Wednesday, 12 June 2013

Restricting Second-Hand Sales is a Good Thing

For years I bought CD albums rather than MP3 downloads, DVDs rather than streaming, and boxed games rather than Steam keys, because I thought that there was value in having a physical item that I could safely store, lend to friends, and maybe even sell. Now, in this post-iTunes, post-Steam world, I think that these shelves of discs are a pain in the arse.

It used to bother me that MP3s, for example, weren't "mine" in the same sense that a toy was "mine". But that was foolish, because a CD - which I thought was better - was never mine in the same way that a toy is, either. No-one ever bought an album or movie or video game for the physical plastic. In the history of video games, no-one ever attributed value to the physical media: they paid an arbitrary amount of money for the privilege of playing something that someone else had invested a lot of time and money into intellectually developing, and almost no time and money into physically producing. The fact that you could sell it to someone else has never been more than a quirk of the technology.

When you buy a game, you're agreeing that the amount you pay for a (hopefully) awesome experience is fair recompense for the effort that went into producing it. It's as simple as that. You're paying for an experience. And it's not clear to me why it makes economic sense to be able resell an experience. Neither I (the reseller) nor the physical media that I definitively own, embody the value of the experience being sold.
Reselling an object makes sense, because there is value inherent in the object. But video games aren't, and never were, objects.

We should avoid economic models that send money where there is no value. That's just wasteful and distorting, ultimately hurting the consumer because the consumer's resources are not being allocated to what the consumer values.
So, where does the value of a video game derive from, and how does a second-hand market support that value? This is the bizarre thing. The second-hand market doesn't support what gamers value, so why should gamers want to participate in the second-hand market so badly? Why should they be so enraged at the prospect of the second-hand market being taken away?

Restricting the second-hand sale of physical discs is no more arbitrary than restricting digital downloads to a single account, and is even no more arbitrary than the sale of physical discs in the first place, because it was never the physical discs that we valued. They're all equally arbitrary models, but some are better at assigning value than others - and people seem awfully upset about losing the one that's arguably the worst.

Sunday, 26 February 2012

To the Moon, Tragedy, and Video Games

To the Moon is an excellent indie game available from developer freebird games.
This is an analysis of its story. I've tried to keep it spoiler-free. For reviews, check your favourite games site!

To the Moon

In the near-future, doctors can implant memories to rewrite a patient's (remembered) life. To do so they must hop backwards through the patient's memories, from the most recent and most easily accessible, to the oldest and most deeply buried memories that need to be edited to effect the desired change in a life's course.

To the Moon's story is multilayered. Like the outermost layer's sci-fi memory-hopping premise, the layers are exposed progressively until the game itself eventually reveals in its entirety what it is.
To the Moon is philosophical sci-fi, an engaging mystery, a bittersweet romance, and a Shakespearean tragedy. All of the layers engage and make each other meaningful, even (in hindsight) before they are made overt.

The outermost layer defines the overall framework of the story in reverse chronological order. But this memory-hopping is more than just a narrative gimmick. By the end of To the Moon we're forced to question whether happiness exists in a moment or across a lifetime, whether the people we love and have lost exist as anything more than memories - and what is the worth in those memories.
To the Moon's ending is open to interpretation, but not in the usual lazy way of leaving details obscured. The details of this story are concrete, although often subtle. No, the interpretation depends entirely upon our answers to those philosophical questions the game poses.

The game opens with a mystery: why does a dying old man, Johnny, wish to go to the moon so desperately that he would rewrite his life to do so? And even more intriguingly, why doesn't he know the reason himself? This premise also neatly keeps the story free from artifice: the narrative never unfairly hides anything for a cheap twist later on.
There is a twist, but it is a thing to marvel upon as the implications to all layers of the story become clear. It's a twist not because it shouldn't be revealed early but because it cannot be revealed early. The best kind.

Underneath the sci-fi and the mystery lies the compelling pathos of the third layer: the characters. It's here that we engage with the likeable doctors, and fall in love with Johnny and River and their awkward, bittersweet romance.
This is where To the Moon captures your heart and doesn't let go until the end of the game. It sustains the entire game with wonderfully-written amusing, sensitive, and heartbreaking dialogue.
This is how we come to care about the philosophical and ethical implications of rewriting memory. This is why we're driven to keep playing.

And here too is the central theme of the game: autism. Not memory-hopping, not love and loss, but Autism Spectrum Disorders and the particular challenge they all present: communication and connection with others. To the Moon explores with exquisite tenderness the fundamental need to connect with people, a need that isn't any less in those with a condition that makes it so difficult to do so.
We watch in helpless sympathy as River struggles to express herself to someone she loves and needs, in a confusing social world that she cannot understand.
In turn, Johnny's stoic, steadfast support for a woman that he knows he will never truly know is deeply touching - even, or especially, when his only-human selfishness shows.
This is the gentler, subtler tragedy of miscommunication that we can all relate to on some level. This is what To the Moon is really about, even though it's heaviest punch is yet to come.

Because To the Moon is a Shakespearean high tragedy, as well, and that tragic singularity at its core is the twist that unifies all of the layers above it - the sci-fi memory-hopping mystery, the sweeping romance, and the gentle study on autism - and shows that everything you might have thought was superfluous presentation or cheap emotional manipulation actually makes a perfect, beautiful, terrible, heartbreaking sense.


"Tragedy" is an oft-misused word. A car accident is not a tragedy. The death of a loved one is not (necessarily) a tragedy. A key requirement of tragedy is that there is always some way - some simple, easy way - to avert it, that it doesn't have to end that way... Except that in some sense the tragedy always was inescapable, that the individuals were driven by their nature to some inevitable conclusion.
The slow constriction of possibility into inevitability is what makes tragedy such a powerful narrative structure.

The question of free will is therefore fundamental to tragedy. Tragedy requires that the hero be free to avert it, but does not. Tragedy requires that the choices leading to it be driven not by random whimsy but by the definite character of the hero. Tragedy exists within the tension between freedom and inevitability.

Tragedy, then, is inherent in Autism Spectrum Disorders - these are disorders that are infamous for constraining the behaviour of those afflicted, and almost always set a course for conflict with an incomprehensible and seemingly hostile social world.
To the Moon explores the tragedy of ASD on two levels. First, there is the everpresent subtle tragedy of miscommunication that provides pathos at the character layer throughout the game.
Second, there is that singular event, the Shakespearean high tragedy.
Tragedy is driven by the character of its heroes, and To the Moon uses ASD as an unusual but compelling device to serve this purpose. A lifetime of apprehension and confusion over Johnny's seemingly callous behaviour, and the ultimate destruction of a lifetime's memories, could all have been averted if only River could communicate what it was that troubled her - but of course she couldn't, and so it wasn't, and that is the tragedy.

The tragic structure of the narrative isn't even apparent until the last act of the game, when the singularity at the story's core is revealed. Until then, the narrative's impact comes entirely from the simple pathos of the higher layers, which, thanks to excellent writing and characters, is powerful enough on its own to engage you and impel you headlong through the game.
But when the real tragedy is finally revealed, it slams all of that accumulated pathos into you at once, illuminating everything that you were already emotionally connected to under a new, Shakespeareanly tragic light.

The common (mis)usage of "tragedy" is simply to describe a narrative with strong pathos and sad ending. Notably, To the Moon doesn't have a sad ending - depending on how you look at it - but it's a truer tragedy than many narratives that lay claim to the name.

...and Video Games

There's something else that exists within the tension between freedom and inevitability - video games.

As game developers we are always exploring this fascinating region bounded by simulation on one side and cinema on the other. Just as tragedy funnels a character with the illusion of freedom to an inevitable conclusion, so too do games. The same illusion of freedom that makes tragedy powerful works for games.
And let's be clear: freedom is an illusion in all games, no matter how open they appear.

To the Moon isn't good gameplay in the usual sense of the word, but it uses the nature of video games very aptly to explore tragedy.
It could be (and is) criticised for being more like a movie than a game, but that's missing the point. It's not a movie, regardless of how little gameplay it does have, and even that small illusion of freedom makes it more powerful - in a fundamental way - than a movie can ever be, for the same reason that true tragedy is more powerful than a story with a sad ending.

To the Moon belongs unreservedly within the video game fold, and video gaming is so much the richer for having it here.

Tuesday, 10 August 2010

Darya's Triolet

Darya, Darya, where do you go
with your rucksack and downcoat and laughter?
All who adore you are dying to know,
Darya, Darya, where do you go;
will Russia and Canada, covered in snow,
remember your footsteps hereafter?
Darya? Darya, that's where you go
with your rucksack and downcoat and laughter!

Monday, 1 February 2010

The Stable Marriage Problem

Previously I wrote about a mathematical model called the "Marriage Problem" which, whilst interesting, has a lot of shortcomings. Under very particular conditions (which are arguably quite unrealistic), it can optimise the chances of marrying the best possible partner I could expect. But even then it only optimises the probability of doing so, and that's small comfort if I marry someone today only to meet my true True Love tomorrow.

Go To Him
I still love you so, but if he loves you more, go with him.

Life is messy. What if you do fall even more in love with someone else than with your current spouse, and what if they fall in love with you? What if they also are married to another? Then should your respective vows forever keep your two hearts apart, or should you abandon that which once was beautiful but which beauty now hath ruined? What mockery is made of love in either case!
Oh, that this tragedy could have been averted! If only there were a way to ensure that everyone be happily married and never be tormented by temptation! If only Mathematics had something to tell us...
There is another mathematical problem, of similar name though quite distinct, called the "Stable Marriage Problem". Consider an equal number of men and women to be married to one another. Is it possible for everyone to marry, such that you could never find yourself in that lamentable hypothetical situation: preferring to be with someone else who would also prefer to be with you?

I'm Henry The Eighth
And every one was an 'enry...

Yes - it is possible.
Gale & Shapley devised a simple iterative algorithm for solving the problem: Each man should rank the women from best to worst according to his personal preferences, and each woman should rank the men according to hers. Then, each man should propose to the woman he prefers most. If a woman receives a proposal, she accepts it, and the couple are engaged. If a woman receives multiple proposals, she accepts the proposal from the man she prefers most. Then, each man who was rejected (because the woman he preferred most accepted another man's proposal) should propose to the next-most preferred woman on his list. As before, if a free woman receives a proposal, she accepts it, and if she receives multiple proposals, she accepts the one she prefers most. If an engaged woman receives a proposal from a man she prefers more than her current fiance, she dumps her current fiance and accepts the new proposal. Then, each man who was rejected or dumped proposes to the next-most preferred woman on his list... and so the process continues until every man (and therefore every woman) is engaged. At this point everyone marries their current fiance and the algorithm is complete.
This algorithm is guaranteed to finish (it won't keep iterating endlessly), and it is guaranteed to result in a "stable pairing" - an arrangement of marriages in which no two people prefer each other to their current spouses.
It is interesting to note how similar this model is, in principle, to the way our society has approached marriage in recent history.

Hungry Heart
Got a wife and kids in Baltimore, Jack, I went out for a ride and I never went back...

So if everyone followed these rules, would the world be a happier place? Not necessarily. Stability, in this sense, doesn't imply happiness: just because your marriage is "stable" doesn't mean that you wouldn't rather be with someone else - it just means that that person wouldn't rather be with you.
The mathematical "happiness" score of your marriage is determined by how high your spouse sits on your own personal preference ranking of all partners. The overall happiness of a given arrangement of marriages can be defined as the average happiness scores of all people. Note that husband and wife can have different happiness scores!
For any large enough group of men and women there will be multiple alternative arrangements of marriages that are all "stable", in the sense that no two people prefer each other to their current spouses. Some arrangements will be "happier" than others.
Gale & Shapley's model produces just one of many possible stable arrangements. In fact, there's a very interesting mathematical property of Gale & Shapley's model: It will always produce the arrangement that, whilst still being stable, is happiest for the men (who propose)... and unhappiest for the women.
Reflect for a moment, if you will, upon the parallels between this model and conservative real-life society: I wonder if it is coincidence that this model predicts unhappy marriages for women, and that our real-life notions about marriage are changing as women become more empowered?

All This Useless Beauty
What shall we do, what shall we do?

Remember that every man and woman ranks each potential partner from best to worst. These personal preferences are necessary for establishing that an arrangement is "stable" (we need some way of knowing whether any two people prefer each other to their current spouses), and is used to calculate the happiness of an arrangement of marriages. So far, and very politically correctly, we've assumed that the preferences are arbitrary, random - that beauty is in the eye of the beholder. But what if each person has an intrinsic "beauty" (or personality or intelligence; call it what you will, mathematically it's equivalent) that influences their standing in other people's preferences?
Caldarelli & Capocci showed that the more that "beauty" is allowed to influence the preferences, the more miserable everyone is in general. That's because the more homogenised our notion of beauty is, the more similar everyone's "personal" preferences become. The more similar everyone's preferences are, the less likely it is for you to marry high on your list, because the people high on your list are also high on the lists of rivals more attractive than you are. It's fine if you're beautiful, but rough for everyone else.
Surprisingly though, according to Caldarelli & Capocci's model, the more that beauty influences preferences, the happier that women are, on average, relative to men. The arrangements found by this model are still happiest for men and unhappiest for women, but the difference is less. And depending on how much weight is placed on beauty (not too little, not too much), a majority of women can end up much happier than if beauty plays no role.
I wonder, then, if emphasising beauty is a strategy for women as a group to maximise their happiness within a traditionally male-dominated society - making the best of an unfair situation?

So Far Away
You're so far away from me, so far I just can't see.

"Spatial homogamy" is the idea that people tend to marry people from their own area. "Propinquity" is the idea that the probability of forming a relationship is proportional to the square of the physical distance between people. Many studies have cemented these ideas in sociology: People tend to prefer partners who live close by. Someone commented on my previous article that the trick was to fall in love with someone within a certain distance. He was probably thinking about fuel prices and airfares, but how right he was - from a mathematical point of view!
If adding "beauty" to the model reduces overall happiness by homogenising people's preferences, then adding "distance" to the model does the opposite by mixing the preferences up again. Because everyone occupies a unique position in space, everyone's preferences are influenced in a unique way by the distances to other people.
In fact, I think it's probably even better than that. The distance relationship between two people is symmetrical, and therefore affects both of their preferences the same way - the person that you prefer because they live close by is more likely to prefer you as well, for the same reason. So the more emphasis placed on distance, the happier everyone should be. So - say hi to that cute guy or girl you see at the local market next time!

The Stable Marriage Problem is an incredibly rich area of research, bringing together combinatorial optimisation, game theory, economics, and even real sociological research. As far as I know it's not actually used to marry people off anywhere, but it is used for analogous problems like assigning students to schools and residents to hospitals.
There are a lot of other variants on the classical Gale-Shapley model that I haven't even touched - like models that take into account three-way matches (actually, even kinkier than it sounds if you were to apply it to dating...) and models that take into account "cheating" to get a better match for yourself.
There's even a variant, commonly called the Stable Roommate Problem, which matches pairs of people from within a single group, not across two groups like the Stable Marriage Problem. This might be a good model for gay marriage, but there's some bad news: there's no mathematical guarantee of stability in this single-group variant. But then, we've just seen that stability is no guarantee of happiness, so maybe that's not such a bad thing after all!

Saturday, 2 January 2010

The Marriage Problem

How do you know when it's time to get married? As a Maximiser (of which I shall write another time), this question troubles me. How do you know that the one you're with right now, of all the millions of people out there, is The One? How do you know that she isn't yet to come into your life? For that matter... how do you know that you haven't already said goodbye to her?

Don't Stop 'Til You Get Enough

Mathematically, if naively, the problem is simple to formulate. There are many mathematically equivalent versions - the most common is the "Secretary Problem". One version, called "Googol", presents it as a simple game. Imagine that in front of you is a stack of 100 unsorted pages, face down. On each page is written a number, any posible real number, within an unknown range. You can turn over a page from the top of the stack one at a time to see the number, and you can keep on turning as many pages as you like, but once you turn over a new page, you can't go back. Your goal is to stop when you think you've just turned over the highest number you think you'll ever get, and keep it - forfeiting all numbers yet to come and having already forfeited all numbers already seen.
What are your chances of selecting the highest number? Is it just pure luck, or is there a strategy? It turns out that there is a strategy to maximise the probability of selecting the highest number.
The basic idea is to "write off" some initial number of pages just to get an idea of the size of numbers that are in the stack, and use that knowledge to subsequently stop when you think you have the highest number.
Like in statistics, the trick is to obtain a large enough sample of the population to measure the natural variability, so that you can say with some degree of confidence that any given data point is, you might say, a significant other. The difficulty is that whereas in most statistics a larger sample set is better, in this problem a larger sample set increases the probability that the highest data point is in the sample set, and if it's in the sample set, you've already given it up.
So, what is the best strategy? It turns out to be in the form of a "stopping rule": turn over a certain number of pages, making a note of the highest number that you see, and then keep on turning over pages until you get a number higher than that previous best, and stick with this new best.
J. Gilbert and F. Mosteller of Harvard University proved that the optimal number of pages to turn over before stopping at the next new best is 37. This magic number is 100 (pages) divided by 2.72 (e, the base of the natural logarithm). This strategy works for any population size - just divide it by e and sample at least that many data points before stopping at the best so far.

When I'm Sixty-Four
Will you still need me, will you still feed me, when I'm sixty-four?

Now, let's apply this knowledge to the problem of getting married. What is the population size from which I can sample? Very roughly, let's say there are 6.4 billion people, 50% of which are women (3.2 billion), 50% of which are between 18 and 40 (1.6 billion), 25% of which are single and available, leaving 400 million. A demographer would be able to give you a more accurate figure, but what's a few hundred million amongst friends? Now, sadly, not every single one of those women is interested in dating me, but let's conservatively say that 1 in 40 will (because it makes a round number), resulting in a population size of 10 million. Going by Gilbert and Mosteller's 37% rule, then, I should date about 3.7 million women before thinking about getting married! If I 5-minute speed-date 24/7 for the next 35 years, then, and only then, I can think about settling down.

Love The One You're With
If you can't be with the one you love, love the one you're with.

Actually, it's a bit more complicated (no kidding!). In the classical version of this problem, the goal is to try to select the single highest number; the single best partner; The One. Anything less is failure. Aiming high is admirable, but risky: Gilbert and Mosteller's solution is optimal, but still results in only a 37% (1/e) chance of selecting the best partner. Not so great. But it gets worse: there's also a 37% chance of ending up with the last remaining option out of desperation (this would happen if my best partner was one of the first 37% of people that I passed over, meaning that I would never encounter anyone better and would search for the rest of my (dating) life in vain. So: a 37% chance of finding The One; a 37% chance of searching for my entire life only to end up with the last available option; and a 26% chance of something in between - not The One, but probably ok (guaranteed better than a random 37% sample of the population).
In light of those odds, maybe it's better not to optimise the probability of selecting the single best partner, and instead optimise the expected value of whoever is selected, even if they're not the best. In Googol the value would be the number on the page; in the marriage problem it might be the ranking of a partner's beauty, or intelligence, or some more sophisticated aggregate score (about which I shall also write later). The probability of selecting the single best partner will be lower, but the expected value of the partner who is selected will be higher.
J. N. Bearden of the University of Arizona showed that in this modified version of the Secretary Problem, called the Cardinal Payoff Variant, the optimal strategy is still a stopping rule, but the optimal sample size is the square root of the population size, not the population size divided by e. So now I only have to date 3162.27 people instead of 3.7 million - excellent! (sqrt(10,000,000) = 3162.27. I wonder how you date 0.27 of a person?)

This Year's Love
This year's love had better last...

So maybe applying the stopping rule to the literal population size is not feasible. Realistically, we're not constrained by the number of dates, we're constrained by time. Let's say that I want to get married before I'm 40 years old. I started dating when I was 19, so that gives me 20 years to date - 20 pages in my stack. The square root of 20 is 4.47. That means I should date for about four-and-a-half years before thinking about making a commitment. I'm 27 years old now... that's eight years into my dating window. I... I guess it's time to start looking for a wife!

Alright, let me concede that this is an extremely simplistic model of dating. It makes a bunch of assumptions that simply don't hold true in real life.
In real life, for example, I could go down on my knees - both for forgiveness and in proposal - and marry someone I've already dated.
In real life, direct sampling is not the only way of building up a predictive model of the (dating) world - we have anecdotes and movies and women's interest magazines; we share the models we've individually built up, with each other.
In real life... we fall in love and it just doesn't matter.

Friday, 1 January 2010

Unraveling Braid

I can't stop thinking about Braid; everything about it - gameplay design, art, sound - was executed nearly perfectly. And each of those aspects brought something new and interesting to the game. Nevertheless, being a game programmer, it's the code that I'm interested in here, and I can't help musing about how I would implement some of Braid's unique mechanics.

If you haven't played Braid yet but were kind of thinking about it, then stop reading this and go play it, right now! I don't want to deprive anyone of the smallest part of the wonder at exploring Braid's universe for the first time. If you haven't played Braid and don't intend to, then perhaps I can convince you to try it :)

Let me begin by making it clear that I don't know anything about the actual implementation of Braid; I haven't spoken to the developer and I haven't looked at the level editor. But how it's actually implemented is almost beside the point; this is a collection of more general thoughts inspired by Braid.

One of the first things to impress me about Braid was the consistency of its design. In essence, it's a platonic 2D platformer plus just 5 unusual mechanics:
1. The ability to rewind time for some objects in the world.
2. The idea of binding time to one of the dimensions of 2D space.
3. The idea of branching, but interacting, timelines.
4. The ability to distort time in one local region of 2D space.
5. The idea of making objects in some levels run backwards in time.

The ability to selectively rewind time (for some, but not all objects), and the ability to distort time (for some, but not all regions) provides ways for the player to affect the synchronisation of objects in the world to solve problems.
The idea of binding time to a spatial dimension in some levels, such that horizontal movement advances or rewinds time, ingeniously provides both an obstacle and a tool for overcoming other obstacles.
The idea of branching but interacting "shadow" timelines, such that the player can be in multiple places at once, provides a mind-bending tool for solving impossible puzzles.
The idea of running time backwards in some levels turns everything neatly on its head, makes the player gasp in delight when they realise some of the gameplay implications, and provides the most astoundingly clever ending to a game that I've ever had the pleasure to experience.

The player's immense satisfaction in each level comes from painstakingly learning how each new mechanic works, and then synthesising ideas to solve a problem. This game could only work by strictly adhering to the fundamental design mechanics. This is both impressive and requisite: it is impressive that the game never resorts to any special cases, but then, if it did, it would destroy the player's ability to derive satisfaction from their own cleverness.
And because the design never calls for any special cases, I imagine that the code must have been a joy to craft. That is what I am chiefly interested in here, for the observation that Braid adheres to a limited set of mechanics belies the subtle complexity of those mechanics, and therefore their implementation.

What follows is merely my guesswork.

1. Rewinding time.

At any point the player can rewind time by holding down a button, and release it at the point in time at which they wish to resume control and try again. That means what happened in the past needs to be buffered somehow.

Bad Idea Note: Simply buffering the player's inputs would not work, because although all games are deterministic, they are also convergent: given the complete state of the universe (including inputs), there will be exactly one proceeding state, but there may be multiple possible preceeding states (did the player get to their current position by running or falling?). This property of deterministic convergence is employed to mind-bending effect by mechanic #5.

A naive approach might be to simply record the position and state of each object at each frame. But besides being memory intensive, this would make interactions with other objects - which might be moving through time in a different direction or speed - awkward.
I think it would be better that the state of each object, including the player, be recorded at a slightly more abstract level - say, the start/endpoint and velocity of a jump. Each state would be coded to be able to play either forwards or backwards at a given speed, procedurally. This would allow objects to interact dynamically with others when slowed down or going backwards, and not be rigidly bound to what was recorded. This implementation would come in handy for mechanic #2, binding time to a spatial dimension, and #5, running some levels backwards in time.

The abstracted-procedural-state approach would allow every object in the game to have its own individual "timeline". For most objects their timelines would coincidentally match up - they would progress forwards and be rewound backwards synchronously - until their timeline is affected by another mechanic...

2. Binding time to a spatial dimension.

Using the above implementation, this would be fairly simple - control all affected objects' timelines based on the player's current velocity.

Bad Idea Note: It might be more intuitive to think of this mechanic as the player's horizontal position scrubbing backwards and forwards through time, like the progress bar on a media player. And it might therefore be natural to think of using the player's position, not velocity, to control object states. Unlike a prerecorded movie in a media player, however, the objects will not be in the same state on every occasion a given time is revisited. It's impossible to jump to a given time, you have to advance frame-by-frame, state-by-state, procedurally, so that all the interactions can play out dynamically.
That means using the abstracted-procedural-state approach with individual object timelines controlled by player velocity, even if all of the individual timelines happen to be controlled synchronously.

3. Branching but interacting timelines.

This idea, although the most mind-bending for the player to come to grips with, would actually be one of the easiest to implement. Assuming that we record what happened in the past using the abstracted-procedural-state approach, the implementation of this mechanic would be simple.
Each object has a "shadow" object, which is actually an entirely independent object. Shadow objects only interact with other shadow objects and purple objects, which bind together both their shadow and real selves. When time is rewound and control is resumed, most objects and their shadows resume what they were doing, following the same rules. Because it's a deterministic world, the objects and shadows stay in sync, unless something disrupts them by interacting with one but not the other.
However, the player is not deterministic, and can choose to take different actions when control is resumed. The player's shadow repeats whatever the player just rewound.
The player's shadow would be controlled by the recorded states: while rewinding time, instead of discarding the states that we rewind past, they would be kept to use as a control buffer for the shadow. When the recorded states run out, the shadow just slumps, uncontrolled.

4. Distorting time in localised regions of space.

This idea is nice and simple for both the player and the programmer. If each object has an individual timeline, then the speed of that timeline could be set to be proportional to the distance of the object from the distortion.

5. Run time backwards.

This idea is the most fascinating to play, and possibly the most difficult to implement, of them all - due to the deterministic-but-convergent property of games.

First, let's get the easy stuff out of the way. Using the abstracted-procedural-state approach, we would already have coded all the interactions for objects moving backwards through time - for example, a monster going from dead to alive when the player jumps on its head, rather than the other way around. So the basic interactions with objects are already taken care of.

Bad Idea Note: You might initially think that simply running time backwards at a fixed speed for all objects would be easy, given that we already have solutions for selective rewinding, variable timeline speeds, etc. The important difference is that in those cases, the past is known and it's just a matter of replaying it somehow - time can only be rewound backwards for as long as the player has been playing, to the start of the level. In this case, however, time runs backwards from the beginning of the level, and we haven't had a chance to record where each object was. Or will be. Or something. Arrgh!

From the player's perspective, this mechanic is amazing because, when time runs forwards, we can intuitively reconstruct where an object is likely to have come from by observing its current state in the environment. When time runs backwards, that reconstruction becomes a prediction. In a deterministic universe running forwards, given perfect knowledge, we can make perfect predictions - we know exactly where the monster will go. But in a convergent universe running backwards, even with perfect knowledge, we can't make perfect predictions - we can't know whether the monster will stay on the ground or "fall up" to a higher platform. It's amazing when, as the player, you realise that an object's "past" can be affected by actions in the "future", like blocking off a route which makes it impossible for a monster to have "come" from that route. It's like the weird world of quantum mechanics, in which a particle's past is determined by observations made in the future.

The difficulty is that deterministic-but-convergent property. All of the other mechanics could be implemented in a philosophically plausible manner, but I can't see any good way to do this mechanic except by "cheating".

In the other mechanics, the behaviour/AI of an object running backwards along its individual timeline is trivial - just reconstruct it from the recorded abstracted state information. In this mechanic though, we need some actual decision-making logic while running backwards. Take the example of a monster walking backwards along the ground, just about to go underneath a higher platform. Should it continue walking backwards along the ground, or should it "fall up" to the higher platform. What happened in its "past"?

Bad Idea Note: You might think of taking further inspiration from quantum mechanics and assigning a probability to each past, which is fine from a design point of view, but would be practically impossible from an algorithmic point of view. You would need to identify all the places at which the convergence tree can branch (perhaps this could be marked up in data). Then you would need an algorithm for traversing the convergence tree and pruning off the branches that come from impossible starting conditions. Then you would randomly select between the remaining branches. The problem would be identifying the impossible starting conditions - how far back do you branch before determining that the object is stuck in a loop with no start, and how do you account for the interactions with every possible branch of every other object? Combinatorial explosion!

The more sensible approach might be to have a deterministic "default" behaviour like "always walk", and to "cheat" by having the designer specify when the object should deviate from that default behaviour - for example, trigger a "fall up here" marker when the player blocks the ground route (meaning that the monster could not possibly have taken the ground route).
There are few levels that use this mechanic, and the places where there is ambiguity are even fewer, so this scripted approach would probably be manageable.

From a gameplay perspective this approach might also be desirable - having a deterministic default behaviour for each object results in predictability which is probably reassuring to the player, even though, philosophically, the player has no reason to expect the behaviour to be predictable.

So, that's all the main mechanics seemingly neatly implemented. I'm very impressed by how you would be able to get such varied gameplay from relatively simple, but far from obvious, rules.
Damn, I wish I'd made this game...

Sunday, 13 September 2009


I stand before a bonfire burning bright;
I saw it, from afar, atop the hill.
It led my weary footsteps through the night
And now it drives away the deathly chill.

This fire's not where I was meant to stay;
My road lies over yonder in the gloom.
And yet I stand, entranced by dancing flame
And music, laughter, smiles, and sweet perfume.

Beyond the blaze, a memory I've cached;
Another life, another time and place.
How easily it all would turn to ash... in
Seductive self-destruction's warm embrace.

It's colder, now I've turned and walked away.
But through the dark... I see the breaking day.

Friday, 30 January 2009

Leonard Cohen, Sydney 2009

When I first heard Hallelujah, I figured out how to play it on repeat and drove my brother crazy listening to it non-stop. I was a teenager, and Leonard Cohen's sorrowful lyrics held a certain superficial appeal. Going only by his songs, I always imagined Cohen as a saddened, world-weary man, and never saw beyond the surface to the depths of emotion over which sorrow was draped. So when this 74-year-old man made his entrance, sprightly skipping, onto the Sydney Entertainment Centre stage to a standing ovation, I knew my preconceptions were about to be overturned.
Who would have guessed? Leonard Cohen is essentially an optimist, an idealist, a hopeless romantic. He quips that when he was last on tour, 15 years ago, he was 60; "just a kid with a crazy dream". The saddest songs are rendered joyful when sung by this irrepressible man who's gone through it all and come out the better for it. He spent the last decade studying philosophy and religion, he says, "but cheerfulness kept breaking through." He, the man behind the music, is inspirational.
But oh, the music! Rich, intricate instrumental sounds replace the synthesised recordings on his albums - he shares the stage with an amazingly talented and versatile band, and his songs have been arranged to showcase their musicality. And share the stage he does, humbly, elegantly, graciously - solos on sax, harmonica, spanish guitars, harp, and double-bass interleave with his golden voice to bring a fresh appreciation to old songs. Performed live, the beauty of the music approaches that of Cohen's lyrics. This is more than a concert for fans of Leonard Cohen; it's a concert for lovers of music.
Now, the only sorrow I feel is the realisation that I'll probably never hear those songs sung the same way again. Recollection will fade from my memory, slowly obscured by those old recordings I can still play on repeat.

Wednesday, 31 December 2008

Eat Less Meat

Here's an early New Year's resolution: eat less meat. Actually, I've been largely vegetarian for a while, but why not use the new year to declare it? My policy: don't choose to buy meat, but don't inconvenience or offend others I'm with.

There are many reasons for going vegetarian, but mine is mainly a matter of ecological footprint. I don't have many moral qualms about killing animals for food, but I am concerned about the many different costs associated with producing meat - costs which I'm not sure are adequately reflected in the dollar price at your butcher.

Everyone's concerned about greenhouse gas emissions - we ride bicycles to work, we buy energy efficient lightglobes, we offset our flights and concert tickets. But those cuts pale in comparison to the emissions from raising livestock. Raising livestock accounts for 18% of greenhouse gas emissions worldwide - more than all forms of transport combined.
The main problem is a type of gut microorganisms called methanogens in ruminants that convert hydrogen and carbon dioxide - byproducts of digestion - into methane, a gas with 25 times the warming effect of carbon dioxide.
In general, red meat emits 2.5 times as much greenhouse gas as chicken or fish. But if you want red meat, try kangaroo - thanks to different gut flora, kangaroos produce hardly any methane. Kangaroo is also lean, causes less environmental degradation from grazing, and - equally importantly - it really does taste good!
Research is under way to produce anti-methanogen vaccines, optimise livestock diets, or introduce alternative, harmless microorganisms that can outcompete the methanogens. Ultimately, though, these approaches seem to me like carbon sequestration for coal-fired power-plants - useful technology if we must burn coal or eat meat (which, realistically, we will continue to do) but far better to minimise the need for it in the first place!

Greenhouse emissions aside, meat - in particular red meat - is simply a frighteningly inefficient way of feeding yourself.
Only 5 to 25 per cent of the nutrients fed to an animal are converted into edible meat. It takes 2.3 kg of grain to produce 1kg of chicken; 5.9 kg of grain for pork; and 13 kg of grain plus 30 kg of forage for beef!
For the past eight years, global demand for grain has been increasing faster than supply, and that's largely due to rising demand for meat in increasingly prosperous countries like India and China. Rising populations and incomes are expected to double the global demand for meat and milk by 2050.
Then there's water use, an issue becoming increasingly sensitive here in Australia and around the world. It takes 1000 litres of water to grow 1 kg of wheat, 2000 litres per kg of rice... and 96,000 litres per kg of beef.

Of course, not many people are willing to go entirely vegetarian - truthfully, I'm not either. The good news - to put a positive spin on it - is that the cost of red meat is so great that any cuts you're prepared to live with will likely be the largest lifestyle contribution you can make to going green: A kilogram of beef is responsible for more greenhouse gas emissions and other pollution than driving for 3 hours while leaving all the lights on back home.

Information shamelessly taken from New Scientist:

Sunday, 28 December 2008

Jenolan Caves

Only just got around to uploading these photos from earlier this year. Sarah and I spent a few days out at the Jenolan Caves, staying in a beautiful cabin in the surrounding Blue Mountains.

We went on an adventure caving tour, which was awesome, but to avoid being encumbered I didn't take any camera on that. These photos are from ordinary guided tours of the show caves.


I joined GetUp!, an independent grass-roots political organisation - just as a donor and a name on a petition. Initially I signed up in response to the Government's Internet censorship plans - I'm not convinced that any petition, let alone an internet-based petition, carries much weight, but what harm could it do?
Then GetUp! started a TV advertising campaign in response to Rudd's 5% emissions target, and I thought that here was something that could actually reach people and make a difference, and was worth donating for.
The ad was meant to be shown during the test cricket, but I don't watch TV... Did anyone see it - and more importantly, notice it? I hope so.

Taronga Zoo

Went to Taronga Zoo again. What do you go to the zoo to see? I think that the most interesting animals at the zoo are humans - either actual humans, who are sometimes just as much on display as the peacocks that wander the grounds; or the aspects of ourselves that we glimpse in - or project onto - other animals.

Here are some of my favourite photos from this visit! Sadly, there are none of baby pygmy hippos... I waited and waited at the scheduled time for Monifa to emerge, but she didn't make an appearance for us that day...

(previous visit)

Saturday, 13 September 2008

Coming Home

There are few pleasures that can compare with getting on a bike and riding off alone into the country. It's something that unites so many sparkling facets into a single shining experience: the rugged beauty of the land; the friendliness of the people you encounter; the excitement of exploration; the visceral satisfaction of sweeping your bike cleanly through a turn as though it were stuck on rails and could not be anywhere in the world other than where it is - the sense that you're meant to be right here and now.

By one reckoning, my trip began when I came back to Rockhampton to collect my bike from Sarah's shed, where its battery had slowly flattened and carbeuretors had slowly flooded. Even with a new battery it wouldn't start, and I exhausted myself trying to push-start it on the dirt roads around Sarah's property: wet with recent rain, there wan't enough traction; the rear wheel would simply lock and slide. Eventually I had to push it to the nearest sealed road, where a combination of starter motor and pushing finally got it running!
The ride from Rockhampton to Bundaberg that evening was the coldest, most miserable, and most dangerous I'd done. Darkness came early, brought on by a storm that drenched and buffeted me for the whole 4 hours. I dearly wanted to speed to get to Bundy as soon as possible; I forced myself to slow down lest I kill myself: poor traction, shivering with cold and wet, blinded by oncoming headlights. Oddly, though most of me was utterly miserable, there was a small part of my mind that said: hey, in a way this is exciting! It's an experience worth having, for experience's sake, and afterwards you'll be glad of it. I took refuge in that corner of my mind, and I made it, and eventually I and everything in my backpack dried out in front of a heater in the family home in Bundaberg. It rained without break for three days afterwards.

Weeks later, I started out again, this time for Sydney: a trip of over 1300km. It was raining when I left Bundaberg, and I feared the worst, but as soon as I got out of town the skies opened up and I had the best possible riding weather for the entire journey. I left after lunch, and planned to take the inland route to Sydney: through Toowoomba, Armidale, and Tamworth. From previous trips driving a car I knew the roads were well maintained and sparsely occupied, gently sweeping turns with a few diversions along the way.

The first night I got as far as Nanango - not very far, but by the time I got there it was dark and cold and I didn't want to risk any riding any further and So You Think You Can Dance was about to start. These factors all weighed roughly equally on my mind. (Kerrington was voted off, I couldn't believe it!)
The second night I stopped in Armidale, a small university and cathedral town on the New England Northern Tablelands, around 1000m above sea level, and it was freezing - literally, temperature dropped below 0 that night. I was intending to visit Annette, a family friend, but she was away. She introduced me instead, over the phone, to her mother Thelma who I stayed with at her beautiful farmhouse in the hills overlooking the town. Thelma is an amazing woman, deeply rooted in Armidale and a member of the Order of Australia for her community work. But arguably, the thing I appreciated most that night was the electric blanket!
Thelma suggested I take an alternative route through the Hunter Valley to the coast, for which I thank her dearly: Thunderbolts Way, between Walcha and Gloucester, is the best ride I've ever done. The road swept through rolling hills, soft with wind-ruffled grass, clung to rocky switchbacks replete with just enough potholes to keep you on your toes, and dived into dark and ancient forests. Gloucester, at a crossroads, seems to be a popular resting place for bikers and I met a friendly couple who were coincidentally from Rockhampton and Newtown! They told me that early that morning there had been snow around Armidale. I was glad I had slept in.
From Gloucester it was an easy, pleasant ride along Bucketts Way through the national parks to the Pacific Highway, and along the Pacific Highway it was an easy, boring ride through three-lane traffic to Sydney.

Now I, and all of my belongings - including my hideous sofa suite! - are in Sydney. I'd intended to have them sent down a long time ago, when I first got my apartment here, but I never had the time to go up to Bundaberg to organise it. Well, at least on this last stay in Bundaberg I had that time, so I sent everything ahead by truck before I rode down. So, coincidentally but, in a way, appropriately after Mum's passing, the journey back to Sydney felt like a transition from one stage of my life to the next, leaving nothing behind and everything ahead. When I finally got back to my apartment in Newtown, it finally felt like coming home.

Tuesday, 12 August 2008

Abrasion Resistance

We have the most awful chihuahua. He's gotten his ears infected somehow, and we need to get ear drops inside, but he's rather uncooperative. He knows when you're going to pick him up to apply the ear drops - presumably the same way he knows when you're going to bathe him - and if you do manage to grab him, he'll twist and scratch and bite and defy all attempts to get the drops down his ears.

But I've found a way to subdue him: CE-armoured, 1.4mm fullgrain leather jacket, kevlar-padded leather gauntlet gloves, and full-face helmet. I haven't crashed yet, but I'm now confident that this gear will keep me safe if I do!

Friday, 9 May 2008

My New Apartment

Karratha aside, Sydney has to be the worst place to rent or buy in Australia, and probably one of the worst in the world.
I've been looking for a place to rent ever since I moved here, over a year ago - not assiduously to begin with, but for many months I've been going to rental property inspections every Saturday - I've lost count of the number of Saturdays I've lost to Sydney's rental market - and I've made over a dozen applications.
Admittedly, I've probably been picky. If I were prepared to live further out of town, or if I were prepared to share with others, I would likely have found a place long ago. But I'm stubborn; I hate the thought of compromising when I feel that things are not right - and Sydney housing is just not right! I did have to compromise - and it rankles - but I chose to compromise on cost. Every property is expensive, there's no avoiding it. If I weren't prepared to pay more than what I feel a property is worth, I would never find a place.
But I finally have found a place. It's small (a studio) and expensive (although, at $300/wk it's cheaper than most here), but it's modern, has a nice kitchen (with gas stove), a private courtyard (where I'll try to grow some herbs), secure parking (so I can bring my motorcycle down!), and it's in trendy Newtown, just outside the city proper and abundant in cool cafes, shops, and theatres.
I'll move in this weekend. I won't have much to begin with - I can have all of my things sent from Bundaberg now - but it'll be a fantastic change!

Thesis Corrections

My thesis is once more out of my hands. I've made the corrections and sent it back to the University for approval and subsequent printing!
When my thesis finally came back to me and I found that the examiners requested only minor corrections, I intended to simply comply with all requests and be done with it; avoid any complications.
In the end, though, I couldn't agree with a number of the recommendations. I fixed any actual errors, of course, and there were good suggestions which I implemented, but where I thought that an examiner had misunderstood (and that the text was clear), I made no change. In some cases I felt that the recommendation was misguided; in other cases the recommendation was not directly relevant and, whilst it was not in contradiction with anything, it would distract from the focus without contributing much.
So I hope that my corrections and reply to examiners will be accepted. I'm confident that in each case I made the best decision for the thesis' integrity; I just hope the University will see it that way. I think it'll be fine though.
Now I wait some more!

Friday, 21 March 2008

Rock Band

I'm not entirely clear on the story, but apparently EA liked something they saw in L.A. Noire, and made us a pre-release gift of Rock Band (pre-release only in Australia; it's been out for ages in the U.S.). Drumkit and guitars now take pride-of-place in front of the big screen in the lunch room, and people gather to play during lunch and after work every day. The batteries in the guitars were flat by the end of the second day, and one guitar has already been glued back together!

Rock Band is just awesome fun. Its real value comes, of course, from playing in a band. The independent difficulty levels means anyone can join in and have a go and contribute something, even singing (if you're brave enough :) ), and it rivals or surpasses the Wii for sociability - imagine a crowd of people gathered around after work with beers, watching and talking and taking turns playing. I wonder how long the novelty will last, but it's great so far.

I'm hooked on guitar. I'm not even any good - only played Guitar Hero once 'round at Brett's place before - but I love it. I know it seems silly, but the game is fantastic at making you feel like a god when you get a good solo, even though you know it's a plastic toy guitar with five fret-buttons (well, ten if you count the high frets at the base of the neck, used for crazy solos at the end of a song!). It's especially satisfying if you know and love the song and shiver in anticipation as your favourite chord progression comes up :)
I know I don't have the motivation to learn a musical instrument properly; Rock Band provides instant, gratuitous gratification :D

Tuesday, 19 February 2008

The Return Of The Thesis

Almost a year after I submitted my PhD thesis for examination (in February last year), it has been returned to me, and the end is truly in sight.

When I submitted my thesis I acknowledged the possibility that the examiners might request major revisions, and as the months passed by this was always in my mind: what if my thesis came back and I needed to rework it, would I have time to do it? Over the last couple of months, as work has become more and more demanding, I realised that I simply wouldn't have the time or mental concentration to do it until after L.A. Noire is shipped. And with this growing realisation, perversely, I became resigned to the certainty that the examiners would request a resubmission. The long delay seemed to stretch inevitably toward this conclusion.

The examiners' reports arrived along with a copy of my thesis. I knew Russel had sent my thesis to world-leading researchers in my field - throughout my PhD Russel had what I couldn't help believing to be greatly misplaced faith in my ability - and he wouldn't consider anything less. I knew what these exalted examiners would say: they would tear my thesis apart. I took comfort in the thought that at least it would be someone important crushing my hopes of a future in research.

So when I opened the examiners' reports and began to read, it was with pounding heart and trembling hand and terrible anticipation. Actually, I couldn't bring myself to read the written reports at first, so I carefully peeked at the front page of each report form, where there were tickboxes for "no ammendments", "textual ammendments", "revise passages", "substantial revisions", or "fail". First report... textual ammendments. Second report... textual ammendments. Third report... no ammendments! I could hardly believe it: somehow I'd made it through.

Over the next couple of days I worked up the courage to actually read the reports, and found that on the whole they are very positive. The reviewers each suggested a few minor editorial-type changes, which I agree with.
Moreover, two reviewers listed my thesis in the top 10% they'd examined! One reviewer wrote that I have "made a good contribution to the scientific knowledge, and the volume of work produced is more than enough for a Ph.D. degree in the field".
Another wrote that my thesis "makes significant contribution towards a better understanding ... has all the good ingredients for it to be popularly used in the near future," and "is an example of an impressive and scientific piece of work".
And the last wrote that "the thesis encompasses several big topics that are very rich in information... nevertheless, the author does a very good job describing each of these topics in great detail... and making contributions in all of them."
I'm particularly chuffed at mention of being "scientific", which I value very highly!

So I've gone from nearly despairing to being quite proud :) I'm currently reading through it again, a bit at a time on the train ride between home and work, marking out corrections in the margins as I go. Soon I'll get it all loaded onto my computer and make the changes, and then figure out how to get it printed and sent back to the research office, and then... done!

Sunday, 27 January 2008

Grammar and Love Triangles

I love The Beatles, but what's wrong with these lyrics:

From "Anna (Go To Him)":
"You say he loves you more than me, so I will set you free; go with him."

and from "If I Fell":
"If I give my heart to you, I must be sure, from the very start, that you will love me more than her."

Colloquial grammar is ok as long as it's unambiguous, and I have nothing against bisexuality, but the grammatical interpretation here just isn't Beatles!

Remember, when in doubt over a comparative sentence, write it out fully and then chop off the unnecessary bits:
"You say he loves you more than I love you"
"You say he loves you more than he loves me"

Thursday, 10 January 2008

Sydney Festival and Pink Martini

Sydney Festival runs throughout January, on stages and parks and streets around Sydney's centre. It's an eclectic mix of cultural events; theatre, music, dance, performance art, loosely collected under the Sydney Festival banner. It's also practically sold out, or at least it was on the afternoon of its second day, last Sunday. All of the shows I was interested in were sold out then. It might be entirely sold out now, for all I know.
The organisers did give fair warning that tickets would sell out quickly, but I didn't expect it to be quite so fast. You can queue up at a booth for a limited number of tickets sold on the day of each performance, but the booth is only open during work hours so I'm just simply out of luck.

However, I didn't write this blog post to complain about not getting tickets. Fortunately for me, there was a massive public "Festival First Night" on Saturday night, where a large number of the artists taking part in Sydney Festival gave free performances at open-air venues across the city centre. It was a fantastic night, wandering from stage to stage taking in the diversity of entertainment.
Martin Place, a pedestrian mall, and the alleys around it was turned into an open-air dance party, with DJs and bands playing throughout the evening.
Hyde Park had a stage and dancefloor set up around it's main fountain, and played host to a succession of Swing-themed events - first a massive dance class, followed by live music and dancing. Various restaurants had set up kitchen tents in an area set aside for dining.
Macquarie St was closed to traffic and had live Latin-American and Celtic music, followed by three couples being married in weird and wacky ways (I didn't bother staying for the ceremonies though, seemed too much like reality TV to me).
The Domain, an expansive park and the communal cultural heart of Sydney, had a massive stage. I stayed here for a great concert by Paul Kelly, but skipped out on Brian Wilson, the lead singer and songwriter of The Beachboys. I was more interested in heading back to Hyde Park for its finale...

A couple of weeks back I read an interview with a band - more of an ensemble - called Pink Martini (wiki) that sounded really interesting, drawing upon and blending diverse genres, and I thought to myself that I should try to find some of their music. So, when I learned that they were performing on Saturday night, I made certain of seeing them.
I was not in the least disappointed, in fact I was quite amazed. Pink Martini effortlessly glided through many styles of world music, a lot of Latin-American and Spanish Salsa, but with good amounts of continental Europe (especially French ) and even Japanese and Middle-Eastern songs interleaved with contemporary jazz.
Pink Martini had a lot of already established fans there. I was amongst a group of them that knew every song from its opening bars, and were almost as impressive as the lead singer for knowing every word in every language! To top it off, the Festival fireworks went off during the final song, exploding in beautifully restrained gold over St Mary's Cathedral.
You might have gathered that I'm now a firm Pink Martini fan. I've managed to find two of their studio albums, but I'll have to order in the third. As great as the studio albums are, however, I'm afraid I've been quite spoiled by hearing the band live first, and the recordings only make me wistfully recall that fantastic concert.

Sunday, 23 September 2007

Festival of Navratri

Navratri, as I tenuously understand it, is a Hindu festival celebrating the Goddess Amba (Durga)'s victory over the demon king, Mahishasura. The festival lasts for nine days, symbolising the nine days of their battle, and on every night people gather to sing, dance, and be merry. Apparently it's comparable to Christmas, in duration and significance and in that its origins are religious but it is now more a cultural than a religious festival.

Navratri begins in October, but whereas in India the whole festival would be a holiday, here in Australia it can only really be celebrated on weekends, so the first celebration of this festival in Sydney took place this last Friday and Saturday. Rinku invited me to come along, and, always keen to try new things and needing to unwind after a stressful week of milestone-delivery and Sarah (just teasing; having Sarah here made the milestone week much more enjoyable, but taking time off early on certainly made the end of last week more hectic!), I agreed to come on the main night, Saturday.
[+] Read more

I arrived at the venue, a leisure centre in Liverpool (which has a large Indian community), early, which means on time but not fashionably late. I hadn't been sure what to wear - not knowing whether the event would be traditional, formal, or contemporary. I decided upon simple but colourful, and as the mostly young adult crowd arrived I realised I fit in about as well as I could hope without wearing the traditional Gujarati dress: the men wore long brightly coloured and patterned cotton tunics, cut to fit closely but reaching down past the knees (and slit partway up the sides for freedom of movement), often with complementing trousers if not jeans; and the women wore elaborate and varied traditional dresses. Rinku was beautiful in embroidered lace of dark, russet colours, and her husband Mayoud cut a fine figure in an understated, subtly embroidered pale gold tunic.
I only saw a handful of other foreigners there (in Sydney, you get used to being a foreigner in your own country!) in a sea of Indians. Unless someone was speaking specifically to me or another English-only-speaker, the language of choice was (presumably) Gujarati. Everyone was exceedingly friendly and more than happy to talk about the celebration, or to explain what sort of food I'd just ordered from the stalls!

Everyone took their shoes off before entering the great big dance hall, a sports hall with stadium style seating from which Rinku suggested I sit to watch the first dance. So after we ate and the sound of music began drifting to us outside, we went in.
At one end of the hall, opposite the stadium seating and on a stage, were half a dozen musicians and singers and seats for special guests. In the centre of the dance floor was a large painting of Amba on a sort of shrine, around which the dances would take place. I took my place in the seats, which was where mostly the older people and parents with young children were. Slowly, in trickles that turned into streams, people came in to the hall and started to dance.
Rinku had told me that they would start slowly and deliberately, dancing in concentric rings around the central shrine, and pick up speed as more and more people joined the dance, until it became a chaotic dervish. I had suggested, naively, that I might join them after the orderly dance had broken up, when a newcomer wouldn't disrupt the dance's earlier precision. Mayoud relayed this to Rinku with quiet but somewhat disconcerting amusement, though Rinku sounded like she thought that was a good idea.

And they did start off slowly and gracefully, with hundreds of people and the sea of dancers swelling with every passing minute. It was amazing to watch from the grandstand. It was incorrect to imagine that there was one choreographed dance that everyone would perform in neat lines, but it was far from chaotic. Rather than concentric rings, streams of people swirled in eddies around the shrine, currents forming and breaking as they spiralled in and out. You would pick out an identifiable current of people dancing together in step, only to watch it seamlessly merge with another, or witness a new stream break away. Each stream would seem independent, and yet somehow the sea as a whole surged together, understanding collectively how the music ebbed and flowed. People knew when to clap, when to sing, when to pump their arms up into the air, and when to swirl backwards in the opposite direction before rolling on again, all in a riotous sea of brightly flashing colour.
It was very apparent that even as the pace quickened and eddies formed and broke with increasing rapidity, that there was no way I could join in now; as chaotic as it became, everyone still moved together. So I contentedly sat and watched. The first dance would have lasted for the better part of an hour, the musicians playing and singing the entire time.

When it stopped, groups of friends sat down in circles across the dance floor, or went outside for the cooling breeze and refreshments. The other guests I'd been sitting with, also Rinku's acquaintances, took their leave and bid us goodbye. I wondered if it was over, but it had only just begun. The singers and dancers soon had their breath back and were ready to go it again.
This time I let myself be convinced to join in, with equal parts enthusiasm and reluctance! The time to join in was definitely at the beginning, when things moved slowly, but I wanted to practice the steps outside the main swirling circle first, so that I wouldn't crash into everyone. Rinku and Mayoud would have none of that, however. The only way to learn, they insisted, was to jump right in. I have to admit, I wasn't getting very far trying to mimic the steps from the sidelines, but I still wish I didn't bump into quite so many people and I still wish that Rinku didn't push me right into the middle of it all! Surely the outer currents would have been easier to stay abreast in, but once you're drawn into the swirling whirlpool, you can't do anything but be swept spiralling inwards.

This dance was the Garba, and thankfully the first stream of dancers I joined were performing a simple series of steps that carried them consistently onwards - so while I was struggling to match the steps, at least I only had to keep moving forwards to avoid disrupting the flow. And the steps were fairly simple, though I certainly couldn't match the flair and grace with which everyone else performed them. The steps were all alternating chasses - one-and-two, three-and-four - some spinning, some taking a half turn and going backwards, but at least always moving in the same direction around the floor. After a while I was congratulating myself on getting the hang of it, when the stream I was in broke up and dispersed and I found myself standing alone like a rock around which the currents swirled, and against which occasionally crashed! I made my way with as much aplomb as I could manage - which is to say, not very much at all - to the edge of the dance hall, where I sought refuge with a couple of other guests. Their Indian host had been teaching them as I wished Rinku and Mayoud had done for me :p - in the safe shallows around the edge of the floor - and they were about to join in a more complicated dance. I'd been watching those steps and I thought, what the heck, I can do that, so I joined them. And again, I thought I was doing alright, and other people were joining our flow, and I was having a lot of fun, until finally the pace increased so much that we were broken up again and again I was washed gratefully ashore!

The third dance was the Dandiya. This was performed with two short thin sticks, about half a metre long, metal and wood, one for each hand, called dandiya. Dandiya symbolise the swords that Amba fought with, and dancers spin them and clack them together in time with the music and the steps. This dance was much more flexible and individualistic than the Garba, danced in smaller, independant groups and as such was simpler for a novice to join in without disrupting the dance as a whole. It had an interesting quirk of its own though - the music was common time, 4/4, but there were five steps in sequence to each cycle, each step one beat, so that the start of each cycle was offset by one beat from the last. That took some getting used to. The version we danced, we danced in two facing lines, each person facing their partner (or symbolically, opponent) and rotating the lines after each cycle like one of our folk dances. You would clack dandiya once, twice, back off, and finally clack once more before spinning on to the next person to do it again. It actually reminded me a lot of kendo exercises!

The last dance - I don't know if it had a name - was casual and impromptu and easy to join in, it didn't really matter what you did. There were elements reminiscent of conga lines, and cossack dancing, and jigs, and, I think, just whatever people could think up at the time. A good way to wind down the night, after close to 5 hours of dancing!
I thoroughly enjoyed the night, it was a fantastic experience. It's the sort of festival I know Melanie would love - delicious food and a good deal of melanie-dancing (and I think she would like being able to whack Brett with dandiya!).
And to think, they're all going to do it again every few weekends, until Amba finally defeats Mahishasura!

The War Of The Worlds

Sarah found out that Jeff Wayne's Musical Version of The War Of The Worlds was touring as a live performance, so for our (early) birthdays I booked tickets and accommodation in the city, and Sarah came down to visit last weekend until Wednesday.
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I hadn't heard the musical version before, but apparently it's a cult favourite. A few people from work went as well, and in the anticipation leading up to the event I know the original recording was played more than a few times. Every so often, one fellow would announce, "Yep. It's that time again!" and on would go the headphones and off he'd go to Horsell Common. But for some reason - not wanting to spoil the experience perhaps - I didn't listen to it before the performance.

I went in quite naive. I knew almost nothing about it. I knew that it was originally a concept album, and not a stage production, but I had assumed that it had been adapted as a stage musical along the lines of Andrew Lloyd Webber's work. That wasn't the case; it was almost entirely true to the original recording, and the performance was more along the lines of an augmented concert than a stage musical. It had a huge screen onto which a montage of CGI and actors (live on stage and pre-recorded) was projected, and it had a huge model Fighting Machine that descended onto the stage to flash and bang when appropriate, but the centrepiece of the production was definitely the string orchestra, the band, and the singers.

For the first half I was focussed too much on the visual presentation and, whilst I wish it had been better, I realised that you were much better off closing your eyes and largely ignoring what was happening on stage, and just listening to the music. The CGI was terrible, and both of the singers in the first half were less than inspiring. Justin Hayward in particular performed very much like the aging rocker he is, tapping his foot and nodding his head and singing rock songs - as opposed to actually playing a role in a narrative.
The performances in the second half somewhat redeemed the show as a stage production, however. I've never bothered one way or the other to listen to Shannon Knoll before, but he performed well as the Parson Nathaniel, and Michael Falzon was excellent as the Artilleryman (best part of the show, I reckon).

Overall I think it was a good performance, and it was very enjoyable. More enjoyable, I think, for the thousands of people filling the auditorium who were listening with nostalgic ears (and there were thousands, packing the two-thirds of a gigantic olympic arena that had been converted into a concert venue), but it was definitely worthy of that nostalgia in its own right. I'll pick up the original recording. Thanks for the suggestion, Sarah!

Monday, 10 September 2007

APEC Protest

I was quite excited about APEC being held in Sydney. Not because I buy into that "Stop Whinging, You Should Be Grateful To Have 21 World Leaders In Your City" rhetoric (those leaders were effectively walled off in another city anyway, so why did it have to be in the middle of Sydney?!) - but because it was the first time I had the opportunity to go to a mass protest.
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I went in on Friday, the public holiday, but there was little happening. There was a Falun Gong group meditating in Belmore Park, protesting against the Chinese government.
Things were a bit more interesting in Hyde Park, where a few small groups were giving speeches. There might have been a hundred or so civilians - a number very nearly matched by the police standing by. The police weren't causing any obstruction, they were just very obviously present - arrayed in precise formations across paths so you had to walk between them; marching in step through the park; riding in packs on bicycles; and even several standing by ready to mount up on dirt-bikes.
Across the road from Hyde Park were a group of U.S. visitors or ex-pats (to judge by their accents) holding up a huge "We <3 America! Welcome George Bush!" banner and wearing all-American tshirts stretched across all-American beer-guts. Needless to say, this group wasn't particularly popular, but you have to give them credit for coming out!

I wandered down towards Circular Quay, which is where all the hotels being used by foreign dignataries were linked together by a network of concrete-and-steel security fences - a wall separating us from them. It was the fence that was the clearest symbol of how ridiculous it all was; a stark visual reminder of how disconnected these world leaders were from us.
I watched the comings and goings outside George Bush's hotel for a while. Unsurprisingly there was a huge police presence here as well. There was a gate in the security fence on either side of the intersection, half a dozen police permanently standing by each gate. Whenever someone bearing their APEC security pass needed to get in and out, the gatekeeper unlocked and unchained the gate, opened it just enough for the person to squeeze through, and chained it up again immediately! A pedestrian asked how they could get to the the other side of the security corridor, and a policeman behind the gate pointed the way up along a stretch of fence between the footpath and the road, explaining they could get around the fence if they walked far enough. Someone else deadpanned "Can't go that way mate, there's this fence... dunno if you've noticed..!" and he was right; later on I tried walking that way and a block up the footpath came to an abrupt dead-end where the fence cut across it, securing the driveway into a hotel. The whole affair was a mess.

The next day, Saturday, I went to the main demonstration. Protestors gathered outside Town Hall, filling the public space around it and the entire block of George St in front. There were a wide variety of groups protesting a wide variety of issues - Aboriginal rights, global warming, the Iraq War, and WorkChoices chief amongst them. It was great to see a strong Greens presence there as well. There were a number of speakers here, but the stand out speaker was from Iraq Veterans Against the War, a charismatic man whose talk was by turns depressing and moving.
We marched - rather leisurely, it must be said, almost ambled - from Town Hall to Hyde Park. The roads along the route were blocked off by buses converted into police holding cells, and helicopters were overhead. When we reached Hyde Park, which is massive, we found it entirely surrounded. The entire block was ringed by police in riot-gear standing side-by-side stonily facing inwards - some with batons out and tapping gauntleted palms - more buses and police blocking off streets on the other side of the road, and heavy patrols marching along the wide empty thoroughfares like some no-man's-land in between. Afterwards, when we began to disperse from the rally at the end, we found that the police were only allowing passage in or out of the park from one entrance, the way we came in. If ever there was a cause to spark a real riot, I thought that was it. Hyde Park is wide open; the streets around it were nowhere near the restricted zone; and yet the police were senselessly unyielding. There was no need.
And yet the rally at Hyde Park itself was heartening. Admittedly, some of the self-congratulation at "standing up to the police intimidation to turn out today!" and "peacefully defying their expectations of violence!" got a bit embarrassing. I may have dwelt much on the police presence above, but really there was never any chance of violence and the rally organisers greatly exaggerated the hardships. It was as though everyone - including the police - wanted it to be a bigger deal than it was, whilst at the same time decrying violence. Someone in the crowd said it best with their sign: "I Don't Believe In Anything; I'm Just Here For The Violence!" :)

I picked up a number of pamphlets and the like from the groups there: some of it good; some of it not so good; and some of it somewhat disgusting (and regrettable that I gave the publishers any money). One worthwhile group was Socialist Alternative. They're interesting; an Australia-wide revolutionary socialist group comprised largely of students and ex-students. They were sufficiently persuasive that I, curious about far-left politics, decided to go along to a small conference they were having the next day, and to their weekly meeting last night. I'm not about to join the revolution just yet :) but it does make for lively discussion. I'm certain that Luke would be down with this group. I'll write more when I have a chance.

But for now it's back to regular work - APEC has come and gone.

Saturday, 25 August 2007

Ferris Bueller and Alan Ruck

I just went to a screening of Ferris Bueller's Day Off, hosted by Alan Ruck (who played Cameron Frye, Ferris's best friend). To my shame, there are lots of classic movies like this that I've never seen, so when Chris (who is as great a film buff as Tanya - perhaps even more for 80's films!) told me about this special screening I was eager to remedy this transgression. Sometimes you just need a good excuse, and this was a great excuse.
It was shown in a beautiful old theatre, with Alan Ruck on the stage afterwards to answer questions from the audience gathered around the front rows. There were the usual predictable, and predictably boring, questions of "What's it like to work with so-and-so?" (which I've always thought kind of rude, like asking "Hey, tell me about this person who's more interesting than you!"), but he also got to give a lot of really interesting and funny anecdotes about making the movie (and others he's been in). His recreation of Cameron's Mr. Peterson voice was uncanny!

As for the film itself, it was brilliant. Seeing it for the first time, over 20 years after it was made, it still felt like it fit perfectly. Definitely a timeless movie. And I think Alan Ruck was right when he commented that Ferris Bueller is who everyone wants to be, but Cameron Frye is who everyone is. It was very cool having the actor who played the film's most relatable character there :)

Friday, 24 August 2007

My First Promotion

Well, today I passed my 6-month probation period at Team Bondi and was promoted from nub programmer to programmer :)
It's been a lot of hard, but satisfying, work so far, and it's great to have that formally recognised. I know Team Bondi took a chance on hiring me with no industry experience; I'm pleased (and relieved!) that I haven't disappointed. This promotion feels right, too, because over the time I've had this job I feel that I've steadily taken on more responsibility and been able to contribute more to the game.
I actually feel quite priviliged to have the opportunity to work on the projects that I am; it's very exciting and exactly the sort of programming I wanted to do. I think I owe a lot of this opportunity to luck - being in the right place at the right time. But luck or no, I intend to make the most of it.

Lately I've been considering the possibility of buying an apartment somewhere in the city - I'd really like to live closer to the city and work, and to have a space of my own, but after the last couple of years renting in Rockhampton I'm very reluctant to see my earnings disappear into some landlord's purse again.
Perhaps now that my job is more secure I'll start to look at this option more seriously. We'll see!

Monday, 16 July 2007

Taronga Zoo

Last weekend - a week ago, I've been busy! - Michelle came to visit, and on Sunday we went to Taronga Zoo. It was a bitterly cold day that greeted us on the ferry trip over and didn't thaw at all the entire time we were there, but it was great fun.

Have a look at some of the photos I took! I've only just had the time - and the computer, thanks Sarah :) - to get these off my camera and onto the web.

Monday, 11 June 2007

Reading Material

So anyway, I got a little sidetracked in my previous post. I meant to thank Melanie again for organising my New Scientist subscription :)
I've also been reading some other books lately - something that I haven't done much of in recent years (besides conference proceedings!). In a way I enjoy being almost completely disconnected from the net during my (admittedly rather scant) personal time, because I have missed sitting back or snuggling up with a good book.

The most interesting book I've been reading is Kinsey, A Biography, by Jonathan Garthorne-Hardy. I haven't finished it yet - it's rather thorough - but it's the book that the recent film was based on, so I sort of know how the story ends anyway. But it's the detail that is fascinating, which you just don't get no matter how much you read online. I admire Kinsey greatly, because he was arguably a genius in two fields that most interest me - evolution and sex.

I also picked up The Constant Gardener, the film of which I loved (and first read about in New Scientist, incidentally - an example of that magazine's aforementioned socio-political coverage);
and The Harsh Cry of the Heron - a sort of guilty pleasure, it's the concluding sequel to a fantasy series (Tales of the Otori) whose appeal is the same lightweight fantasy that makes Harry Potter appealing to such a wide audience.

Finally, I've just finished reading Priceless, an autobiography by Charlie Daniels that I picked up randomly because it looked interesting. Charlie Daniels was a successful madam in the UK's sex industry, and her life story is indeed captivating - in a train-wreck kind of way - but unfortunately I thought the writing was somewhat forgettable.

One cool thing about Sydney is the number of independent bookstores that I like browsing, even if I don't buy anything. There's a bookstore on Oxford St (the epicentre of the gay and lesbian community) - no, not that kind of bookstore :p, though unsurprisingly with a decidedly mature and alternative bent - a few independent and second-hand bookstores along the main street of the very trendy and hip Newtown area (along with a T2 store :) ), and one small-but-packed-to-the-ceiling bookstore in the CBD, that I've visited so far. It all makes Dymocks and Angus & Robertson and the like look rather ordinary!

New Scientist and Science

My first issue of New Scientist was finally delivered today! I'm very much looking forward to getting up-to-date on the world of science again. And not just science research, either - one of the things I like about New Scientist is that it often covers current social and political issues that pertain to science, and I usually agree with the position that the magazine takes. I like to think that it's bipartisan, above the conservative/progressive political divide - but doesn't everyone like to think they're unbiased? :p
The thing that I find interesting about this viewpoint is that we usually think of science as progressive, but the process of scientific peer review, a cornerstone of science, is necessarily conservative.
I was having a discussion with someone the other day, who was telling me about a maverick scientist who had "scientifically proven" that the human mind could reorganise cell structure etc. Hijacking "science" like this bothers me. Regardless of the actual truth of those claims (which I couldn't argue specifically since I didn't know anything about them), no lone man - or team or organisation - can scientifically "prove" anything - same goes for all pseudo-scientific claims. The best one can do is present evidence and have it accepted by the scientific establishment. (Which of course doesn't make it true, but is the closest thing to "proving" it.)
So, it's a bit strange, but I, who usually have very little faith in conservatism, strongly agree with the role of the scientific establishment in scientific progress.

Disclaimer: I'm not a scientist and can't speak for anyone else. But why let a trifling detail like that get in the way of a good rant?

Friday, 13 April 2007

Work and Easter

We had a "Formal Friday" today. Other workplaces have a "Casual Friday", but since we wear jeans and t-shirts every day, we did the opposite and all dressed up today. It's the first time I've worn a tie since High School, I think... I had to look up how to tie a tie last night :)
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We went to yum-cha for lunch - I guess when you look respectable for a change you need to take advantage of it. Melanie's told me all about yum-cha, but it was the first time I'd tried it. I liked the pot-sticker dumplings best! After work a bunch of us went for drinks at a cool little pub converted from an old terrace house - happy hour cocktails :) It was fun, but I'm such a lightweight when it comes to drinking!

Work is still cool, and will only get better over the next few weeks. I got to squish a few bugs earlier this week, so I had the satisfaction of finally contributing something, albeit something very small! And starting next week, I finally have a role on the team, working on A.I. navigation. It's probably the role in the team that's closest to my expertise, but still not really related very much :p So I have a heap to learn, and it'll be slow going to begin with, but it's the sort of area I find really fascinating and want to get into. I'm very excited!

The Easter weekend was good. I met up with Rinku and her husband, and we went to an Indian-Chinese restaurant. I haven't ever tried food like this before, but it was really good. The dish I had was like honey battered chicken - think honey chicken at Suzies - in an Indian curry. I'm not sure it was as good as either Indian or Chinese on its own, but it was a great fusion of flavours and well worth trying.
My sister Michelle came to visit for a few days. We wandered around Darling Harbour, which was filled with Easter performances. There were a bunch of street performers, and we saw a public show of the Flying Fruit Fly Circus - that was fun, I love watching circus.
But quite possibly the most amazing discovery was... a Lindt chocolate cafe! Now, if it was actually a cafe made from Lindt chocolate it would be even more amazing still, but as it is - a cafe serving just Lindt products - it runs a close second in salivating wonderment. There were lots of Lindt Lindor balls I'd never seen before - like coffee and intense dark chocolate (*sigh*), as well as very expensive individual gourmet Lindt chocolates, and, get this, cakes and slices made from Lindt chocolate. It was the most wicked and yet heavenly place I've ever seen. It's actually probably a good thing it's so expensive, so I can't go there every day :D

I'm not sure what I'll do this weekend yet. I can't believe it's the weekend again already, this week has gone so fast. I'm thinking sleeping in will be a good start, though :D