Archive for January, 2014

Crush saga

Tuesday, January 21st, 2014

Today a friend told me that a game company has managed to get the European Union trademark for a very common word in the English language, when that word is used in the title of a game or article of clothing.

This is significance for those of us on the other side of the pond because the U.S., which generally honors E.U. trademark decisions, has issued a provisional trademark for such uses of this word.

And the lawyers at Apple Inc. are already enforcing that decision, since Apple distributes the game on its devices.

I probably shouldn’t use the word here, because some clever lawyer at Apple could plausibly imply that a “blog” is a kind of “game”, and that therefore I would be in violation of trademark laws. Remember, these are the people who recently proved in a court of law that Myron Krueger’s use of pinch-to-zoom in 1983 was actually first invented twenty five years later by Apple Inc. But that’s another crush saga.

So here is fair warning: If you are foolish enough to use that word in the title of a game you write or an article of clothing you sell, thinking that somehow you get a free pass because you played Candyland as a kid or like to wear candystripe pants, then you’ve got another think coming.

But what I can do is provide some alternate titles for frustrated game designers who would like a good name for their game, but are not allowed to use a certain word that starts with “C”. Herewith some possible titles, none of which have been trademarked, and all of which I would be happy to grant to any and all under an open source Creative Commons license:

Bubble Gum Crush Saga
Butterscotch Crush Saga
Caramel Cream Crush Saga
Cherry Balls Crush Saga
Chocolate Crush Saga
Cinammon Sticks Crush Saga
Circus Peanuts Crush Saga
Gobstopper Crush Saga
Gumdrop Crush Saga
Gumball Crush Saga
Gummi Bear Crush Saga
Gummi Worm Crush Saga
Jawbreaker Crush Saga
Jellybean Crush Saga
Lemon Drop Crush Saga
Licorice Crush Saga
Lollipop Crush Saga
Marshmallow Crush Saga
Peanut Butter Cup Crush Saga
Salt Water Taffy Crush Saga

All of the above titles are, as far as I know, legally free and clear for the taking. Just in case you’d like to use one as the title of your game. Or your article of clothing.

You are very welcome.

The mysterious drawing

Monday, January 20th, 2014

This morning in our lab conference room I had a meeting with my students, during which we never quite looked at the whiteboard at the front of the room.

Only after the meeting did I notice an odd little drawing in the lower left corner of the whiteboard. I have no idea who drew it:


I found the drawing a bit puzzling. Clearly it’s a picture of a dragon, and drops of water are coming down from a cloud, and the dragon is breathing fire on the drops of water. Beyond that its meaning seemed a mystery.

Suddenly I had a revelation. I called over the students, and pointed to the board excitedly. “Do you know that that is?”

None of them had an answer.

“That,” I explained, much too pleased with myself, “is a dragon drop interface!”

From dust to dust

Sunday, January 19th, 2014

Our experience of reality is fairly continuous. We see surfaces everywhere, and underneath those surfaces are solid or fluid volumes. It all seems like pretty connected stuff.

But this all breaks down when things get either much bigger than us or much smaller than us. In a neat bit of symmetry, “bigger” and “smaller” in this case both mean about a factor of a billion.

Once you get to the size of a typical star (like our sun), which is about a billion times bigger than we are, the Universe starts to look like a bunch of little specks with a whole lot of empty space between them. This pattern continues up to the largest “things” we know about, galactic superclusters, which are about 224 times bigger than we are.

If you look in the other direction, pretty much the same thing happens. Everything seems fairly continuous until you get down to the level of small molecules, which are about a billion times smaller than we are.

Any smaller than that, and everything is little specks inside vast empty spaces, first at the level of atoms within molecules, then nucleii within atoms, and all the way on down to neutrinos, the smallest “things” we can measure, which are about 224 times smaller than we are.**

So in a sense we are in the middle of a kind of island. When you look at the entire span of scales in the known Universe, it’s mostly dust to dust, with just a little patch of land right in the middle. That little patch is where we are.

** Strings in string theory can get about 100 billion times smaller than neutrinos, but we have no direct evidence that they exist, let alone any way to measure them.

Flirting with the fourth wall

Saturday, January 18th, 2014

I’ve been seeing a lot of popular culture recently that flirts with the fourth wall. Many of the lines that actors speak, supposedly in the “reality” on-screen, serve the double meeting of shouting out to the audience “Hey, we know you’re there.”

It’s a technique often employed in “Dr. Who.” In fact, the British are masters at this game. When Americans try it, the results are often clunky and heavy-handed. But the Brits, at their best, have a subtle way with light-hearted banter that allows a kind of translucent meta-awareness to seep through, without quite violating the fourth wall.

When I see this, it reminds me that the fiction of any performance is always a lie in service of a greater truth. Clearly the actors up on stage are not the people they are pretending to be. And clearly they are not even speaking lines that came from their own head.

And yet we go along with this charade because we know that the actor, the director and the playwright have something to say, and we know that the cloak of fiction is required to say it.

After all, we would not want Frank Langella, in the middle of a performance, to step up to the footlights and announce “Hey, I’m not really King Lear. And I didn’t even come up with the words I’ve been speaking. They were written by some guy who’s been dead for four hundred years. Just wanted all you nice people out there to know that, in the spirit of honesty.”

The contract between performer and audience, between truth and fiction, is a very delicate one. The stage is a magic circle, and what is outside of that circle is just as important as what is inside. A character’s occasional flirtation with the fourth wall allows a writer to remind us just how fragile and wonderful this contract truly is.

The twisted paper tape of reality

Friday, January 17th, 2014

It is a well-known trope in science fiction that time travel into the past leads to contradiction. Generally speaking, this is handled in two different ways: (1) By changing the past, the time-traveler wipes out his or her own existence; and (2) By changing the past, the time traveler creates a new timeline.

In the second scenario, which is consistent with the theory of multiple parallel universes, there is no such thing as a paradox, since every new causal event splits the universe into multiple alternate realities. By making some causal change in the past, the time traveler is simply shifting his or her own existence to a different parallel reality.

Yet there is a third possibility which I haven’t seen explored in the Sci-fi literature (which certainly doesn’t mean it hasn’t been explored — just that I haven’t seen it). Suppose that changing the past creates a resonant feedback loop: A change in future (A) introduced in the past creates a new future (B). In this new future (B) there was no change to the past. Consequently time moves forward toward the original future (A).

The resulting structure is a kind of temporal Möbius strip: At any moment in time it appears that there are two alternate universes. But if you follow the entire chain of causality, including the time traveler’s meddling trip backward in time, you find that it all forms a single consistent path. The twisted paper tape of reality has only one side.

Never metamer I didn’t like

Thursday, January 16th, 2014

I saw a great talk this evening by Eero Simoncelli, who gave a broad overview of the research going on in his computational neuroscience lab at NYU. He started with a diagram showing the overlap between three fields: Perception, Engineering and Physiology. The first is the science of what exactly we are able to see, hear, taste, etc. The second helps us create practical tools based on those perceptions. The third dives into the brain itself to understand the mechanism inside us that causes perception to happen the way it does.

The key to studying perception is finding metamers — two or more things that seem the same to our senses even though we know they are different. The classic example of this is how we see colors. In 1853 the great mathematician Hermann Grassmann, working in the field of Perception, showed that everything we see, no matter how rich its color spectrum, is reduced in our perception to just red, green and blue — three colors. Which means that humans can’t see the difference between many objects in the world which actually have wildly different spectra. In a sense, we all suffer from metameric blindness.

By 1931 engineers had codified this knowledge into the CIE color standards that underlie the technology of modern movies, photography, television and computer displays. Yet it wasn’t until 1987 — more a century after Grassmann’s perceptual results — that physiologists in D.A. Baylor’s lab at Stanford were finally able to measure the behavior of a single color receptor cell, showing the actual mechanism inside our bodies that makes all this happen.

It had taken 134 years to go from knowing exactly what our brain is doing, to knowing exactly how our brain is doing it.

This was a great story, but it nearly got waylaid right at the beginning, when a prof in the audience who studies Physiology objected to putting all three fields on an equal footing. “After all,” he said, “Perception is completely subsumed by Physiology”.

Eero said the comment reminded him of that famous New Yorker magazine cover A New Yorker’s View of the World, a cartoon showing that to a New Yorker, the rest of the world seems small and insignificant. Which may or may not be true, but now we know that if you’re Physiologist, the rest of science seems small and insignificant.

After the talk I complimented Eero on a great presentation, and I told him it could also go the other way: Maybe Physiology is completely subsumed by Perception. After all, without our perception we wouldn’t be able to study anybody’s physiology.

Eero replied, sensibly enough, that both fields are subsumed by Physics.

I was about to point out that to a Creationist, Physics would be subsumed by Engineering. But then I thought better of it.

The supercharged now

Wednesday, January 15th, 2014

There is something thrilling about live performance. No matter how many hundreds of millions of dollars have gone into the production of a feature film, a movie can never replicate the delicious immediacy of a live performer on stage.

You know, when you are attending a performance, be it a play, opera, music concert, magic act or circus, that this is really happening, right here and now. And also that things might unexpectedly go wrong — or spectacularly right. When you see a movie, you know going in that no such real time uncertainties are possible, unless maybe the projector breaks down.

But a performance is also not quite the same as a conversation. Our real lives are largely unscripted. Dinner with a friend is very much a real time improvisation, whereas the person you see up on the stage is saying words what were worried over by William Shakespeare, or an arrangement of notes carefully composed by Ludwig van Beethoven.

A live performance is, in a sense, a supercharged now, an experience that takes place in the real-time present, yet is infused by non-real-time inventions created in the past.

There is nothing inherently better or worse about live performance. It’s just different. While a movie can offer a kind of perfection — each shot carefully worked over and edited until a precise effect is achieved — a play offers us the messiness of still-open possibility.

But even that is sometimes not enough. This evening a friend and I had planned to see a movie together. But in the end we opted for reality, with no supercharging at all. We went to a nearby restaurant to share a meal and great conversation. Nothing scripted, only the pure improvisation of living in the moment.

After all, what can be more thrilling than life itself?

The Salieri question

Tuesday, January 14th, 2014

A friend and I were talking about Shakespeare. I’m a fan, he’s not. He was wondering aloud whether the hyper around the Bard could ever be tested objectively. “Maybe,” he said, “people only like Shakespeare because they know it’s Shakespeare. I wonder whether they’d still like the plays if they’d never heard of him.”

I pointed out that Shakespeare had a number of contemporaries who wrote on many of the same themes, in the same iambic pentameter, with all the same conventions. And yet we don’t watch many of their plays. Just as we don’t listen to all that much music by J.S. Bach’s contemporaries. Maybe, I posited, Shakespeare was just so good that his work transcends its own time.

“Too bad,” my friend said, “that there’s no way to test that hypothesis.”

“Christopher Marlowe was a contemporary of Shakespeare,” I told him. “Do you think you would know whether you’re watching a play by Shakespeare or by Marlowe?”

“No,” he replied, “I don’t think I’ve seen enough Shakespeare that I would know which was which.”

“I’m guessing,” I said, “that most people would be in the same boat as you. So I think you’d have a sample to work with.”

My friend perked right up. “Yes,” he said, “I think we could get enough people to do a proper blind comparison.”

I was glad to hear that we had a plan. I wonder how it will turn out. Maybe next we can try the same thing with Mozart and Salieri.

Why we sleep

Monday, January 13th, 2014

An article in today’s New York Times reported a research result that has been circling recently: Researchers believe they have figured out why we sleep. In scientific circles this has long been a puzzlement, given that for much of our recent evolutionary history, sleep would seem to be the worst of all possible Darwinian survival traits. After all, when you’re passed out and snoring on the veldt, you’re pretty much prime snackage for the nearest saber toothed tiger.

So what evolutionary advantage is conferred by those mysterious eight or so hours of thanatomorphism? The latest empirical evidence indicates that sleep is the occasion for flushing out the dead cells and accreted chemical poisons that we generate in the course of a day’s thinking. Night time, my friends, seems to be the right time for Mother Nature to dump our mental chamber pot.

But what if they have it all wrong? I mean, the major impetus for this research is the burning mystery of why we sleep at all, and why such odd behavior didn’t make us all die out thirty five centuries ago in equatorial Africa.

Let’s turn it around. What is the singular trait of human beings? It is our oddly cerebral way of dealing with the world. Other species have all sorts of intelligence, but we seem to be the only ones who survive by making elaborate and logistically intricate plans.

But as we now know, intelligence comes in many forms, and most of it is not quite at the conscious level. Haven’t you ever been stuck on a crossword puzzle, and then you woke up the next morning and simply knew the answers?

Maybe when we dream, we’re a lot smarter than we are when we are awake. Maybe Slumberland is where we actually solve the problems that need solving in order for us to survive. Perhaps the major survival function of our conscious selves is to take credit for solutions we’ve already worked out in our sleep, and for which our conscious mind then basks in undeserved applause.

“But I usually can’t remember my dreams!” you object. Of course you can’t. That symphony you wrote last night when you were dead asleep, that triple integral you solved, that sublime spiritual awakening to the vast and perfectly connected oneness of the Universe, you can’t remember these things because you’re not smart enough. Your waking brain simply doesn’t have the capacity.

Don’t worry about it. Go and get some sleep.

The powerful obscurity of song lyrics

Sunday, January 12th, 2014

Have you ever noticed the emotional power of song lyrics that don’t quite make sense if you just read the words?

A certain level of crypticness seems to actually make some songs more emotionally effective, in a way that would never be true for prose. There is much obscurity in the lyrics of many amazingly powerful songs, like Nirvana’s “Smells like Teen Spirit”, Cat Power’s “Lived in Bars”, Tom Waits’ “Time”, or almost any song from Dylan’s golden period. And then of course there’s “Stairway to Heaven”.

For many of the songs we love, a simple recitation of the words might elicit a confused shrug. Yet in combination with that particular music, the result can be overwhelmingly moving. So what exactly is going on here?

Perhaps the very obscurity of these lyrics, when combined with the emotional sense-making of the music, acts as a trigger for our own mind to add the missing pieces. By keeping explicit meaning hidden, the songwriter creates a kind of grandly protean canvas upon which each of us can project our own inner emotional landscape.

Of course, that’s just one theory.