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RPG Systems: An Analogy with UI Design

The current game in our weekly role-playing group is Deadlands. The previous game was Shadowrun. Both rule systems lie closer to the “chunky” side of the spectrum. Shadowrun has a particular reputation for its complex and somewhat cumbersome rules, and while Deadlands has less overall complexity, the system has a degree of granularity that interrupts play more often than it enhances narration. I enjoy role-playing games because I like participating in a good story. The rules system provides a set of constraints for the characters, the setting, and the conflicts. They help give the narrative structure, a background against which the story will take place. Too few rules, and telling an interesting and well-developed story becomes difficult. Too many rules tend to get in the way of individual scenes or events. With the right balance, it’s possible for the game master, usually me, to be sufficiently fluent in the rules system to resolve any conflict without extended consultation of one …
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The Incredible Lightness of Collaborative Consumption

Last week, we had to exchange our defective futon frame for a new one. The store didn't want to cover transport cost in either direction, so we had to figure out how to get our re-boxed frame from Mountain View to Los Altos. If we had a car, it would not have been very simple since we were aiming to buy a small sedan, nothing that can easily carry the frame and its box.

Fortunately, we have a car sharing service that gives us access to a range of vehicles, including a van stored down the street from my building. After work, I grabbed the van, picked up the frame at our place, and then Tara and I drove to the futon to make the swap. I dropped off Tara and the new frame at our place, and then headed back to campus. On returning the van to its parking space, I hopped on a shuttle back to downtown Mountain View.

We were able to do all of this because we're not tied to a specific vehicle for all of our transportation needs. The last car we owned was a van, and it came in handy on m…

Carless in California

For various reasons, we do not own a car despite living deep in American car country. The reasons are largely financial; the cost of living in downtown Mountain View crowds car ownership out of our budget. We pay more to live in a pedestrian friendly neighborhood, so we are less able to afford a car. At the same time, I don't need a car to get to work, and Tara doesn't drive, so any car we had would sit in the carport most of the week. Combine that waste of resources with a reluctance to contribute to the Bay Area's traffic congestion, and forgoing car ownership doesn't sound all that bad.
Car sharing services allow us to grab a vehicle as long as we plan ahead a bit. The Caltrain provides access to San Francisco. There are convenience stores and cafes in walking distance, so we don't feel the absence of a car too often. Last night was one of the few times where I did. After getting home from work, we wanted a dinner cheaper than nearby delivery options. The nearest…

Juxtapositions

The most striking feature of living and working in Silicon Valley is the extreme contrast between technology and nature. On campus, I am surrounded by towering redwood trees and verdant hillsides. As my eyes trace serpentine trails in the distance, the click-whir of an electric car startles me from my reverie. The sheet metal giant who shares the view with me is unmoved by such noises, continuing his silent meditation as I navigate between his feet. The air hums with connection, thick with the invisible media of 21st Century communication.
The transition from garden to workstation does not jar the senses as it might in a less cared-for space. The glass walls leave the room open to the wild, filling my eyes with trees and sunshine. Ephemeralization of devices enables attending to work, ears filled with the murmur of winding water. The utopic vision made evident here is healing, a restorative against the bare concrete freeways and the cacophony of cars, malls, and music that make up muc…

What do you do with a degree in philosophy?

Anyone who majors in the humanities has had to endure a version of that question more than once. As I went through graduate school, people asked the question less and less. By the time I was teaching classes, I had a pretty ready answer (teaching is paying work, you know?). As a professor, the question answers itself.

Of course, being a philosophy professor is not for everybody. The crowded academic job market alone is enough to dissuade the faint of heart. The work is demanding, involving wearing the hats of instructor, researcher, and administrator. To succeed, one has to be flexible, creative, think on one's feet, and be ready to ask hard questions of oneself and of others. As academic institutions rely on more part-time and temporary staff, success often translates into more work without longer-term commitment from the organization. One can invest a whole lot of time and energy without knowing whether that organization will continue to provide support.

Living the life of a pro…

But we've always had X...

In teaching ethics, and in paying too much attention to politics, I encounter the sentiment that "We've always had [insert great misfortune], so we'll never be without it" over and over again. The sentiment is offered as a reason not to work toward alleviating poverty, warfare, disease, and all manner of problems that simply affect the whole globe and likely look to big to overcome. Still, I think this is a problematic line of reasoning, and one that we should stamp out as if it were a logical fallacy (and might trade on one, more below).

Ok, so why is it a problem? For one, it's simply conversation-stopping in any ethical debate. Should we devote resources to researching Sudden Infant Death Syndrome? Well, babies have always died for no reason, so we'll never prevent that...There is simply nothing to do but throw one's hands in the air and give up.

Now, in ethics, there is some reason to take this argument seriously. There is a very general principle tha…

History and Identity

Yesterday the European Court of Justice issued an important ruling that has the tech policy world buzzing about privacy, search engines and personal history. In short, the court ruled that the EU Data Protection Directive gives a person the right to demand that old information be purged from search results. The particular case involves an attorney seeking removal of links to announcements about a real-estate auction connected with a debt settlement in 1998. While the ECJ made a number of interesting moves in the case (including a welcome argument that the distinction between data processors and data controllers does not make as much sense today as it did in 1995 when the Directive went into effect), the big consequence everyone is talking is the right to be forgotten.

The long memory of the Internet is a feature it's hard not to love and fear at the same time. Whether you have something to hide or not, if it's on the Internet, it stays on the Internet (most of the time, at lea…