Category: Fun

Second language curse

I count myself privileged of being proficient in a second language (English), which has helped me learn other languages and have a more elastic mind towards different concepts in life. But there is a curse that I just found out, and it turned out to be significant.

For a few years I realised that I was signing my emails with the wrong name: “reanto” instead of “renato“. And since I sign manually all my emails (and I send many emails a day), I could get a true sense of the problem. In the last year or so, the problem got a lot worse, and now I can’t sign my own emails any more without erasing “reanto” and re-writing “renato” almost every time.

Now, misspelling English words (even when you do know the correct spelling) is ok, since I haven’t started typing when we moved to England, far from it. Misspelling Portuguese words is also ok, because the contact with a new language will bring new sounds, and some uncertainty on how to spell a native word will arise after a few years without much contact with it. But misspelling your own name?! That’s a whole new class of fail.

Today it occurred to me that the reason for that might very well be the same as the rest, after all my name is just another word that I know how to spell. And, it turns out that, in the English language, “anis the 5th most common digraph, while “na” doesn’t even register!

So, the frequency which I write the digraphs (and trigraphs) in English are shaping my ability to write my own name. Much the same as the problems that my native language have when I write English, for instance, I have to delete the “e” at the end of many words like “frequent“, as it seems to come before I even think about it.

While writing this small post, the browser’s spell checker has fixed my misspellings (including the previous word) many times, and forcing me to not have the checker bug me, has also forced me to misspell my own name.

The brain is a weird thing…

Dad, what is war?

There’s this little girl on the hotel’s lobby. She seems very smart, but at odds with one of the popular magazines she’s reading. It looks like one of those low-quality magazines that people publish for children, assuming they’re dumb and can’t take a bit of logic. This one seems to be about history, mostly relating facts to simple conclusions and trying to get started the child’s imagination on what would be like hundreds of years ago.

I’m only waiting for them to get my room ready, so anything to pass the time is game, and watching the puzzled face of that little girl looking at a picture of what looks like a war scene is, at least, entertaining. Her dad is busy with some details of his bill, so she refrains from interrupting him, but enough is enough, I can see that she must ask what that is. And so she does.

“Dad, what is war?”. A bit puzzled with the numbers still floating in his mind and having to cope with such an unexpected question, he stops for a moment. “I, uh… war is… er, like… why do you ask?”. The little girl flips the magazine without letting it go, so her dad can read, and look at him with those big reflecting eyes, demanding a fair answer.

After switching his mind quickly yo cope with the upside-down writings and the glare from the sun outside on the screen, her dad finally tries to answer. “Well, honey. War is when people get angry and fight.” That was really amazing, because you could clearly see how fast her mind was pattern-matching in all her reactions. The involuntary contraction of her neck, the slight tilt of her head and the eyes going back and forth looking at nothing in particular. About a second later, she concluded. “Oh, I see, like you and mum?”

At this time the father wasn’t listening any more, and just issued the standard “uh-huh”. It was clear as filtered air that, in the next seconds, lots of memories of her family would be unequivocally associated with war, and at a later stage (if she ever became a historian), she would have to deal with that. It seems silly for me to interfere, but learning is an emergent behaviour, and she could have other unpredictable side-effects that would ruin her life for a number of reasons.

I looked around and there was no sign of the hotel staff bringing me my key, so I put my reservation aside and dived in. “Hello, little girl. How is your magazine?”. She looked at me in a slight panic, but my smiling face is anything but threatening. She looked at her dad, than at me. Her dad didn’t seem particularly worried, so she relaxed and continued the conversation.

“This is a magazine about the dark ages. I’ve learned dark ages at school and that people used to fight a lot, but I’ve never seen pictures of a real war before.” I said, “Well, these pictures are very old and bi-dimensional, it’s hard to see anything in them. Besides, they were usually taken by one or the other side, so you never knew how bad things really were other than what people told in the news or left in the pictures.”

She still seemd a bit confused, and not because of the quality of the pictures, I have to say. “I imagine how angry these people had to be to come to this…”. There was my cue. “You see, this has nothing to do with being angry… Your mum and dad will never go to war for disagreeing, because war is not about anyone’s feelings, really”.

Nevertheless, she seemed very resolute in her fantasy of mum and dad waging wars. “When they got separated, my mum said she was going to kill dad if he ever showed up again…”. But I was not going to give up, “That doesn’t mean it’s war. She was just angry and I’m sure she won’t kill anyone.”

By that time, my keys had arrived and I was ready to leave, but the little girls’ eyes weren’t stable enough for me to leave. Not just yet. “I don’t get it. If people were not mad, why did they fight?”. I could not hold my urge to elaborate… so I did.

“You see, back in the 21st century, people used to be a lot less rational than today. They used to call the early days as ‘dark ages’, only that those days were a lot less dark than – what we call today – the dark ages. People had a very blurry view of what science is or can do, and religion was still a strong player in worlds business.”

“Not only that, but people also had a very limited point of view. They thought only about their own profit and even then, only their short term profit – think about a month or so, no more – so they were always taking rapid-firing short-sighted decisions. For instance, they would wage wars in the – then, called middle east – area to control the oil production, even decades after realising fossil fuels weren’t good at all. Even mother China would wage wars with our neighbours because of their political agenda…” “Not mother China! We’d never do that!” I was taken aback a bit for her reaction, but continued nevertheless… “Hundreds of years ago, dear, everyone did that, even mother China.”

She was puzzled. Maybe I was making it worse, which was another reason to continue…

“Let’s go back a bit. When science was still at its early stages, there were some fundamental questions that people couldn’t answer, like ‘where do we come from’ and ‘why are we here'” “But that’s non-sense!” “Yes, yes, calm down, we’re talking about back then, remember?” “Oh, yes, sorry.” “Those questions, however irrelevant to the universe, were fundamental to even the most prodigious scientists of that era. It was not all bad, since most of the discoveries of that time came from trying to find the ultimate truth.”

“Religion is that stuff about the universe being created, right?” “Exactly, there is a deity that is more powerful than us and have created us. Somewhat like man and ants, we could do whatever we wanted with them…” “but we didn’t create the ants!” “Yes, I was, uh, trying to come up with an analogy, sorry. You see, that’s one of the reasons why it failed over the time, people ran out of stupid analogies and science took care of the rest. With time, we stopped asking stupid questions as well, so the long sought answers about the universe died out and, well, came the age of enlightenment.”

“What does that have to do with war?” “Oh, yes, war. So, ever since the stone age, most wars were waged for religious reasons. It may not make a lot of sense now, but different people had different religions, and they could not accept that other people could believe in a different deity, or even in the same deity, with slightly different rules. That has led to a lot of controversy, and due to the lack of diplomacy, wars.”

“However, after a while, people realised that religion was not just a matter of belief, it was a powerful weapon. If you could make people believe in what you want – that you are in direct communication with such deity, for instance – you would recruit every single man that believes in that deity to your cause. With time, when money came into scene, that was the most powerful way to acquire money. Later on, when religion started to fail, people had to create different fears, such as their own safety. That’s when terrorism came to scene, but again, that had strong religious roots.”

“So, war was about money, then?” “Exactly! Money and power, which invariably leads to more money (or power).” “Oh, that’s stupid! Everyone knows you get more if you cooperate than if you fight over something…” She was warming up and I’d lose my meeting but I wouldn’t stop now!

“Have you ever heard of John Nash?” “Hey, John Nash, I know him! Game theory, right?” “Well done!” I was really impressed, they normally learn that stuff at 10, but she was barely 7 years old. “There were some people a bit ahead of their time, like John Nash and Stephen Hawking, but they were few. Most of the prodigious scientists were all looking for the ultimate answer. And funny enough, for more than a century after John Nash, people still waged wars for money…”

She was looking down, and a bit sad… “My mum always say that I don’t listen and I only learn through pain… I guess this was their problem, wasn’t it?” “I think so” said I, resolute. “I think there’s yet another explanation that fits into Nash’s predictions. There were so many factors into why waging wars actually makes less profit than not, that people could not see it straight away. Whoever said that was taken as an anarchist, or an idiot – which at the time, was almost the same thing…” “What’s an anarchist?” That truly took me out of balance… I wasn’t prepared to elaborate on that. So I didn’t.

“Back to war… Nash’s idea, and that we all take for granted today, is that collaboration is far more stable and profitable than competition. I personally think that, what was really difficult for them to realise, was that competition is what made men evolve, but that’s also what made men stop evolving for millennia. Learning to collaborate was the single most important change in the world over the last three hundred years, and also what made our fauna and flora to go back to its original intent, and thanks to that, we still have our planet to live in.”

“Of course we do! Where else? Ha!” She was laughing seriously loud now. I believe a man of that age would not understand why, but I did.

My watch went crazy on the alarm, reminding me I had a meeting in 15 minutes, and I even hadn’t had a shower. That was my cue to leave, so just made some silly moves like pointing at the watch and smirking, and she got it straight away. Clever girl.

The OFF button

Geeks like to hack stuff, especially if they’re not meant to be hacked. But hacking computers or mobile phones is piece of cake, so some, more adventurous geeks hack cars. The Toyota Prius is a particularly interesting car to hack, since a lot of its functionality is based on control systems and they have interface ports that you can plug in debug systems and change (or add) behaviour to your car.

For instance, you can enable the SatNav screen to play video CDs or MP3s, since the system supports it, but there aren’t enough buttons on the panel and, well, you shouldn’t be watching videos while you drive, anyway.

Another less common hack, but doable is to change the voice commands. They’re normally hard-coded to respond when you press a button on the steering wheel and say something. For instance, on my Prius, if you say “fire photon torpedoes” it puts the air condition temperature down a bit. If you say “Khaaaaaaaan!” it turns off the radio, and so on.

Some controls are a bit less harmless, like activating the breaks or turning off the car, but normally you can’t access them from the control panel, anyway. That is, unless you by-pass the CAN network and connect the central control with the control panel.

Legend tells that a geek bypassed the system and, just for fun, added a voice command to turn off the car when he’d say “off“. That was his pride and joy, and (geek) friends would go jealous of his control over his car. Until the day the car was too old and he decided to buy a new one, with even more technology. Only he forgot to disable the “off” button.

A few months later, they say, the new owner was having a fight with his girlfriend on M11 at full speed and, well, as many would do in those circumstances, he was swearing a lot. Loudly. His unfortunate last minute of life began when he accidentally pressed the “talk” button and said something along the lines of “f*** off …”.

The car dutifully acknowledged the command and, since the previous owner forgot to add any security checks, turned itself off at once. Havoc and carnage followed, but that’s another story.

Now you know why Toyota voids your warranty when you open the panel…

Why no MMORPG is good enough?

Massively multiplayer online role-playing game (MMORPG) are not new. The first I remember playing is the Legend Of the Red Dragon (LORD), but before that, of course, I’ve played other (real-life) multiplayer RPG games as well, and they were never quite the same thing.

Of course, at that time the graphic cards couldn’t quite compete with our imagination (not to mention connection speeds), but a lot has improved in both fronts, and lots of very good looking games have arrived, but still, there’s something missing. For years I couldn’t put my finger on it, but recently I think I nailed the issue: user driven content.

The interface

Most of the MMORGP are war games. World of Warcraft, LOTR online, Vendetta, Star Trek Online, Regnum and so many others rely on war to be fun. Of course, all of them have the side issues, some trade or silly missions, but the real fun is going to the battlefield.

If you look from the technical side of things, this is not surprising at all. Aside from good graphics, one of the hardest things to do in a game is a good interface. Very few games are perfect like Tetris. I gave Tetris to both my sons when they were about 2 years old and after about a minute they were already playing. There is no need to instructions, tutorials or any training and still today I find it quite fun. This is why it’s probably the most successful game in history.

But it’s all about the interface. It’s easy to create a seamless interface for Tetris. Try to create an interface for a strategy game that doesn’t require some hours of training, or an interface for first-person games that actually allows you to know where you are, or an interface for adventure games that doesn’t make you click in half-dozen places to get anything. Many have tried, all have failed.

At the dawn of internet games, strategy and quake were dominant. That’s because the internet wasn’t so fast and both were quite good in saving bandwidth. Quake had a special fix to avoid sending one packet for every bullet and only one packet when you press the trigger and another when you release it, the rest was up to the client.

But in war games, the interface is pretty much established. World of Warcraft didn’t invent anything, they just mixed Warcraft with Lara Croft (rubbish interface, by the way). Space ship games got the interface from Wing Commander (Vendetta got it from W.C. Privateer), Lord of the Rings and Regnum mixed Second Life with old-style RPG (even with the same deficiencies) and Star Trek Online copied from everyone above.

Now, the interface for a good strategy or adventure game is somewhat complicated. For a first-person 3D RPG, even worse. It doesn’t have to be mind controlled to be easy, nor you have to use 3D glasses or any immersion technology to be fun. Simplifying the game is one way, but then it’s even harder to make it more interesting.

It’s the user, stupid!

I can see only one way to add value to a game that is simple but still fun: user driven content.

You can enrich the world in which you’re immersed into. For instance, Zynga is quickly gathering an impressive amount of users by adding a lot of content. I don’t play those games, but people around me do and I can see why it’s so addictive. There are so many things to do and the frequency of updates is so impressive that it’s almost impossible not to be driven to it.

You might think that the games are too simple, and the graphics are average, but the interface is extremely simple, the challenges are simple, yet still challenging, and the number of paths you can choose for your character are enormous. In this case, the user experience is driven by his own choices. The content is so rich that each and every place is completely different from every other, solely driven by user choices.

Not many game companies (certainly not the indie ones) have time or money to do that. So, why are indie games generally more interesting than commercial ones? They go back to square one, simplify the game and optimise the interface. EA would never release something like Angry Birds or World of Goo, and yet those are the two best games I played in a long time. But, world of Goo is over and Angry Birds require constant attention (seasonal versions) to keep selling or making money (from ads).

They are missing the user content. It might not be their style, nor objective, but that’s a difference between Deep Purple and a one-hit-band.

Back to MMORGP

So, from all MMORPGs, there are many good looking, some with good challenges and a lot of slaughtering fun, but I tire quite quickly from playing them. The last I played was Vendetta. Quite good graphically, it has some reasonably accurate physics simulation (what drove me to it) but not accurate enough to keep me playing. The content tires too quickly to be fun after a few hours and even though I had 8 hours of free play, I spent less than two and dropped it.

This was always a pain, since Final Fantasy and the like, building up the character, hitting slugs for XP, fight-heal-run until you level up. Though Final Fantasy was better, as it normally would throw you on level 10 or so, so you didn’t need too much of levelling up. But why? Who likes beating 253 slugs to get 1000 experience points, going to level 2 and being able to equip a copper sword that doesn’t even cut a snail’s shell?

One of the best MMORGP experiences I had recently was Regnum. This is a free game made in Argentina and has a lot of content, good interface and a healthy community. They do the normal quest levelling up technique and it works quite well until level 15 or so. After that, it’s hitting bears, golems and phantoms for half a year until you can go outside and beat other users.

I got outside prematurely (couldn’t bother to wait) and the experience was also not great. Huge lag on big crowds, people disappearing in mid-air and appearing a few meters away, etc. But the most annoying of all was the content. It was always the same fort that we had to protect, always the same keep we had to attack, always the same talk on how our race is superior to your race, etc.

I haven’t seen Lord of the Rings (which sucks on Linux) or Star Trek Online (which doesn’t even run), but I bet they can get a bit further. They’re there to compete with World of Warcraft, not Regnum, but the fate will be the same: boring.

So, after quite a big rant, how would I do it?

User content

First, a memory refresh: all free first-person shooter I know of are a re-make of Quake. They use the same engine, the same world builders, the same techniques. On Debian repositories you’ll find at least a dozen, all of them running on some version of Quake. Nexuiz, Tremulous, Open Arena, Urban Terror, etc.

Not only the Quake engine is open source, but it was built to be extensible and that, even before the source was opened by ID. I made some levels for Doom, there were good editors at the time (1994?), probably there are full development suites today.

The user has the power to extend, create, evolve and transform your game in ways that you never thought possible. To think that only the few people you hire are good enough to create game content is to be, to say the least, naive.

Now, all those games are segmented. Nexuiz levels don’t connect to Tremulous levels. That’s because the mods (as they’re called) are independent. To be able to play all those different games you need to download a whole lot of data (objects, music, game logic, physics settings, etc) and each game has it radically different. Sarge with a rocket launcher would be invincible in most of other quake variants.

But that is, in my opinion, the missing link between short spurs of fun and long lasting enjoyment. I want to be able t build my world (like Zynga), but in a world with free movement (like Quake) with quests (like MMORPGs) made by the users themselves (like no FP-game I know) in a connected world. It cannot penalise those that connect seldom, or those that connect through text terminals, Android phones or browser users in any way.

As some games have started to understand, people like different things in games. I like building stuff and optimizing structures, some like carnage, others like to level up or wait 45 minutes for a virtual beef pie to be ready. You cannot have all that in one game if you’re the only content generator.

Also, if the engine is not open, people won’t be able to enhance it for their particular worlds. It doesn’t have to be open source, but it has to have a good API and an efficient plugin system. Tools to create mods and content is also essential, but the real deal is to give the users freedom to create their versions of the game and be able to connect them all.

If every game is also a server, people can create their small worlds inside the bigger world, that is in the central server. A business strategy would be, then, to host those worlds for people that really cared about them. Either host for free in exchange of ads and content generation, or paid hosting for the more serious users. You can also easily sell content, but more importantly, you can create a whole marketplace of content driven by the users! Read Neil Stephenson’s Snow Crash and you know what I mean.

I think Apple and Google have proven over and over that a market with apps generated by the users is very effective indeed! Intel is just following the same path with their new App store, so yes, this is a good business strategy. But, it’s still fun for a wider range of people, from game addicts to casual gamers, from heavy modders to passive Facebook users.

There are many ways of doing that, maybe not all of them will be successful, but at least from my point of view, until that day arrives, no game will be fun.

English football? Health and Safety first!

Nothing to do with the topic of this blog, you are right, but I couldn’t stop thinking about the reality England faces regarding football.

All these years watching a mediocre football, even in the Premier League, where Cristiano Ronaldo is the top player and where Robinho can’t play football made me wondering what’s terribly wrong with the nation’s love for the sport. Not just passion, but the English people were the ones that invented the sport. Here in Cambridge its very first rules were written and the first match with those rules played in Parker’s Piece in 1848.

With more than 160 years of football history you would imagine that they’d have a bit more skills… Recently I have found a perfectly good reason why this happens.

Another English passion, maybe even more important that football, is lawn. Not cricket, not complaining, not political jokes: lawn. Mediocre football is all right, mediocre grass is a crime. But, grass and football are very much connected, probably the very reason why they loved to play it in the past, but as priorities are laid, lawn apparently comes first. In my recent visit to my son’s new school, with very impressive lawns, bigger than an official football pitch. The “football pitch”? It’s made of asphalt, which is also used as car park some times…

Baffled as I was, when I asked the children about football, they said they were allowed to play, but they had to bring their own balls. So far so good, but then it came reality: there is a recommendation to use foam or rubber balls, to avoid injury. Question is, what does more injury, proper footballs or asphalt?

In Brazil, children as young as 1 year old play football with anything. Coconuts, food cans, socks rolled into a ball, even stones. And they usually play barefoot, on dirt, or even asphalt. Health and Safety is important, but not to the point of removing completely the fun of being a child. If a child doesn’t get dirty, it won’t learn to clean itself, to avoid the situation in the future and, more importantly, to understand the pain of living and how good that feels.

European football? Never heard…

Humble Bundle

I’m not the one to normally do reviews or ads, but this is one well worth doing. Humble bundle is an initiative hosted by Wolfire studio, in which five other studios (2D Boy, Bit Blot, Cryptic Sea, Frictional Games and the recently joined Amanita Design) joined their award-winning indie games into a bundle with two charities (EFF and Child’s Play) that you can pay whatever you want, to be shared amongst them.

All games work on Linux and Mac (as well as Windows), are of excellent quality (I loved them) and separately would cost around 80 bucks. The average buy price for the bundle is around $8.50, but some people have paid $1000 already. Funny, though, that now they’re separating the average per platform, and Linux users pay, on average, $14 while Windows users pay $7, with Mac in between. A clear message to professional game studios out there, isn’t it?

About the games, they’re the type that are always fun to play and don’t try to be more than they should. There are no state-of-the-art 3D graphics, blood, bullets and zillions of details, but they’re solid, consistent and plain fun. I already had World of Goo (from 2D Boy) and loved it. All the rest I discovered with the bundle and I have to say that I was not expecting them to be that good. The only bad news is that you have only one more day to buy them, so hurry, get your bundle now while it’s still available.

The games

World of Goo: Maybe the most famous of all, it’s even available for Wii. It’s addictive and family friendly, has many tricks and very clever levels to play. It’s a very simple concept, balls stick to other balls and you have to reach the pipe to save them. But what they’ve done with that simple concept was a powerful and very clever combination of physical properties that give the game an extra challenge. What most impressed me was the way physics was embedded in the game. Things have weight and momentum, sticks break if the momentum is too great, some balls weight less than air and float, while others burn in contact with fire. A masterpiece.

Aquaria: I thought this would be the least interesting of all, but I was wrong. Very wrong. The graphics and music are very nice and the physics of the game is well built, but the way the game builds up is the best. It’s a mix of Ecco with Loom, where you’re a sea creature (mermaid?) and have to sing songs to get powers or to interact with the game. The more you play, the more you discover new things and the more powerful you become. Really clever and a bit more addictive than I was waiting for… 😉

Gish: You are a tar ball (not the Unix tar, though) and have to go through tunnels with dangers to find your tar girl (?). The story is stupid, but the game is fun. You can be slippery or sticky to interact with the maze and some elements that have simple physics, which add some fun. There are also some enemies to make it more difficult. Sometimes it’s a bit annoying, when it depends more on luck (if you get the timing of many things right in a row) than actually logic or skill. The save style is also not the best, I was on the fourth level and asked for a reset (to restart the fourth level again), but it reset the whole thing and sent me to the first level, which I’m not playing again. The music is great, though.

Lugaru HD: A 3D Lara Croft bloody kung-fu bunny style. The background story is more for necessity of having one than actually relevant. The idea is to go on skirmishing, cutting jugulars, sneaking and knocking down characters in the game as you go along. The 3D graphics are not particularly impressive and the camera is not innovative, but the game has some charm for those that like a fight for the sake of fights. Funny.

Penumbra: If you like being scared, this is your game. It’s rated 16+ and you can see very little while playing. But you can hear things growling, your own heart beating and the best part is when you see something that scares the hell out of you and you despair and give away your hide out. The graphics are good, simple but well cared for. The effects (blurs, fades, night vision, fear) are very well done and in sync with the game and story. The interface is pretty simple and impressively easy, making the game much more fun than the traditional FPS I’ve played so far. The best part is, you don’t fight, you hide and run. It remembers me Thief, where fighting is the last thing you want to do, but with the difference is that in Thief, you could, in this one, you’re a puss. If you fight, you’ll most likely die.

Samorost 2: It’s a flash game, that’s all I know. Flash is not particularly stable on any platform and Linux is especially unstable, so I couldn’t make it run in the first attempt. For me, and most gamers I know, a game has to work. This is why it’s so hard to play early open source games, because you’re looking for a few minutes of fun and not actually fiddling with your system. I have spent more time writing this paragraph than trying to play Samorost and I will only try it again if I upgrade my Linux (in hoping the Flash problem will go away by itself). Pity.

Well, that’s it. Go and get your humble bundle that it’s well worth, plus you help some other people in the process. Helping indie studios is very important for me. First, it levels the play-field and help them grow. Second, they tend to be much more platform independent, and decent games for Linux are scarce. Last, they tend to have the best ideas. Most game studios license one or two game engines and create dozens of similar games with that, in hope to get more value for their money. Also, they tend to stick with the current ideas that sell, instead of innovating.

By buying the bundle you are, at the very least, helping to have better games in the future.

The Wikipedia Game

There was a time when the gods were bored to death, but because they couldn’t actually die, they started writing down all their knowledge to pass the time. Virtually everything known to them was written on the ancient manuscripts and organized by topic, cross-linked with other topics, in a very simple yet complete language that described everything to the last detail.

Time passed, universes were created and in some of them, creatures developed critical thinking. With that, came science and with science, the logical conclusion that gods didn’t actually have to exist was inevitable. So inevitable that finally, without delay, the gods actually died. For the curious minds, that fact is based on the quantum principle that, if no one sees it, it doesn’t actually exist.

Yet, for the great benevolence of the Universe, the manuscripts were kept and for billions of (Earth) years (relativistically speaking, of course), they were forgotten. But everything that is lost is waiting to be found, and in a very small speck of dust, in a completely irrelevant galaxy on the (multi-dimensional) margins of one of the universes, a yet-to-be intelligent race found a way to the manuscripts. However, their intelligence was not enough to uncover the whole truth. They could only gather hints and pieces of what once was the complete knowledge of everything.

It was much more of a coincidence, really, that so many of those beings would channel the truth through their fingers and type them, guided by the manuscripts themselves, on a remote system that all the other beings would go and search for knowledge. Some would misguide them, of course, and others would fight over the truth, for no one really know how to interpret such manuscripts. Seeing such confusion and regress, the Universe decided to create a game, on which such frivolous beings could channel their good side instead, even if not consciously knowing so.

The Game

The game is very simple and is meant to beings with very limited mental and social capacity.

The younger member starts by clicking on the “Random Article” link on any Wikipedia page, or by choosing a subject from the main page. After that, the following rules must be repeated until the players are tired or bored to death:

  1. The current player must explain (out loud) what the article is about and think of a related subject. The relation can be of any kind.
  2. The other players would then decide if the relation is valid and the player should then go to the related page.
  3. If the relationship is valid and approved, the points are counted on the following manner:
    • 1 point if the article exists, +3 points if the player enhances it.
    • 3 points if the article doesn’t exist, +9 points if the player creates it with a stub.
  4. The player on the right goes next.

Of course, at least one access to Wikipedia is necessary, but many can be used simultaneously. It is considered foul play to tamper with the contents of the pages just to get extra points (remember, the gods won’t be pleased at all!).

In between games, there is a way to get extra points for the next round. If the player proves that he/she enhanced Wikipedia pages quoted from a previous game (change logs suffice), he/she gets +3 points at the start of the next game for every considerable change (10 or more words) in a single page. Multiple changes in the same page counts as one change and the points can only be counted if the change happened between the last game and current, so the same change cannot be considered twice. Creation of new pages related to the subjects mentioned also count as change.

The Winner

The winner of the game is obviously the one that gets most points, but the real winner is the society. Knowledge has no owner, no boundaries, no limits. The more you share, the more society benefits. Knowledge is power, and you can give it for free, as easy as writing an email… to the world.

Logic and a bit of luck

Most game-changing scientific discoveries had a lot of logic and critical thinking, but also a bit of luck involved. As most scientists, I don’t believe in luck, so the definition of luck here is being the right person in the right place at the right time. As most (good) scientists, I don’t believe, I state, hypothesise, prove, refute, so the definition of belief here is also obvious.

My point is that evolution wouldn’t have been formulated if Darwin hadn’t gone with the Beagle, genetics wouldn’t be so solid if Mendel hadn’t believed the contrary so fiercely, Plank wouldn’t have found the quantum if there wasn’t a major argument about the black-body spectrum and Einstein would have won the Nobel prize for any other thing if he hadn’t been so drawn by God playing dice.

My story today starts in a similar way, but in a much more mundane problem… I lost my keys.

There is nothing I hate more than loosing my keys, especially in the 25th of December when we’re going to hit the road in the 27th. I lost all my keys, car, house, even my USB key. These modern car keys are not easy to replicate, I’d have to buy the whole thing again and loosing your front door key is not the kind of thing you let pass with a simple copy, you have to change the whole set, especially when you’re going away for a week.

Well, after despair came fear. After fear, despair again. We searched the whole house, inside, outside and in between. Nothing. Brute force wasn’t helping, but that hadn’t stopped me to do it once in a while again, just in case. In between the despair brute-force moments, we decided to be logical about the situation and think, rather than search for the answer.

First point, we had a spare of either car and house, so at least we could still travel and come back home. My worries were, in fact, what would we find when we came back home… If I had lot my keys outside or had left them hanging off the front door’s key hole (happened more than once), it’d be just too easy for someone to clean the house while we were away.

So we tracked down every place we went, every thing we did. By logic, I couldn’t have lost them in the city or anywhere I would have gone by car. Nor I could have lost it inside the car, so at least we knew that it’d be either inside the house or around it (including the key hole, unfortunately). I almost cancelled our trip because of the key hole probability, but Renata, very logically, convinced me that everything we did could not have caused me to leave it there. It was very, very unlikely. So we went…

However very unlikely, that still bugged me the whole week and I felt a bit of panic when we got home. But to my comfort, the house was exactly the way we left. That was, in a twisted way, another indication that the key was not left in the key hole. It had to be inside the house. I went back to work, still using the spare keys, but always thinking about it, wondering wherever it was. Sometimes, just in case, I’d imagine that I would look somewhere and see the key there, and be very surprised I haven’t seen it there before. That feeling never came.

This week I thought enough was enough. I had to continue with my life, change the front door keys and buy the very expensive key set from the car’s manufacturers. I put a to-do in my mobile: “call toyota, landlord wrt keys”. It was then that luck stroke with an impeccable logic. I felt like Darwin finding the platypus or Mendel smashing peas.

I looked at our bag of snow jackets, hermetically sealed for the next winter (Cambridge has only one chance of snowing each year, and that was before Christmas), and thought: “If the keys are in there, we’ll only find out next winter.” The simple logic led me to think it’d be much cheaper for me to re-open the impossible-to-close-hermetically-sealed bag now and not find the key than to wait until next winter and have spent thousands of pounds for nothing. The risk assessment was positive, and that led me to the next piece of information that closed the gap: it was snowing before Christmas! It had to be there!

I opened the bag and tapped my jacket, nothing. But the logic was impeccable, I couldn’t be wrong. I wore the jacket and trusted logic above my own despair. Gently sliding my hands inside the pockets, as I always do. The pockets are deep, and I felt nothing at start, but that didn’t stop my trust in logic. Spock would have laughed at me if I did, it’s that serious, a vulcan could actually laugh. It was not out of faith or belief, it was the ultimately trust that scientists lay on logic above all feelings, common sense and general knowledge, that kept me going until I finally felt something…

Phasers anyone?

Star trek seems a long way and yet, a few news had made into the headlines exposing some achievements that might lead us closer to Roddenberry’s universe.

Some research just found anti-matter in an unusual place: lightning! It might be easier to produce a warp core that we originally thought. Given, of course, that sub-space exists and can be reached by an matter/anti-matter reaction.

Another research, from the University of California, has just found a way to create a medical tricorder. That, for me, is the best achievement so far. Not to mention time travels, teleportation, quantum computers and faster-than-light communication already achieved since the series was created.

Finally, the University of Canada just made the first phaser. Though, it’s still only set to stun…

But I have to say that I’m a bit worried. The Temporal Prime Directive might be needed a bit sooner than the 29th century

Online gaming experience

Why is it so hard for the game industry to get the online experience? I understand the media industry being utterly ignorant about how to make sense of the internet, but gaming is about pure fun, isn’t it? The new survey done in UK is more than proof of the obvious fact that people will use all resources of the internet to get what they want, whether it’s illegal or not.

After all, who defines what’s legal and what’s not? The UK government already said that it’s OK to invade one’s privacy for the matter of general security, even when everybody knows that any government has no clue on what’s security and what’s not. Not to mention the Orwellian attitudes of certain US companies seem not to raise any eyebrow from the local government or the general public…

That said, games are a different matter. Offline games still need have some kind of protection, but online games should rely on online commerce, and that can only be complete if the user has a full online experience. So, what do I mean by full online experience?

You don’t always have access to your own computer. Sometimes you have just a remote connection, sometimes only your mobile phone or a web browser. Sometimes you have an old laptop with no decent graphic card and those golden times when you have a brand new game machine with four graphic cards. 10 years ago, mobile phones were not as today, but even though my current mobile has a 3D graphic card in it, it’s closer to the lower end when compared to desktops or even laptops.

So, what’s the catch? Imagine a game that you can play exactly the same game irrespective of where you play it.

There are lots of new online games, so called ORPG (online RPG) or the bigger brothers (MMORPG, massively-multi-player ORPG), but all of them rely on a Windows machine with OpenGL2 and DirectX 10 to play it, even though not half of it really need that kind of realism to be fun.

Moreover, when you’re at the toilet and you want to keep playing your battles, you could easily get your mobile and use a stripped down version with little graphic elements but with the same basic principles. When you’re at your parent’s and the only thing you have is dial-up, you can connect via SSH and play the console version. At least to manage your stuff, talk to your friends or plan future battles.

The hard part in all this, I understand, is to manage different players playing with different levels of graphic detail. Scripts on online games are normally prohibited because it eases too much cheating, and that would be the way of battling via a SSH connection… Players with better graphic cards would have the advantage of seeing more of the battlefield than its friends with a mobile phone, or even using a much better mouse/joystick and a much bigger keyboard (short-cuts are *very* important in online gaming).

With the new mobiles and their motion sensor and GPS interfaces, that wouldn’t be a much bigger difference, as you could wave the mobile to have a quicker glance and even use voice-control for some features that is still lacking support in desktop but it’s surprisingly popular in mobile devices. All in all, having at least three platforms: high-end and low-end graphics plus a mobile version, would be a major breakthrough in online gaming. I just wonder why game makers are not even hinting in that direction…

The console version is pushing a bit, I know, I just love the console… 😉