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January 6, 2010

The tastemakers of tomorrow
Posted by Avram Grumer at 11:13 PM * 40 comments

As further proof of Jim Henley’s boast that SF&F geek culture is the new mainstream, the NY Times has run an article about something bored role-playing gamers have been doing ever since the white box days: Packing dice together in odd configurations.

I look forward to the upcoming five-part series investigating the world of doodling on graph paper and quoting Monty Python.

Comments on The tastemakers of tomorrow:
#1 ::: Kate ::: (view all by) ::: January 06, 2010, 11:56 PM:

Google "Zen Tangles" it's one of the new craft crazes- and it's basicly doodling in a set pattern/space.

#2 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: January 07, 2010, 12:05 AM:

When you have a President who makes jokes about his having been born on Krypton (maybe the birthers should rename themselves earthers), and when he refers to his wife's dilithium-crystal belt buckle, I'd say that yes, we've won. I'm not sure how the misfits still in high-school really are faring, but the grownup ones seem to be doing ok.

#3 ::: Ken Houghton ::: (view all by) ::: January 07, 2010, 12:05 AM:

"five-part series investigating the world of doodling on graph paper and quoting Monty Python."

I believe Krugman did that over the end of the year.

#4 ::: Stefan Jones ::: (view all by) ::: January 07, 2010, 12:05 AM:

I bet that research paid for Lou Zocchi's hip replacement.

#5 ::: Will "scifantasy" Frank ::: (view all by) ::: January 07, 2010, 12:20 AM:

Ken: Krugman's pretty squarely One of Us. He wrote a paper on the economic theory of interstellar trade, after all.

As to the scientists and the dice, there's a melee of jokes battling it out in my head. Some of the frontrunners:

"Didn't they have their own dice? Posers."
"Wow, everybody must be playing wizard. What besides Magic Missile uses that many d4s?"
And, of course: "I'm attacking the darkness!"

#6 ::: Avram ::: (view all by) ::: January 07, 2010, 12:38 AM:

Stefan @4, did they use one of those hundred-sided dice for the ball joint?

Will @5, they could be playing Dogs in the Vineyard with characters whose lives are very complicated.

#7 ::: Will "scifantasy" Frank ::: (view all by) ::: January 07, 2010, 12:51 AM:

I don't want to start wondering what systems different branches of scientist/mathematician use. Really I don't.

But, of course, my brain doesn't listen to me.

(Astrophysics: Traveller. Parapsychology: Old World of Darkness. Climate change: these days, Paranoia, perhaps. D&D is probably shared ground.)

#8 ::: Stefan Jones ::: (view all by) ::: January 07, 2010, 01:28 AM:

If anyone wants to duplicate this research:

Googling to determine whether Lou Zocchi is still alive led me to discover that an old college friend is looking for a copy of the Star Fleet Battle Manual, of which I have an extra.

And it looks like he's alive, just retired from the dice business to pull rabbits out of hats:

#9 ::: Stefan Jones ::: (view all by) ::: January 07, 2010, 01:33 AM:

Avram's White Box link leads to an article noting:

"In addition, the rules presumed ownership of Outdoor Survival, an Avalon Hill board game for outdoor exploration and adventure."

I have accumulated THREE copies of Outdoor Survival from thrift stores. If anyone wants to simulate the original D&D experience, let me know. #8^/

#10 ::: julia ::: (view all by) ::: January 07, 2010, 06:34 AM:

Aw, be fair. The Times just discovered this week that there are white people living in Harlem. This is way, way closer to real time reporting.

#11 ::: Earl Cooley III ::: (view all by) ::: January 07, 2010, 06:55 AM:

Another interesting craft trend I've seen lately is for people to use computer game 3d models (that can be extracted from game data files) for paper-crafting. Some good work from Morrowind has surfaced recently.

#12 ::: Ingvar M ::: (view all by) ::: January 07, 2010, 08:36 AM:

Will "scifantasy" Frank @ #7:

And for exorcists, I suspect Chill may be the game of choice.

#13 ::: Lowell Gilbert ::: (view all by) ::: January 07, 2010, 08:49 AM:

As one of those geeks with engineering degrees, I'd like to point out that this has important practical applications. A tetrahedron is a good model for (e.g.) a carbon atom in a molecular form, and the tighter the "packing," the tighter the molecular bonds. Materials engineering implications of this work are probably staggering, although I'm far too rusty in that area to guess what they might be.

#14 ::: fidelio ::: (view all by) ::: January 07, 2010, 09:11 AM:

I saw a hypotrochoid drawing kit for sale around Christmas this year, and not the canonical Spirograph, either. It was labeled "Hypotrochoid art set", just as if they expected people to know what that meant and be pleased to snap it up and drag it home with them. Coincidence?

I think not.

(I bought two; both recipients were tickled to get them.)

#15 ::: kid bitzer ::: (view all by) ::: January 07, 2010, 10:02 AM:


conversely, you would think that the way to find the optimal tetrahedral packing configuration would be to look at various natural materials.
it's often the case that nature has already cracked these problems. (e.g., the way that bubbles naturally solve surface-minimization problems).
(i wonder what the packing density for diamond is? and whether its geometry has been explored by the mathematicians? if diamond does *not* use one of the new, super-dense tetrahedral packings, then that's even more exciting--it suggests that there might be dense-iamonds waiting to be synthesized in the future!)

#16 ::: David Manheim ::: (view all by) ::: January 07, 2010, 11:27 AM:

The crystalline structure of a diamond means that there cannot be arbitrary packing of carbon molecules. The packing solutions here assume separate blocks; diamonds are a single, much larger block.

#17 ::: Joel Polowin ::: (view all by) ::: January 07, 2010, 11:49 AM:

Will Frank @ 5 -- "Cone of Cold" does 1 + d4 per level, or used to. (One of my characters made himself a pair of bracelets that delivered a 12th-level Cone of Cold apiece, to the considerable surprise of the party member who ran up and grabbed him from behind to try to get his attention. Much rolling ensued.)

Lowell Gilbert @ 13, kid bitzer @ 15 -- Remember that the tetrahedral shape is that of the four bonds of the carbon atom; the implied tetrahedra are connected tip-to-tip, not solidly packed. There are several different diamond crystal structures, and they're all cages with a fair bit of void space.

#18 ::: kid bitzer ::: (view all by) ::: January 07, 2010, 11:50 AM:


no; i realize that a different packing arrangement is not possible starting with *diamond*, and that the overall lattice determines the molecule-level packing.

but this does not rule out the possibility that there could be some other, non-diamond-lattice form of pure carbon with a denser packing. and then whether we call it "diamond-9" (even though it is not properly a form of diamond) or "dense-iamond" or "super-dense carbon" is a matter for lexicography, not material science.

this jpg:
does make it look as though the carbon atoms in diamond are still observing their tetrahedral bond-angles. so i wonder how diamond does score on the packing-density metric?

#19 ::: Joel Polowin ::: (view all by) ::: January 07, 2010, 12:15 PM:

kid bitzer @ 18 -- i wonder how diamond does score on the packing-density metric?

That's tough to say because it depends on somewhat arbitrary criteria. A simpler but related question: how large is an atom? It has one or more electrons occupying space around it in orbitals, but the electrons don't have specific locations, they have wavefunction densities. Most of the density is close to the atom, but it's non-zero at any location you choose, at any distance (except at nodes in the wavefunctions). From this point of view, the atom is arbitrarily large.

One can say something like "the typical C-C bond length in diamond is 1.54 Angstroms, implying an atomic radius of 0.77 Angstroms", but the electrons "fill" the entire space of the crystal -- much more sparsely in the void spaces than along the bonds, of course.

#20 ::: kid bitzer ::: (view all by) ::: January 07, 2010, 12:34 PM:

i appreciate that electrons are delocalized in this way. and i assume that even the nucleus is delocalized in a comparable way, for comparable reasons, i.e. that each of the protons and neutrons is also governed by a wave-equation.

but given the greater complexity of the nucleus, i should think the drop-off in the wave-function density will be much steeper. if the 95% probability boundary of the electron is a significant volume, i suspect that the 95% probability boundary of the nucleus is an insignificant volume.

that makes it less arbitrary to say "that nucleus is right *there*" than to say "that electron is right *there*".

and then we can ask, not "what is the volume of the carbon atom?", but, "given some volume, how many nuclei of carbon-atoms can we get into *that* volume using various packing-schemes?"

#21 ::: Erik Nelson ::: (view all by) ::: January 07, 2010, 02:38 PM:

Geek culture is not mainstream. Mainstream is slipstream (in the sense of getting a free ride in the wake of the rider ahead of you.)

#22 ::: Joel Polowin ::: (view all by) ::: January 07, 2010, 03:12 PM:

Under sufficient pressure, I'd expect that carbon atoms could be packed more densely than they are in diamond -- something like the predicted metallic phase of hydrogen. But the result wouldn't have tetrahedral bonding.

#23 ::: Don Simpson ::: (view all by) ::: January 07, 2010, 03:18 PM:

Stefan Jones @ 8 -- I've been selling 3-sided dice for many years, and Zocchi sent me a letter when he was about to release his design to see if there was any conflict. I told him there was not -- my design is the common volume of three quarter-cylenders at right angles, their axes being certain edges of a cube (the shape has two mirror-image forms). I really need to put the diagram on-line. Mathematician Nathanial Hellerstein independantly came up with the sissors-rock-paper labeling after I carved one of my dice for him out of cheese at a party. He had been designing six-sided dice where die A statistically beats die B which beats die C which beats die A, and card games that have a similar rotational dominance. I like the 5-way dominance cycle, which I first saw several decades back (It can be derived from Chinese element theory) and which was off-handedly referenced in a recent SF novel, The Player of Games (by Iain M. Banks), but I'm not making 5-sided dice yet....

#24 ::: dcb ::: (view all by) ::: January 07, 2010, 03:32 PM:

Okay, how many of you cut out copies of the pentominoes puzzle pieces from Arthur C. Clarke's "Imperial Earth" and worked out the two 3 x 20 solutions? I used to carry my set to school and try to make new 6 x 10 solutions. Kept me occupied for hours on buses and in break times.

A few years ago I actually found a plastic set in a charity shop. I've used them to keep visiting children occupied on occasion, although normally they don't have the patience to actually work out any solutions.

#25 ::: fidelio ::: (view all by) ::: January 07, 2010, 04:06 PM:

kid bitzer, Joul Polowin, et al.:

Fullerene is another vesion of carbon structure.

#26 ::: Dan Hoey ::: (view all by) ::: January 07, 2010, 04:22 PM:

Kid Bitzer@15: the way that bubbles naturally solve surface-minimization problems

I feel compelled to mention that bubble films only give you a local minimum, which is not all that hard on a computer. Finding a global minimum is NP-hard, and bubbles don't help. The distinction is often blurred in popular speculative math of the sort one shouldn't cite.

#27 ::: Falconer ::: (view all by) ::: January 07, 2010, 05:28 PM:

My wife and I were recently watching Sagan's Cosmos, and we came to the episode where he discusses the ancient Greeks and their thoughts about the regular polyhedrons; apparently they thought the dodecahedron was too intense for the masses.

This has led to cries in my RPG circle of "You want the 12 sider? YOU CAN'T HANDLE THE 12 SIDER!"

Why, yes, we *are* easily amused.

#28 ::: joann ::: (view all by) ::: January 07, 2010, 06:00 PM:

Falconer $27:

Then what did they say about icosahedrons?

#29 ::: Joel Polowin ::: (view all by) ::: January 07, 2010, 06:03 PM:

fidelio @ 25 -- Sure, but fullerenes are even less densely-packed than graphite, which is less densely-packed than diamond. (In individual layers of graphite, the carbon atoms are closer together than they are in diamond, but the graphite layers are relatively far apart.) If you have a many-layered fullerene ball, structured like an onion, it approaches the density of graphite. The bonding patterns aren't tetrahedral.

#30 ::: Avram ::: (view all by) ::: January 07, 2010, 06:18 PM:

Falconer @27, has your group ever played The Shab-al-Hiri Roach?

#31 ::: JJR ::: (view all by) ::: January 08, 2010, 12:11 AM:

Another excellent toy for exploring tetrahedron packing is (or was) Magnetix. Unfortunately, they are deadly.

#32 ::: xeger ::: (view all by) ::: January 08, 2010, 12:21 AM:

Ah, the joys of being tired... managing to mangle 'the tastemakers of tomorrow' with the 'colebrook humane society', to come up with 'the tastemakers of tomorrow cookbook: humane society'...

#33 ::: Falconer ::: (view all by) ::: January 08, 2010, 10:50 AM:

joann @28: Apparently the icosahedron was perfectly fine for the plebes. Go figure.

Avram @30: No, can't say that we have....

#34 ::: Wil Macaulay ::: (view all by) ::: January 08, 2010, 11:18 AM:

fidelio #14 - from Lee Valley Tools?,104,55972

Seriously geeky tool company - I have a tendency to buy things like planes just in case I ever need them. Some day I'll finish that fiddle...

#35 ::: Lila ::: (view all by) ::: January 08, 2010, 12:52 PM:

I noticed the other day at Barnes & Noble that it's becoming difficult to find a YA/teen book that ISN'T either fantasy or monstery-supernatural. When I was a teen, you had to go out of your way to find one that wasn't set in the "real world".

OTOH, there seems to be a dearth of hard sci-fi for that age group. Or perhaps it just gets mixed in with the regular SF. (And yes, I'm aware of just how stupid I am to be making a comment like that in a place like this. I speak strictly as an uninformed browser-in-bookstore.)

#36 ::: fidelio ::: (view all by) ::: January 08, 2010, 01:18 PM:

Wil Macaulay @34--that would be the one--and I notice the Lee Valley Tools site lists them as sold out for the holiday season.

#37 ::: JaeWalker ::: (view all by) ::: January 08, 2010, 05:29 PM:

Ingvar @12
Ooooh - Chill! I *still* run a weekly Chill campaign!

Jae Walker

#38 ::: Avram ::: (view all by) ::: January 08, 2010, 05:39 PM:

Falconer @33, see, in Roach, resolution is normally handled by rolling dice from d4 to d10 in size, bigger being better. If your character is possessed by the (ancient Sumerian mind-controlling) roach, you get to roll a d12.

#39 ::: Earl Cooley III ::: (view all by) ::: January 11, 2010, 10:04 AM:

Is anyone running RPG tabletop games via videoconferencing yet?

Is anyone still using Google Wave?

#40 ::: Iorwerth Thomas ::: (view all by) ::: January 13, 2010, 08:41 AM:

39: I'm running in and playing in games using Skype (I'm in a different country from my usual group at present). We don't really use video, though.

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