Friday, 3 August 2012

Learning to Like the Footie

Listening to:

Friday Night Football commentators on Hawthorn vs Geelong.

Australian Football for an Ex-Pat Kiwi

So, what’s with a New Zealander like me turning myself into an AFL fan? I should be a rugby fan, right? And so I was, particularly once I left NZ and got to watch the All Blacks without having to listen to parochial commentators on the TV. (Being told who to support by voices on the box almost always gets my back up. Contrariwise, that made it fun to watch the ABs win against teams like England and Australia when I was living in those countries.)

But rugby can be a terrible, terrible spectator sport. The World Cup final in 1995 was a case in point: it looked at one point as if it was going to be decided by a penalty shoot-out. The All Blacks lost that one (to South Africa), but then the shoe was on the other foot in 2011. The All Blacks beat France 8–7 in another miserable game. Each team scored one try, and each team kicked the ball through the posts once. But France’s kick was a conversion (2pts) and New Zealand’s was a penalty (3pts). Yuck, yuck, yuck.

AFL can be grim too, but it flows so much more than rugby almost all of the time. There is no division of the field of play into two halves with attendant offside rules. Instead, it’s much more like basketball. Players get to run, jump and kick so much more freely than they do in rugby, which can so often seem like tedious trench warfare. In rugby, teams will occasionally kick the ball at each other. That’s the artillery barrage. Then the “open” play subsides and lines of backs run at each other causing repeated rucks. The whole game revolves around grinding out a few extra metres per play, and the hope that there won’t be a turnover.

The rules around handling the ball are much more conducive to flowing play as well. In rugby, you have to pass backwards, and you can't even drop the ball if it falls forwards. If you break this rule, there’s a turnover in possession and a scrum. In AFL, players get to scramble on the ground for the ball. Sometimes this turns into a mess out of which the ball will never escape, and then there is a “ball up”, like the way ice hockey restarts.

Finally, at the meta-level, AFL is fun to watch because the commentators aren’t parochial. The sport isn’t played internationally, so there is no scope for tedious nationalism to get in the way of what the commentators are paid to do.

Saturday, 21 July 2012

Did Darwin Get It Right?

Listening to:

Sibelius, symphony no. 1 in E minor, op. 39

Just read:

John Maynard Smith, Did Darwin Get It Right? Essays on Games, Sex and Evolution.

This rather bitty book is a collection of short pieces that Maynard Smith wrote for magazines such as Nature, Amercian Scientist and The London Review of Books. Many are reviews of various books. Unfortunately a number of these don’t make it obvious just what book is being reviewed, which makes for a rather disconnected reading experience.

Some of the pieces are also rather old. The book was originally published in 1988, and though most of the essays are from the 80s, there are some from the 70s, and one from the 60s. It’s hard, for example, to get excited about the controversies to do with punctuated equilibria and sociobiology.

My last criticism is that essays of this sort naturally need to be self-contained, and this means that those essays on similar topics often have to repeat pretty similar introductions to the area. This can be a bit wearying.

Having said all that, Maynard Smith writes in an appealing style, and most of the material is actually pretty interesting. It’s also good to be getting this stuff from someone who actually contributed to the subject and is not just a journalist. I just can’t see myself returning to this volume as a particularly great example of popular science writing.

Thursday, 5 July 2012

Board Games IIf

Listening to:

Dvořák, symphony no. 8 in G, op. 88.

Two Tile Board Games

A couple of highly recommended games featuring tiles, iOS implementations and unduly complicated scoring:


Along with the famous Settlers of Catan, which I’ve never played (but about which there is now quite an appealing Tabletop video), Carcassonne is probably the most famous “gateway” game out there. Such a game is one that is meant to get the user addicted to the modern Euro style of board game, sucking them in so that get into even heavier and meatier games.

Carcassonne is certainly light and easy to pick up (though scoring, particularly of farms, is fiddlier than one might like). It’s also visually appealing: as play progresses the players cooperate to build a pretty map of a medieval countryside. This map is made out of the tiles that the players play on the playing surface. Game-play is simple: draw a tile from a bag; add it to the growing map; optionally add a little wooden person in one’s colour (a “meeple”) to the map to lay claim to part of that map.

There are plenty of hard decisions to make, but at the same time, it’s rather luck-driven. This is because the tiles are drawn one at a time, and the tile you have in your hand critically determines just what you will be able to do. With more than two players, the game becomes even more random because the situation will typically change in fairly drastic fashion between one player’s move and their next. Despite the prettiness of the evolving map, there is plenty of opportunity to be quite nasty to other players. You may or may not see this as an advantage.

There is an extremely good iOS implementation of Carcassonne in the App Store.


In Ra, the aim of the game is to collect various sets of tiles that are worth different amounts of points. Everything is vaguely Egyptian in theme. There are monuments, pharaohs, cultural advances, lands and Nile floods. Perhaps unfortunately, these tiles are not arranged into a pretty map, but are kept in front of each player as they are acquired. Indeed, they can be kept strewn about however one wants.

The game’s central mechanic is a form of auction, and one player’s move is very simple: they can get another tile from a bag to add to the current lot, or they can decide to call for an auction of that current lot (there’s actually another third option that doesn’t get exercised very often). In general, every player’s situation will be slightly different: they’ll have different levels of resources to pay with, and they’ll also be pursuing slightly different goals. It’s very clever, and the mechanics interact very cleverly. Modern Art (also by the same designer, Reiner Knizia) is cleverer as an auction game (Ra’s auctions are actually pretty weird as auctions go), but the set collection in Ra is neat and something that Modern Art doesn’t really have. There’s less “randomness” in the final scoring: in Modern Art, a painting can be worth absolutely nothing because its artist hasn’t “placed”; there isn’t anything quite as vicious in Ra.

There’s a reasonable Ra iOS implementation, but it has no online community so for the moment, you have to be content with playing against its AI (which seems pretty good).

Thursday, 21 June 2012

I, For One, Welcome the Prying Eyes of our Model-Aircraft-Flying Overlords

Listening to:

Bathtub Gin by Phish, from the 30 December, 2010 concert. (See Marco Arment on Phish for more on these guys.)

Flying a Quadcopter-Mounted Camera

This is super-awesome stuff (and the video is pretty typical I think; I’m sure there are lots of people doing just the same sorts of things all over the rich world). The technology is way cool, but it’s also amazing that the technology to do this is now within the hands of “ordinary people”.

(From this blog-post.)

It’s also all rather disturbing to imagine where this might end up. Yes, there are already some regulations in place (see the comments on the blog post). Yes, the little UAVs are still pretty large and obvious as they fly around. But when they get small and quiet, and so much harder for normal people to detect, will people be flying them around willy-nilly, completely ignoring the various regulations?

I get the impression that the rules in place today are there to prevent people getting hurt by largish objects crashing into them. But when the objects are not so large, the risk of physical harm is rather lower. It is then that society runs the risk of having the “less moral” destroying privacy by spying on people just “because they can”.

Certainly, things will get interesting. I have no idea how society will evolve to deal with this, but I’m pretty certain that it will need dealing with. I don’t imagine the technological clock will get dialled back, so the question becomes: “What will the counter-measures be?” People lock their doors to deter burglary, but society does a lot of other things too: it generally tries to teach its children not to steal, and it uses police forces and criminal punishment too.

Are there plausible technological ways of countering miniature flying spies? What will the laws look like? Will people respect them, or observe them mainly in the breach? What will that do to our own intuitions about privacy?

Thursday, 7 June 2012


Listening to:

invisible pants by Drop Trio, in their album Cezanne.

Just read:

Jane Austen, Emma.

I think this is probably Austen’s most cheerful novel. This cheerfulness makes the whole novel very likeable; if you haven’t read it, you should just go grab a copy and read it right now. The general cheer stems in large part from the main character, Emma Woodhouse, who is young, optimistic and more than ready to interfere in other people’s lives. This interference is what drives the plot forward, to humorous effect, but it also allows for a little character development. The varying levels of success that Emma manages in her various hare-brained schemes eventually do have an effect on her, and she gets to learn who the really valuable people in her life are. And so everything can get nicely wrapped up at the end with a happy romantic conclusion.

The generally cheerful tone is helped along by the fact that there are no real villains. Mrs. Elton, something of a young Mrs. Bennet, is insufferable, but there to be mocked. Otherwise, the nastiest moment, the big crisis if you will, stems not because someone is desperately ill, or because a younger sister has been seduced by a scoundrel, but because Emma says something thoughtless.

While there may not be any nasty characters, there’s plenty of careful observation of what difficult circumstances can do to genteel life. Emma Woodhouse is rich, but many of the people she mixes with are not. If you are looking for “shadow” in your literature, this is where it comes from in Emma. The darkness or shadow is mostly off-stage, but the unfolding of the various sub-plots is very decidedly tied up with economic circumstances. In Emma, Austen paints one of her broadest pictures of early 19th century life, even if she simultaneously manages to confine all the action to one little village.