Thursday, July 29, 2010

RoboRally Review

When I was a kid, one of the first video games I played was called Robot Odyssey on my friend's Apple. You played the role of a human in an underground city or something, and you had 3 robots. You could go inside the robots and wire them up to carry out tasks autonomously, e.g. the robot might need to go into a room by itself, navigate the environment, retrieve an item, and exit the room to return to you. To do all this, you need to program the robot by going inside it and wiring up its insides. For example, you could wire the left bumper to the top thruster, so that when the robot bumps into a wall on the left side the of the room, its top thruster fires and it moves down.

I found the process of designing the autonomous behavior of the robot endlessly frustrating and fun, and I've been fascinated by the idea of designing a game in which the player composes a behavioral script for an agent. I think if it is done the right way, it could be very compelling, while also teaching or reinforcing critical thinking and very basic programming concepts.

I think when I mentioned this before, it was Kenny who mentioned the board game RoboRally as employing similar concepts.

So I finally ordered it last week and played my first game this week.

The game is somewhat similar to what I was envisioning. Each player has a robot that starts at a given position on a board (the setting is supposed to be a factory). There are conveyor belts (not actually moving parts, just indicated by arrows on the board), pits, repair stations, and flags. Each turn, each player draws some number of cards which indicate basic movements (e.g. move forward 2 spaces, turn left, back up 1 space, etc.). The player composes a series of movements out of these cards each round and places them face down in front of them. Players then turn their cards over one by one and execute the movements.

The "programming" in this case only consists of movement instructions, so there is not use of control statements or logical operators. In this sense, the analogy to programming is quite weak. Also, you only ever get one shot at a given "program". There is no iteration, which I think was one of the most compelling things about Robot Odyssey. You would wire up your bot, send it into a room, and see what it did. Often it would behave in ways you hadn't anticipated, and you'd then be able to make a couple of small changes and try again. There is no trying again with RoboRally. You end up where you end up at the end of a turn. You discard your old program and draw and compose a new one.

The game seems to require an awful lot of mental spatial manipulation, planning, and prediction. In this sense, it reminds me an awful lot of the Labyrinth board game by Ravensburger. So for teaching mental spatial skills, I think it's great. But programming? Not so much.

And a couple of other criticisms: The game is not very casual at all, so in that sense I don't see broad appeal, especially to younger kids. The game is quite complicated. There are elements that easily could have been left out (e.g. Option cards, which we never even got to in our first game) that would still retain the core experience. Also, the game is pretty brutal for making mistakes of any kind. If you accidentally navigate off the edge of the board (which is pretty easy to do while you are still learning the basics), you have to position the bot back at the starting point, you lose one of only 3 life tokens, you take two damage points (which reduced the number of cards you can draw each turn, AND you lose an option card. I mean, come on.

Another big disappointment was that there's a cool variety of different robot designs, and each robot has a name (e.g. "squash bot") and an individualized tracking card to place tokens on. I thought this signified that each robot had some kind of specialized skill or something to differentiate each one from another. But no, despite their idiosyncratic names and designs, they are all exactly the same in terms of game play.

Anyway, cool game, but in my opinion it's overly complicated, unnecessarily harsh on beginners, and doesn't really capture the core elements of algorithmic design (this isn't an inherent problem with the game, it's just that I was hoping it would flex programming skills more than mental movement and rotation).

Sunday, July 25, 2010


I can't say I was much impressed. The cast was strong, and the emotional arc of the story was good, but it was over-long and any semblance of verisimilitude to dreams or psychology was nonexistent.

The movie involves 'extractors', people who can enter other's dreams, apparently as a team, and extract valuable information, such as corporate secrets. One team member is known as an 'architect', who designs the dreams. One tactic is to include a vault where, as one character explains it, the subject is naturally inclined to put their secrets. Then the team just breaks into the vault. Huh?

Mild spoiler here: The trailers and movie posters all feature mazes. At one point when recruiting a team member, she is tested on whether or not she can construct a good maze. Is there a maze in the movie? Um, no. She makes one in a dream, but we never see it and other characters bypass it using air ducts because they're running out of time. Lame.

The movie's title comes from a technique in which, instead of stealing an idea, the team implants one. But because this is so difficult, it involves embedding a dream within a dream within a dream (that's 3 levels). Cause, you know, it's got to be buried way deep in the subconscious. I know, you're thinking "Whoa, dude! Three levels?" I'm reminded of the amp in Spinal Tap that goes to 11, or the dinner conversation about tornadoes in Twister where the subject of a category 5 hushes everyone into stunned silence.

Anyway, there's a team, they try to implant an idea in some dude's head. Once we get there, it's a fairly standard heist film. From the trailers I thought there would be some really mind-bending special effects, but there really wasn't much to wow. The dream imagery didn't look particularly dreamy. I had hopes for Inception, though I think it's virtually impossible to film dreams. They are an inherently first-person experience, and have a slippery morphing quality that you simply can't put on film. The thing about dreams is, they don't make sense when you wake up, but in the dream they do. But you can't show something nonsensical to an observer and have it appear normal. That's the catch-22. The director who has come the closest to capturing a real dream-like quality is David Lynch, and his movies are not particularly fun to watch.

Anyway, once we get into the target's head, the movie becomes a lot more watchable, but that first hour is fairly agonizing. There is a lot of silly exposition about how dreams and extraction work...virtually none of it making any sense. If someone else is in your dream, modifying the content, your 'projections' will grow increasingly hostile toward them. I guess since I've never knowingly had anyone invade my dreams, I can't confirm or deny this, but it sounds dumb. And how are these people supposed to get into each other's dreams? They hook themselves up to an intravenous hooka and bam, there they are. Is there some technology that facilitates this? Are they just psychic? Do the sedatives they use confer psychic ability? This is a pretty lame cop-out. Even the cheeseball 1984 movie Dreamscape, which was about psychically entering other's dreams, handled the subject with more credibility.

But in that film, a key gimmick was the old wives' tale that dying in a dream kills you in real life. They didn't really do that in Inception, but we did get this silly set of rules:

1) You can feel pain in a dream, even extreme pain, but it won't wake you up.
2) If you die in a dream, you wake up, unless...
3) If you are powerfully sedated and you die in a dream, you descend into another dream within a dream.
4) For each dream within a dream, time runs at an increasingly slower rate, so 10 minutes in your top-level dream might be 10 hours in your second-level dream.
5) Whatever is happening to you in the dream just above you affects the environment of the dream just below (e.g. if you are shaking in your level 2 dream, the whole world will shake in your level 3 dream, but apparently not below that).
6) A 'kick', or sudden jolt, at any level will pull you out of the next lower level, no matter how sedated you are.

I don't have too much of a problem with a movie making up it's own arbitrary, goofy-ass rules. I don't even mind too much if it spends a fair amount of screen time explaining them (though this movie spends too much). What I do mind is when a movie goes to all the trouble to cobble together a bunch of bullshit rules and teach them to you, then doesn't even stick to them.

At one point, a character dies at one level, so he is supposed to go down a level. Cobb (DiCaprio's character) and another character go after him, but when they do so, they're in Cobb's dream. How did the character who died go down into the dream of another character who wasn't dreaming yet? Shouldn't he have gone into his own dream?At another point a character that is heavily sedated kills herself. This should mean that she goes one level deeper. Instead she goes up in the dream hierarchy.

The movie not only violates its own rules, it seemingly revels in the inconsistencies. This is supposed to be 'mind-blowing'. Instead I found it a nonsensical mess. Which is a shame because the actors really do a great job, and the central relationships are interesting. Too bad it's all wrapped in a slather of absurd, poorly-conceived gobbledy-gook.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Lost: The Jacob/MIB Origin Episode


I'm a pretty big fan of Lost. There are some quality dramas on TV these days, including Breaking Bad and Mad Men, but Lost has consistently been my favorite for the past 5 years.

I didn't think the writers would be able to pull off a very satisfying ending. They seem much more adept at generating mystery than explaining it. So I have steeled myself for the end run of the series, almost hoping that they wouldn't really explain much more, because that would be more satisfying than a bunch of crappy explanations.

Looks like so far I've generally been right. That is to say, I wasn't much impressed with last night's episode, the last regular episode before the 2-part finale. There is hope yet, but things aren't looking very good on the basis of this episode.

To recap: Jacob and the man in black (MIB, he still didn't get named this episode, unless I missed it), are actually brothers. They were born of a woman from a shipwreck who wandered into a hippy Allison Janney, just credited as "Mother". Mother delivers the twins and brains the real mother with a rock. Then she raises the two boys and one day shows them a cave emitting a bunch of light. It's the source, she tells them. Everybody's got a little light inside of them, but if this one ever goes out, everything ceases to exist. Okay.

As teens, their real mother appears to MIB, reveals herself as his true mother, and tells him about the rest of the world. So MIB confronts his fake mother and goes to live with a group of other people on the island, none of whom we ever actually meet.

Years later, MIB can't find the cave, but does figure a way he can supposedly leave the island by sticking a wooden wheel near a source of underground energy. Okay. Fake mother shows up to brain him, and either her or something else slaughters all the villagers. Okay.

Jacob reluctantly agrees to protect the cave of light by drinking some wine. We still don't know if this is what gives him his powers. MIB then kills Mother. Jacob gets mad at him and throws him into the cave of light, which Mother had said was "worse than dying". This apparently kills the MIBs regular body and transforms him into the smoke monster. MIB's and Mother's bodies are laid side by side in the cave for Jack and the others to find hundreds of years later. Okay.

Anyone else not particularly satisfied with this?

The characterization was pretty lame in this episode. And it still raises more questions than it answered:

Who is this Mother character?
Where did she come from?
What is this light source?
Where did Jacob's real mother come from? Was she brought to the island by Mother?
Why would MIB keep calling Mother "mother" when he knew she wasn't his real mother?
Why does the light source turn you into a smoke monster?

And so on and so forth. Lost has always tread a thin line between generating genuine mystery and just throwing head-scratching crap at the audience. For the most part it's done a great job of genuinely creating mystery, mostly because they've done a great job of creating compelling characters that you actually care about. But I have to say, they failed on this one. I didn't really give a crap about Jacob or his brother, and this episode didn't really answer any of the mysteries of the island, except by just throwing up more gobbledy-gook.

Maybe the finale will wrap things up in a nice little bundle, but I'm even more pessimistic now. We'll see in a couple of weeks.

Monday, May 3, 2010

Google Acquires 3D Desktop Interface Company BumpTop

Here's the link, and a demo of the software:

A couple of thoughts...

One, it looks like a pretty cool touchscreen interface for tablets/desktop PCs, but I don't see how the 3D-ness really adds anything at all. Looks like the walls of the box are just being used like extensions of the desktop. The same functionality could easily be done (and is done in lots of OSs) without the 3D effect. When I read 3D, I thought of a fish tank environment where you could actually arrange and view things with X, Y, and Z coordinates, e.g. you could put things not just on the walls, but hang them in the space between the walls. That might be cluttered, but I thought maybe they'd found a cool way to handle it.

Another thought is that everything they demo is either file or photo manipulation. That's probably less than 5% of what I spend my time doing on a computing device. They don't show any text input or processing, browsing, search, or reading, which is probably over 95% of what I do on my machines. I could see how, augmented with very good voice input, this environment would be great for a tablet. Based on the demo alone I'm pretty skeptical about it being much of an OS enhancement, though I'm interested to see what Google might do with it.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

Roger Ebert: Video Games Can Never Be Art

I'm chiming in a little late on this one, Roger Ebert basically being all crotchety and elitist, refusing to include any video game into his refined definition of art.

Ebert discusses some of the various definitions and features of both art and games, and that's really where the whole issue lies. "Art" and "game" are very abstract, poorly-constrained concepts that often overlap very different conceptual space for different people. The issue probably just boils down to how liberal your definition of "art" is. Mine tends to be fairly liberal. I'd probably define art something along the lines of: The arrangement of elements by one or more agents in order to provoke thought and/or arouse emotion.

I think agency is important to the definition, because though accidental arrangements can often be beautiful, the very idea of art seems bound up in the notion of intent, and there is no intent to arouse awe in a volcano or provoke self-reflection in a sunset. And I think noting that some art is intended to make you think, while other art is intended to make you feel (and often great art does both) is important to a definition as well.

Ebert mostly seems to object to the idea of games (and not just video games) as art because you can win them, and because they have rules, points, objectives, and an outcome. But this is a weird objection. Every art form has elements that distinguish it from others.

Ebert says:

One obvious difference between art and games is that you can win a game. It has rules, points, objectives, and an outcome.


But we could play all day with definitions, and find exceptions to every one. For example, I tend to think of art as usually the creation of one artist. Yet a cathedral is the work of many, and is it not art? One could think of it as countless individual works of art unified by a common purpose. Is not a tribal dance an artwork, yet the collaboration of a community?

One could make the same objection about any art form that Ebert clearly considers true art:

One obvious different between a cathedral and art is that you can house hundreds/thousands of people in a cathedral. Cathedrals have doors, windows, spires, and holy people.

Try it with any form of art that Ebert clearly recognizes as true art: dancing, theater, literature, and of course film. You can clearly find stark differences between them that seemingly set them apart from the others. Some have clear function outside of their aesthetic appeal. Some are artifacts, while others are temporary performance. The thing to do, in order to have a consistent concept of what something means to be art is to identify the common features, not the differences.

And I tend to think that common core is a desire to evoke emotion and/or provoke thought by attempting to put things together in a way that nobody before has done. That to me is the essence of art.

So, under these fairly broad guidelines, of course video games are art.

Another issue is the distinction between good and bad art. Ebert skirts around it, but never really comes right out and says what he thinks on this point. My guess is that he considers even very bad films art (albeit bad art), while even the most gut-wrenching, thought-provoking video games are not art.

And I'm sorry, I just can't abide any opinion that considers Ernest Goes to Jail art, but doesn't acknowledge Myst as art.

Oh, and P.S. Learn how to fucking use hyperlinks, Roger. It's 2010.

Money and Motivation

This PBS NewsHour piece supposedly explores the way in which modern science has changed the way we think about motivation in the workplace.

I think it's probably right in very broad strokes, here's the general thrust of the story:

DANIEL PINK: We tend to think that the way you get people to perform at a high level is, you reward what you want and punish what you don't want, carrot and stick. If you do this, then you get that.

That turns out, the science says, to be an extraordinarily effective way of motivating people for those routine tasks, simple, straightforward, where there's a right answer. They end up being a terrible form for motivating people to do creative conceptual tasks.

PAUL SOLMAN: How does the science show this?

DANIEL PINK: If you offer me a reward, $500 reward, you have my attention, absolutely. A contingent reward gets you to focus like this, narrow vision. If the answer is right in front of you, that's terrific. You race a lot faster. But if you have this kind of vision for a creative conceptual problem, you're going to blow it. You're not going to do anything good.

Okay, that makes some sense, although the primary example throughout the story is the classic problem-solving task of affixing a candle to a wall with only a book of matches and a box of tacks. The amount of the reward is contingent upon the amount of time taken, i.e., you solve it faster, you get more money. So time is a pretty big variable that goes unmentioned for the most part.

The results of the classic experiment mentioned were that people tended to solve the problem better and faster if offered less money. Okay. I don't know this literature, but did they do an untimed variant? For example, have two groups: one that's just told they will be paid a flat rate, say $20 for solving the problem, and another that is told they will get just $50 for solving the problem, but a bonus of $200 for more creative solutions. Neither group would have a time constraint. My prediction would be that the second group would solve the problem more often and more quickly than the first.

The theme of the piece is that in the modern workplace, creativity, problem solving, and more diffuse, less goal-driven thinking are all more important, and that we have to shed our traditional notions of motivating people with more money if we want them to be more creative and solve more interesting problems.

I think that's a crock. It feeds into the stereotype of the starving artist, but I don't think it meshes very well with reality.

The first place of business the story profiles is a computer sales firm. They say that just about every stat for the business went up after they eliminated sales commissions. Why? Because the lust for money was causing sales staff to lie in order to sell more stuff. When they eliminated bonuses, everybody was supposedly happier. Why? Because sales staff could now focus on "fostering long-term relationships with customers". Um, okay.

This bit smells very fishy to me. It plays like a chunk of a Michael Moore film in which we learn how awesome the Cuban healthcare system while conveniently ignoring the fact that it's situated in a police state.

I kept waiting for a salesperson to say "Yeah, there's less pressure, but damn, I do miss those fat commission checks around the holidays." None of that, of course. I kept waiting for them to mention some other motivators used in lieu of money, e.g. nice workplace conditions, but the story basically focuses on people's intrinsic desire to do good.

Anyway, then they interview a bunch of people who work on open-source projects and ask them why they do it. We get a lot of hippy, feel-good explanations about giving back to the world.

I think it would be interesting to study the science of human motivation. In general, though, I think the assertion that monetary rewards dampen creative thinking are bunk. I can see how that might be the case in a high-pressure, timed situation, but the world is filled with highly-successful creative people who were not so altruistic as to give away their creativity and problem-solving for free.

I'm not saying there aren't people who don't produce valuable things due to intrinsic motivations. Money isn't the only motivator, obviously. But this story doesn't do anything to dispel the idea that it is still an effective motivator for both routine and highly-creative tasks.

Saturday, April 3, 2010

To Tablet or Not to Tablet

The iPad goes on sale tomorrow, and I have mixed feelings about it. On the one hand, I have friends who develop for the platform, and I myself have an iPhone/iPad app in the works (should be ready within another 5 days or so). So in the interest of selling lots of apps, I hope they sell lots of iPads. On the other hand, I want Android to succeed, and I hope that Apple doesn't take up most of the oxygen in the room. I think the market for mobile computing is big enough for lots of guests, but still.

Anyway, I thought this perspective on the iPad by SF author Cory Doctorow was pretty interesting, if a little gross:

The model of interaction with the iPad is to be a "consumer," what William Gibson memorably described as "something the size of a baby hippo, the color of a week-old boiled potato, that lives by itself, in the dark, in a double-wide on the outskirts of Topeka. It's covered with eyes and it sweats constantly. The sweat runs into those eyes and makes them sting. It has no mouth... no genitals, and can only express its mute extremes of murderous rage and infantile desire by changing the channels on a universal remote."

I think Doctorow's beef with the device is that stuff it's absurdly easy to consume stuff (video, games, music, etc.), and not nearly as easy to produce stuff. I think he's generally wrong. YouTube is full of videos of people using their iPhones as musical instruments. It's not very easy to produce either written material or art, but there are also tons of text editors and paint apps for the device. The iPad will make such composition even easier, with a screen large enough to support a very large soft keyboard and other types of menus and palettes. Still, with its reliance for input almost completely based around the touchscreen, I see his point.

On a related note, my laptop is over 6 years old, so yesterday I invested in a brand new one. I looked at netbooks, but they were just too dinky, a lot of them running Windows 7 Starter, which is an absurdly crippled OS "designed" for only the most trivial use. You can only run 3 concurrent applications, and you can't even change the desktop background!

On the way to the store, I told my girlfriend that what I wanted in an ideal device, besides decent specs and a decent OS, were 3 things:

1) A nice size, between the tiny netbooks and a full-sized laptop.
2) The inclusion of an optical drive.
3) A touchscreen interface.

Well, two out of three ain't bad. I ended up getting the HP TouchSmart tm2. It's nearly exactly what I was looking for. The screen is nicely responsive to touch input. You can swivel it around and lay it flat so that it functions as a tablet, or you can use it like a traditional laptop. Apparently it's the second generation of this line from HP, and the previous models had optical drives, but had more technical issues, were louder, and had crappier battery life. The tm2 doesn't have a CD or DVD drive, but I can always get an external one...they're cheap. The reduced bulk is probably worth it anyway. And with a 12.1" screen it's a perfectly compact size, enough bigger than a netbook so that you don't feel horribly cramped.

Anyway, to tie this in with the iPad, what the HP device makes me feel is that I've got all the same input options I had before, but I've now also got the touchscreen, with either my fingers (it supports multitouch as well) or a stylus. The iPad, on the other hand, has taken input options away. It's done it in an elegant way, but I think Doctorow's main point still stands...the iPad is designed more for consuming and less for creating. I hope my new machine is the opposite...I think it is. But I need more time with it to really see how well it's going to work. In the meantime, it's pretty cool just touching the screen to launch applications, open menus, and generally navigate the Windows 7 environment.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Sam Harris on Morality

Here's a fairly recent video of Sam Harris speaking at Google about a scientific basis for morality:

I'm down with the basic idea that we can approach morality from a reasoned, scientific viewpoint and develop a moral system that is better and more internally consistent than those offered by religion. But I still think Harris has it mostly wrong.

I summarized it pretty well on my old blog, here. Harris basically wants to use suffering and happiness as the standards by which to develop a scientific moral system. Here's the gist of why that's not a hot idea:
Happiness and suffering are feedback signals evolved to reinforce the type of behavior that leads to the propagation of genes into future generations. Things that produce a nice rush of neurotransmitters to the brain include earthly pleasures such as eating foods high in sugar and fat, and of course, sexual arousal. Pain is a punishment signal meant to direct an organism away from behaviors that have an adverse affect on genetic propagation, bodily injury being the most obvious. The release of the chemicals that give rise to the subjective experiences of happiness and suffering are old subcortical regions whose purpose is to crudely guide our behavior through reinforcement. Should we really be using them as the ultimate guide to what is good and what is bad?
I sympathize with Harris' motivation, but his implementation is horribly flawed.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Sherlock Holmes, or Where Did Movie Ushers Go?

I went to see Sherlock Holmes yesterday. I liked the movie, but not the movie-going experience. More on the movie later. For now I have to get this rant off my chest.

Two things seriously fucked up my ability to enjoy the film fully. One, the film was out of focus. Not crazy blurry, but noticeably out of focus. I sat through a dark, blurred trailer of Iron Man 2, but for some reason thought maybe either the projectionist would notice or that the film was on a different reel. Nope, when the movie started, it was still out of focus. So I had to get up, walk all the way back to the front of the theater, and complain. About 5 minutes later the film was put into proper focus.

Of course, someone had brought two small children to this PG-13 film. One kid was probably about 1 1/2 to 2 years old, and it started squealing in the last 30-45 minutes of the film. The mother took the kid to the walkway area. I thought if the kid kept it up, they would do the sensible thing and go outside. But no, they stayed there through to the bitter end. It's uncomfortable to have to complain to a mother's face that her child is ruining a movie for you, and frankly I shouldn't be put in that position.

So movie-going has become such a crappy experience lately that I'm almost wondering if it's even worth it to go to theatrical releases. I don't think I'm being unreasonable here. If I'm going to pay $10 for a movie, I want the damn thing to be in focus and I want to enjoy it in a reasonable atmosphere. I don't expect audiences to be completely quiet, but I also don't expect wailing toddlers when the main character is explaining and intricate plan in hushed, heavy dialect.

Which leads me to the next point...when the hell did ushers completely disappear from theaters? There was a time not too long ago when you would see theater employees before a show started, occasionally stick their head in during films, and then be at the door when you leave. Now the only time you see them is when they clean the theater. If there's a problem, you have to walk all the way back up to the box office. It's probably a cost-cutting measure, but it's making movie-going shittier and shittier. How expensive is it to pay a teenager minimum wage to walk between 3 or 4 theaters and make sure the film looks okay and there isn't someone jabbering away at the top of their lungs on a cell phone or a crying baby?

Anyway...the film itself was very good, in spite of theater management and irresponsible parents. Kudos for effective use of slow motion (used to illustrate Holmes' mental planning).

They may have taken great liberties with the Holmes canon, but all the main tropes were there and this version was something that I'd never found Holmes stories or film to be: funny, action-packed, and enjoyable. The actual explanations of things were ridiculously complex and silly, but the film did something else incredibly portrayed a skeptical, rational protagonist engaged in the search for the truth against an adversary who used the means of science as a mask for pretending to have supernatural powers and gain power by preying on others' superstitious tendencies.

That's pretty rare these days, so it deserves some extra praise (especially when drivel like Twilight is playing on the next screen over). Anyway, a very good film, nearly spoiled by a crappy environment. I'm looking forward to watching it again on DVD, in the peace of my own home.