Thursday, July 30, 2009

Demo of Relativia

Here's a short video of my progress on my entry to the Android Developer Challenge II, a casual mobile puzzle role-playing game called Relativia:

The hard deadline is the end of August. I'm not sure how many more features I'm going to be able to get into the game by then, but we'll see. I just got most of the map stuff working this week using Philip's open-sourced code.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Is the World Hierarchical?

I was chatting with a friend the other day about how we decide what things are and how we parse the world. I made the statement that the world is hierarchically-arranged, and my friend said that the world might not really be that way, but that I could be imposing that type of organization on it. It's certainly a strong possibility that my biases determine how I organize how I think about the world around me.

But I'll be damned if I can step outside of my frame of reference and conceive of another hypothetical way of looking at the world. We normally form concepts of things that exhibit spatial and temporal continuity. We treat a dog as a unified thing because there's stuff that makes up the dog that is close to itself in space and moves together across time. Same for chairs and glasses and pumpkins and even more abstract things. But it also seems obvious that however you slice and dice the world, whatever you call "things" are always going to be composed of constituent things. And those things are likewise composed of constituent things. A car is made of things like mufflers and wheels and axles, and those are made of smaller parts, and those are eventually made of atoms, and those are made of subatomic particles, and those are maybe made out of even smaller things.

I suppose you could have some sort of Buddhist view where there are no parts or subparts...that everything is just one big unified, interconnected thing. But I don't think you'll get very far in understanding how the world works if you don't partition it in some way and try to figure out how the parts work together to produce the phenomenon you want to understand. Hence the usefulness of reductionism.

And my guess is that if there is intelligent life elsewhere in the universe, to make headway in understanding how the world works, they view it hierarchically, try to determine the best way to segment it into parts, and try to figure out how those parts work together. Maybe I'm just myopic, but I can't even conceive of another way in which they might go about understanding the world.

So I don't think I'm imposing some kind of structure on the world. I think the world really does have the structure and that our brains have evolved to learn to exploit that inherent structure in order to survive better.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Harry Potter and the Half-Comprehensible Script

Went to see the newest Harry Potter film yesterday. Yikes, it was bad. I remember sort of liking the last one, even though I can't remember much about it. But this one was long, boring, goofy, and incomprehensible.

NOTE TO MOVIE-MAKERS: A film should not be a supplement to the book upon which it is based. It should be a stand-alone story.

A good percentage of the movie-goers will have read all the books, but for the rest of us, the experience is, how shall we say...less than pleasant.

Case in point: The opening scene of the movie. Three black smoke trails fly over London. Muggles look up in amazed confusion. The three trails fly into a back alley and magic world, nab somebody whose face isn't seen (there's a bag over his/her head), then fly back out, destroy a bridge (killing lots of Muggles), and flying off.

Boy, I can't wait to find out what the hell that was all about, I thought. Seemed like a pretty good opening. was never explained what the hell it was all about. After the movie was over, I asked my fellow movie-goers, all of whom had read the books. "Oh, those were minions of Valdemort kidnapping the wand-maker. There's some difference between Harry Potter's wand and Valdemort's wand that Valdemort can't figure out, so he wants to interrogate the wand-maker. That doesn't get explained until the last book." WTF? Now there is a scene where Harry, Ron, and Hermione are walking by the wand-maker's shop and they note that he's out of business, but so are 80% of the other businesses, so there's no reason for someone who hasn't read the books to make a connection.

How about this...for brevity and continuity's sake, put that scene in the next Harry Potter movie.

That's just an example from the first scene. It doesn't get much better from there. The movie is filled with lots and lots of silly teen romance stuff...a little of this goes a looooong way.

One of the appeals of Harry Potter is supposedly getting a sense of wonder at seeing things we've never seen. At this point, we've seen quidditch. We've seen floating candles in the cafeteria. We've seen nearly all the tropes there are to see, so the world just seems boring now. The only mythical beast we see this time is a giant spider, and it's dead.

So the movie is basically incomprehensible, full of silly teen romance stuff, and flat and boring.

Spoilers after the gap...

And, what part of the plot that did seem to fit together didn't make any damned sense.

If I were to summarize the main plot of the movie...Draco Malfoy is recruited by the bad guys to assassinate Dumbledore. Why, it's not said. Sure they hate Dumbledore because he's good and they're bad, but why now? Do they think he's getting too close to figuring out how to finally put away Valdemort? If so, that's pretty damned subtle, and this is supposed to be accessible to kids, isn't it?

Anyway, here's their plan, I guess: Get Draco to fix a broken vanishing cabinet in some storeroom of the school. Whether he brought the cabinet or it was already there is unclear. We see him putting in an apple, taking it out with a bite out of it, messing with birds, etc., but it's never clear that he's "fixing" it. Whatever. When it does finally work, it's supposed to be a path from another cabinet outside the school that let's in three of the bad guys. Why? Malfoy is supposed to kill Dumbledore, and if he fails, Snape has taken some super badass oath that he will do it himself. Why do we need all this bullshit with the cabinet? Are the three baddies just there for moral support?

Meanwhile, Harry and Dumbledore figure out that the reason Valdemort is so damned hard to get rid of is because he's divided his soul into 7 parts and hidden them in 7 objects, thereby making him invincible unless they're all destroyed. Okay. Dumbledore waves around a burned diary, which supposedly is one of the 7, and takes Harry to find another one, which they get, but which turns out to be a fake, swapped by some other mysterious figure. So the movie ends with Harry and friends dropping out of school to go look for the rest of these things, though how many are left is never said.

At this point, you could say, "Oh, you're not supposed to analyze the story that much, just enjoy all the cool fantasy stuff." Only, there isn't any.

So I'd tell you to avoid it for the stupid mess it is, but if you're a fan you're going to see it anyway, and the damned thing will still rake in truckloads of money. Sigh.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Narratives and Timelines

On the way back from Texas, I started listening to The Hour I First Believed by Wally Lamb. I was a little put off by the cheesy title, but I gave it a chance, and it did a decent job of hooking me. I hadn't read any of Lamb's stuff before, but he's a good writer.

There's only one problem, and it's making me lose interest in the book, even though I'm now into the third disk on audio. And that's how he handles time.

I think flashbacks are fine if used sparingly, or if the bulk of a story is a flashback, but there's really not much to the narrative in the "present" of the story, e.g. an old man is recounting his life story to a journalist. But I think there are real problems with a narrative structure in which the reader is interested in the forward progression of the story in the "present", but keeps getting flung back into repeated, extended flashbacks.

That's the way this book is. The story is ostensibly about a high school teacher who taught at Columbine High School when the massacre took place. The story starts the Friday a few days before the massacre, but so far the bulk of the narrative has taken place in the past, relating the main character's marital problems, his attempt to befriend and rehabilitate a screwed-up female student, and in the section I'm currently on, we go all the way back to the main character's childhood for stories about his family's corn maze.

I remember reading Stephen King's Dark Tower series and like Wizard and Glass the least, mostly because the book was one giant flashback. I was interested in seeing forward progression in the present-day quest, not getting a bunch of back story. So I read it very impatiently. Several years later, when I read the series again, I enjoyed W&G a lot more, mostly because there wasn't the urgency of seeing how the main storyline played out.

In general I think this kind of structure is a mistake. There are clever ways to fill in backstory, which is important for any story. But the bulk of the narrative should take place in the time frame in which your primary story is set. Otherwise the reader feels like they're taking one step forward and three steps back. I can't think of a work where this kind of structure worked very well. If any of you can, please share.

Thursday, July 23, 2009


I just got back from visiting family in Texas, and while we were there I got to see the new movie Moon, which isn't showing here in Lafayette.

It's hard to talk about the film without spoiling plot elements, so I'll be nebulous above the poster pic and discuss the film with spoilers below it. Overall the movie is a very good sci-fi pic, which apparently is difficult to do since most of them end up sucking pretty hard.

From the preview, I thought the film would be a retread of a lot of previous films which explore the common themes of solitude, loneliness, and insanity in the isolation of space. The film did explore some of those ideas, and borrowed heavily from some venerable sci-fi source material, but it managed to make the mix original. Good art generally either makes you think or evokes some strong emotion. Moon does both of those, and does them well. My one complaint is that the ending feels rushed and slapped together, and not in proportion to the quality of the rest of the film. But all in all I give it a strong recommendation.

If you have already seen it, or don't care about spoilers, there's more below the poster.

As I said above, the film borrows pretty heavily from previous films, most notably Blade Runner, 2001, and the Alien series. There are clones with implanted memories who don't know they're clones with implanted memories. But Moon actually manages to make us care about the character(s), which is all to uncommon in SF with strong ideas.

The biggest plus in my book is the fact that the movie featured a near-human level AI that not only didn't turn out to be completely malfunctioning or evil, but managed to be developed into a full-blown character whose motivations were ever entirely made clear (like most good characters). Did he help the various Sams because that was a priority in his programming? Did he understand the ethical horror that the clones were being put through and actually feel compelled to help put an end to it? We don't know...and that's great. Of course, the bad guy was a big, evil energy corporation, but it was at least refreshing to see an AI treated with some level of complexity and actually developed as a character.

Now, the ending...why did the cleaners leave the dead same in the rover? What good was it going to do to knock out the jammer? Did that happen after the cleaners left? If not, wouldn't they just fix it? If so, wouldn't the corporation still be aware of it? And what exactly was the seemed like the whole situation was exposed when the Sam clone made it back to Earth.

Another big issue was the life spans of the clones. It was strongly insinuated in the film that as a failsafe, the clones only had a lifespan of about three years. The Sam we start the film with starts to fall apart and get extremely sick, coughing and spewing up blood, losing teeth, etc. He sees video of previous Sams getting sick near the end of their contracts, losing hair, coughing, etc. It was never said directly in the film, but if that's the case, why didn't the older Sam warn the younger one that he only had 3 years to live?

Other questions...were the hallucinations at the beginning of his daughter Eve? If so, what brought them on? Was this some sort of signal from a previous Sam, or just a coincidence that he happened to be hallucinating about his daughter being grown up, even though he thought she was still an infant?

Anyway, a good film doesn't answer all it's takes some thinking about and ultimately has multiple interpretations. I just wish the thought and care that seemed to go into the rest of the film had been put into the ending, which really felt tacked on.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

The Daily Show on the Anniversary of the Moon Landings

Last night's The Daily Show opened with a segment about the 40th anniversary of the moon landings. As usual, the humor all centered around belittling the accomplishment. Jon Stewart said we spent billions of dollars and astronaut's lives to "hit a golf ball on the moon", ride around in a buggy, and leave it covered with junk like the guy in your neighborhood whose crap is all in his front yard.


The implication is that the moon landings were a trivial waste of lives and money. Presumably the writers would be fine with us sitting here on earth in the year 2009 never having set foot on any other place in our solar system. How forward thinking of them.

To devalue the accomplishment of putting a living human being on the moon, safely returning them, and repeating the act, and not only to devalue it, but to sneer at it...well, frankly I think it's repulsive.

The moon landings were a highlight of human civilization, a testament to our curiosity and ingenuity.

So on behalf of everyone who worked so hard to make it happen, I'd just like to give a hearty "fuck you" to the writers of The Daily Show.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Why Should We Care About What Other People Believe?

There's been a big dustup between atheist blogger PZ Myers and the authors of a new book called Unscientific America, Chris Mooney and Sheril Kirshenbaum, which started around the time Myers posted his first comments about the book. At the core of the dispute is a philosophical difference about how scientists who are also atheists should speak and behave with regard to religious believers.

Mooney and Kirshenbaum apparently think that blogs like Pharyngula and books like The God Delusion harm the public perception of science and thus scientific literacy by alienating the general public by strongly linking atheism and science, while talking bad about religion. Myers obviously disagrees.

And check out some of the comments to this Daniel Dennett editorial in The Guardian. Commenters quickly label Dennett a "militant atheist", calling him "irritating" and "intolerant". The implication is that he should shut the hell up about his atheism and leave people to their own beliefs, whatever those might be.

But here's where I'll go ahead and agree with those who compare the proselytizing of religious folk with that of the atheists. It's perfectly understandable to try to change someone else's mind, as long as it's with words.

Time to assume each side's point of view for a little thought experiment...

If you were a devout religious adherent who believed fervently in a heaven and hell, and also believed that those that didn't believe as you would suffer an eternity of torment, what would be your most humane course of action? It would be negligent of you not to try to sway others to believe the same as you. So, if you care at all about the suffering of others, and you believe others will suffer forever if they don't accept your beliefs, the perfectly sensible course of action is to attempt to convert others to your belief system.

On the other side, let's say you're a skeptical unbeliever. Let's say you live in a society where the majority of people believe that three magical dragons created and control the universe. There are sacred books that detail the history of the dragons and their teachings, some of which seems a little outdated and have been used to justify pretty horrible acts, but others which seem to convey some nice messages about how to treat others. Now, one could argue that even though you think the dragon worship is unsupported by any reasonable standards of evidence or common sense, you should simply go about your business believing what you believe, while leaving others to their beliefs. But what if your society was a democratic republic, and every public official was a dragon worshiper? And public policy was decided on the basis of dragon worship? And what was taught in schools and where your tax money was allocated and decisions of foreign policy were all guided and influenced by belief in magic dragons?

The point here is that no one is an island. What I believe affects my neighbors and what they believe affects me. If you lived in a community that strongly believed in witchcraft and you happened to be an older woman who lived alone, and witches were being accused left and right and being burned alive in the town square, then of course you would care what your neighbors believed. This is an extreme example, but illustrates the basic concept. What others in your society believe affects you.

In this light, doesn't it make sense that an atheist would try to convince around them to be more skeptical and discerning regarding their beliefs?

And if the proponents of a particular religion do have a monopoly on the truth, then what do they have to fear from a book here or there that's critical of their beliefs? As far as the stance particular scientists take on religion, they should be able to say whatever they want. I understand strategic PR, but value it much less than I value the truth. And I believe the best way to get at the truth is to have an open marketplace of voices and ideas, all free to say what they will and let people think and sort out what the best ideas might be.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

More Relativia Screenshots

Still plugging away at my game entry for the Android Developer Challenge II. Here are a few more screen shots to show how things are proceeding.

This is the character creation screen. You enter a name and select one of four species and one of four classes (so there are 16 possible combinations). The stats vary depending on the species/class combination. I've hired an artist named Pat Marconett for the characters and backgrounds, and I'm really happy with how it's coming out.

This is the screen that prompts you when you're near a dungeon:

And here's what it looks like when you enter the dungeon. The little purple icon is you. You just tap on an adjacent chamber to enter and engage in combat with whatever lurks there.

I've run into a little setback that I'll discuss more fully after the competition is over. I'm still optimistic that the game will be ready by the end of August, which is the hard submission guideline.

But I'm also planning on entering a second app that's related but distinct from one of my previous apps. That's allowed by the guidelines, which Google just posted in full this week here.

Friday, July 3, 2009

Relativia Gameplay

I'm working on a game for the Android Developer Challenge II. I've hired an artist to work on character, background, and item art. I've got the basics of the combat system worked out, and I thought I'd share a short video demonstrating how gameplay will work.

The player is on the left side, the enemy on the right. Each turn, a player can use one action (an attack or spell, if they have enough of the right kind of energy) and they may drop one token into the playing grid. The game is very much like Connect 4. If a player matches 3 or more in a row of a given token type: gems (square), mana (round), or skulls, those tokens are removed from the grid. If gems are matched, the player gets gem dust, which is used to purchase items in markets. If mana is matched, the player gets energy corresponding with that mana type (blue, orange, green, or purple). If skulls are matched, damage is done directly to one's opponent. Actions can either cause damage to one's opponent, heal the player, or have some other effect (like gaining an extra turn). A given battle ends when one player reaches zero health points.

I'd like to add in more polish, e.g. feedback events for matching, smoother animations, etc., but the deadline is about six weeks away and I'm rushing just to get the basics implemented. I'm optimistic about the progress, but a bit worried about getting it in good shape for the contest. We'll see how it goes.


Yesterday I picked up Melanie Mitchell's new book Complexity: A Guided Tour. I had previously read her excellent primer for genetic algorithms, and this new book looked very interesting.

Though she's an excellent writer, I'm already a little disappointed in the book. For example, her first chapter is entitled What is Complexity?, and she then goes on to ignore the question and give lots of examples of complex systems. Chapter 7 is called Defining and Measuring Complexity, and would probably have been a better start to the book, since it actually attempts to lay out what the concept means and how it is difficult to find a consensus definition among people who study it.

But what made me even more disgruntled right off the bat is her assertion in the preface that reductionism is passe, or worse, dead:

But twentieth-century science was also marked by the demise of the reductionist dream. In spite of its great successes explaining the very large and very small, fundamental physics, and more generally, scientific reductionism, have been notably mute in explaining the complex phenomena closest to our human-scale concerns.

Now look...I'm a reductionist, and as far as I'm concerned, so is every other working scientist. That's why I get a bit peeved when I see reductionism mischaracterized as an outmoded approach that was good for studying classical problems, but a miserable failure for, you know, really complicated stuff.

Here's all reductionism is: Trying to understand a system by understanding its parts and how they work together. That's it. And guess what? That's a wholly sensible approach that works amazingly well.

Reductionism often gets propped up as a straw man and ridiculed for trying to understand a system at one scale in terms of parts at a much lower scale. For example, someone might say "It's ridiculous to try to understand an opera in terms of acoustical dynamics!" or "It's silly to try to explain the migratory patterns of birds in terms of subatomic particles!"

Hey, I agree! Such approaches are stupid. And that's not reductionism. And it doesn't work. The way reductionism bears fruit is by trying to understand a system in terms of its parts at the appropriate lower level of description. Richard Dawkins calls this hierarchical reductionism.

For example, if you want to explain how a car works, describing its function in terms of pistons and axles is going to yield far better results than describing its function at the level of atoms. If you skip too many levels of description between the parts and the whole, your explanation is simply going to suck.

Now, as a working scientist its often difficult to determine what the appropriate level of description of the parts needs to be. But what, exactly, is the alternative to such an approach? I've heard plenty of people knock their characterization of reductionism. But I have yet to hear a proposal for how you go about trying to understand a system without understanding how its elements interact. How do you "holistically" study or explain how a system works? Some of the early examples Mitchell gives of complex systems are ant colonies, human brains, and economic systems. She's correct that such systems composed of interacting elements can give rise to amazingly complex behavior. But I honestly don't see how we can go about trying to understand that behavior without examining the behavior of the constituent elements...which is reductionism.

I'm interested to read the rest of the book and see where it goes, but as far as I'm concerned she's already gotten off on the wrong foot.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Transformers 2 FAQ

I haven't seen Transformers 2, and most likely won't. I enjoyed this FAQ of the film probably far more than I would enjoy watching the movie. I liked this bonus question in particular:
So it's not as bad as shitting your pants?
Marginally. I honestly had to make a pro and con list to figure it out.