Friday, February 20, 2009

Academic Earth

Slate has an article up about Academic Earth, a site with video lectures of university courses. It's a neat idea, but they don't appear to have a whole lot of content so far.

If you want interesting talks, TED is still the first place to look. Academic Earth may be a good site to bookmark and keep your eye on, though.

Monday, February 16, 2009


So I'm in my fourth year of graduate school in Cognitive Science, and my minor is Computer Science. However, the only programming language I have any familiarity with is Java. So I made a New Year's resolution of sorts to at least get my hands dirty with another language this year, as a side project. C++ is a very widely used language in industry and academia, so I thought I'd learn a little C++ by working on a project not directly related to my dissertation work.

I've always liked games of all sorts, so I decided to try my hand at writing a game. I didn't really want to write something from scratch. You can learn a lot that way, but I find that I learn more in programming by starting with an existing framework, seeing others accomplished things, and incrementally adding my own stuff. So I poked around and found the PopCap Framework, which is an open-source set of code for implementing 2D games. PopCap are the makers of the 3-match Bejeweled series, the Peggle games, Zuma, and many others, and they're an industry leader in the casual game market. So I downloaded their framework in early January and started working through the tutorials.

There was a very good tutorial on coding up a version of Breakout, so I started working through that, but it didn't lead to a finished project, and I wanted to actually try working on my own game. So I initially got the idea for a Peggle variant. I started working on that, and needed to use a physics engine. I started to get it working reasonably well when another game idea hit me.

It's easier from both a game play and programming perspective, so I shifted my spare programming hours to the new project, which I called Quatrain. Here's a screen shot of the work in progress:

The object of the game is to drag tiles that are generated one at a time in the little box on the left side of the screen and drop them onto the playing area. To make a legal move, the tile must be dropped so that it connects to an existing tile on the board and the adjacent colors match. The tile to be dropped can be rotated as well, by pressing either the clockwise or counterclockwise buttons on the left of the screen.

When a given solid shape is completely surrounded by either other colors or the edge of the playing area, that shape gets grayed out, and the player gets incrementally more points for each triangle in the bounded shape. If a whole tile gets grayed out, it is destroyed, and the player gets points for that too.

With each shape bounded, the score goes up and the progress bar at the top of the field increments. When the progress bar fills, the player moves on to the next level. Each new level requires a little more progress to complete, and every five levels a new color is added, for a maximum of seven colors. The playable tiles spawn with random colors, and if a new tile spawns that is unplayable, the player can hit the "New Tile" button to destroy it and spawn another new tile. The player starts out with 4 of these mulligans, but earns a new one every 500,000 points.

This is the standard mode, which is untimed, and allows play and progression until the player either gets tired or runs out of New Tiles and gets an unplayable tile. Much like Bejeweled, I plan on implementing three other modes of play: Timed, Puzzle (in which players must form particular shapes to complete each level), and Neverending (which lets the player choose the number of colors and gives them an unlimited supply of New Tiles).

I'm going to put up a website, probably in the next few weeks, and at some point put up a downloadable demo. I'm interested in getting feedback on the gameplay and incorporating that into a final version. So watch this blog for the next few weeks if you're interested in beta testing the game. If you're friends or family I may try to twist your arm into trying it out. :)


I watched the series premiere of Joss Whedon's new Fox series Dollhouse the other day. I can't say I was blown away, but it was interesting enough to make me want to watch more.

The story involves a secret business that caters to the rich and powerful by providing them with "dolls", people who have had their own memory erased and implanted with false memories and personalities. A given doll can apparently be wiped any number of times and overwritten with new personalities, which makes for a decent hook for a weekly show. The show is centered around Echo, who in the first episode we see signing her life over to the dollhouse, though we don't know any of her own backstory.

We see her become a rich guy's dream date for a weekend, and then return to the dollhouse to be wiped and reprogrammed to be a top-notch hostage negotiator for another client. The dolls apparently don't know what's going on, and they always seem to be implanted with a false memory relating to their need to receive some kind of medical treatment (which is an easy way to corral them back into the mind-wiping machine).

There are some subplots: each doll has a handler that shadows them on assignments, and Echo's is an ex-cop who may not always have the interests of his employers at heart. On the outside, there's a detective who is investigating the dollhouse, for which he apparently has no hard evidence that it exists. And then there was another mystery player introduced at the end of the show.

So they've done a good job of throwing an interesting hook and a lot of good dramatic elements into the show. I like that the show doesn't explain every little detail, but that can also make it obscure at points. But my biggest issue is suspension of disbelief. When I first heard about the show, I thought it would be set in the future, along the lines of Whedon's Firefly. But no, it's set in present day, where some rogue band of scientists have independently figured out completely how the mind, memories, and personalities work to the point where they can erase, implant, and mold them at will. They also have a database of just about every possible skill set and personality type that exists, from which they can sculpt any new amalgam they want.

This is really hard to swallow, but hopefully I'll be able to manage it, because it seems like it could be a decent show.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Louisiana's Shameful Science Policy Hits Its Wallets

Via Pharyngula, last year Louisiana passed the ironically-named "Louisiana Science Education Act", which is basically one in a long string of dumb pieces of legislation used by Creationists to try to sneak religion in the back door of schools. The wording says something about allowing teachers to bring special materials (i.e. non-approved textbook materials) to refute particular "controversial" topics like evolution and global warming.

Many scientific organizations urged our Governor to boycott the bill, but he's a religious conservative so he ignored them and signed it into law. And now it's hurting Louisiana in more ways that one.

The annual meeting of the Society for Integrative and Comparative Biology was going to be held in New Orleans this year, but because of the passing of this moronic bill, the organizers decided to move the venue to Salt Lake City. So the stupidity of this bill basically cost the New Orleans local economy a week's worth of revenue from about 2,000 scientists and students who would have attended the meeting.

So not only is such legislation medieval and educationally-backward, it's economically-damaging. Unless, of course, the hit is offset by religious or creationists groups coming here when they otherwise wouldn't because the state is a haven for science-denial. Good times.

Friday, February 13, 2009


Yesterday was the 200th anniversary of Darwin's birthday, so there's been a lot of evolution-themed stuff on the web. Here's a cool roundup of Daily Show clips related to evolution, and here's my favorite clip:

What's not to like about a fire-breathing giraffe?

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Identifying Molesters By Distraction

There's an interesting post over at Cognitive Daily about attempts to identify child molesters using a psychological test, specifically Rapid Serial Visual Presentation (RSVP).

Often the test is done with words. A subject will be shown a series of words on a computer screen, flashed in rapid succession, and they'll have to identify certain target words (Cognitive Daily has an example, go check it out). Distractor words are placed in the sample in order to measure the effect those types of words have on the task.

This molester study was carried out with pictures. In a series of rapidly flashed pictures, subjects had to try to identify target pictures (chairs and trains), and two types of distractors were used, pictures of children and of animals. The researchers found a significant difference between the accuracy rates of non-molestors and convicted child molestors. In other words, molestors are more distracted in this task by pictures of children.

So would this be a reliable way of identifying child molesters? I don't think so. Dave Munger points out:

Others who are interested in kids, like teachers, new parents, and grandparents, might also be distracted by pictures of kids. They've done some preliminary research suggesting this is not the case, but perhaps other non-dangerous populations would be mistakenly identified using this test.

As I noted in the comments over there, one of the first things I thought about were parents who had lost a child. They would be a relatively small segment of the population, but my guess is that you would see a large distraction effect for pictures of children in this group. And you really wouldn't want to tag a parent who had lost a child as a potential child molester.

That's one big problem with psychological tests that measure a specific response. If you don't have a firm grasp on the mechanism at work, and all possible causes of the effect, then it's far too blunt an instrument to really do anything useful. In this particular case, the risk of false positives is so great that you really wouldn't want this approach anywhere near a police station or a court of law.