01/24/13

Not the expected blog post, I’m afraid


FrazzledSorry to disappoint those readers who expected this to be a blog post on ukuleles, tequila or our beautiful Mexican Sister City, Zihuatanejo (“Zee-hwa” for those in the know). I refer, of course, to comments in the recent parody video, in which my blog was commented upon (as if blogging was something conspiratorial, but it seems pretty much everything is, these days for some folks…).

However, my energies have of late been taken up by several other pressing projects, meetings and local political issues, so those topics have become back-burner projects. Sorry.

Speaking of conspiracies, my main research  – online and through books – these last two weeks has been on the Pazzi conspiracy of 1478. This event irrevocably changed the politics of Florence, and of Italy, but how did it play in the development of the young Machiavelli’s political thought? Machiavelli was eight when the assassination attempt took place, and lived through the city’s wars and social unrest that raged for the next decade and a half. But few biographers discuss the event in anything more than passing mention.

The complexity of the Pazzi conspiracy has taken me much more time than I expected, because it involves so many people, states, and families. It has given me new insight into Florentine politics, and the opportunity to reread Machiavelli’s writing on conspiracies (real conspiracies, not the alien-abduction-reptiloid-mushroom-farm kind that saturates the internet). Eventually my research and conclusions will be written up as a post on my Machiavelli site (I’ve already written more than 1,200 words on it – still working on it).

OverworkedI have always believed – and have written in my two recent books – that blogging is important for municipal politicians. In fact, I have encouraged politicians and municipal staff to use all social media. It’s a way to engage with the electorate and to create a political perspective of yourself for residents. It’s a way to let people know the reason behind your vote or stand, to expand on comments made at the council table, and to get comments back from the electorate. But it’s not for the thin-skinned or faint of heart.

However, since blogging is simply a hobby, not a profession, I have to attend to other matters and work on more economically sustainable projects, like my next two books (drafts due at the publisher’s soon…). I am, after all, not retired, but simply a freelance writer who needs to earn an income and I have to prioritize… ;-)

I blog mostly because I love to write and it fulfills a need within me to be creative. I usually blog when something strikes me, rather than planning it in advance (some attempts at fiction being the exception). I kick around many ideas for posts but they don’t always get past the draft or idea mode. I will turn them into posts when I have the time. Perhaps then I will be able to live up to my readers’ expectations, and again write posts on ukuleles, tequila, and Mexico in the near future. I am buoyed by the knowledge that I will have a ready-made audience for them, when I do.

01/23/13

Foolish words that still resonate


FoolFoolosopher. What a wonderful word. Not much in use these days, but it ought to be. It is a portmanteau word, first used in English way back in 1549*, according to my copy of the Concise Oxford English Dictionary. It defines foolosopher as, “A foolish pretender to philosophy.” So foolosophy is therefore the “foolish pretence of philosophy.”

Philosophy comes from the Greek (philo and sophia), meaning, literally, “love of knowledge,” but more generally the word means just knowledge or reasoning (Johnson, 1755).

We suffer from a surfeit of foolosophers, these days, methinks. Thanks to the internet, foolosophers have sloughed the necessity of actually having to think about what they write. It’s inconvenient to actually read what they feel compelled to comment upon. Just think of any public issue or debate and there they are. In the past, foolosophers needed to grab a soap box and stand in a public space to express their rambling ideas and wild theories. Today all they need is a Facebook or Twitter account.

Foolery, sir, does walk about the orb like the sun, it shines everywhere.
William Shakespeare: Twelfth Night, Act 3, Scene 1

Fool is a word that doesn’t get as much traction as it deserves these days. In an invective-dense culture, fool seems almost cutely antiquated, a little prim and schoolmarmy. When 10-year-olds drop the F-bomb with practiced ease, calling someone a fool lacks verbal punch. The word has such a range of meanings: there’s a world of difference between “my foolish heart,” “where fools rush in,” “fooling around,” “April fool’s” and Mr. T’s exclamation, “Fool!”

According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, fool has a long genealogy:

…late 13c., “silly or stupid person,” from Old French fol “madman, insane person; idiot; rogue; jester,” also “blacksmith’s bellows,” also an adjective meaning “mad, insane” (12c., Modern French fou), from Latin follis “bellows, leather bag” (see follicle); in Vulgar Latin used with a sense of “windbag, empty-headed person.” Cf. also Sanskrit vatula- “insane,” lit. “windy, inflated with wind.”…
Meaning “jester, court clown” first attested late 14c., though it is not always possible to tell whether the reference is to a professional entertainer or an amusing lunatic on the payroll. As the name of a kind of custard dish, it is attested from 1590s (the food also was called trifle, which may be the source of the name).
There is no foole to the olde foole [Heywood, 1546]
Feast of Fools (early 14c.), from Medieval Latin festum stultorum) refers to the burlesque festival celebrated in some churches on New Year’s Day in medieval times. Fool’s gold “iron pyrite” is from 1829. Fool’s paradise “state of illusory happiness” is from mid-15c. Foolosopher, a most useful insult, turns up in a 1549 translation of Erasmus. Fool’s ballocks is described in OED as “an old name” for the green-winged orchid.
fool (v.) mid-14c., “to be foolish, act the fool,” from fool (n.). The meaning “to make a fool of” is recorded from 1590s. Also as a verb 16c.-17c. was foolify. Related: Fooled; fooling. Fool around is 1875 in the sense of “pass time idly,” 1970s in sense of “have sexual adventures.”
fool (adj.)
“foolish, silly,” considered modern U.S. colloquial, but it is attested from early 13c., from fool (n.).

Answer not a fool according to his folly, lest you be like him yourself.

Samuel Johnson defined fool as “one whom nature has denied reason.” To play the fool, he wrote, was to, “act like one void of common understanding.” Both come easily to the mind when contemplating how some current issues are portrayed by various commentators.

In Scots, a marvelllous language**, there are several words for fool: bawheid, cuif, gawky, glaik, gumf, ouf, and tawpie. Foolish is daftlike; to act foolishly is dyte, gype, gypit, menseless, taupie, and unwicelike. Daftlike is another word that appeals to me; daft is a word I heard a lot when growing up, sometimes in reference to me, but generally to the contemporary political situation. It still fits today, don’t you think?

Fool has different meanings in the Bible. In the Psalms, it says,

The fool says in his heart, “There is no God.”
Psalm 14:1 and Psalm 53:1.

According to this site, the Hebrew word nabal translated here as “fool” suggests a lack of perception of ethical and religious claims. It’s used in a moral sense, not an intellectual one. It would be used to describe people who, for example, lie or deceive – making bad moral choices and deliberately misleading people – rather than people of little wit. But clearly fool has other meanings in the Bible. For example, this line from Ecclesiastes 10:14:

A fool also is full of words: a man cannot tell what shall be; and what shall be after him, who can tell him?

That’s the King James Version, a poetic reading but one laced with translation problems. The more modern English Standard Version is:

A fool multiplies words, though no man knows what is to be, and who can tell him what will be after him?

That’s actually a pretty powerful line; one that can easily be read into many issues, national to local. Foolish words sometimes do multiply, don’t they?

Proverbs has several good lines about fools (ESV):

A fool takes no pleasure in understanding, but only in expressing his opinion.
Proverbs 18:2

Answer not a fool according to his folly, lest you be like him yourself. Answer a fool according to his folly, lest he be wise in his own eyes.
Proverbs 26:3-12

If a wise man has an argument with a fool, the fool only rages and laughs, and there is no quiet.
Proverbs 29:9

Leave the presence of a fool, for there you do not meet words of knowledge. The wisdom of the prudent is to discern his way, but the folly of fools is deceiving.
Proverbs 14:7-9

Now I’m not a biblical scholar, and my Hebrew is more than a bit rusty, so I can’t say if the same word, nabal, is used in all of these sayings. There were other terms translated as “fool” in the Bible, including ewil (also evil) and kesil meaning thick and stupid, or letz, meaning scoffer (or scorner) and pethi (plural: pethaim) meaning simpleminded. These terms don’t all share the implications of evil or wrongdoing associated with nabal, yet all are frequently translated into English as “fool.”

Ship of fools

In Shakespeare, fools – sometimes referred to as clowns – are often people who play the mythic role of the Trickster, like Loki, Mudhead and Raven. They may provide the springboard for dialogue or action. He also referred to fools in the professional sense: jesters whose job it was to entertain courts, nobles and royalty.

The fool in Shakespeare often acts as an important counterpoint to the drama of the play. Sometimes the fool is the smartest on on the stage, pointing out what the playwright wants the audience to see. Sometimes, he’s just a clown, there to emphasize how much smarter everyone else around him is.

Truth’s a dog must to kennel; he must be whipp’d out…
-The Fool, King Lear, I.4.640

and then Shakespeare deflates the fool’s pretensions…

The fool doth think he is wise, but the wise man knows himself to be a fool.
-Touchstone, As You Like It, V.1.2217

Perhaps it’s simply my age and upbringing that retains the potency of the epithet “fool,” and gives weight to the term “foolosopher.” They drip with contempt in a way mere profanity cannot. When I read some of the drivel I encounter online, I can’t help but think of these words and no better description seems to fit.

~~~~~

* Another useful word from that era is “knavigations” (OED 1590), which Samuel Purchase used to describe the false claims of navigators. It could be used equally well today to describe the false claims on some websites and blogs.
** Perhaps it’s from my mother’s Scottish heritage that I like Scots. Our talk at home was peppered with Scots words that I didn’t realize until many years later were not common English – when I used words like ken and ilk and produced blank stares.

01/19/13

What’s this nonsense about mushrooms?


Specialty mushroomsIn the middle of a video parody on YouTube that skewers council on our new rec facilities, there’s a comment about “the mushroom farm debacle.” It then goes on, rather erratically, to rail about “two yanks” and mushrooms growing in manure and “enobe” mushrooms.

What debacle?

Clearly the video’s creator never actually watched the public presentation made to council a year ago about a possible use for the terminals as an indoor mushroom farm. Or read the stories in both newspapers. Or heard the news reports on local radio. Or asked anyone on staff or council about the proposal. Or did any online research. But don’t worry if actually verifying the facts was too much work: I’ll do the hard work for you here.

And as far as I am aware, the two gentlemen who made the presentation are both Canadian, not American. One is a local chiropractor.

The mushrooms in question are not your standard grocery-store button mushrooms (most of which may come from China*, by the way!): what was proposed were specialty (gourmet) mushrooms that grow on substrate: commonly wood chips, sawdust, used coffee grounds and composted or processed vegetable material (such as the corn waste produced by the now-former Amaizeingly Green plant). Manure, the proponents said several times during the presentation, would not be not used. There would be no odour.

The USDA, in one of its brochures on mushroom cultivation, notes that oyster mushrooms,

Although commonly grown on sterile straw from wheat or rice, they will also grow on a wide variety of high-cellulose waste materials. Some of these materials do not require sterilization, only pasteurization, which is less expensive. Another advantage of growing oyster mushrooms is that a high percentage of the substrate converts to fruiting bodies, increasing the potential profitability.

There are no similar, large mushroom farms growing these specialty – and expensive – mushrooms in Ontario (or, I believe, in Canada**). There is potential for considerable profit in a big and growing marketplace, we were told, for a successful farm that grows these mushrooms (oyster, shiitake, enoki (not “enobe”) and so on). The University of Missouri’s Centre for Agroforestry, notes that specialty mushrooms are a growing and sustainable industry:

Not only can specialty mushrooms be grown on a range of acreage allotments, mushroom cultivation is a sustainable and profitable way to recycle low-value forestry by-products, including non-merchantable stems and branch wood. Utilizing shade levels and understory from a forest farming practice, UMCA scientists and collaborators are determining the best suited types of mushrooms for Missouri soils. The goal of this research is to refine established production techniques for a diverse suite of outdoor mushroom species and enable Missouri landowners to capture a growing gourmet market… One of the state’s most significant demonstrations of a successful forest farming practice is Dan Hellmuth and Nicola Macpherson’s Ozark Forest Mushrooms, Timber, Mo. The entrepreneurial couple established the specialty mushroom operation in 1990 on what was then a timber operation, and coordinate every step of the value-added process, from the inoculated log to packaged, consumer-friendly products. Under the guidelines of the Stewardship Incentive Program, administered by the Missouri Department of Conservation (MDC), Hellmuth and Macpherson harvest a renewable supply of mushroom bed logs while simultaneously maintaining their forested acres in a healthy ecological state – and what began 14 years ago with only 100 oak logs in production has grown to include 12,000 shiitake logs in production.

Penn State University has a similar agribusiness program. They note that the market for specialty mushrooms is growing by leaps and bounds:

For the past 8 years, specialty mushroom production has increased an average of 20%. Based on recent and historical trends, it is expected that diversification of the mushroom industry will continue in the United States and many other western countries. The development of improved technology to cultivate each species more efficiently, will allow consumer prices to decline.

These mushrooms are not solely for food: they are an important source of nutraceuticals used in alternative and traditional medical practices (see also here). A gourmet mushroom farm has the potential to spin off a side industry of medical research and product preparation. More jobs.

Then, the video says these “yanks…want to buy our precious grain terminal for one dollar.” Again, someone wasn’t listening. Or reading. Or thinking.

Enoki mushroomsThe proposal – made in front of council, the media and TV cameras – suggested a nominal one-dollar purchase PLUS a percentage of the profits, should the proposal be accepted. The proponents also proposed to cover all costs for remediation of the building.

The “precious” terminals had been publicly declared surplus in fall of 2011 (motion 392). The motion called for “input from the public, developers and respective agencies” on any potential uses for the building. The unsolicited, public presentation to council on January, 16, 2012, from the proponents, was part of that process.

Nothing hidden there. Someone had a creative idea and brought it to council. It was one of those “outside the box” ideas that surprised me because it was so unusual and innovative. Is that what bothers some folks? Or was it the potential to create a sustainable, safe industry that offered well-paying jobs?

The idea was presented in greater detail when the town put forward a “request for proposal” on the terminals, along with the proponents’ financials. However, to date, no decision has been made about selling the “precious” terminals (it’s an abandoned brownfield, a heritage building on the waterfront, resting on wooden piles almost a century old, with asbestos and other pollutants inside, sitting beside a waste dump; adjacent to a publicly-used harbour, within a stone’s throw of protected wetlands; it has inadequate power, water and no waste-water outlet for other uses, and has leases for telecommunications equipment and the yacht club associated – there are MANY legal, procedural and environmental issues that we must resolve before we can move forward with any proponent).

No money ever changed hands, not even the imaginary dollar that seems to haunt some folks. (What’s with that dollar? It’s never explained why $1 matters; it just raises its ectoplasmic head on the Ouija board of this conspiracy.)

The proponents asked council if they could have a biologist examine the building to see if it was suitable for such an idea, and to determine what, if any, work would be required to make it happen. We’d allow any potential buyer’s engineer or building inspector to check it out, why not a biologist?

They also requested permission to run a very small test inside the building to find out if the idea was actually viable – a “proof of concept.” This would involve (as I recall the discussion) putting two small table-top-size trays in the terminals, with spores on a base material (sawdust, I believe), to see if these exotic mushrooms would actually grow. The test would take a few weeks, and would not involve doing anything to the building aside from cleaning the space for the test, then putting the trays inside, and waiting.

Council said yes. We are pro-business, after all, and permitting this non-invasive test simply made sense. If the test proved it was not viable, then the proponents would not invest further money in testing and inspection, and would not give us a proposal when we asked for RFPs.

Staff agreed. A facility report on the proposal, in late January and provided by the former CAO to council, noted,

…the proponents cannot invest substantially without knowing if their process is likely to work. Therefore, they have put forward the following stepwise program as the “Proof of Concept” phase.

  1. Initially, they would bring in a microbiologist to identify if there are existing competing species of life in the facility and whether the environmental conditions prove to be favourable for their process.
  2. Then, they suggest that up to three of the North-South hallways (approx. 8’ X 96’) in the basement would be cleaned and sanitized and set up with trial rooms for various species of mushrooms…

The first two steps, if they have a plan to maintain adequate egress and air quality, are fairly benign. With careful preparation and adequate monitoring, staff do not have serious concerns with them doing this.

The former CAO was directed by council to have the caretaker let them in so their microbiologist could examine the building, and they could conduct this test.

This council wants to overcome an impression of the past that “Collingwood is closed for business.” Had we refused, we would – fairly – have been accused of being closed. But then the conspiracy would have been about why council was putting up roadblocks to local businessmen.

It was all public and very straightforward. The test was done, the building examined, and the proponents made a formal proposal when the town called for an RFP.

But somehow, for some folks, it became a conspiracy.

Last September, the town received an anonymous letter that warned, ominously, “Mushroom plants are known to cause odors (sic) and have the possibility to cause health issues…” and then goes on for four pages railing against mushroom farms and dangerous manure odours in other locales. Obviously the author didn’t watch the presentation or read the stories, either (the spelling suggests an American, so perhaps he or she has no access to local council coverage – in which case, what is the interest in a Collingwood proposal?).

In October, a letter was circulating among a small group that asked, among other things, “Who gave the mushroom people the key to the terminal building when was that decision approved?” (sic)

The letter never explained why knowing who gave the proponents the key was important or even relevant.*** Conspiracy theories are like that: they’re not about logic.

Then, in December, similar questions were asked of staff and council in an email (quoted as sent):

Have you been able to find any member of council or staff that;

  1. Gave permission for the tenants to use the terminals (the original email or note confirming this would be great)
  2. Who physically handed them the keys
  3. Who has collected any money (even as little as the $1 they offered) during their use of the facility.

Again, no explanation was ever made as to why any of this was relevant. It was just part of that dark Machiavellian council doing evil behind closed doors. Of course the fact that this was all done openly and presented publicly and made good business sense doesn’t make the conspiracy play very well.

In response, the current CAO replied:

As I previously mentioned the proponents made an open presentation to Council where they requested an opportunity for a “proof of concept” and offered the “symbolic” dollar for the lease to do so. I was informed that Council were all generally interested in the proposal but realized that the proof of concept was required for the gentlemen to provide an unsolicited proposal to Council. As I understand, the issue was referred to staff whereby permission was given to complete the proof of concept. There has not been any collection of money nor has it been asked for.

But even that didn’t kill the conspiracy. It pops up again in the video (linked above in the first paragraph). No rational explanation seems to satisfy some folks that nothing untoward happened.

So I have to ask: What’s all this nonsense about? It was a public process; it was pro-business; the land was declared surplus openly and approved in the fall of 2011; we had open discussions about the property at the council table in front of the media; we had open discussions with the proponent and about the proposal at council, and we have a staff report on the request that indicates all the issues, and staff support for doing the ‘proof of concept’ test.

Why are some folks treating this like some political zombie they continue to resurrect? Put it to rest!

Surely there are other conspiracies to pursue****. Just because the Mayan Apocalypse didn’t work out for you, doesn’t mean this one will turn out any better. Please, let this be the end of it.

~~~~~
* See plantpath.psu.edu/facilities/mushroom/resources/specialty-mushrooms: “Mainland China is the major producer (3,918,300t-or about 64% of the total) of edible mushrooms (Chang 1999, 2002).” The manure used for button mushrooms here in Canada, at least, is sterilized first. But these aren’t button mushrooms, so it’s moot point.
** There is a small scale one in Markdale, however.
*** As far as I know, they didn’t get one; the caretaker opened the door for them, but even if they did – so what? It’s not the key to Fort Knox. It’s an abandoned building. Never mind that it makes no sense for a member of council to have the keys to the building or the authority to collect as much as $1 from anyone (we don’t).
**** If you must pursue a mushroom conspiracy, look for one with some substance or at least greater entertainment value. For example this, this, this, this or this one.

And as a disclaimer: I speak for myself alone here, not for anyone else or any organization. I have no vested interest in any of the proposals for the terminal use, nor have any conflicts of interest in the process.
Conspiracy theories

01/18/13

It’s snowing, snowing, snowing…


England in the snow
I was looking outside today as the snow fell in Collingwood (-11C when we awoke, -10C when I first walked my dog…) and thinking of my brother-in-law in England, where they are getting walloped by a Canadian-style winter. He must be perplexed by the weather this week. It’s very Canadian. These pictures are from the Daily Mail, sent in by their readers from all over the country.
Daily Mail photo
You don’t normally think of Britain in the snow. Rain, yes, fog, yes, but not often snow. After all, there are places in England where palm trees grow in the warmth provided by the Gulf Stream. Obviously they will be hurting…
Daily Mail
I thought this next one was great. It’s from a different page in the Daily Mail:
Daily Mail
England isn’t the only country having unusual winter weather. CBC did a story on the heavy snows in Jerusalem, with this next photo. It could be Toronto:
CBC News
Here’s another pic from an Israeli blogger. Sure looks like Blue Mountain, but it’s outside Jerusalem:
Snow in Jerusalem
And Japan is getting the same, according to Japan Today. Seems the winter storms even shut down airports:
Japan Today
Strange weather. Not for us, here in Canada along the south shore of Georgian Bay, of course, but elsewhere. Surely not a result of climate change due to greenhouse gases and other human artifacts in the environment? (That’s a rhetorical question, by the way: if you don’t believe in climate change you’re either Republican or Steven Harper). Maybe all these countries are just jealous of us and trying to emulate Canada?

Makes me want to book a trip to someplace warm, south, Mexican. Someplace where the sand is hot, the beer is cold and the sun unrelenting. Maybe next year…

01/17/13

Centennial Pool gets covered!


Not sure how much will get done today – it’s a cold, windy winter day. But yesterday, in more clement weather, six frame struts  for the Sprung building were erected at Centennial Pool, and I got these photographs:
Sprung frame Jan. 16, 2013

Here’s the frame going up, on January 16.Six frames have gone up – there are another eight to go.

Sprung frame Jan. 16, 2013

You can get an idea of how big and spacious the building will be inside by comparing the height to that of the workers and equipment.

Sprung frame Jan. 16, 2013

One panel of the Kevlar-coated, high-tech covering was installed before construction stopped, Wednesday, but not both components (inside and outside). Once covered, workers will be able to finish the interior despite the winter weather.

Sprung frame Jan. 16, 2013

Here you can see the remnants of the old pool building – the mechanical room – coming down. More photographs will be posted as the construction continues, and weather permits.

I think most people in town are excited and happy about these structures and the speed with which they will be built. Had we gone with the traditional brick-and-steel buildings, we wouldn’t see completion for at least another year, if not longer. These buildings will be open by this spring – I expect kids will be swimming and skating within them before summer.

01/13/13

Musings on Game Design


An odd bit of synchronicity. I picked up a few unusual board games* at the discount/remainder store downtown (in the former Shoppers’ Drug Mart building) a couple of weeks back, and was mulling over their instructions, wondering why they seemed such odd and awkward games. In fact, they seemed rather unplayable, more like intellectual exercises in game design. Yet they were beautifully made, and very attractive.

Was it the topic? The manual? The components? What makes for a good game, what makes a bad one? Why have some games lingered on and are still being played – Monopoly, Scrabble, chess, go, Risk, Trivial Pursuit for example – while others seem to come and go? Was it simply that I was no longer conversant with the nature of the board gaming world?

Then I read an article on Science Digest that week called, “The Reason We Lose at Games: Some Games Simply Too Complex for the Human Mind to Understand“. In it, the authors wrote,

“…a University of Manchester physicist has discovered that some games are simply impossible to fully learn, or too complex for the human mind to understand.”

That led me to thoughts about games and game design. I’m a game player, always have been. Ever since my father taught me to play chess, around age 7 or 8. Admittedly I don’t play as much today, and mostly on the computer, but I can still spend a few hours now and then, immersed in a game like Civ V, Tropico 4 or others.

Monster wargameBackground: In the mid-1970s, I owned a small bookstore in Toronto. Among my lines was a rather good selection of chess books. Unfortunately, I was a better chess player than business owner, and I eventually closed my store and sold my stock. The chess books went to Mr. Gameways, a game store on Bloor Street. I got along with its manager so well, that he offered me a job, and for the next couple of years I managed the board game floor. During that time, I got heavily immersed in board games, particularly war games; easily the most challenging, complicated and demanding type of game ever. Eventually I ended up writing for wargaming magazines, reviewing wargames and even playtesting a few (along with several attempts at designing).

Imagine learning a rule book with 12, 24, even 60 pages of densely-packed rules! A board with hundreds, even thousands of pieces, multiple charts and tables, and complex interactions between them. And we learned and played new games at least once a month. Sometimes every week. As the Science Digest article says,

However, when games became more complex and when there are a lot of moves, such as in chess, the board game Go or complex card games, the academics argue that players’ actions become less rational and that it is hard to find optimal strategies.

Wargaming was a small but avid culture that had its heyday in the 1980s. Much like chess, there were clubs where people came to engage in games regularly, often playing a single game against an opponent for four or more hours. Some games took months to complete – I had a small circle of like-minded friends who met weekly to play some of the larger games, usually four to six of us at a time, with maps that spread out to cover an entire dining room table. War in the East (the entire Soviet-German war from 1941-45) and Highway to the Reich (Operation Market Garden) were two of the larger, table-size games I recall. Each session lasted three-six hours; the entire game took months to play through.

Complex? Challenging? Difficult? Yes to all. But captivating, too. They demanded strategic thinking often well beyond the horizon that chess offers. Yet there was still a random element – the roll of the die to determine combat results – that made the games exciting, and always different. Plus there was the virtual-general aspect: commanding anywhere from dozens to hundreds of units, managing logistics, strategy, setting operation goals…

Often the battles were very unequal, which added a different level of challenge. Can you win a battle that was historically lost by your side’s army? Sometimes… that all depended on how the game was designed, and what the victory conditions were. Winning might be, in game terms, losing less horribly than was historical. It might mean holding out longer before inevitable defeat. There’s a good description of a wargame here. The author of that blog notes:

“Wargames have to manifest some degree of historical specificity to be differentiated from popular but generic conflict games like Stratego or Risk. The popular Axis and Allies franchise (Hasbro) or more recently Memoir ’44 (Days of Wonder) represent about the minimum history acceptable in this regard. Unlike many Euro games, where the nominal historical subject is nothing but a thematic skin for the underlying game engine, board wargames try to capture some salient aspect of the events they depict, be it a particular strategic dilemma, operational opportunity or challenge, or battlefield dynamic.”

Look at Dunkirk, for a real-life example. As a straightforward wargame based on armies and tanks, the Germans win every time. They had overwhelming superiority in terms of men and weapons, greater mobility and higher morale, better supply lines. But the British “won” by being rescued from an isolated beach and saving a large portion of its army. How can a game designer incorporate the political elements, the indecision, the German High Command’s failure to follow through? That’s one of those thorny game-design problems. How to create a playable game out of an unequal situation. The Science Digest article notes,

Much of traditional game theory, the basis for strategic decision-making, is based on the equilibrium point — players or workers having a deep and perfect knowledge of what they are doing and of what their opponents are doing.

Dr Galla, from the School of Physics and Astronomy, said: “Equilibrium is not always the right thing you should look for in a game.”

“In many situations, people do not play equilibrium strategies, instead what they do can look like random or chaotic for a variety of reasons, so it is not always appropriate to base predictions on the equilibrium model.”

In fact, a game doesn’t have to be balanced to be fun, interesting or challenging. Many traditional, strategic board games like chess or go are balanced. Some, from snakes & ladders to backgammon and bridge, introduce randomness to change the balance. But real life is never like that. Many wargames introduced tension and dynamics through historical situations where unequal sides clashed

Napoleon's Last BattlesAnother historical example: Waterloo. While the allies (England and the German states) had, collectively, a larger army, they were initially scattered (especially the English), had longer and more vulnerable supply lines, and were not working together as a cohesive force. The French started with a central position, internal lines, the element of surprise, the morale benefit provided by Napoleon, and more experienced leaders. Which situation offered an advantage? The French need to strike fast and hard; break each Allied army separately before they can join forces. The Allies need to delay the French long enough for the British army to collect itself, then for both to gather at a point where they can defeat the French.

Could Napoleon have won? Potentially, if had been able to defeat the Allies separately, without suffering too many casualties – and had been able to manage his rather independent and unruly generals while maintaining his lines of supply. A good designer can craft a Waterloo game to present all the challenges that were historically present, and craft it so that Napoleon has some chance of winning, without stepping too far from historicity. And make the game fun to play. In fact, replaying Waterloo has long been a popular activity for wargame and miniatures gamers because of the different challenges both sides face, and the see-saw nature of the battle.

Playability versus realism – always the teeter-totter when designing wargames. Some games were classics of good design – the Napoleon’s Last Battles quad (and many of the other quad series games), Barbarossa, and PanzerBlitz come to mind as good examples of balance in both areas. The author of this article raises some interesting points about wargames that I hadn’t considered when I was playing them:

Board wargames function as paper computers. The abstraction of combat, movement, supply, and other basic military considerations into a numerically expressed spectrum of outcomes, randomized by die rolls within the parameters of a situation, makes the genre a rich source for anyone interested in the formal and procedural representation of dynamic, often ambiguous, literally contested experience. Because wargames are embodied in cardboard and charts rather than algorithms and code, they are by their nature “open source.” That is, the quantitative model underpinning the game system is materially exposed for inspection and analysis.

Finally, while most often understood in terms related to either gaming or simulation, board wargames can also function as powerful narrative agents. Players routinely discuss a game’s capacity for “narrative,” meaning whether the discrete die rolls and events allow them to suspend disbelief and create a believable storyworld that accords with their sense of historical plausibility. “Game fiction,” as the term has been defined by Jason Rhody, is therefore a salient feature of board wargames (a “genre of game that draws upon and uses narrative strategies to create, maintain, and lead the user through a fictional environment”).

I really understand his comment on the narrative nature of wargames.

A lot of independent game designers popped up during my wargaming days, creating sometimes remarkable games, sometimes unplayable ones. Occasionally I saw a tendency towards too much data, too many complex rules to try and capture the historical events through in-game strictures – putting realism over playability. That led to complex, difficult games where players read rule books while trying to figure out moves, and often argued over interpretations of even minor rules that could create big effects when used in play.

We also argued continually over interpretation of unit values. Was this tank model really worth two combat points more than that one? Did the designer appropriately take into account the bigger calibre gun or the wider tread? Was this cavalry regiment really better than that one, given the poor showing of its leader on the actual battlefield? Can a company of foot soldiers really travel that far in the time a turn represents? Does this general deserve that high a modifier compared to that one? We all became historians, usually with specialties in certain periods and equipment.

Of course, the way you learn about a game is by buying and playing it. At one point I had a huge collection – hundreds – of wargames. Now I have a mere handful, mostly kept for their nostalgic value. Wargaming led to buying a lot of books on military history and strategy, too, and my house was full of such books for many years. Like the games, only a dozen or so remain on the shelves.

Today, computer games rule the industry. The trend is often the other way: towards higher playability rather than realism. Popular games are too often mere entertainment. Oh, there’s a lot of “realism” in the environment – 3D landscapes, destructible objects, real-world physics with ballistics and gravity – but these define the setting, not the nature of the play. Computer games are often mechanically simple despite their visual impressiveness, especially the first-person shooters. In FPS, it’s all about fast fingers, rather than strategic planning or (just play in any multi-player FPS game online and you’ll find out how little real military tactics are used).

Even many computer simulations try to mask the inherent complexity – the realism – in a simplified interface, insulating the player from having to deal with too much data. You need both, in a reasonable balance to create an immersive experience. SimCity and Civ IV came very close to that balance. I have started to investigate computer wargames again, too – I was disappointed by them in the past, but there are new generations out worth looking at.

Gaming and game design still interests me, and every now and then invokes some almost-forgotten emotions and memories, but not with the same passion that pushed me in my wargaming days. I still believe some types of gaming are good intellectual exercises, are are good for strengthening the brain and teaching strategic thinking. However, I can’t help but look at any game – board or computer with a combination gamer’s and editor’s eyes, even today, and mentally weigh its merits and its design in terms of my own years of experience and play.

Update: the author of those blog posts responded to my email with a link to this post (and others) about what we can learn from wargames:

So what can we learn from wargames? Where Costikyan sees realism and historical fidelity and validity in simulation, I see a contemporary player and design community (both hobbyist and professional) that values attention to process in the procedural or quantitative representation of complex, often literally contested phenomena. Where Costikyan sees a focus on outcomes, I see a focus on the in-game experience, and the after the fact analysis and discussion of what happened and why.

~~~~~

Principato* Principato: a city-building/trading and farming game set in the Renaissance; De Vulgari Eloquentia, a game set in the late Middle Ages about religion, commerce and language; The Golden City, a trading-maze-merchant game, and Skyline 3000, a city-building futuristic game. All were produced by Z-man games. They attracted me because of their subject matter, but, so far, I have not warmed up to any enough to play them. Despite their high build quality, their instructions make them seem opaque and difficult. That might just be the editor within me wanting to rewrite them, however, and I will look more closely at them in the future and maybe even try one or two. Some of them are well reviewed at boardgamegeek,com.

I also got a maze game based on the Dilbert cartoon characters which is much simpler, but is at least playable without much reading or preparation. And, of course, it has Dilbert in it, one of my favourite cartoon characters.

01/10/13

The Art of Worldly Wisdom


Balthasar GracianPublished in 1647, The Art of Worldly Wisdom is a collection of 300 aphorisms about life, behaviour, politics, morality, faith, philosophy and society. One comment, on Amazon.ca called it, somewhat unfairly to Machiavelli, “Machiavelli with a soul.” I have been reading it of late as part of my ongoing study of Machiavelli.

It was written by Balthasar Gracian (1601-1658), a Spanish-born Jesuit priest, and titled in its original Spanish, “Oraculo manual y arte de prudencia” which translates to “The Oracle, a Manual of the Art of Discretion.” Today it is known as The Art of Worldly Wisdom. A popular English translation was made in 1892 by Joseph Jacobs, and is available in several formats online as a public domain book. This is available on several sites as a PDF.* A newer translation by Maurer is available through online bookstores.

Gracian also wrote A Pocket Mirror for Heroes (El héroe) around the same time. This was a guide for the behaviour of Christian princes, written as a counterpoint to Machiavelli’s advice. A translation by Maurer is available through online bookstores.

The Art of Worldly Wisdom combines general observations on the human condition with practical tips and prudent advice. Many of the aphorisms still have relevance today: they are common sense, and often witty. It is not, like Heroes, a counter-argument against Machiavelli written for rulers, but rather a general guide, written for people of society; professionals, politicians, socialites. It reads a bit like Chuang Tzu or Mencius, at times. Other times it is sternly moralizing in a very European-Christian manner. Others it seems like Emily Post on manners and civility.

Typical of Gracian’s advice is aphorism 43: Think with the Few and speak with the Many. This can stand alone, but is embellished by his commentary:

“By swimming against the stream it is impossible to remove error, easy to fall into danger; only a Socrates can undertake it. To dissent from others’ views is regarded as an insult, because it is their condemnation. Disgust is doubled on account of the thing blamed and of the person who praised it. Truth is for the few, error is both common and vulgar. The wise man is not known by what he says on the house-tops, for there he speaks not with his own voice but with that of common folly, however much his inmost thoughts may gainsay it. The prudent avoid being contradicted as much as contradicting: though they have their censure ready they are not ready to publish it. Thought is free, force cannot and should not be used to it. The wise man therefore retires into silence, and if he allows himself to come out of it, he does so in the shade and before few and fit persons.”

With 300 such aphorisms in the book, there’s always one you can find that relates to your own situation or a local issue. Some, like the one above, can be quoted by its title, but many require Gracian’s explanation to be made clear. For example, xviii: Application and Ability. This is meaningless without the subsequent paragraph of explanation:

“There is no attaining eminence without both, and where they unite there is the greatest eminence. Mediocrity obtains more with application than superiority without it. Work is the price which is paid for reputation. What costs little is little worth. Even for the highest posts it is only in some cases application that is wanting, rarely the talent. To prefer moderate success in great things than eminence in a humble post has the excuse of a generous mind, but not so to be content with humble mediocrity when you could shine among the highest. Thus nature and art are both needed, and application sets on them the seal.”

Here are a few of his aphorisms that struck me as relevant, while I read the book. I have edited some of the commentary, to reduce the size of this post. I recommend, however, you get a copy of the original and read everything in it:

  • xxiv Keep the Imagination under Control; It can tyrannize, and is not content with looking on, but influences and even often dominates life, causing it to be happy or burdensome according to the folly to which it leads.

    lxxxviii Let your Behaviour be Fine and Noble. A great man ought not to be little in his behaviour. … To keep hovering around the object or your annoyance is a kind of mania.

  • xxv Know how to take a Hint. He cannot make himself understood who does not himself easily understand.
  • xxviii Common in Nothing. …to be ill at ease when your deeds please the mob! The excesses of popular applause never satisfy the sensible. Take no pleasure in the wonder of the mob, for ignorance never gets beyond wonder. While vulgar folly wonders, wisdom watches for the trick.
  • xxx Have naught to do with Occupations of Ill-repute, still less with fads that bring more notoriety than repute.
  • xxxiii Know how to Withdraw. If it is a great lesson in life to know how to deny, it is a still greater to know how to deny oneself as regards both affairs and persons… To be occupied in what does not concern you is worse than doing nothing.
  • xxv Think over Things, most over the most Important. All fools come to grief from want of thought. They never see even the half of things, and as they do not observe their own loss or gain, still less do they apply any diligence to them. Some make much of what imports little and little of much, always weighing in the wrong scale. Many never lose their common sense, because they have none to lose.
  • xli Never Exaggerate. … Exaggeration is a branch of lying, and you lose by it the credit of good taste, which is much, and of good sense, which is more.
  • lxix Do not give way to every common Impulse. He is a great man who never allows himself to be influenced by the impressions of others. Self-reflection is the school of wisdom.
  • lxxvi Do not always be Jesting. Wisdom is shown in serious matters, and is more appreciated than mere wit. He that is always ready for jests is never ready for serious things… Jest has its little hour, seriousness should have all the rest.
  • lxxviii The Art of undertaking Things. Fools rush in through the door; for folly is always bold… prudence enters with more deliberation… Step cautiously where you suspect depth. Sagacity goes cautiously forward while precaution covers the ground. 

    xxiv: Keep the Imagination under Control; It can tyrannize,… influences and even often dominates life, causing it to be happy or burdensome according to the folly to which it leads.

  • lxxx Take care to get Information. We live by information, not by sight…Let reflection assay falsity and exaggeration.
  • lxxxvii Culture and Elegance. Man is born a barbarian, and only raises himself above the beast by culture. Culture therefore makes the man; the more a man, the higher… even knowledge is coarse If without elegance.
  • lxxxviii Let your Behaviour be Fine and Noble. A great man ought not to be little in his behaviour. He ought never to pry too minutely into things, least of all in unpleasant matters… To keep hovering around the object or your annoyance is a kind of mania.
  • xci Never set to work at anything if you have any doubts of its Prudence. A suspicion of failure in the mind of the doer is proof positive of it in that of the onlooker… Action is dangerous where prudence is in doubt… Wisdom does not trust to probabilities; it always marches in the mid-day light of reason.
  • xcii Transcendent Wisdom. …an ounce of wisdom is worth more than tons of cleverness.
  • cvi Do not parade your Position. …The more you seek esteem the less you obtain it, for it depends on the opinion of others. You cannot take it, but must earn and receive it from others…Do not enforce respect, but try and create it.
  • cvii Show no Self-satisfaction. Self-satisfaction arises mostly from ignorance… Because a man cannot achieve the superlative perfections of others, he contents himself with any mediocre talent of his own.
  • cviii The Path to Greatness is along with Others. Intercourse works well: manners and taste are shared: good sense and even talent grow insensibly… It is a great art to agree with others… by joining extremes the more effective middle way is found.
  • cix Be not Censorious. There are men of gloomy character who regard everything as faulty, not from any evil motive but because it is their nature to. They condemn all: these for what they have done, those for what they will do… They accuse with such exaggeration that they make out of motes beams wherewith to force out the eyes. They are always taskmasters who could turn a paradise into a prison…
  • cxii Gain Good-will. …By gaining their good-will you gain men’s good opinion.
  • cxiv Never Compete. …The heat of conflict gives life, or even new life, to dead scandals, and digs up long-buried skeletons. Competition begins with belittling… when the weapons of abuse do not effect their purpose, as often or mostly happens, our opponents use them for revenge, and use them at least for beating away the dust of oblivion from anything to our discredit.
  • cxvi Only act with Honourable Men. Their honour is the best surety of their behaviour even in misunderstandings… ’tis better to have a dispute with honourable people than to have a victory over dishonorable ones.
  • cxvii Never talk of Yourself. You must either praise yourself, which is vain, or blame yourself, which is little-minded… above all, in public speaking, where every appearance of unwisdom really is unwise.
  • cxviii Acquire the Reputation of Courtesy; …Politeness is the main ingredient of culture,–a kind of witchery that wins the regard of all as surely as discourtesy gains their disfavor and opposition…
  • cxix Avoid becoming Disliked. …There are many who hate of their own accord without knowing the why or the how. Their ill-will outruns our readiness to please. Their ill-nature is more prone to do others harm…Some manage to be on bad terms with all, because they always either produce or experience vexation of spirit. Once hate has taken root it is, like bad repute, difficult to eradicate.
  • cxxi Do not make a Business of what is no Business. …Troublesome things must not be taken too seriously if they can be avoided. It is preposterous to take to heart that which you should throw over your shoulders. Much that would be something has become nothing by being left alone, and what was nothing has become of consequence by being made much of.
  • cxxv Do not be a Black List. It is a sign of having a tarnished name to concern oneself with the ill-fame of others. Some wish to hide their own stains with those of others, or at least wash them away: or they seek consolation therein–’tis the consolation of fools.
  • cxxvi Folly consists not in committing Folly, but in not hiding it when committed. …Reputation depends more on what is hidden than on what is done…
  • cxxix Never complain. To complain always brings discredit… By complaining of past offences we give occasion for future ones…
  • cxxxv Do not nourish the Spirit of Contradiction. It only proves you foolish or peevish… To find difficulties in everything may prove you clever, but such wrangling writes you down a fool.
  • cxxxviii The Art of letting Things alone. …There are hurricanes in human affairs, tempests of passion, when it is wise to retire to a harbour and ride at anchor…
  • cxl Find the Good in a Thing at once. …some seek the good, others the ill. There is nothing that has no good in it… But many have such a scent that amid a thousand excellences they fix upon a single defect, and single it out for blame as if they were scavengers of men’s minds and hearts.

    cix Be not Censorious. There are men of gloomy character who regard everything as faulty…They condemn all… with such exaggeration that they make out of motes beams wherewith to force out the eyes.

  • cxli Do not listen to Yourself. It is no use pleasing yourself if you do not please others, and as a rule general contempt is the punishment for self-satisfaction.
  • cxlii Never from Obstinacy take the Wrong Side because your Opponent has anticipated you in taking the Right One. You begin the fight already beaten and must soon take to flight in disgrace. With bad weapons one can never win.
  • cxlv Do not show your wounded Finger, for everything will knock up against it; nor complain about it, for malice always aims where weakness can be injured… Ill-will searches for wounds to irritate, aims darts to try the temper, and tries a thousand ways to sting to the quick. The wise never own to being hit…
  • cxlvi Look into the Interior of Things. Things are generally other than they seem, and ignorance that never looks beneath the rind becomes disabused when you show the kernel. Lies always come first, dragging fools along by their irreparable vulgarity.
  • cli Think beforehand. …The greatest foresight consists in determining beforehand the time of trouble… The pillow is a silent Sibyl, and it is better to sleep on things beforehand than lie awake about them afterwards… Rumination and foresight enable one to determine the line of life.
  • civil Do not make Mistakes about Character. In dealing with men, more than with other things, it is necessary to look within…Men must be studied as deeply as books.
  • clxv Wage War Honorably. You may be obliged to wage war, but not to use poisoned arrows. Everyone must needs act as he is, not as others would make him to be… In men of honour the smallest trace of meanness repels…
  • clxvi Distinguish the Man of Words from the Man of Deeds. …Trees that bear leaves but not fruit have usually no pith. Know them for what they are, of no use except for shade.
  • clxviii Do not indulge in the Eccentricities of Folly. …Where self-control is wanting, there is no room for others’ guidance.
  • clxix Be more careful not to Miss once than to Hit a hundred times. The common talk does not reckon what goes right but what goes wrong. Evil report carries farther than any applause… ill-will notices every error and no success.
  • clxxxviii Be the Bearer of Praise. …since it shows that we have learnt elsewhere to know what is excellent, and hence how to prize it in the present company.
  • cxcix To find a proper Place by Merit, not by Presumption. The true road to respect is through merit… push and insistence is degrading…
  • cci They are all Fools who seem so besides half the rest. …the greatest fool is he who thinks he is not one and all others are….
  • ccix Keep Yourself free from common Follies. …being discontented with his own lot, envies that of others…
  • ccxiv Do not turn one Blunder into two. It is quite usual to commit four others in order to remedy one, or to excuse one piece of impertinence by still another.
  • ccxviii Never act from Obstinacy but from Knowledge. All obstinacy is an excrescence of the mind, a grandchild of passion which never did anything right…
  • ccxxi Do not seize Occasions to embarrass Yourself or Others. There are some men …always on the point of some stupidity…Their humour always strokes the wrong way since they contradict all and every.
  • ccxxviii Do not be a Scandal-monger. …Do not be witty at the cost of others: it is easy but hateful… The backbiter is always hated…
  • cclii Neither belong entirely to Yourself nor entirely to Others. Both are mean forms of tyranny… A shrewd man knows that others when they seek him do not seek him, but their advantage in him and by him.

    cxxv Do not be a Black List.  Some wish to hide their own stains with those of others, or at least wash them away: or they seek consolation therein–’tis the consolation of fools.

  • cclvii Never let Matters come to a Rupture, …Few can do us good, almost any can do us harm… Hidden foes use the paw of the declared enemy to stir up the fire, and meanwhile they lie in ambush for such an occasion. …They cover their own failings with the faults of others.
  • cclxi Do not follow up a Folly. …some continue in their folly and prefer to be constant fools.
  • cclxx Do not condemn alone that which pleases all. There must be something good in a thing that pleases so many; even if it cannot be explained it is certainly enjoyed…You simply destroy respect for your taste rather than do harm to the object of your blame…
  • cclxxii Sell Things by the Tariff of Courtesy. Courtesy does not really make presents, but really lays men under obligation, and generosity is the great obligation.
  • cclxxxiv Do not be Importunate, …Be sooner sparing than lavish with your presence…The importunate is always the butt of blame; and because he thrusts himself in without shame he is thrust out with it.
  • ccxcv Do not affect what you have not effected. Many claim exploits without the slightest claim…content yourself with doing, leave the talking to others.

Some of these just begged to be copied and pasted into Facebook or other sites as comments in ongoing discussions, but I restrained myself and will be content to weave a few of them into my book on Machiavelli. I recommend you read the book to appreciate fully what Gracian wrote in these sayings, and determine yourself their applicability.

~~~~~

* Most of these seem derived from a rough OCR of a scanned book on archive.org. The OCR was poorly edited and contains several typos and contextual mistakes. For example,  aphorism in these version read, “clxxiv Be Attractive.magnet of your pleasant qualities more to obtain goodwill than good deeds…” That is nonsensical. The proper word is not magnet, but “manage” which can be determined by reading the original scan. Other reconstructions suffer from bad grammar and editing. In one, for example, aphorism cclvii reads, “Never let matters come to a braking point.” The correct word is “breaking” (other versions say, “Never let matters come to a rupture.”)
Also, aphorism xci mentions “…if resolutions passed nem. con. by inner court.” Nem. con. is an abbreviation of “nemine contradicente,” a Latin phrase for “without dissent,” “unanimously,”or “of one mind.” It helps to be able to read Roman numerals when identifying aphorisms.