Strangely Consistent

Musings about programming, Perl 6, and programming Perl 6

8 ball pool (epoq diary 007)

I don't play games on my phone much these days, but for 8 ball pool I make an exception. It's relaxing, and somehow doesn't feel like a complete waste of time.

There's something strangely alluring about a game that's based entirely on Newton's laws of motion. Good shots and bad, it really feels like a game where the only luck is the one you make yourself.

In fact, it's like the game is happening on two levels:

  1. (Physics) The inertial motion and elastic collisions of the balls.
  2. (Rules) In-game consequences of the cue ball hitting/not hitting other balls, and balls being pocketed.

I can almost see this forming the basis of a really nice object-oriented implementation of the game, where the "Physics" event stream feeds into the "Rules" event stream, not unlike how a token stream feeds into a parser. A nice layering.

It occurred to me only the other day that the game pits me not just against other human players, but against AI players too sometimes. It does a pretty good job at hiding the difference, which is why I hadn't noticed.

If that were all, I probably wouldn't set aside a blog post just for a game. But 8 ball pool is an excellent example of real-time distributed document editing. Yes, like Google Docs, except the shared state isn't a Word file, it's a game.

Building a distributed system is hard. Not just "engineering challenge" hard, but "theoretically impossible" hard. There is inevitably a difficult sacrifice to be made somewhere, and it needs to be made gracefully.

Let's say I'm playing against another human player with a phone somewhere else in the world. The pleasant illusion/abstraction the distributed game aims to convey is that there is a single game being played, with only a single game state. Except that's patently untrue: there are definitely two machines/states involved, separated by lots of air and cable. (Quite probably three, counting a central server.)

What am I saying here; that abstractions leak? Am I invoking the CAP theorem as well as CAP theorem 12 years later? Am I reminding the enlightened reader that The First Law of Distributed Object Design is You Do Not Talk About Fight Club? Yes, yes, yes, and yes.

The frustrating thing about a distributed system is that the terms "distributed" and "system" are irreconcilable. A distributed system isn't one system anymore — it's two or more of them. A leaky abstraction can patch it up and heal sometimes, but sometimes (like with a Git merge conflict) there simply isn't a machine-only fix.

The game? Well, it's still good fun and good relaxation on my commute. The most frustrating thing is the rare occasions where the game rolls back because it turns out I was disconnected without noticing, and instead of making that great shot, I had silently run out of time and ceded my turn. Or sometimes, due to a bad connection or whatnot during parts of the commute, I simply lose contact with the game and get booted out.

I tell myself it's OK, because distributed systems are impossible.