Sunday, July 19, 2015

Foul-Mouthed LARPing Advice

MIT Assassin's Guild dart-gun combat, March 2006
OK, dear readers, I'd like you to indulge me in one more trip down memory lane.  In cleaning my electronic life and the crud accumulated on my machine, I recently came once again across an ancient and delightful (to me at least) document.

You see, one of my primary indulgences back when I was an undergraduate was designing and playing live action roleplaying games (LARPs).  At MIT, this meant getting submerged into the very peculiar and "hard-core" culture of the MIT Assassin's Guild, where we would regularly play 10-day-long games with 60 people (as well as many shorter and smaller forms).  I quickly gravitated to the writing side, much more enjoying playing God and setting up the arena for others to contend within, rather than actually participating in the conflict myself (my personality is actually rather conflict-averse, although you wouldn't readily know it from my behavior as an arrogant young man). Even now, I still hold a record as one of the all-time most prolific authors in the 35-year history of the Guild, having written and run 25 different games, mostly over the period of 1998 through 2004, though I continued producing approximately one game per year all the way until 2013, when I moved to Iowa. Looking at the coincidence in timing between my decline of LARP output and my increase of scientific output, I suspect that actually it is no coincidence. Writing LARPs continued to be a very important both social and creative outlet for me, however, evolving with my life and circumstances and increasing interest in things outside the generic fantasy or science fiction boxes (the last game I co-authored was based on the Hindu legend of the churning of the ocean of milk).

All of this is preface and circumstance to explain the document that I intend to present to you.  It needs some explanation, because it's definitely got a Mature Content Advisory on it.  You see, back in 2000, right around the height of my youthful arrogance and joy in being transgressive, I wrote a long, flamey rant called the "Definitive Guide to Writing Guild Games for the Rest of Eternity," putting down my own extremely biased views about writing LARPs for the Assassin's Guild.  It was a foul-mouthed, irreverent, and joyful trip through my perspective of the time, and I circulated it privately amongst those who would likely not hold it against me too much, but it was never intended for wider dissemination.  Then, in 2005, my friend Joe Foley started putting together an attempt at a comprehensive guide to gamewriting, which he called the Mechanicomicon (transparently referring to H.P. Lovecraft), and he persuaded me to update and expand the document with my additional years of experience.  It didn't take much persuasion, and we decided to maintain the original tone of the document for publication, even if its content became a little more level-headed and we removed a couple of pieces of obvious and unnecessary slander.

And this, dear reader, is the document that I just rediscovered, still essentially in the same form as a decade ago (though it's had a few additional tweaks and bug-fixes since then).  I want to share it with you as a slice into another world, a world that I fondly remember the times I spent, and also a slice of my own mind.  LARPing prepared me for science in some surprising ways, especially in the challenges of organizing events and of managing large and complex projects across multi-year time-spans.  If you yourself are a gamer, you might find some interesting thoughts in there as well, though the Assassin's Guild is also a very peculiar culture of its own, and some of the references will be, I'm sure, completely and totally impenetrable.  All I ask, dear reader, is that you not judge me too harshly for things that were written long ago, and a side of me that was never intended for professional presentation.

In the continuing spirit of irreverence, however, I have tucked this document discretely at the very bottom of my professional webpage, formatted much like a scientific citation, and will delighted if I can get Google Scholar to pick it up, and even more delighted if it can pick up citations.  Just my little scientific prank, if not quite on the delightful scale of F.D.C. Willard.
Team Hufflepuff in a tense moment of planning during the Harry Potter 10-day game, January 2011.

Sunday, July 12, 2015

A fond goodbye to most of fiction

I've recently noticed a strange and surprising shift in myself: I appear to be losing much of my interest in fiction.

This is an odd and somewhat disquieting phenomenon for me to notice in myself, since I have been a committed fan of the stuff, and especially science fiction and fantasy, for such a long, long period of my life.  Like many a nerdy child before me, I got into Tolkien and Asimov at an early age, and most of my fiction reading growing up was science fiction.  Then I went away to college and discovered the MIT Science Fiction Society, and my cementation in the genre was complete.  For more than fifteen years, my need to buy fiction was almost entirely abrogated, and I gave back as a volunteer librarian, holding hours, processing part of the bookflow, and eventually writing reviews as well.
Processing books at MITSFS: here we were comparing donated books to current copies in order to decide which was in better condition and should be kept.
The first big shift in my fiction consumption was shifting from a walking/public-transit commute to bicycling or driving.  When I walked, I would read as I walked, and I had gotten quite good at it in several years of commuting while reading.  When I added a subway ride to my commute it stayed the same.  Towards the end of grad school, I started bicycling, however, and that meant that I could no longer even vaguely sanely desire to read while commuting.  When I moved from MIT to BBN, public transit become a much worse option for commuting, and it shifted to bicycling and car, and my commuting reading shifted entirely to podcasts and audiobooks.  There went at least six hours a week of reading, right there.

The next big shift in my fiction consumption was having a child.  When Harriet was born, my already scarce time dwindled even further, and I started needing to multi-task at home as well.  No longer were there good long times to read just curled up on a couch or in bed. Instead, I was generally doing something else, whether it be laundry or cooking or errands or something else, and more reading time converted from visual to auditory.

In the most recent shift, however, I've simply stopped consuming fiction at all for the most part.  Of the last 10 audiobooks that I have purchased, five have been non-fiction, while the others have been science fiction / fantasy.  That might not seem like a lot, but five years ago there might have been a single non-fiction in the lot.  Even more tellingly, of those ten books, I have finished all of the non-fiction and even listened to three of them twice.  Of the fiction, however, I have only even bothered to finish listening to two.  For me, this shift is frankly shocking.

I think that this most recent shift has something to do with the accompanying transitions in how I process fiction when it's auditory and not visual.  When reading a physical book, I read quickly, and move quite quickly through a story, more quickly when I'm not enjoying parts of it.  With an auditory book, on the other hand, the physical fact of the narration speed being so much slower than my usual reading speed means that I am given time to think about and process every sentence as it comes to me.  In turn, this leads to me thinking more deeply about the story I am listening to.  This ends up meaning several things: first, I need a much better quality of author to even keep me interested, since I am forced to consider quality of the prose more closely.  Second, it means that I am thinking in general more about the narrative and story structure, which means that I am generally learning more about not just this particular book that I am reading, but about storytelling as a craft and art.  That, in turn, has ended up bleeding over into other sorts of genres as well, and I am now having a much harder time enjoying anything in fiction (or fictionalized) in television and movies also.  I end up spending more time critiquing the story and looking at its structure than I do enjoying it (again, unless it is very well done indeed), and so a man who once would spend a whole day on the couch watching Cartoon Network is generally now bored by the second episode of something new, when I can see the signposts marking out the path for all the next ten episodes.

I think that I am finding non-fiction more interesting for exactly the same reasons that I am finding fiction less interesting.  Instead of giving me places to ponder the gaps in the world-building of the author and the hollowness behind the scenes, a good non-fiction leaves me wondering about the interconnections and larger implications of the things I'm thinking about.  For example, one of the non-fiction books that I have recently "read" multiple times is a lecture series called "The Barbarian Empires of the Steppes." This piece of history, despite its often degrading into a list of names of peoples who had fights at places, has really filled in a gap in the way that I have been educated about the world.  In my Euro-centric education, the world was anchored in the Mediterranean, with the rise of Islam off on one side and India and China as far away islands to talk about in very separate ways (mostly having to do with when Europeans turned up bent on conquest there).  In fact, however, the great land mass of Asia has always tied these lands together, as well as the worlds in the middle, such as Transoxiana, that were never even mentioned in my education.  This lecture series has shifted the way that I can understand our history of Eurasian civilization, and of many of the ways that I can understand the drivers backing current events, even as I have critiqued the scholarship and prejudices of the author in my head while listening.

In fiction, also, the things I still enjoy are works by authors such as C.J. Cherryh, who many find challenging because of the way that she submerges you so tightly in her characters' viewpoints and refuses to give much introduction to the worlds or technologies that they deal with.  A story by her is thus so densely packed with things to think about that I can read or listen to it many times and still be thinking about the implications and dynamics of the worlds that she has introduced, as well as just the general structure of the story.  A few words here and there can give a glimpse of an iceberg of relationships within a whole society, just as in our own world a single painful news story may become a touchstone for a much, much broader movement.  It's just that authors such as her are rare, and I treasure them on those occasions when I find them.

I suppose that in a way I might consider all of this just natural progress of maturity, but I don't know.  We don't necessarily get bored of all the things we love, not when those things can symbolize comfort and familiarity and home.  But when it comes to fiction, I think I'm moving on to wanting much more depth than once had been able to make me very satisfied.

Friday, July 03, 2015

The Scientific Richter Scale

Perhaps it's unhealthy statistical fixation, but I tend to mull over scientific citations, those being one of the important factors in the multi-currency economics of science.  From my thoughts, observations, and wanderings on Google Scholar, has gelled the following rough interpretation of scientific impact in terms of the rough order of magnitude of citations:
  • Order 100 citations: This paper is languishing in darkness and obscurity.  That doesn't mean it's a bad paper, just that nobody particularly cares about it.
  • Order 101 citations: Either some people have noticed this paper, or else it's part of a strong ongoing line of research and is picking up a lot of self-citations.
  • Order 102 citations: This paper is having a significant intellectual impact.  People have noticed it and, whether or not they are actually using the ideas within it, those ideas are having a noticeable effect on the scientific discourse.
  • Order 103 citations: This paper contains something that lots of people are actually finding that they need and are putting to use.  It is no coincidence that many of the "Top 100" papers identified by Nature are methodology papers (though the fact that the list omits Claude Shannon's exceedingly highly cited paper on information theory is another great example of just how shoddy citation databases are in their coverage of computing fields).
Of course, there's no sharp boundaries between levels, nothing to say that a paper with 300 citations (closer to magnitude 2) is really all that different than one with 350 citations (closer to magnitude 3). Perhaps it will be best to think of this as a scientific Richter scale, measuring the intellectual impact of individual scientific events [papers].  Right now, I don't think it makes much sense to look beyond three orders of magnitude because there are so few papers out there, but then, there aren't many magnitude 8.0 earthquakes either.

Thinking about this in terms of the Richter scale immediately sends the complexity theorist in my brain to think about scale-free distributions and log/log plots, and so I made a plot of my own current personal citational spectrum, according to Google Scholar.  It looks like this:
Yes, that certainly looks relatively linear on a log/log scale.  But then, so do so many things.  The the linear fit points out that there is definitely a big kink in the line, so it's not a straight scale-free distribution.  That means... I have no idea.  But this was certainly a fun way to fritter away half an hour while starting my vacation and watching my daughter sleep.