Sparkleponies for all

IEEE’s prediction that 85% of the tasks in our daily life will include game elements by 2020 sounds to me like a prediction that requires thinking about game elements broadly enough, it might already be true. Considering this quote in particular, “by 2020, however many points you have at work will help determine the kind of raise you get or which office you sit in”, if you’ve ever had a performance review rating you on a number scale for different job functions, congratulations, your job is gamified! Does grocery shopping get you gas points? Your errands are gamified! Students, grades aren’t a drag, they’re a gamification of your learning!

I’m not trashing on gamification – I’m intrigued by it and always love when my games students experiment with it in their projects. But, I’m dubious of the 85% number cited in the article. Even if we all start getting Sparkleponies.

Most fun you’ll have debugging all day

Weird Bug starts off for the first, say, 30 seconds looking like your standard puzzle-maze game, until you realize the first maze isn’t beatable, and that the real puzzle is how to go into the source code for the maze and fix it so the maze can be beat. The mazes are implemented in PuzzleScript, and the bulk of the game you’re in an IDE interface, changing the code, rebuilding, and playing your fixed level to get on to the next, broken level.

If you’ve ever coded before, you’ll be able to figure out PuzzleScript in just a minute or two of scanning the code, but there’s some tutorial information embedded in the game for those just getting started looking at code. Once you figure out the structure, you can really choose how you want to beat the mazes – I haven’t played it all the way through but I suspect you can always take the easy way out and place the goal right next to the player and move on. Which also makes the game a nice platform for thinking about level design.

Don’t leave the panopticon

I’m pretty blown away by Nothing To Hide, a currently free, browser-based puzzle game with a great premise and one of the most interesting introductory “scenes” I’ve come across. You play a character who must ensure that they are being surveilled at all times while moving around the world (for reasons the opening will make clear). The web-version is actually a demo being used to raise funds for a full version, but it’s as polished and fleshed out as any number of full online games I’ve played. Even in its handful of levels, you get a taste of the variety of elegant little puzzles you can create with the game’s premise and small set of game resources. Well worth a play, and an eye out for the extended version!

Math, Music, Ciphers

I hadn’t run into the unsolved Dorabella cipher before (that I remember). If you enjoy such things I highly recommend this account of it, with its many proposed decryptions that make clear why one of the conditions for a verified solution is that it “be self-evident”. It’s an excellent example of why decyphering without context is hard (maybe impossible?). And I enjoy the proposed solution that takes encryptions errors into account as a possibility, considering that it was done by hand, and by someone considered prone to such errors.

Myself, I went with the LEGO calendar

Ringing in 2014 by shopping for a new office wall calendar, I’m happy to be able to bring you the weirdest wall calendars available right now on Amazon – free shipping for Prime members, so you know you want one of these!

I Could Pee on This 2014 Wall Calendar: So many cats, reminding you that they have a whole year’s worth of peeing on your belongings ahead of them.

Food Landscapes 2014 Wall Calendar: A Year of Scrumptious Scenes: Sure you could have a calendar of beautiful landscapes, but a calendar of beautiful landscapes reimagined through food is so much better.

Fire Trucks in Action 2014: Flame, smoke, tragic desctruction of people’s homes and workplaces, and firetrucks!

Extraordinary Chickens 2014 Wall Calendar and Just Us Chickens 2014 Wall Calendar: It’s a tie for which chicken-themed wall calendar I find most entertaining.

Sharknado 2014 Wall Calendar: 2013 brought you Sharknado; 2014 brings you Sharknado the Wall Calendar.

Menswear Dog 2014 Wall Calendar: Check out the image of the back cover to see what twelve dogs all awkwardly stuffed into suits look like. Actually, I think it is all just one dog, wearing twelve different suits.

Fold Your Own Zombie 2014 Wall Calendar: Start the year with a funny papercraft zombie! End the year trying to figure out where to keep your collection of twelve papercraft zombies! Zombies!

2014 Toilets Around the World Wall Calendar: Really, more Outhouses and Porti-Potties Around the World, but I’ll give it to them, these are some of the most scenic toilets I’ve ever seen.

Cow Abductions! 2014 Wall Calendar: Beautifully rendered images of alien’s proclivities for probing our bovine friends, with moon phase information included with each month as well (obviously).

Goats in Trees 2014 Calendar: If you only click through one of these links, click through here to enjoy both the blurb (“Simply the best Goats in Trees calendar published.”) and the single five-star review (“- All of the days in 2014 are accounted for. Check. – There are pictures of goats. Check. – The aforementioned goats are in trees. Check.”) of this amazing calendar.

How It Works: Bitcoin Edition

Nothing like avoiding end-of-the-year physical cleanup with end-of-the-year virtual cleanup! I finally got around to reading this detailed description of how Bitcoin works, recommended by Schneier on his weblog, and I need to hang on to this for next time I’m teaching security. From a teaching perspective, it does a nice job of showing how all of the various types of cryptography come together in an interesting way in this protocol. This is the part that always seems sort of wild to me:

The idea is to make it so everyone (collectively) is the bank. In particular, we’ll assume that everyone using Infocoin keeps a complete record of which infocoins belong to which person. You can think of this as a shared public ledger showing all Infocoin transactions. We’ll call this ledger the block chain, since that’s what the complete record will be called in Bitcoin, once we get to it.

The article does assume you have some cryptographic background, but I suspect that reading along as far as you can through the article would at least explain what some of the problems that Bitcoin has to solve are. A nice read with a cup of tea on a snowy day, especially if you’re a student getting your brain back into gear for school in another day or two!

Stabby Robot Less Stabby

First, and most important obviously, this is pretty neat research into training robot motion with online, and non-optimal, feedback. It’s a nice consideration of the type of feedback one is likely to get, or to get easily. And the illustrative video on their page is pretty great (I found the moment when they showed the robot how to point the knife towards itself, not someone else, adorable…)

But it’s also worth noting that the TechCrunch story on the research is pretty hysterical: “Cornell Researchers Help Robot Unlearn Stabby Motions With A Human Trainer”.

Building the right community for community editing

There’s something unavoidable about Wikipedia, even when you acknowledge its flaws, which makes it a constantly interested phenomenon to investigate and analyze. As the article notes, its rankings in search results and use in question answering systems like Siri only make it more interesting to understand what’s going on with it. Looking at the effect of the editorial structure and automated tools for handling edits is particularly interesting; I hadn’t really thought about the effect of bots on participation in this way:

In their paper on those findings, the researchers suggest updating Wikipedia’s motto, “The encyclopedia that anyone can edit.” Their version reads: “The encyclopedia that anyone who understands the norms, socializes him or herself, dodges the impersonal wall of semi-automated rejection and still wants to voluntarily contribute his or her time and energy can edit.”

The solution, the addition of a “thank” button instead of only negative feedback options, is pretty elegant.

Watch where you put that phone

This is awesome – I’ve long been in love with intrusions that rely on listening in on the sound of keystrokes, or the wiggle of a laptop screen, or what have you to learn and then reproduce what has been typed. This variation where a smartphone on your desk can pick up typing vibrations and from there learn to recognize what you are typing. It’s proof of concept, not found out in the wild at this point, but still very cool.

Are you ready for some learning?

I’m about a week out from another academic year starting (my tenth! how frightening!), and so it’s timely to share a few thoughts about learning and being a student…

Lots of attention is going to this article about a study showing that laptop use in class results in lower grades. Less press is going to the portion I remember most from when the article first came out – that someone next to you using a laptop also causes scores to drop. I’ll be mentioning this in my explanation for why I sometimes lock the classroom computers when we’re having discussions that don’t require the technology.

If you’re thinking about getting focused on your writing, consider this report on research showing pre-writing rituals can effect the quality of your writing. Or your appreciation for a carrot. And apparently the rituals don’t have to be as …. compelling …. as the examples cited in the opening paragraph of the article.

Finally, this blog post, from a generally humorous blog written by a just-graduated undergrad, on Great Books and the Discussion Method is the end point that I hope all students entering my school come to, if not by the end of the First-Year Seminar, by the end of their time with us.