Attic, part 9

Apparently, as Jenny and Josh understood it, the goal was to create something called an “astral portrait”. Sid seemed very confident in his power to do this — apparently it was one of the more elementary spells — but a quiet and secluded place was needed to conduct the ceremony.

Meanwhile Mr. Symarian employed a different kind of power — he reserved a meeting room in the school basement over the weekend. When the secretary in the main office asked for the purpose of the meeting, he told her “Astral Photography Club.”

So it was that the four of them found themselves in room G102, bright and early on a Sunday morning — the one time of week they could be sure nobody would be around to disturb them. Jenny and Josh hadn’t been sure what to expect. They wouldn’t have been surprised if Mr. Symarian had shown up in a long robe and a pointed hat. To their considerable disappointment, he arrived in the same rumpled jacket he always wore.

Mr. Symarian set up four tall black candles, one at each corner of the table. He fumbled for matches, then looked apologetically at Sid. “Sorry, this was so much easier before I quit smoking.”

“Don’t sweat it pal,” the demon replied, “I do this kinda thing for breakfast”. Sid waved one tiny taloned hand and all four candles flared into flame. Jenny and Josh looked at each other gleefully. This was starting to get interesting.

Mr. Symarian took a small black notebook out of his jacket pocket. It looked very old and worn, and there was an odd symbol etched into the front cover. He placed the notebook neatly onto the table, opened it to a page he had previously marked, and in a quiet measured voice began to read out loud.

Memory game, even more twisted

Thanks to Guzman for his long and thoughtful comment on my post the other day about Van Chung’s cleverly twisted variation of the Memory game.

I read Guzman’s comment with great interest, and am impressed that he has managed to amass so many variations on this venerable game. Although I didn’t see any mention there of my even more twisted variation on Van’s version of the Memory game. Maybe nobody has come up with my version before.

As with Van’s version, part of the challenge in my variation is just to figure out what the game is — ie: how the rules have been tweaked. In a way, that meta-game is the really interesting part — more interesting in my opinion than the game of solving the puzzle itself.

In a way, such game variations are metaphors for life itself. In life, the hard part often lies not in playing the game, but rather in figuring out the rules in the first place. Anyone who’s ever been on a first date will know exactly what I’m talking about.

It occurs to me now, thinking about this, that Franz Kafka’s novel “The Trial” would make a wonderful subject a twisted meta-game. Such a game would make a perfect thirtieth birthday present for some lucky gamer. The fun would lie in trying to figure out the rules. If you designed it right, the game could be played for an entire year (although not longer, for obvious reasons). 😉

Attic, part 8

“OK,” Sid said, looking at Jenny and Josh. “Let’s cut to the chase. I’m a finder demon. They don’t send my class of spook into this plane just for kicks. There’s something’s gone missing, right?”

Josh and Jenny looked at each other. “Actually,” Jenny began, “it’s not exactly something missing, it’s something found.”

“Yeah kid, I know, there was a key. There’s always a key. Key leads to a scroll, scroll summons a demon, yadda yadda. It’s always the same drill. Spare me. I mean what went missing? Think back.”

Jenny was silent, lost in thought. “Does it have to be a what?”

Sid perked up. “Interesting question. What’s the angle?”

“I mean, can it be a who?”

“Yeah, sure. A who can be a what. I mean a what isn’t always a who, but a who is definitely always a what. I don’t make the rules, but I sure know what’s what. Or in this case, who’s what, if you see my drift.”

Josh felt in over his head. “Jenny, do you have any idea what he’s talking about?”

“Yes,” Jenny said, “it’s perfectly clear. He’s talking about Grandma. That’s what this is all about, isn’t it?” She looked at the demon expectantly.

Sid took his time answering. “Yeah, I’m starting to get the picture here. Old lady goes missing, manages to leave a key. Her daughter can’t do a thing, cause she hasn’t got the Power.”

“The power?” Josh asked. “what power?”

“Not power, Power. Your girlfriend’s got it.” Josh was about to correct him, but thought better of it. Sid waited him out, then continued. “Usually skips a generation. Grandma to granddaughter. Touching really. Anyway, grandma’s missing, and we’ve gotta find her fast.”

“Wait,” Jenny asked. “That box was in the attic for years. Why now?”

“Cause you found the key. That right, big boy?”

Mr. Symarian had been watching quietly. But now Sid had asked him a direct question, and they were all looking at him. “Why yes, that’s true,” he nodded. “If you found the key, it means that trouble is brewing. Keys don’t just show up — until you need them. Jenny, do you have a picture of your grandmother?”

Jenny shook her head slowly. “Mother destroyed them all. I never asked why — it was something we never talked about. Do we need one?”

“Only if you want to find Grandma,” Sid said. “Wait. I’ve got an idea. Let’s make a picture of the old broad.”

“Can we do that?” Josh asked.

“Trust me kid,” Sid grinned, “I’m a demon.”

Memory game, with a twist

In the Memory game, you are shown a rectangular grid of cards, all face down. On the face of each card (the side you can’t see), is a picture. For any given picture, a pair cards will have that picture on its face — so for every card there is a matching card.

You play the game by turning up two cards at a time. If those two cards have the same picture, then you get to keep the cards. Otherwise, you have to turn them both face down, and try again. It’s really a test of memory (hence the name of the game) — if you can remember which card was which, you can win the game quickly. Otherwise, it can take a long time to finish.

Here is a simple version of the game that I’ve implemented as a Java applet, to give you the idea.

My friend Van Chung, who is a very accomplished Java programmer and amateur mathematician — and who also happens to be twelve years old — came up with a wonderfully fiendish variation of the Memory game. He calls it “the Memory game with a twist.” It’s a lot sneakier than the original version (be warned). I liked it so much that I reimplemented it. Here is my reimplementation of Van’s twisted Memory game.

To me the most interesting thing about this is the way that games can inspire other games, just as stories can inspire other stories. Van took a fairly prosaic game, added his own very clever variation, and came up with something far more interesting. And, arguably, more profound. For whereas the original Memory game is a kind of meditation on permanence, Van’s variation is a meditation on impermanence.

I was so impressed by this that I then created my own variation of Van’s variation, which took his idea even further. But I’ll get to that the day after tomorrow. Meanwhile, I’ll give you a chance to play with (and hopefully to solve) Van’s version of the Memory game.

Attic, part 7

As their teacher’s voice filled the room, intoning the strange words, Jenny and Josh looked at each other.

“Whoa,” Josh said, “Isn’t he supposed to be translating that stuff into English?”

“Keep your voice down!” Jenny whispered. “I’m sure Mr. Symarian knows what he’s doing. Besides, whatever it is, I think something’s happening.”

“What do you mean?”

“Haven’t you noticed?” she said. “It’s getting colder in here.”

“Maybe somebody left the window open…” Josh’s whispered voice trailed off. The window was shut tight. As they watched, lines of frost were forming over the panes of glass. “It could just be a cold snap,” he suggested.

Jenny shook her head, and pointed. Across the room, the window on the office door was also frosting up. Josh stared at the door, agape, and then they both looked back at their teacher. A patch of air above the center of his desk was starting to shimmer, the way hot air shimmers on a summer’s day. The surface of the desk directly beneath was slowly and ominously beginning to darken.

Suddenly there was a popping sound. Mr. Symarian had stopped his chant, and was now peering with interest down at the desktop. Standing there on the desk, looking around with a somewhat disgruntled expression, was a bright reddish-orange six inch tall demon.

As Jenny and Josh looked on in amazement, the demon spread first one leathery wing, then the other, eyeing them critically.

“Hello Sid,” said Mr. Symarian.

The demon glared up at their teacher reproachfully. “You couldn’t have picked a better color, maybe?” he said in what sounded like a strong Brooklyn accent.

“Sorry,” Mr. Symarian shrugged. “I’m a little rusty.”

“Yeah, right. And now ’cause you’re rusty, I’m rusty.” The demon shook his horned head in resignation. “Amateurs! I need a smoke.” He waved one of his tiny taloned hands, and a perfectly proportioned little cigar appeared in his fingers, already lit.

“Sorry Sid, you can’t smoke in here,” Mr. Symarian admonished.

“You gotta be kidding me,” the demon replied. “Who’s idea was it to bring me here in the first place? Cut me a break, will ya?”

“You know the rules, Sid. Local customs. It’s not up to me. They’re His rules.”

“Crap,” the demon said. There was a bright reddish-orange flare, and the little cigar vanished as suddenly as it had appeared.

Jenny and Josh had been silent throughout this exchange, too stunned to speak. But now Josh found his voice. “You said crap.”

The demon looked at him, as if seeing him for the first time. “What’s it to you?”

“Demons aren’t supposed to say things like that.”

Jenny chimed in supportively. “And whoever heard of a demon that smokes cigars?”

“And what’s the deal with the Brooklyn accent?” Josh added. “That is a Brooklyn accent, isn’t it?” His tone was almost accusing.

Sid rolled his eyes. “Look kids, I’ve had a rough day, and I’m not in the mood to debate theology with a pair of human whelps. But since you asked, don’t you think it’s kind of nuts, these questions?”

“I think they’re perfectly reasonable questions,” Jenny said, and Josh nodded in agreement.

“Oh give me a break. I’m a friggin’ mythical creature. You know, as in `Imaginary, fictitious, not based on facts or scientific study.’ I’m not even supposed to exist. You gonna stand there and tell me what accent I’m supposed to have?”

“He does have a point,” said Mr. Symarian.


I was watching a rather high-tech film the other day, and suddenly I noticed how crisp were the edges of the screen. In the film a character stood in the foreground, framed from chest up against a brightly lit interior, and all of this was surrounded by a rectangle of inky blackness — the areas within my vision that were off of the screen image.

Oddly, the seemed notable precisely because it is a phenomenon that generally goes so unnoticed. The sharp line between light and dark, the sudden horizontal slash that cuts of a character at the chest or waist or neck, we see these intercisions every day, and yet we never really look at them. And yet they are so at odds with the way reality itself operates. In the real world there are no such sudden cut-offs. The world flows in a continuous way, from one atom to the next. When bodies in the physical are cut into pieces, it is not so much an artistic choice as it is an act of extreme violence.

What came to mind as I observed myself observing this was the now long obsolete phenomenon of vignetting in early silent films. In many early silents, you don’t actually see the edges of the frame. Rather, the filmmaker deliberately throws out a portion of the frame, fading everything near the edge to black in a smooth and fuzzy transitional zone.

I had never understood before why early filmmakers did such a thing. Suddenly it becomes clear. There was no reason for those cinematic pioneers to believe that an audience would accept the sight of a head severed sharply at the neck or a body cut off below the waist. They were trying to protect their audience from odd images of violence, dismembered limbs, headless bodies. There was, as yet, no well developed theory of mind for a cinematic audience, and so there was not yet a consensus on a most plausible representation of human reality on screen.

I believe we are faced with similar issues with the introduction of each new information technology. At first artists feel they need to be literal, to protect their audience from the sheer strangeness of our new mode of expression. But then at some point they learn to relax into it, to see the places where an audience is able to embrace an abstraction, a sort of short-hand.

TV shows in the last decade have become thoroughly post-modern, with meta-dialog in which the writers gleefully speak directly to the audience through the mouths of their characters. In the midst of an otherwise realistic love scene or conflict, a character will suddenly describe their motivation, or the dramatic irony of the show’s set-up.

This is but one of many examples. The vignette, that soft fuzzy transitional layer around the edges that attempts to distract us from the fact that we are watching a fiction, is no longer necessary. Audiences are now used to seeing characters severed in half at odd moments, their spoken thoughts and expressed emotions suddenly sailing out of the frame of the story.

I suspect, as computer-mediated character driven interactive narrative starts to come into its own in the next ten years, that we will see more kinds of vignetting obsoleted, as player/observers of these emerging media learn how to jump in and out of the frame, in their enjoyment of these new fictional worlds to come.

Attic, part 6

Mr. Symarian was in his office when they went to see him the next morning at study period. He seemed so small sitting behind that big desk. Nobody really knew how old he was — he just seemed to have always been part of the school.

Jenny and Josh stood in the door for a while, just watching the light reflecting off Mr. Symarian’s bald head as he pored over what looked like the biggest book they’d ever seen. He seemed so absorbed in what he was reading, and neither of them wanted to disturb him when he was working.

Suddenly he looked up at them, and then smiled a broad smile. “Children, do come in! Have some chocolates.” He pointed expansively to a dish containing assorted bonbons. Mr. Symarian’s desk was always a reliable source of chocolate.

“Um, I don’t think we’re children,” Jenny said.

“Speak for yourself,” Josh cut in, grabbing a fistful of the chocolates.

Mr. Symarian leaned back in his chair and regarded them with amusement. “You two look so serious, like you’re on a mission.”

“You could say that,” Jenny began, holding out the scroll.

Suddenly Mr. Symarian became very serious. “No, it can’t be!” he said. “It’s been years …. Where did you get this, child?”

This time Jenny knew better than to correct him. “It’s a long story, but the important thing is that it’s got stuff written on it that we can’t understand.”

“No, you wouldn’t,” he replied. “It’s in the Old Tongue. Very few are left who know the old ways. Can you tell me where you found it?”

“Are you saying we stole it?” Josh said, forgetting all about the piece of half-eaten chocolate in his hand.

“Oh no, not at all. You might even think you did, but you couldn’t have. The fact that you are holding this scroll means that you were supposed to have it. It is what was meant to happen.”

“Mr. Symarian, I’m sure that made perfect sense,” Jenny said, “but I have no idea what you just said.”

He looked at her blankly for a moment, and then he laughed. “No, you wouldn’t, would you? It doesn’t matter. I imagine you came to me to translate the thing. Is that about right?”

“Oh yes, that would be great!” Jenny said. “Could you really?”

Josh nodded in enthusiastic agreement. He would have said something, but he was just finishing off the last of the chocolate, and his mouth was full.

“I can do even better than that,” Mr. Symarian said. “Shall we begin?”

Jenny handed him the scroll. Their teacher unfurled it and placed it carefully on the desk, as though handling a thing of great rarity. Then, to their surprise, he started to read the strange foreign sounding words out loud.

Where it all started

Since I’m visiting the MIT Media Lab this week, I have much occasion to ponder where the zeitgeist might be going in multimedia. Clearly those at the forefront of technology are increasing our collective abilities to transmit our presence remotely, create new and powerful forms of sensory interaction, build ever more wonderful interfaces for virtual and augmented reality, and in general blur the distinction between bits and atoms (to borrow a well-quoted meme from Nicholas Negroponte).

And yet when we all pile in to see Avatar in IMAX 3D, immersing ourselves in a sensory world only made possible by the very latest and greatest of cyber-capability, how do we communicate our enthusiasm with each other? What is the preferred medium for this brave new world of future connectedness, for the hive mind communicating with itself?

Ironically, our tech-savvy new generation turns to Twitter — 140 characters of bare text, sans image, sans video, nothing but the pure naked words.

Perhaps there is a collective instinct to turn back to the most purely unadorned expression of the human mind. To reject the intermediaries of Flash and YouTube, to turn away from 3D graphics and the like. When we really just want to reach out to each other, to find a sense of immediacy and connectedness, we ditch the hi-tech trappings, and go back to our roots.

Presented with all the possibilities brought about by twenty first century technology, we instinctively circle back to where it all started — the written word.

Attic, part 5

Jenny picked up the scroll and gave it a long hard look. “You wanna do the honors? After all, it’s your wooden chest.”

“Well, technically it’s not my…” Josh began. “Oh, nevermind. Just give me the scroll.”

He took the scroll from her, and pulled on one end of the ribbon. The knot came free and the yellow ribbon fluttered to the floor. He placed the scroll down on one of the library tables and unfurled it, spreading the document flat against the tabletop.

“Oh my god,” Josh said, looking seriously at the incomprehensible symbols on the paper. “Do you realize what this means?”

“No,” Jenny said, looking at him expectantly.

“Neither do I,” Josh replied, grinning.

“Dork,” Jenny said.

“Sorry, that was just too easy. I may be a dork, but you have to admit I’m a funny dork.”

“I don’t have to admit anything,” Jenny said, but she wore a trace of a smile while she said it. “Any ideas on how we can get this thing translated?”

“Ah,” Josh replied. This is a job for Mr. Symarian.”

“You mean the English teacher?” Jenny asked incredulously. “What would he know about something like this.”

“Quite a bit,” Josh said. “He knows everything about all sorts of old languages and stuff. Trust me, Mr. Symarian is our man.”

“Sounds good to me,” Jenny said. “I didn’t get this far just to be stopped by a little language problem. Lead the way!”

Dance Dance

There has been much positive discussion recently around the recent push to use “Dance Dance Revolution” in schools as an exergame — a game that gives kids healthful physical exercise, by engaging in play that involves their entire body. Why not have fun while fighting our national epidemic of child-obesity?

But I think these people are missing an opportunity. As long as you’ve got kids playing DDR in schools, why not use this as an opportunity to teach them other valuable skills? For example, a variant of this healthful game could be employed in science classes, but with content up on the display that takes a young learner through the principles of Darwin’s theories of evolution and the origin of species.

Of course you’d have to change the name to something more appropriate like “Dance Dance Evolution”. Think of the benefits of such a game. While exerting herself to dance according to various ever-changing patterns, the inquisitive young student could be “leveling up” by advancing through the species, starting with humble amoebae, rapidly progressing through the invertebrate and amphibious states, and finally arriving at the pinnacle of Darwinian evolution — the primates.

Think about how appropriate this is. The student learns all about survival of the fittest while becoming ever more fit. It doesn’t get much more poetic than that.

Of course some parents might object to subjecting their impressionable young children to something as cold and heartless as evolution. After all, nature can be very cruel, and some families might prefer a friendlier alternative. For such folks, it should be possible to come up with a different educational exercise game, one that does not conflict with their happy ideas about people being the center of the universe.

For such people, we could provide “Dance Dance Revelation”. In this joyfully educational game, children would lose weight by jumping around in various ever more challenging step patterns, while trying to “level up” to increasing states of enlightenment. In the Christian version, children could start out in a state of sin, and gradually exercise their way to increasing states of beautitude, eventually reaching sainthood.

Again, the dance-as-exercise metaphor is quite apt. The student achieves enlightenment while literally becoming lighter.

Of course the apparent tension between these two concepts is an entirely Western problem. For the Hindus, things would be much easier. We could just make a single game and package it as both “Dance Dance Evolution” and “Dance Dance Revelation” — two for the price of one. In either case you would start out as an amoeba and gradually work your way up.

One could argue that James Cameron had pretty much the same synthesis in mind. “Avatar” is essentially a story about Revelation brought about by Evolution. Or maybe Evolution brought about by Revelation (I think one of these is the 3D version).

That’s probably why the Vatican gave the film such a negative review. If you go around claiming that one can achieve a state of higher spiritual consciousness by placing one’s faith in evolution, you’re not going to make a lot of friends in Rome.

I’ve seen a lot of people dancing around these questions, and getting pretty worked up in the process.

But that’s a different kind of dancing entirely. Maybe if they get worked up enough, they’ll lose a few pounds.