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Experiments in narrative generation

23 May 2021 11:11AM games

A STRANGER and a LOCAL are walking through a GENERIC ALIEN MARKETPLACE.

The STRANGER comments on a pair of WILDLY DIFFERENT ALIENS, one FOX-LIKE AND MAMMALIAN, the other REPTILIAN. The ALIENS are dressed alike and appear to be deep in conversation, in an exotic but clearly shared language.

"What's their deal?"
"Oh yeah, they're from the Commonality, they're everywhere."
"The commonality, they're... a species?"
"Started as one. Lost Raltek colony found an ancient gene database, ended up de-extincting and genetweaking and crossbreeding their way into every niche in the galaxy. Now they're more of a... project."
"And are they friendly?"
"Friendly enough. Just don't tell them there's anything they can't do. Or anywhere they shouldn't go or... anything, else really. Stubborn, tenacious bastards, they'll fit in anywhere, whether you want them to or not. Guess that's what you get living in the Galaxy's lost-and-found box though."


So this is a tiny excerpt from a surprisingly long document documenting the backstory of the species I'm playing in a game of Stellaris, a galactic-scale space strategy game by Paradox Interactive.

Most of the game takes place on a pretty generic-looking map of a pretty-generic-looking galaxy.

The game gives you control of a civilisation on the verge of settling in other star systems, in a galaxy that's very much lived-in. It's packed with sci-fi tropes from every medium and subgenre under the sun, but the overarching theme tends towards the "ancient precursors leaving mysterious ruins" kind of story. It's a galaxy filled with very old, very dangerous, very valuable things, and a large chunk of the first part of the game is dedicated to figuring out what's going on.

The game has quite a lot of this stuff written into it. The engine is pretty flexbile. All of that backstory is lavishly illustrated choose-your-own-adventure with the end results plugged into the game engine, which is essentially a very complicated spreadsheet. The game throws these events at you at random, and how you choose to react is both entirely up to you and has real impacts on the way the game will play out going forwards.

What's fascinating to me is that it gives you just enough backstory and just enough constraint that you really can't help but fill in the gaps. You make a choice - say, activating an ancient gene database to give you citizens who are perfectly adapted to a new planet you're settling. On the surface it's because it's going to give you some kind of bonus, like higher productivity on that planet because you're not fighting the environment. But then, because so much of the game is framed in terms of stories, you're left wondering how that played out - and that part isn't written down. You have to write it yourself. What kind of species - what kind of person de-extincts species from an ancient database on a whim? What drives you to make that kind of choice, and what kind of consequences does it have on your society?

Which... if you're being technical, probably counts as fanfiction. Except it's fanfiction about your game, not the game. Maybe it's collaborative fiction? Or hey, maybe it's a thing we already have a word for - maybe it's an RPG, in the tabletop-y sense of the word, with the software as game master.

I've never roleplayed as an entire species before, and it's a wild ride.

So yeah - I'm roleplaying as a species of aggressively pragmatic fox-people, stranded on a faraway planet and forced to survive with nothing but their wits. They adopt a philosophy of extreme adaptability in the face of adversity. They come to thrive on their adopted homeworld. Then they find a very powerful, very ancient tool without changing their mindset at all, and they and their posse of gene-edited and de-extincted compatriots start sliding their way into every marginally habitable niche in the volume.

Binary planet around a neutron star? No worries, there's a species for that.

Are they a species any more? Or a project? Or are they a Culture? Is biology just a computing substrate for society and values? How does a culture that doesn't see species as relevant interact with one that does?

When you encounter another species for the first time, how do you react? And how do they?

How does a culture who aggressively modify themselves to match their planets' needs fit into a galaxy that aggressively modifies planets to match their biological needs?

When an ingame story event offers you the chance to genetically engineer your species permanantly with unknown results, do you take it?

What happens when they run into the civilisation who sent out the colony ship in the first place, to whom their shared name means something very different?

When your progenitor civilisation closes their borders to you because you have nothing in common, how do you react?

Is this exactly what the ancient aliens who built the genetic archive intended? Is the commonality just a world-seeding effort now? Or are we more like an invasive species?

Are we the baddies?

Much like a game of D&D, I won't know the answers to these questions until they come up in a game and I have to make a call. And, again like D&D, I can't tell where the game's story ends and my story starts - and I don't actually think it matters.

This is legitimately interesting sci-fi generated by game mechanics, and actively enriched by online multiplayer, and that's kind of rad.

The Laundry Night Manifesto

18 May 2021 08:47PM liferants

Here are some apparently radical beliefs that I hold about laundry, which might also help explain why I'm sometimes mysteriously busy on otherwise innocuous-seeming weeknights.

Part 1: Laundry isn't hard, decisions are.

The hard part about laundry isn't doing the laundry.

It's deciding to do the laundry.

The actual task is pretty easy - you put the clothes in the machine, and you take them out, and you put them on a line. That's like two, maybe three discrete five minute tasks, separated by the duration one (1) washing machine cycle. Much like baking bread, it's not so much difficult as it is time consuming.

The difficulty - again, like baking - comes from deciding when you're going to slide that block in, and the assorted bits of mental maths that surround it. When am I home? What do I need? How many days of socks do I have left? Do I have time to think about that right now? How much am I going to regret not thinking about it if I don't?

Laundry is fine. Thinking about laundry is the absolute worst.

Part 2: Weekends are for fun, not chores.

In the absence of forward planning, that block of time slides into the largest unallocated area available. Most of the time, that means the weekend. It then proceeds to smear itself out across the whole day, and disaggregates itself into horrible little subtasks which are easy to forget and have catastrophically musty consequences if they are.

I loathe doing this kind of thing on the weekend, because it means one of two things. Either you're skipping out on scarce and valuable downtime to do laundry, or you're skipping out on laundry to take some downtime, thus pushing the problem further into the future.

(Or third, I guess, it reminds you that you have nothing better to do with your weekend than laundry, which is its own kind of upsetting.)

Of course chore-like stuff is always going to come up. But laundry is predictable. It keeps happening, at more or less the same rate, for your entire life.

Weekends are precious, and squandering them on laundry is a travesty.

Part 3: More things are laundry than you think.

The hard part about vacuuming isn't actually doing the vacuuming. It's watching the filth levels creep up and trying to decide whether they've crossed your filth tolerance yet.

The hard part about grocery shopping isn't the shopping. It's figuring out if you need to shop, and procrastinating on it pushes your shopping trip into the Saturday afternoon parking and trolley hellscape.

(Look, it's possible that working in a supermarket all those years ago left some scars.)

Once you know how to look for it, laundry is everywhere. Changing the sheets and towels and cat litter and taking the bins out* - if you stand back and squint a bit, it's all laundry.

* I would probably credit bin night, and the importance of not missing it - along with having a job with a uniform - with sparking this idea to begin with, but to be quite honest it's become so ingrained into the fabric of my life that that's pure speculation, the truth of which is lost to the mists of time.

So what?

So: Don't think about whether it needs doing yet, just pick a night and stick to it, regardless of how much there is and whether it's urgent yet. Just chuck a podcast on and do the stuff on the list.

And: While you're picking a night, you can pick one of those useless, empty ones like Monday instead of a fun one like Saturday.

Also: While you're at it, do your other mundane crap on that day as well.

For some reason when I explain this concept to people they give me weird looks, but I can't for the life of me imagine why. It might sound like I'm overthinking this, but if you can pull it off, you never have to think about laundry ever again.

Isn't that worth it?

*baking intensifies*

07 March 2021 06:15PM rants

Like most humans throughout history, I started baking out of necessity.

I can pinpoint the exact date it happened, actually. It was late at night on June 30th, 2018. Way too late for a shops run, I realised I had no bread for my sandwich the next day.

a knobbly but functional loaf of bread

I didn't really have any idea where to start, because the concept of baking bread had always seemed quite involved and vaguely intimidating. I'd tried my hand with some muffins and biscuits before this, but bread was mysterious. It was alive, and you had to knead it, and... god knows what else.

Just a skim of the Google results gave me kind of a fright, because it's a deep, deep topic, and so I reached for a cookbook which I knew worked every time, and reasoned that pizza dough was basically bread, and cooked some of that. And, shockingly enough - to me, at least - it actually worked.

Approximately a week later I'd graduated to full-sized loaves, and a week after that I was tackling wholemeal.

Because here's the dirty secret about baking - and honestly, I suspect, about most things: it's nowhere near as difficult as you think. Which, once you think about it, actually makes sense - humans have been doing this stuff for thousands of years, and none of them had millilitre-accurate measuring cups or electric ovens or pre-granulated freeze-dried yeast, and yet they still managed to figure it out.

(It may have helped a little that my flatmate and partner were both out of town that week and I had perhaps a little too much free time. Yeah, I realise that given the events of the past eighteen months that I'm late to the party on writing about this particular phenomenon, but I was ahead of the curve in discovering it, and I have, as the kids say, the reciepts.)

chat transcript: lochie: how much have you baked? rocky: hmm yes, I have a proposition for you in that area. lochie: go on. rocky: How would you feel about transitioning from a full time store-bought bread scenario to more of a home baked artisinal loaf type situation

So why the mystique around it? Why are people - not to toot my own horn - still impressed when you pop out a freshly-baked loaf?

I think part of it is the investment of time, because yeah, it does still take a good two hours minimum. But there's only about fifteen minutes of actual work involved, really. The rest is waiting for things to rise, and prove, and bake, and cool. If you're going to spend an afternoon (or, one might too-easily imagine, several months of consecutive afternoons) at home, popping out a loaf or two fits pretty easily amongst whatever other plans you might have.

And part of it, at least for some people, is that it is genuinely very good bread. I don't think I put myself in that category yet; the appeal of mine is that it's a) competent, and b) fresh, and the fact that it's fresh covers all manner of fairly major flaws in my technique.

But I think maybe another part of it is that it is sort of magic. You're taking water and flour, which when mixed incorrectly make nothing really other than glue. You ritually manipulate it just so, to unfurl and weave together threads that are too tiny to see. And then you imbue it with the spirit of invisible living things which are too small to see but whose effects are nevertheless immediately apparent. And then you sit and do nothing while the tiny, invisible things inflate a matrix of even tinier molecules into what amounts to a surprisingly robust cloud.

And that's coming from someone who read entirely too much about gluten strands and yeast metabolism - it still seems like magic. I can't imagine what people thought was happening before there were microscopes. It'd've just worked or not by sheer chance and trial and error. And, barring the addition of slightly fancier kitchens, that's the same boat you find yourself in when you set out on the journey, because all of the theoretical understanding in the world can't prepare you for the thousands of tiny ways things can go wrong. Or just differently. And because of that I, at least, get a weird sense of connection with what for want of a better word I'm going to call my heritage as a human being. People have been doing pretty much exactly this for a very, very long time. This is a craft where you could sit down with a stone-age human and productively compare notes, and that's pretty fucking cool.

It's an intoxicating blend of magic and science and tradition. Alchemy would not be an incorrect term.

Speaking of intoxicating - brewing is essentially the same. More so, really - the heritage is even older, the process is even more opaque, and the product goes from being merely nourishing to having noticeable psychoactive effects. Ditto, I think, for preserving. I've been tinkering with some relish and chutney recipes - there the magic is less of an altered state and more the fact that you can store them unrefrigerated for months at a time. It's still astonishing to me that that's possible - trivial, even - even though that's the same magic I get from the supermarket every week. And figuring out bread was kind of the gateway drug for all that.

I'm trying not to turn this into a diatribe about how we've lost touch with how our food is actually made and how the convenience of modern supply chains renders us kind of clueless.I don't think that observation is out of place, but let's try to flip it a bit. Instead of bemoaning how out of touch we've become, how about... How cool is it to discover that those processes, which in a lot of ways are the common heritage of humanity, are actually really easy? How fucking neat is it that making bread, brewing alcohol, preserving food - things we've been conditioned to think of as arcane, time consuming, not worth the effort, or jobs for trained experts - are actually trivially easy to get started with?

How wild is it that you can make a biologically-inflated solidified gluten matrix in your own home and then eat it?

How nuts is it that that whole process has been discovered and rediscovered over and over again by humans with absolutely no clue what they were doing?

How great is bread?

Hindsight is 2020

05 January 2021 12:06AM

We haven't done one of these in a while, but the title pun was too good to miss.

We're gonna excavate these selfies like an archaeologist excavates a particularly bountiful layer of loam.

Given that the keyword for 2020 is "Unprecedented", one of the striking things about a lot of these is how ordinary they are. Like, in 2020 I moved house –

sitting on my delivered couch boxes as if they are a couch

– and started a new job, at the same place as my old job, let's not unpack that one too much –

awkwardly grimacing at my new desk

– and drank a respectable amount of craft beer –

with my dad and brother at the craft beer festival

– and ate a respectable amount of brunch.

having a wholesome brunch with the boys

But we did some pretty extraordinary stuff too. I went to my first protest –

at a climate protest, with Liberty, wearing a shirt that says "the seas are rising and so are we".

– and sat in a fire truck –

grinning like an idiot at being allowed to wear the fireman helmet

– and drank choc milk purchased from a primary school canteen, let's not unpack that one too much either –

four grown adults acting like children in a primary school carpark because they are holding tiny milk bottles which were indeed intended for children

– and climbed Jacob's Ladder entirely by accident with a backpack full of camera gear –

grinning, sweating, holding a tripod. Rose is in the background and is considerably less amused.

– and saw the movie people have been joking at me my whole life about

Doin' a thumbs up in front of a cinema poster for the film "Rocky"

– and kinda sorta got engaged –

rocky and grace looking at an engagement ring on grace's finger like it somehow just appeared there by magic

– and kinda sorta booked a honeymoon before organising a wedding which eventually got postponed but we went on the honeymoon anyway because why not.

Rocky and Grace with wine glasses against some extremely red rocks and an extremely blue sky

And then, in the middle of it all, are the weird ones. Carting office supplies home –

dragging a cart full of computer stuff across a carpark

– and working from trestle tables –

sitting exasperatedly at a trestle table with a laptop on it and a large cat in the way

– and doing innocuous–seeming things like getting off the train at the office but which, in context, were a bit of a 'whoa' moment.

standing at city west station in perth, outside the work premises

Look, I don't know about you, but I'm starting to think the thing that rattled me the most about 2020 was the unpredictability. What I thought I knew about the future, and my own ability to predict it, was rapidly and unflinchingly corrected, and as the possibility space frayed outwards, the planning horizon ratcheted inwards. Never mind planning your next five years – you were really lucky to be able to plan your next five weeks.

Here's the thing though kids – Nothing was ever predictable to begin with. Obviously, since there's no way I could have predicted any of this – not just the pandemic stuff. Now though, the illusion has been comprehensively obliterated, and in hindsight, the uncertainty about when, if ever, it was going to be over and what would come next was really worse than being locked inside and not being allowed to go to the pub.

Which is not a thing I should've been blindsided by, because obviously the cosmos is a vast, deep chaos, and obviously our level of control of that outside of a very limited sphere is an illusion. That's, like, the closest your common or garden space nerd gets to a religious tenet. And maybe somewhere along the line I got a little too attached to the idea trying to plan my life ahead of time and in a privileged bubble.

So as 2021 enfolds us and things appear, at least, to return to normality – whatever that means – I'm gonna try to hang on to a little bit of that perspective again, and maybe even enjoy a little bit of that unpredictability. Luckily, I won't be doing it alone. ♥

rocky, grace and harriet (the cat) on a balcony on a cold, locked-down may evening

(No, "Yolo" is absolutely not the correct lesson to take from 2020, but it's thematically appropriate and on brand so we're gonna roll with it.)

Happy new year, folks.

 your hand in mine

Punctuating the silence

20 September 2020 05:49PM life

Hey! It's been what, like, six months? We've got some catching up to do.

This is the longest I've gone without writing here since I started, way back in high school, which is now an upsettingly long time ago. The previous record, if you're interested, was the four months between May and October 2019, when, in hindsight, I was burnt out and dealing with some stuff. That's six very possibly historically important months during which I have no record of what happened, except for some musings about toilet paper shortages.

So, for the record: a pandemic happened.

As Times go, these ones are pretty Unprecedented. Historic, even. And there's a little part of me that wishes I had blogged, or journalled, or... I dunno, written something down.

There's a post-it on the wall of the office, now that we're back, which cheerily asks, "What did you achieve during the lockdown?" My answer - and as far as I'm concerned, the only valid answer - is "Didn't get the virus". Because that was the point.

I find the expectation that people "should" have used their lockdown time for self-improvement to be frankly laughable. Literally your only goal is to not get The Virus, and if you achieved that, you're all good in my books. I am bringing this up partly as a philosophical point, but mostly to excuse myself for not writing anything about the Unprecedented Times in which we're living. I know that future-me (and maybe future-others) will want to look back on this time and see what I was thinking, but... sorry, that didn't happen.

And so I guess my point is this - in lieu of overwrought historically interesting journalling, you get silence. You get a missing footage, a hole in the data, the blog equivalent of the layer of ash in the strata or the year without summer in the tree ring or the gap in the fossil record. What I'm doing right now is punctuating that gap to explain that the silence hasn't been empty. It's not the absence of a signal - the absence is the signal.

Because lockdown was miserable. That's it - that's the message. It was miserable, and boring, and - here at least - mercifully short, and quite frankly I'm still in the process of putting my life and my routines back together because it was unspeakably disruptive. We had one job, and that job was to not get The Virus, and we knuckled down and we did that job. We didn't enjoy it, and it came through like a wrecking ball, and we're still putting things back together.

I know don't enjoy taking work home. I know that bicycle-facilitated outside time and exercise are a critical way of delineating time. I know that I spend a lot of energy building habits and systems for myself. Those systems are more fragile than they seem, and it is entirely predictable - and also entirely unavoidable - that they disintegrated when subjected to Unprecedented stresses.

Anyway, that's what I wanted to say. When you look back at this period, this is how you should interpret it. The radio silence isn't missing data, it is the data. I don't know if that silence is over yet, or if now that it's contextualised and described we can sink back into it a little more comfortably. Maybe we've addressed the elephant in the room, maybe it's just a burst of static. I don't know. I don't think anybody does. We'll be back when we're back, and that might be soon, and it might be never, and either of those is okay, and we just have to wait and see which one it's gonna be.

< How it happened.