Teesside Snog Monster (jiggery_pokery) wrote,
Teesside Snog Monster

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Freebies, frivolities and futurism

Ten points seems to be a reasonable number to raise in order to cover a wide range of interests. In some ways it's a shame that humans are essentially decimal beasts - doing one of these would be so much easier if we could go (say) 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 10...

1. I wholeheartedly recommend Flow, a free computer puzzle game. Effectively, the object is to guide a fluid through various puzzles by reshaping the terrain. Practically, there are (I think) ten thousand little sprites which are each physically modelled individually, but the feel of it is pretty convincing. I don't know what the minimum spec is, other than that I have Windows 98, but I guess the better processor, graphics card and memory you have, the better the game will play.

That said, the game is prone to locking up hard and requiring restarts, which lose all progress to date. Unexpectedly, I find that the more other programs you have running at the same time, the less likely the game is to lock up. I tried running the game after killing as many other processes as I could and it would habitually die within about two minutes, but when I played while there were a load of other applications on the go, I could get through the first six levels with markedly slower window refreshes but not a lockup in sight.

The story behind the game is nearly as interesting as the game itself. There now exists a computer game programmers' con called the Indie Game Jam at which a group of game programmers all take one game engine designed to exploit some unusual technique and produce as many different games as they can with it. In this case, the aim was to produce games with (up to) 100,000 individually modelled things moving on-screen at once. The variety of game concepts they produced from this basic premise is quite impressive. (Less impressive is the fact that you need some of the graphics from Doom 2 - and hence you need to own a copy of Doom 2 - to run many of them. Flow is OK without, though.)

The games they produced were presented at the Experimental Gameplay Workshop at a Game Developers' Conference. It is somehow very reassuring that such a thing as an experimental gameplay workshop can exist. Now my gaming interests are far less computer-oriented than they used to be - which, commercially, is very bad news. However, I will be taking a keen interest in the activities of Charles Bloom, who developed Flow, the Experimental Gameplay Workshop and much more. I hope there are more excellent and fascinating developments to come!

Poking my nose around further, there is a very interesting company called gameLab whose "...games break new ground by finding new audiences for games, inventing original forms of gameplay, and by exploring narrative content and visual and audio styles that aren't normally found in games." They design digital and non-digital games. Their co-founder and CEO, Eric Zimmerman, is an artist and game designer who designs both digital and non-digital games and has lectured at NYU about such things. This makes him a very interesting guy, a world-leading-in-his field interesting guy. I'd love to see what he could do with a game show, given a budget, a slot on the air, time and practice.

If I am serious about games, then I ought to try to find out as much as I can about him, try to follow his courses and maybe even eventually work for him by helping to produce truly innovative games. However, if I am just a flaky dilettante, I will just regard him as "an interesting bloke I've heard of" and keep bluffing away at a nice-bit-of-LiveJournal-fluff level.

At the risk of repeating a line I've used before, we'll see which of the two possibilities comes to light - but I'd bet on the second one.

2. I even more wholeheartedly recommend Dave's Quick Search Deskbar. My favourite description of it is "a little box that does everything", but I also like "it's a command line for the Internet".

Essentially it's a little white box which lives on your Windows 9x (maybe only Windows 98 or more recent?) desktop. When you type text into it, it searches for this text on Google, saving you a few seconds firing up a browser window and going to a bookmark. Alternatively, when you type a word into it followed by : then it looks the word you specify up in an online dictionary. Use two colons for a different online dictionary. Use a semi-colon for a thesaurus. Type en-fr and then some text and it'll fire your text through an English-to-French translator. Same thing applies for lots of other languages. Something like 200 eur>usd and it will use xe.com to convert 200 Euros into US Dollars. Type a simple arithmetic sum in and it'll calculate the answer for you without having to start up a calculator utility.

It can do dozens and dozens of other searches on search and utility sites around the web, and it's easy to add more. Heck, it does everything. When you aren't using it, it turns into a very cute, efficient little clock. GPL, free (both as in "free beer" and in "free speech"), open source, ethically highly sound. It is the utter dog's bollocks. Install it now and save yourself forty-five seconds a day for as long as you use Windows 9x. If you have the Google toolbar or some other clock program, get rid of it and install this instead. I would expect Microsoft to add some very similar functionality to this in the next version of Windows, but it will probably have a very heavy Microsoft bias and won't be nearly as good.

The only other utility that I would be nearly as effusive about is Windows PowerPro, which is the UltraMegaPowerToolsFiddler of Windows Tweakiness +4 and about twenty useful utilities in one. The nicest thing about it is that it sets up a UI change that right-clicking on the title bar of a window closes it, which will also improve your Windows 9x productivity by a good 0.5%.

I'll only seriously consider installing Linux once it has utilities permitting an experience as convenient as I get from Windows 98 with these enhancements, a better mail and news program than the one I use right now and a whole lot more. Not asking for much, is it?

3. Anyone else remember Speedball 2? One of the smaller fringe benefits of life Chez Dickson is that an ice cream van calls within 20 yards of our front door, 7 days a week, about 40-45 weeks a year. This has happened more often than not for about the last ten years or so. We purchase ice-cream from it about, ooh, once a year - something like 80% of the time the ice-cream van makes no sale at all. Still, evidently our street is a good enough prospect that the van continues to call here. (Maybe we, or one of our neighbours, ought to offer the van a bribe to keep calling - it's got to be worth another fifty quid for the value of our house...)

For a loooooong time, the van used to use an excerpt from that "Val-der-ee, val-der-ah, with a knapsack on my back" song from "The Sound Of Music" as its signature chime. The highlight of my GCSE revision days was to wait to hear this jingle from my bedroom at the same time each day and scream to myself in good-natured aggrievement.

Happily, the owners (same owners? different owners?) bought a new van, or at least a new chime for it. It now plays the tune known as "Colonel Bogey", to which rude lyrics were sung concerning the presence or otherwise of WWII Axis powers' leaders' genitalia. Most touchingly, the ice-cream van provides an introduction to this tune which I had not heard beforehand, which goes "Mad! Dogs! And-Englishmen go-out in-the mid-day sun, bing bing bing..."

Much better than a normal alarm clock!

4. So farewell to the Commonwealth Games - as far as anyone can tell, a tremendous success for all concerned. I'm not quite sure what happens next for Manchester; Man City have an excellent new football stadium, though one which will always suffer from primarily having been designed as an athletics stadium rather than a football stadium, plus the fab new full-length pool facility might host a few British championships and small international events.

However, the multi-sport-o-infrastructure is probably likely not to see much use again, which is a shame. Jacques Rogge of the IOC has made it clear that the city is not big enough or famous enough to host an Olympic Games; furthermore, the standard required is a moving target and by the time the city has a big fat 70,000,000 pax/annum three-runway airport (probably about 2025) then the bar will be set higher still.

I'd have thought it unlikely that Manchester will get to host another Commonwealth Games any time soon. If we assume that Britain gets to host one in every four or five games, plus half the British Games will take place outside England, then it would be another 30-40 years before England gets another try at one and by then Manchester's advantages will be forgotten. Furthermore, I imagine Man City won't be too happy about the thought of ripping part of their seats out temporarily to stage another athletics event and I doubt that the good people of the city will be too keen on forking out for another athletics stadium.

Realistically, I think the prospect of hosting another World Student Games or somesuch will have to wait for the country to build a national athletics stadium. It would seem in keeping with our G7 status to have a separate national athletics stadium and a separate national football stradium, even if this means that one or the other has to wait another ten years, but I fear this solution is not very popular. It's also true that athletics stadia are fairly useless when they're not being used for hosting athletics events, but I don't think people are trying very hard there. Would it be reasonable to put down a temporary all-weather pitch and have a big hockey stadium there, for instance? Might it work to have a speedway dirt track around the athletics track? I'm sure there are some imaginitive solutions possible.

The BBC coverage was, on the whole, very good indeed. It was perhaps a little pro-England, even at the expense of being pro-Scotland and/or pro-Wales, which is naughty. Some of the commentators weren't straightforward, impartial and respectful, too (especially the very droll swimming boys) which definitely counts as a bit of spin. I wouldn't mind if they deliberately set out a platform, or perhaps provided an alternative channel of commentary, which was overtly jokey and pro-English, but the public service broadcaster's main commentary should be played straight down the line or pro-British at worst.

This year's opening presentation sequence of graphics accompanying "This Is The One", by original Madchester band The Stone Roses, didn't quite reach the pinnacle of the seminal '92 Olympics Mercury/Caballe smash, "Barcelona", but came as close as we've reached for a very long time and beat this year's World Cup efforts into a highly cocked hat. However, the "Mad Ferret" sketches illustrating the biggest blunders fell slightly on the wrong side of being sympathetic or affectionate, despite them bringing in Stuart Hall, in a rich vein of form, to recap the most extreme moments at the end. Disappointingly, nobody tried to say "She shoots, she scores!" in any commentary I heard.

I suspect that the proportion of gold medals won by the English team may be very slightly down on that of four years ago... no, that's rubbish. Then we had 36 from 213, or about 17%, whereas now we have 54 from 282, over 2% better. Australia went down from 38% of the golds then to a mere 29% now, making them the main underachievers, I suppose, with India being the main overachievers jumping from seven last time for 7th place to thirty-two this time for 3rd place, ahead of Canada. Picking up eleven medals for women's weightlifting may well have had something to do with this. No longer are the Commonwealth Games a four-team contest between Australia, England, Canada and Rest of the World - India have moved out of being a mere RoW component to make this a five-way race. However, Australia still comfortably outmedal this slimmed Rest of the World team :-/

5. A mail last week to one of the NCAA's decathlon higher-ups reveals the following information about the admin of a 1HD:

"Thanks for questions about one hour decathlon. There is no rulebook, but, it is generally understood that the following must be done:

a) 1500m must start within one hour of start of 100m (it does not have to finish within the hour, just start).
b) recommend break for athletes should come between 400 and 110mH, as much as 15 minutes.
c) all hurdles, blocks, and bars should be set beforehand and all implements ready.
d) shoes need to be placed at site or on a golfcart since there will be frequent changing of shoes.
e) it takes a lot of officials...ideally one set of officials standing ready for EACH event.
f) I've run a few and you need a digital clock, ideally counting down backward.
g) NCAA has no rules for this event. All IAAF rules apply except the hour time limit.
h) all events shpould be practised beforehand (eg, high jump, pole vaults, shots) so the athlete is ready to GO. Normally it takes 1 1/2-2 hours of warmup is usually necessary. I've never seen an athlete take more than 2 high jumps or vaults.
i) IAAF does report results of one hour decs in its annual....WR something like 7800-7900 by Robert Zmelik/CZE, mid 1990s."

Scary stuff. The 15-minute break between 400 and 110 hurdles is probably good for setting the hurdles up, but I suspect that there may be some mileage in permitting athletes to take the non-running races out of sequence (ie permute the order of the "middle three" jumps and throws) so that people aren't always waiting for their turn and you can get possibly as many as six decathletes taking part at once, two alternating with each other on each of the three middle disciplines. Or perhaps that's part of the point of the time limit? I shall investigate.

6. Some mail from owen directs me to this article from uk.transport.london (via Groopsgle) with what purports to be the official rules for the Guinness record. The 18:18.09 record referred to there clearly dates back before the extension of the Jubilee line, but the principles presumably still hold. Owen also points to a tale of woe at a 1999 attempt on the record, which at least includes a route which might be adapted. Thanks, Owen. Now that's collaborative weblogging.

7. I would like to advance a possible definition of a game as "a process which turns a sequence of choices into a result of one or more numbers". Possibly not the most useful definition of a game, possibly not even an accurate and inclusive definition of all games, and one that clearly misses out the fact that the joy of a game, the whole point of playing it, is in the process and the choices. However, it is at least very, very general. What would Eric Zimmerman think?

8. Recently seen on Yahoo! News: "Continued political uncertainty will likely keep interest rates high for much of the rest of the year. With domestic debt at about 126,830 trillion lira (some $75 billion), the treasury would like to see rates much lower than the current 70 percent."

It's not every day that you have reason to contemplate a number that is over one eighth of a quintillion. Maybe you do if you're a bomb scientist expressing the energy of a payload in joules, or if you're an electronics engineer discussing the elastance of a small capacitor. Most of us never have reason to get very close to even a mere trillion, though. (Were there ever any pinball machines with trillion-point shots? I believe there were a few billion-pointers, but no trillionaires.)

Yes, I did have to search for "reciprocal of capacitance" to see if there was a neater word to express the concept - I'd never have been able to associate elastance (whose unit is the "daraf", duh) with any electrical property if I hadn't!

9. Kitchen roll is good at dealing with large kitchen spillages. However, being a clumsy blighter, I quite frequently produce small spillages in the kitchen which I would like to clear up but which I would not particularly like to waste a whole sheet of kitchen roll on. Therefore I should like to propose kitchen rolls, perforated into sheets of the usual size, but also with minor perforations half-way down the length and width of each sheet. Therefore you are free to pull a whole sheet off the roll for a major spillage, or only one or two quarters of a sheet (each quarter-sheet being about toilet-roll-sheet size) for a little accident. I'd pay an extra 20% on the price of kitchen roll for this. Would you?

10. Buses in Middlesbrough habitually display their numbers by way of a poxy little panel possibly two feet wide by one foot tall. It is frequently quite difficult to see this number from a distance, especially if you need new spectacles. Wouldn't it be much more fun - and much more like a particularly funky video game - if the number of the bus floated ethereally above it, as wide as the bus and eight feet high, visible from a good quarter-mile away?

The fact that this doesn't already happen probably suggests that it's physically impossible for it to happen with current technology. After all, if it were possible, surely every advertiser in sight would use the technique to plaster the world with details of their products. (No, I still haven't seen Minority Report yet.) However, I think the tech to do this is not a million miles off. A very low-tech version would be just to print this number very large on a piece of rigid but very springy and extremely bendy plastic, so that it won't cause problems when the bus passes under a low bridge or a tree. However, they will flap around like billy-o in the wind and interfering with power lines would cause severe problems, so I think that solution is a bit of a non-starter.

I wonder if it would be possible to send some sort of very thin, non-polluting smoke up into the air, and then shine coloured light directly onto the dust in this smoke so that the light reflects from the dust away in all directions? If we can do this, then at the very least we can use a sequence of coloured lights to indicate the bus number - either binary (mmm, nice) or some sort of ten-colour decimal system. Unlikely to catch on, unless we start to associate colours with digits throughout the bus system. Associating colours with numbers is common enough, but I haven't seen people associating colours with digits successfully.

Alternatively, would it be possible to do something, he said extremely vaguely, with holograms? I was always very impressed by the Sega "Time Traveler" "holographic" video game (which is, incidentally, the only video game I have ever seen set at the unusual intermediate price point of 40p per credit) but I suspect this needs something like a curved mirror immediately behind the space in order for the image to work properly. Putting curved mirrors on top of buses will have similar problems as big bendy plastic sheets, only many times worse - not least because it would cost several arms and legs.

There's got to be something we can do, though - something we can put into the air off which we can reflect. (From there, we can then start to do clever things like trying to form digit shapes.) Maybe it'll turn out that the winning technique is something as simple as the principle by which we can see rainbows in the sky. What say you, resident futurists, inventors and mad scientists?

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