The other day, I stumbled on a delightful little adventure game called The Strange and Somewhat Sinister Tale of the House at Desert Bridge by Jonas Kyratzes and friends. “Delightful” really is the right word, as it suggests something simple and childlike yet elegant and charming. Desert Bridge fits this perfectly, and is surprisingly sophisticated to boot.

On first impression, the whole game feels playful and offbeat. All of the graphics are sketched in crayon with a passion for colour and oddity rivaling that of a six year old. All the characters and spaces are slightly kooky, from the cat who believe he’s an emperor, to the spider-pig, the cuddly dinosaur in the garden, the collection of stoned mushrooms in the pantry, the giant hamsters, to Horaffe, the bionic giraffe. Coupled with all of this, the soundtrack really wouldn’t be out of place in some sort of clay-mation mystery adventure.

To some extent, all of this makes the game seem like it must be targeted at children, but it’s really not. The humour’s quite sophisticated and sometimes subtle, there’s a distinct hint of sadness throughout, and without giving away the ending, let me just mention that the word ‘sinister’ in the title doesn’t mean that everyone is left handed.

For the geeky, the game’s also riddled with references to geek culture, from Bill & Ted, to Fallout, to Zathras, a turtle that speaks, well, like Zathras (from Babylon 5). Furthermore, pretty much everything you can interact with is either funny, a pun, or just plain outlandish. Examples include flavoured monkey salt, polyhedrix asparagus extract, orange wolf honey, or liquid salami (and that’s just one room).

On a gameplay level, it’s your average point and click adventure – move from room to room, talk to people, click on objects, pick them up and merge to form other objects. It’s even got a ‘golden hammer’ puzzle; that is, a puzzle gimmick that gets re-used again and again, if only you realize that something’s a reference to it.

One of the nice things about the crayon graphics is that each of the scenes has less extraneous detail than many adventure games. If you can see something, it’s worth clicking on it, and if something can be clicked on, you can see it, as all of the objects are reasonably big and contrast well with the background. If I had one criticism for the game, though, it would be that you move by clicking at the edge of the graphics. Consequently, I would often try to click on something and instead, to my mild annoyance, be moved to the next area.

It’s actually just fun to wander around it and poke at things, though, which reminds me a lot of good interaction fiction where everything is worth tampering with, even if it doesn’t mean you’re making any progress. Incidentally, I recommend trying every possible action on everything you pick up. You never know what you might be able to gerbelize.

Difficulty is comparatively low – most of the puzzles are either straight forward or just require a cup of tea and maybe a re-read of some piece of text to solve. Incidentally, there’s quite a lot of text which, though well worth reading, does take a while and, if you’re impatiently charging through like I did the first time around, can seem a burden. But, if you slow down a little and put a little effort into appreciation, it really serves to bring out the characters, particularly Old Man Bill, around whom the story revolves, but who you never meet.

Takes about two hours to play if you’re taking your time, more if you’re obsessively trying things out. Quite unique, but if I had to characterize it in terms of other things, I’d put it somewhere between Zork, anything by Jim Henson, and the walls at your local kindergarten.

Play this game!


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So, everyone knows what r stands for, right? What about v? Or f(x) and f’(x)? OK. How about x, y, and z?

If you’re not a math geek of some kind, you’re probably not reading anymore, but just in case you are, the point is that each of these letters has a common meaning in a lot of mathematical notation – p is a probability, v some arbitrary vector, f(x) and f’(x) some arbitrary function and its derivative, and x, y and z, are coordinates in 3-space.

The problem is that a lot of the time, this isn’t true, and even when it is true, it’s hard to tell exactly _which_ probability or set of coordinates you might be talking about.

Good math books typically get this – they define their notation, and use it consistently. If p means probability in chapter 1, it probably doesn’t mean ‘an arbitrary solution to the dual problem’ in chapter 2, unless it’s been explicitly re-defined. Each symbol should correspond to one particular value or concept at any given time. This makes the text easier and faster to read, and avoids all sorts of nasty confusion.

So, why is it that people presenting mathematical results always assume that you know their notation? If they throw up a complicated expression using a bunch of different letters, why do they assume that you know that r doesn’t actually mean radius (even though it’s shown on a circular diagram), and that, today, we’re using g to refer to probability, not p (except for that slide near the end, because it’s from a different slide set).

You’d think this just happens in badly prepared and presented seminars. Unfortunately, either you’re wrong, or I have an uncanny ability to attend only seminars that meet that criteria.

So, if you’re ever in a position to be presenting mathematical notation to a bunch of people, please, please, do the following..

  • Introduce your notation. Tell the audience what each letter means as soon as you start using it.
  • Don’t change what x means halfway through your talk, unless you really have to. If you’re using x to just mean ‘some arbitrary value’, that’s OK, but tell people that.
  • Each value should refer to only one thing at a time. This is particularly problematic if you’re working through an algorithm that re-uses the same notation every step. Is B the initial basis matrix you chose, or the basis matrix at step 3?
  • If you’re re-introducing some notation you briefly mentioned at the beginning, mention it again.
  • If your expression expresses some important relationship, verbalize it – read it out. If your expression is really large but still important for your audience to understand, not just accept, break it down and read it out. If you can’t do that, your audience won’t get it.
  • If you’re just showing algebraic steps, question why you included them in the first place. If you’re not expecting your audience to work through the algebra while you’re talking, leave it out.
  • Just because you think p always means probability, don’t assume you can get away with not defining it. If a letter has different meanings in different fields, you’re bound to confuse at least one person. Sure, they might be able to work it out from context, but they shouldn’t have to. Besides, p means the probability of what, exactly?

I could go on, but instead, I refer people to Polya’s lovely short rant on the subject in ‘How to Solve It’. There’s a free version online. It’s on page 134.

People seem to forget that the entire point of notation is the economical expression of an idea for the purpose of memory or communication. Furthermore, memory is really just a special case of communication – you’re communicating with your future self. Imagine how confused they’ll be if, in your notes, q means different things without clear distinction. Imagine how confused your audience will be, not having been you in the first place.

This all boils down to this general point about communicating – if you don’t value your idea enough to make sure your audience understands, don’t bother opening your mouth. Play Minesweeper instead.

X-posted to various places


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I’ve heard of colour affecting mood, but not performance. Interesting paper in last week’s Science on several studies examining performance and creativity in various tasks when using a computer with different background colours. It seems surprising to me that they were able to get significant differences simply by changing the background colour, not the content, or anything else.

Existing research reports inconsistent findings with regard to the effect of color on cognitive task performances. Some research suggests that blue or green leads to better performances than red; other studies record the opposite. Current work reconciles this discrepancy. We demonstrate that red (versus blue) color induces primarily an avoidance (versus approach) motivation (study 1, n = 69) and that red enhances performance on a detail-oriented task, whereas blue enhances performance on a creative task (studies 2 and 3, n = 208 and 118). Further, we replicate these results in the domains of product design (study 4, n = 42) and persuasive message evaluation (study 5, n = 161) and show that these effects occur outside of individuals’ consciousness (study 6, n = 68). We also provide process evidence suggesting that the activation of alternative motivations mediates the effect of color on cognitive task performances.

Blue or Red? Exploring the Effect of Color on Cognitive Task Performances. Ravi Mehta and Rui (Juliet) Zhu (5 February 2009) Science [DOI: 10.1126/science.1169144]

Why am I posting this?
I’m interested in pretty much any verifiable means of enhancing human cognitive performance, even if they seem a bit odd. If background colour affects us sufficiently that our performance and mood changes, I have to wonder what would happen if our whole vision was tinted. And, what does my green screen background colour mean? Interesting, if kooky-sounding, idea for augmenting reality. Brings to mind the general idea of using AR as a simple means of interposing image processing between the viewer and the viewed. Could be particularly useful for people with various vision deficiencies and colour blindness.

Also, interesting point about likely variation between North American students (as interviewed in the study) and students of other nationalities.

via Cosmos


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