • One example of this is the hydrogen atom. This is a small system with an electron and a proton. You can think of these as being like two small points. The electron and proton want to be as close to one another as possible, sort of like how two magnets pull on one another.
  • We can describe the position of each particle using Quantum Mechanics. That is, we can write a wave function which we can use to calculate, for instance, the probability that we find the electron at any position in space.
  • If we do this, we find that the energy of the system, which is sort of like how fast the particles are going plus how much they are pulling on one another (they pull harder on one another when they are nearby) is quantized. Even though we can find the electron at any position in space, if we measure the energy of the system, it only comes in a discrete set of values. Hence, the system is called quantized.
  • The fact that many systems are quantized in this way makes all sorts of things possible that would not otherwise be like atoms and molecules.
  • Measuring the energy means that we can only describe the probability of measuring a specific position. If we were to measure position after measuring energy, we might find the electron anywhere in space, and while some points in space might be more likely than others, we can’t tell where the particle is until we’ve measured it. Critically, this isn’t about the accuracy of our measurement – our uncertainty about the particle’s position is unavoidable because of the theory of quantum mechanics. It seems to be the case that nothing we could know would reduce our uncertainty about the position to nothing.


This is far from the level of “Mass bends space!” but I think its a relatively accurate and honest description of the theory that a young person could understand.

Images, Causality, Disassociation, Interactivity and Videogames

I’ve got an eight month old. Watching a baby come to terms with the world can teach you a lot of things. For instance, and as a kind of hors d’oevre, consider the word “shush.” To an adult human being, its an imperative verb which indicates that you should be quiet. To a baby it resembles the sound of blood rushing in the womb and is, therefore, supposed to be calming. As a baby learns that sounds can have arbitrary meaning, the “shush” as simulation becomes the “shush” as symbol – the baby comes to appreciate that we can mean things with sounds we make.

My baby spends a lot of time feeling the texture of things. In particular, he’s interested in pictures in books, over which he carefully draws his pointer finger, alternating between the finger tip and scraping with the fingernail. Its not too hard to see that he is curious about the difference between images of things and things themselves. In particular, he seems to have cottoned to the fact that things themselves feel a certain way when you touch them whereas mere images feel like paper or laminate or cardboard, and are more or less undifferentiated qua image with respect to feeling.

When I dwell on this interest, it strikes me how marvelous images really are: they represent a profound collapse of the ordinary causal relationship between light entering our eyes and the objects with which that light has interacted. Wood grain looks like wood grain because it has the physical structure of wood grain. Its dark, striated areas appear as such because the material is ridged, casting some parts into shadow with respect to the source of illumination. A photograph of wood grain inherits the visible properties of the object while it separates them from an immediate cause. The visual aspects of a photograph can be easily manipulated (particularly in the modern era) without changing the way the photograph feels, but most modifications to actual wood grain meant to accomplish a visual change will also result in changes in the physical structure of the object. Our brains, of course, evolved in a context where this relationship between the way we perceive things and the underlying structure of the things themselves, is often strong. This is why when we see a piece of wood we expect it to feel like a piece of wood. It’s probably why my child is so interested in touching pictures in his books: because the breakdown between the visual perception of the thing and any obvious physically relevant structure is novel.

Part of the power of images is related to this detachment from material cause. Things themselves only ever depict (in our senses) that which is literally possible. Images can depict whatever they are designed to depict, whether its causally plausible or not. A normal person has the visual form of a person on account of the fact that they are made up of bones, muscles, fat, etc, that they have a certain mass and weight. When a human bends their knees and leaps into the air, the height of their leap is, ultimately, a property of all these material causes. Superman,  however much he might resemble a person, can leap tall buildings with a single bound, because the resemblance is, in a sense, entirely incidental. A comic book merely depicts physics and thus may take liberties, while a 100 meter dash is physics. Images can exploit the fact that that which is depictable is much more various than that which is possible.

To take a lurching step towards the point before my baby wakes up from his nap: technology in general has this property of obscuring the relationship between cause and effect. Technology can even be understood primarily in terms of the careful manipulation of cause and effect to accomplish what might otherwise be an unlikely outcome. From this point of view a computer is almost literally a cause/effect obfuscator. It presents to us, the user, a two-dimensional interface on which almost any cause and effect relationship can obtain at all. A real xylophone has the property that larger blocks vibrate at lower frequencies, and so a necessary material relationship between music and the structure of the xylophone appears. We can easily imagine a simulation of a xylophone where the relationship between apparent block size and the sound each block makes when struck is the opposite or totally random. Take the piano as an example somewhere in between: its keys are all the same size: the strings which produce the sounds are hidden behind the curtain, so to speak. We can’t as easily infer from the piano that sound is deeply related to vibration, which is related to mass and energy. Computers are the apotheosis of the movement between the xylophone and the piano: their inner workings are, at the human scale, so subtle, that no amount of inspection with the senses can reveal how cause and effect are tangled up inside them.

Armed with these insights, we can put on our game designer’s hat and begin to build up a new way of thinking about what precisely we are doing when design digital interactive systems. I’d like to make two points: the first is that we often feel alienated from experiences when there is a disconnect between the apparent causal structure of those experiences and their actual evolution in time. A good example of this is those old physical racing toys you sometimes still see: a steering wheel controls (by virtue of a connected lever) a plastic car while the image of a road, with obstacles, printed on a loop of paper, is scrolled through a viewing window. The player is expected to avoid collision with these obstacles by virtue of their own understanding of the implied relationship between the objects: cars crash when they strike things like trees or other cars. We quickly grow tired of these sorts of games, not just because we are expected to enforce the rules ourselves (which is also true of games like Chess) but because the causal relationships they do embody are trivial compared to (and distant from) the causal relationships they appear to embody.

The point is that, if we want to engage players, we should provide simulations of causal relationships which are meaningful and we should avoid both acausal elements (like pure randomness) and discrepancies between depictions and causality.  If the presentation of our game suggests, by reference to physical processes with which we are all familiar, that a particular causal relationship is in force in our simulation, then we ought to make that relationship present or we should eliminate the appearance of that relationship from the presentation.

Canny readers will probably recognize that this goes against philosophies like “juice it or lose it,” which seem to suggest that the experience of play is actually enhanced by the intense elaboration of the appearance of our game elements. A more nuanced position can be developed, however: we can and ought to feel free to elaborate on the image our interactive system presents precisely in those ways which underline the causal relationships which our system embodies. When a ball strikes a wall, its probably good to indicate that with sound, dust particles, a shaking screen. On the other hand, if we do elaborate 3d modelling of rocks falling down a mountain, but they don’t interact with our player’s avatar, then we’ve introduced the appearance of a relationship that our system fails to deliver on.

None of this is to say that such appearances might not lead to more saleable products or that they might not provide pleasure to players. That leads me to my second, moral, point. We, as game designers, ought to respect our players by giving them interactive systems which communicate clearly about the relationships they embody for exactly the same reasons that we ought to communicate honestly in real life or in any other art form.

This isn’t to say that our simulations have to correspond to reality or be as realistic as possible. On the contrary, if we wish to explore systems which deviate from reality with our players, we must take even greater care to harmonize the representation of those systems with their underlying structure. We might dazzle players for awhile with elaborate audiovisuals, but unless those operate in concert with the causal structure of our games, we’ll almost certainly have wasted their time (or, at the very least, missed an opportunity to provide real interactive value.)

More Thoughts about Roadkill

When I think about whats wrong with the world, I often return to the image of a dead dog on the highway I drive to work every morning.
I say dog, but it’s probably a wolf or a coyote. Its dead body appeared sometime in mid-winter last year, leaned up against the barrier between the road and the endless construction projects, with their piles of gravel, idling heavy equipment, and signs pointing up at powerlines, tiny cartoon men in electrical paroxysms against orange backgrounds. When the weather warms up a bit you see a lot of roadkill, if you drive a lot.
The bigger animals are often so shredded by their encounter with an automobile that they look like raw pastries, like strudels which have been sliced open and twisted so their filling can pour out and caramelize in the oven. But this big coyote was more or less intact.
This environment, between the endless stream of cars and the torn up earth or naked concrete of the construction area, is so inimical to life that scavengers, who usually benefit from roadkill, picking away at it over the course of a day or so that the corpses seem to evaporate in the time lapse of your daily drive past them, are too afraid to descend on it, and so this animal’s body just lay there, day after day. It seemed like the very forces of decay, the least pleasant, but most implacable, of the forces of nature, were arrested by this alien environment which, each day, as I drive through it, bleaches out my mind.
Eventually, sometime last year, as spring came on, the body just vanished. I assume some city service eventually picked it up and threw it in a dump somewhere.
There is another dead coyote in more or less the same place this year.

On the (pseudo?)-paradox of “fair” games.

Fair Games and 50% Win Chances

I’ll take it as an assumption in the rest of this article that a fair game is one where each player has a 50% chance of winning. We also sometimes call such a situation a “good match” or say that the game will be good if we believe such a state of affairs prevails. We also tend to view negatively the opposite condition, wherein one player has a huge advantage over the other and hence where we expect the probability of that player losing is very low (implying the probability of the other player losing is very high).

Dismal Coin FlipThese considerations aren’t limited to two player competitive games.  If we are playing a single player, digital or otherwise interactive game, we call that game “fair” when we have about a 50% chance of winning. We would call a game where our chance of winning is ~1% unfair or badly designed, and where our chance of winning is ~99% boring or badly designed.

A Pseudo-contradiction

At first glance this seems to imply a contradictory attitude, one illustrated by recalling that we also call a coin flip “fair” if there is a 50% chance of the coin landing on either face. If the purpose of a game is to determine which player is the better player, how can it be that we seem to also want the outcome of the game to be as random as possible (such that for good matches, each player has a 50% chance of winning). It would appear that good games have random outcomes and that seems to contradict their apparent purpose in measuring how well a player plays.

(NB. The account is a little harder to render in the case of single player interactive systems. However, it seems paradoxical that a player would engage with a system with the intent of winning when the outcome could equivalently be determined by the toss of a coin).


I don’t think this is a genuine paradox, of course: when we say a game is fair, what we are saying is that the outcome isn’t random, but that it depends, sensitively, on which player makes the better sequence of moves in response to the other player. Why sensitively? Well, when two players are closely matched the the outcome of the game, if the win probability for either player is 50%, should depend very sensitively on how well each player actually plays. In particular, close matches come down to one or two critical mistakes or strokes of brilliance to tip the scales in one direction.

(This is particularly true because of another property of games (approximate reversibility) which I believe games must also have, but which I don’t discuss here.)

So it isn’t really surprising that we can resolve this merely apparent contradiction about games. But the resolution points us towards another important argument:

Implications about Randomness

Because the outcome of a good game should depend sensitively on the moves of the player, the randomness present in a good game should be minimal or not present at all. Why? Because if the outcome of a game depends sensitively on the moves the player makes, then it also must necessarily depend sensitively on random influences on the game state. Why? For outcomes to depend sensitively on a move implies that each move a player makes is carefully tuned for the game state, which they have correctly appreciated in order to make the right move. But if the game state changes randomly, then a good move might be turned into a bad move by a random change in the game state.

(It is possible to imagine random changes to the game state which don’t change the quality of moves. But if this is the case, then these changes to the game state are _extraneous_ to playing the game and may as well be removed).


To restate the argument:

  1. we believe games should be fair, which is to say that a given player should have a 50% change of winning
  2. this is because we want games to be sensitive tests of the quality of play of the given player, where the outcome depends sensitively on moves. We don’t want the game itself to be actually be random in the sense that the outcome is extraneous to the game itself.
  3. Random elements (which are necessarily extraneous to the game in their origin) reduce the sensitivity of the win condition on the specific moves made by a player
  4. Hence, good games should have minimal random elements.

This argument puts game designers in a difficult position. For designers of multiplayer games, they must make sure that the game’s rules don’t advantage particular players or add the appropriate handicap if they do. This turns out to be difficult. In Chess, for instance, white has a slight win chance, although the precise probability is unknown. Typically, for a new game without a long history of play, it will be very hard to determine whether such a bias exists and what size it might be.

With the rise of computers and single player strategy games a different set of design concerns manifests. The temptation in single player game design is to use random elements to provide variety for a gameplay system which may not have the strategic depth furnished by the presence of a second rational player. It is hard to imagine a deterministic single player game with the same initial conditions each play that can stand up to repeated play.

I think the way forward here is to randomize the initial conditions of any such game subject to the constraint that a given initial condition preserves the win 50% rate (perhaps based on artificial intelligence play or some other way of characterizing win chance) and then to make play from that point forward completely deterministic.


The baby was fussy all morning, and when he finally went to sleep, in the crook of his mother’s arm, after nursing we were scared to leave him alone in case the silence woke him up. I made carbonara downstairs, ate, and then went to lie beside him reading while Shelley took her portion.

As I re-positioned my leg, my knee popped loudly, startling the baby. He stretched his arms above his head and pawed at his face with the backs of his hands. These gestures were familiar to me from my own body. I had seen, too, him sneeze or yawn. I imagined for a moment, that I had given these things to him, but that transposition made a deeper truth clear.

My cat, who slept above us, on a table over the bed we had arranged on the floor, stretched and yawned. He sneezes. When we turn the lights on at night to change Felix’s diaper, he sprawls onto his stomach and covers his eyes with his paws, sulkily. These gestures, taught to us by no one, inherent in us, which you could have observed in my child minutes after he was born, belong to an unimaginably ancient process of which we are merely brief manifestations.

Human beings tie themselves into knots or grind themselves to featureless lumps, struggling to connect with something vast and ancient. We don’t stop to think that each time we yawn we are in contact with something profound and atavistic, something older than history, bigger than the merely human.

The Ethics of Game Design

In the next week or so, I’ll be on the Dinofarm Games Community Podcast talking about the ethics of game design. My baby is just one week old, though! So I might not have been as coherent there as I wanted to be. As such, I thought I’d collect a few notes here while they were still in my head.

As a preamble: there are lots of ethical implications of games that I don’t discuss here. Particularly social ones: since games often depict social and cultural situations (like novels, plays or television shows) similar ethical concerns operate for games as for those artifacts. Here I’m specifically interested in those special ethical questions associated with games as interactive systems.

The question I’m interested in is: “What are the ethical obligations of a game designer, particularly to the player?” In a way, this is an old question in a new disguise, recognizable as such since the answer tends to dichotomize in a familiar way: is the game designer supposed to give the player what they want or is she supposed to give the player that which is good for them?

Let’s eliminate some low hanging fruit: if we design a game which is addictive, in the literal sense, I think most people will agree that we’ve committed an ethical lapse. There are a few folks out there with unusual or extreme moral views who would argue that even a game with bona fide addictive qualities isn’t morally problematic, but to them I simply say we’re operating with a different set of assumptions. However, the following analysis should hopefully illuminate exactly why we consider addictive games problematic as well as outline a few other areas where games ethical impact is important.

I think the most obvious place to start with this kind of analysis is to ask whether games are leisure activity, recreation or whether they provide a practical value. By leisure activity I mean any activity which we perform purely for pleasure, by recreation, I mean an activity that is performed without an immediate practical goal but which somehow improves or restores our capacity to act on practical goals, and by practical value, I mean something which immediately provides for a concrete requirement of living.

Its a little unclear where games fall into this rubric. It is easiest to imagine that games are purely leisure activities. This fits the blurb provided by the wikipedia article and also dovetails, broadly, with my understanding of games in public rhetoric. Categorizing games as purely leisure activities seems to justify a non-philosophical attitude about them: what is the point of worrying about the implications of that which is, at a fundamental level, merely a toy¹?

Point number one is that even toys, which have no practical purpose but to provide fun, are subject to some broad ethical constraints. It isn’t implausible to imagine that we could implant an electrode directly into a person’s brain such that the application of a small current to that electrode would produce, without any intervening activity, the sensation of fun. We could then give the person a button connected to that electrode and allow them to push it. This is technically an interactive system, perhaps even a highly degenerate game. It is certainly providing the player with the experience of fun, directly. However, its likely that a person so equipped would forego important practical tasks in favor of directly stimulating the experience of fun. If we gradually add elements between button presses and the reward or between the electrodes and the reward circuitry, we can gradually transform this game into any interactive system we could imagine. Clearly, at some point, the game might lose its property that it overwhelms the player’s desire to perform practical tasks. That line is the line between ethical and non-ethical game design.

In other words, game designers subscribing to the leisure theory of games are still obligated, perhaps counter-intuitively, to make their games sufficiently unfun that they don’t interfere with the player’s practical goals.

We have two interpretations of game value: the recreational and the practical interpretations.

Of these, the idea of the game as recreation may be closest to what is often discussed on the Dinofarm Discord channel. Its also frequently the narrative used to justify non-practical games. You’ve likely heard or even used the argument that digital games can improve hand-eye coordination or problem solving skills. This interpretation rests on their existing an operational analogy between the skills required to play a game and those required to perform practical tasks. There is a lot of literature on whether such a link exists and what form or forms it takes.

If no such link exists we can rubbish this entire interpretation of games, so its more interesting to imagine the opposite (as it least seems to sometimes be the case). When a link exists the value proposition for a game is: this game provides, as a side effect of play, a practical benefit. Why the phrase “as a side effect of play?” Because, if the purpose of the game is to provide the practical benefit, then we must always compare our game against some practical activity which might provide more of that same benefit than an equivalent effort directed towards non-game activity.

To choose a particularly morally dubious example, we might find that playing Doom improves firing range scores for soldiers. But shouldn’t we compare that to time spent simply practicing on the firing range? Without some further argumentative viscera, this line of thinking seems to lead directly to the conclusion that if games are recreation, we might always or nearly always find some non-game activity which provides a better “bang” for our buck.

Elaborating on this line of argument reveals what the shape of the missing viscera might be. Why is it plausible that we could find some non-game activity that works as well or better than any given game at meeting a practical end? Because games must devote some of their time and structure to fun and, as such, seem to be less dense in their ability to meet a concrete practical goal. In Doom, for instance, there are a variety of mechanics in the game which make it an exciting experience which don’t have anything to do with the target fixation behavior we are using to justify our game.

But we can make an argument of the following form: a purely practical activity which results the improvement of a skill requires an amount of effort. That effort might be eased by sweetening the activity with some fun elements, converting it to a game, allowing less effort for a similar gain of skill.

On this interpretation the ethical obligation of the game designer is to ensure that whatever skill they purport to hone with their game is developed for less effort than the direct approach. If they fail to meet this criteria, then they fail to provide the justification for their game.

The final interpretation we need to consider is that games themselves provide a direct, practical, benefit. I think this is a degenerate version of the above interpretation. It turns out to be difficult to find examples of this kind of game, but they do exist. Consider, a game where player activity helps resolve otherwise computationally expensive protein folding calculations.

In this kind of game the developer has a few ethical obligations. The first is to make sure that the fun the game provides is sufficient compensation for the work the player has done or to otherwise make sure the player’s play is given with informed consent. For instance, if we design a game that gives player’s fun to solve traveling salespeople problems which, for some reason, we are given a cash reward for solving, a good argument can be made that, unless the game is exceptionally fun, we’re exploiting our player base. If the game were really so fun as to justify playing on its own terms, why wouldn’t we simply be playing it ourselves?

Game designers of this sort also need to make sure that there isn’t a more efficient means to the practical end. Since the whole purpose of the game is to reach a particular end, if we discover a more efficient way to get there, the game is no longer useful.

I think there is probably much more to say on this subject but I had a baby a week ago and three hours of sleep last night, so I think I will float this out there in hopes of spurring some discussion.

The Dinofarm Community Interpretation

At the end of the podcast we decided on a very specific definition of games (from an ethical standpoint). We (myself and users Hopenager and Redless) decided games could  be described as a kind of leisure whose purpose is to produce the feeling of pleasure associated with learning. Since this is a leisure interpretation, we aren’t concerned directly with practical value, which I think is square with the way we typically think of games. However, as a leisure interpretation we need a theory of how games operate in the context of the player’s larger goals.

Let’s sketch one. What circumstances transpire in a person’s life where they have the desire for the pleasure associated with learning but are unable to pursue that desire in productive terms? One possibility is fatigue: after working on productive activities, a person might have an excess of interest in the experience of learning but a deficit of energy to pursue those productive activities. In that situation, a game can satisfy the specific desire with a lower investment of energy (which could mean here literal energy or just lower stress levels – games, since they aren’t practical, are typically less stressful than similar real world situations).

Once the game is completed, the desire ought to be satisfied but not stimulated, allowing the player to rest and then pursue practical goals again.

Again, there are probably other possible ways of situation ethical games in this interpretation, but I think this is a compelling one: games should satisfy, but not stimulate, the desire to learn, and only in those situations where that desire might not be more productively used, as is in the case of mental exhaustion or the need to avoid stress.

Games shouldn’t have a “loop” which intends to capture the player’s attention permanently. Indeed, I think ethical games should be designed to give up the attention of the player fairly easily, so they don’t distract from practical goals.

And them’s my thoughts on the ethics of game design.

¹: Note that there is a loose correspondence between our rubric and The Forms. Toys, roughly, seem to be objects of leisure, puzzles and contests are arguably recreation, and games are, potentially, at least, objects of real practical value. Maybe this is the interpretation of games is the one underlying “gamification” enthusiasts.

Accounting for Turtles

When we bought the land, the irrigation pond, formed at the lowest point of the property by an earthen dam now overgrown with pines, cherry trees, and hobbles of tangled honey suckle, had failed. After cutting our way through the tall grass between the pond and the road and wading out into the swamp mud which now marked out the area where water had been, we found it: a four inch, rusted out, galvanized steel pipe down which water fell in a cold, sonorous trickle, despite the heat. Pieces of the rusted pipe, too few and small to form the whole of the missing riser, which otherwise seemed to have almost completely disintegrated, littered the area.

A year later, after we had repaired the riser with a clean new piece of white PVC, an orange bucket and twenty pounds of concrete mixed with muddy water, a storm rolled in over the ridge to the north west and I dreamed that I saw, from the porch, a huge turtle making its slow way through the grassy shallow ditch from the road down to the pond.

In May, and for several months afterwards, turtles, seeking new habitats or mates or following their own silent intuitions, make their way across the rural roads around our home. You see them standing on the side of the road as cars rush past in the morning, as if contemplating making a run for it.

Or you see their bodies, mangled or crushed into chunks of muscle and shell, attracting flies in the afternoon heat which melts the tar between the pebbles of the asphalt. That summer I found a special sympathy developing for those animals. The natural defenses of such animals give them a relaxed, even clumsy, attitude which doesn’t prepare them for the dangers of living among humans. Whenever I saw a turtle furtively planning a trip across a road I would pull over and, using a camouflage work glove with black, spray on, latex grips that I kept in the car for the purpose, move it across the road. Usually, deep into the grass on the other side to discourage a return trip.

A few months after I dreamed of the enormous turtle I took a canoe out onto the water to inspect the new riser. As I got close I saw a pale yellow something sticking out from the top. It was a turtle which had gotten stuck, head first, down the pipe. It was dead, and while its feet and shell had been baked and desiccated by the sunlight, its head was down in the trickling darkness and covered in a film of almost airy mucous that made me think of the ectoplasmic expulsions of spiritualists.

After that day I attached a foot long, perforated, PVC section to the top of the riser so that other animals wouldn’t get sucked in.  I also started to keep a tally of the number of turtles I picked up and moved across the road and the number I saw killed or already dead.

This practice of counting turtles exposes you to suffering.

Once, unable to stop immediately to move a turtle, I watched the truck behind me pass it harmlessly only for its trailer to catch its edge and send it hurtling into the ditch alongside the road. Similar scenes often played out – you see the turtle crushed by the car behind you, or, after managing to find a place to turn around, you find only pieces. On one occasion, a turtle which was sitting at the side of the road, as through ready to cross, had already been hit. It seemed whole, but there were cracks along the seams of its shell. I carefully moved it under a tree. I wondered for some time whether turtles could survive such a thing or of it died of blood loss or dehydration, its essence sublimating off into the summer air.

State of the Life

Here is where I am in July of 2017.

Baby Time

My spouse and I are having a baby in a few months. Its hard to know what to say about this since, in addition to being highly personal, it involves, in principle, at least, the interests of at least two other human beings. I will say this. When I got married and began living with my spouse, I felt, ironically, that for the first time in my life, I had to live not just with her, but with myself. By that I mean that my own emotional state inside my home no longer radiated away harmlessly, but was responded to and echoed back at me. Until that moment in my life, I think I’ve always tried to ignore, suppress or dissipate any emotional activity but suddenly it was clear that I could no longer afford to ignore a part of myself which could affect my intimate partner.

Having a kid is like that but times ten. My partner is, at least, an adult, with her own independent existence, ability to ignore my worst qualities and even sympathize with my imperfections. A child, on the other hand, experiences a more unbalanced relationship with their parents, one, furthermore, made more fraught by material dependence and a lack of a frame of reference. I always think, at this point, of Huxley’s The Island, wherein children are raised by groups of people so that they don’t experience unalloyed exposure to the peculiarities of their parents. Contemporary western civilization, so obsessively organized around the patriarchal family unit, seems perverse in comparison. Adding to this sense of pressure is our extremely rural location and hence comparative isolation. Luckily we have some great neighbors upon whom I am (hopefully gently) prevailing to have children.

At any rate, each day I find that I turn more scrutiny upon myself.


I’m thirty-six.  Sometime in high-school I started doing push ups in the morning. In college I joined a rowing team and in so doing was exposed, perhaps for the first time, to the pleasures of physical conditioning. With a few notable periods in my life since then, I’ve been more or less aggressively fit. Starting at the beginning of this year, though, I’ve finally recovered a fairly aggressive routine of physical fitness which looks something like this:

  • Monday: fast mile (currently 6:35s) + weightlifting
  • Tuesday: rowing intervals. 24 minutes of rowing (plus warm up and cool down). Three minute intervals consisting of a hard sprint for one minute (split 1:53) and a cool down (split 2:00). Over 24 minutes I average a split of 1:58 or so.
  • Wednesday: slow run (4 miles at a 7:30s pace) or a leisurely row for about a half hour.
  • Thursday: same as Tuesday
  • Friday: Same as monday

I started the year at about an eight minute mile and I am slowly peeling off seconds. I seem to recall having run a sub six-minute mile in high school or college some time. I’m curious whether I can get back down to that time before the baby comes.

Sporadically I am working on my 2k sprint on the rowing machine. I’m doing about a 7:35 these days. I feel like I am close to my maximum without more aggressive cross training. So far I’ve never experienced any significant chest pain so I assume I am not going to die from exercise any time soon.

In other health news I’m drinking too much coffee. I typically cut back in the summer time, but I have an hour long drive to work and its boring. Attempts to drink less coffee have left me a little frightened of the drive.

Intellectual Life

I’m spread pretty thin. In this category I place game development, generative art work, technical skills related and unrelated to work, philosophy and physics.

Games and Game Design

On the practical subject of game design, my game The Death of the Corpse Wizard came out about a month ago – I’ve sold about 40 copies without doing much advertising. More importantly, since I don’t make my living as a game designer or developer, I think I’ve created a game with some substance, not entirely devoid of genuine value. I’m still contemplating to what degree I plan on developing Corpse Wizard forward or whether I want to move on to greener pastures.

On the less practical question of game design theory I’m working on trying to understand whether we can bring quantitative techniques to bear on the question of what constitutes a good strategy game. In particular, I’m trying to nail down exactly what sorts of properties the phase space of a game has, at each decision point, that make games feel fun.

I can give you a sense of what sorts of questions I am trying to think about quantitatively. Its typically understood that a game ought to present a player with about a 50% chance of winning if its to be fun. Its better to state that in the negative: the outcome of a game shouldn’t be a foregone conclusion. You can see this at work in two player games, where match making is always employed.

Incidentally, there is a pseudo-paradox here: the point of a two-player game appears to be to determine whether player 1 is better than player 2. Yet, paradoxically, we call only those games where a given player has a 50% chance of winning “fair.” But if each player has a 50% chance of winning, the outcome seems to  be random, which means it cannot teach us which player is better! I leave it as an exercise to the reader to puzzle out what, if any, resolution is possible.

Anyway, suppose we are dutiful game designers. On the first turn of our game, the player’s chance of winning must necessarily be 50%, then. One question I am interested in is: what does that chance of winning look like as a function of time? Is it flat at 50% until the end of the game? This seems unlikely. Why? Because when we play a game we are, at each turn, asking what move raises our chances of winning! If our chance of winning is flat, then the game will feel meaningless,  because no action will change the win rate. On the other hand, other paradoxes seem to manifest: suppose that instead a skilled player almost always chooses a move which increases her chance of winning. If that is the case, then at some point in the game, the chance of winning will be 90%. But at this point, the game’s outcome seems like a foregone conclusion! Why keep playing if almost all possible move sequences from turn N result in a win. In other words, it seems like games become more boring towards their ends, if we define boring as the property that their outcome is easy to predict.

In other words: it seems like the desire to make games non-boring is in tension with the desire to make the game playable. If the game is playable, then at each turn the player can, in principle, increase her chance of winning. If she can always increase her chance of winning, then, at some point, the game will become boring.

All this has to do with the way that individual moves change the win rate. This is, for simple games, anyway, tractable numerically. So I’m working on some experiments to try and suss out some of the structure of games and how it changes as we change the rules.


As mostly a hobby and an attempt to keep all those years of studying physics fresh, I’ve become interested in getting a good grasp of the interpretation of Quantum Mechanics. To that end I’ve started planning and produce a series of lectures covering RIG Hughes’ book “The Structure and Interpretation of Quantum Mechanics.” The book is very good (I’m about halfway through, in terms of deep understanding). About the only complaint I could make about it is that the introductory chapters do a good job of comparing and contrasting classical and quantum mechanics, whereas I think the more interesting comparison is between classical probabilistic mechanics and quantum mechanics. Both theories operate naturally on Hilbert spaces. Classical probabilistic mechanics seems to me to have an unambiguous interpretation (though see: but obviously there are differences between classical probabilistic physics and quantum mechanics.

Note that the ordinary formulation of QM makes this comparison non-trivial. I think of it this way: suppose we have a classical 1D system with N particles. Each has two degrees of freedom, its position and momentum, so we need 2N numbers to represent the classical state. If we imagine shrinking this system down (or engaging in some sort of metaphysical transition) so that the system becomes quantum mechanical, each particle requires a wave function which, in open space, has an infinite number of values, one for every point in space (for instance). That is, our 2N numbers must become N*∞. It seems like we’ve lost a factor of two. But we haven’t – each of those numbers in the wave function are complex valued, so, apart from the fact that complex numbers have structure which in some ways makes them seem like less than the sum of their (real and imaginary) parts, we’re back to where we start.

Contrast that with thinking about a probabilistic description of the classical system. In that case, we simply take each observable quantity (of which there are 2N) and create a probability distribution, which has an infinite number of values per N. So we have 2*N*∞ numbers to deal with. Rather than N wave functions, which serve as a combined representation of position and momentum, we have 2*N probability distributions, each of which is mapped directly onto a classical observable.

Three questions, then:

  1. Can we find a representation for Quantum Mechanics which is directly comparable to Classical Mechanics?
  2. Can we find a representation for Classical Mechanics which is directly comparable to Quantum Mechanics?
  3. In either of the above cases, what precisely accounts for the differences between the classical and quantum mechanical pictures?

Since I’m not smart enough to even pose questions which haven’t been posed before, I think, after enough reading, I can answer these questions.

  1. Yes – the Phase Space Formulation of Quantum Mechanics uses the Wigner-Weil transform to map the wave function to position/momentum phase space quasi-probability distribution.
  2. Yes – just create N wave functions from 2N probability distributions by adding Q + iP together for each particle.
  3. In the first case the critical distinction between the quasi-probability distributions and the classical probability distributions is that the former sometimes take values less than 0. In the second case the quantum mechanical system still admits no dispersion free states, whereas any combination of probability distributions is allowed in the classical case. It would be interesting to work out the mathematics, but the requirement that no state is dispersion free, which has to do with the operators which represent position and momentum and the Born Rule, imposes a constraint on the types of momentum probability distributions which can coexist with each particular position probability distribution.

Anyway, if there were some miraculous surfeit of free time in my future, I’d like to spend some of it working out these ideas in detail. I’m sure it would be educational for me.

Generative Artwork

Since Clocks I haven’t undertaken a single large generative art project with a coherent theme. I’m still interested in the themes of that project: minimizing artificial randomness in generative systems in favor of exploring patterns implicit therein.

On the other hand, I have worked on a few interesting little etudes.:

  1. Ceatues, a system built on coupled games of life.
  2. Spin, a sort of continuous, tune-able version of Langton’s Ant
  3. Meat is Mulder, an experiment in piecing together.

And I’ve been lucky enough to lecture a few times at the soon to be defunct Iron Yard:

  1. Generative Music with Javascript
  2. Making Generative Art with Javascript

More and more I see generative artwork and game design as tightly related fields. The difference lies entirely in the the absence of direct player interaction with the generative artwork. But the same quality of of lying just at the edge of predictability, which produces a sense of life in a generative artwork, generates interesting player situations in games.

I suppose I’m more interested in game design than generative art at the moment, but maybe something will strike me. The one big advantage of generative artwork is that it can be easier to work on in small bursts.

Emotional Health

I suppose that I have left this section for last indicates a bias which characterizes this entire component of my life. That bias is that I tend to not reflect deeply or frequently about whether I am happy nor not and, when I do so reflect, I tend to do so with my prefrontal cortex, so to speak.

I suppose I am happy from that point of view. I have a good relationship with my partner, a child on the way, a beautiful home and a job which is, for the most part, both reasonable and well compensated.

When I reflect deeply on my life, however, I wonder. I wonder first whether happiness really matters and I wonder whether I would or could be happier if I had a career which more accurately reflects both my gifts and my interests (two categories which don’t always overlap).

Impending fatherhood encourages reflection. You can’t help but wonder not how your child will see you, but how your example will affect your child’s conception of the world. Suddenly all your negative qualities, your petty unhappinesses, sloth and unkemptness are in sharp focus. A child ought not be exposed to a passenger seat full of empty coffee cups. What sort of universe is it where your father’s mood sours because his tiny video-game hasn’t won widespread acclaim. It seems so easy to live for the approval of others until you feel the keen but naive eye of childhood bearing down on you.

My big hope is that I’ll rise to this challenge, strip off my pettiness without losing those qualities which make living as myself possible.