Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Public Transport III - vignettes

Continuing with the religious theme, there was another flavour of loon on the bus last night. He had a classic strange behaviour of speaking in a conversational tone and volume to persons who were clearly ignoring him. It's as if the association between speaking-style and interaction-type have only been partially learned. The style is correct but applied inappropriately - instead of being a true interaction he voices his thoughts about the person he is addressing even though they are not voluntarily engaged in the conversation. Perhaps he thinks this is what we are all doing when we speak directly to one another, just airing our thoughts about the other person. Perhaps, in a way, he's right. Anyway, when his accidental companion left and he had noone to talk 'to', he began to kiss the individual fibres of a tassle on his bag as if they were rosary beads. He repeated this a number of times before moving on crossing himself with very large motions - only just keeping within the space of the seats. He seemed kindly and innocent, which was nice.

This bus ride was coincidentally shared by someone I have seen before. A sweet, naive-looking young man with blond hair, blue eyes, and flushed, rosy cheeks. He is always dressed very soberly in a black suit and tie and holds a clip-board, giving him an overall air of earnest teen. His prominent name badge declares him to be 'Elder Anderson' of The Church of Latter Day Saints. Perhaps it was just the suit but I started to look for an earpiece and disturbances in the fabric of reality.

When I got off the bus and crossed the road it was clear that something had crashed into the traffic light controls. The walk/ don't walk post was tilted and loops of electrical cable spilled from its base. Rather than being put out by the damage, the main traffic lights flickered and throbbed - stuttering red with a thready pulse of amber both interspersed with an occasional bright green flare. Amazing how something so thoroughly inanimate could give such a strong impression of being in pain.

Another loon. His main characteristic was the usual social aberrance - talking to strangers as though they were listening. Nobody joined his conversation. Into the empty space around him, he thoughtfully commented, "Ahh, 1987." It sounded as though he had just found something he thought he had lost.

Sunday, April 22, 2007

Aerial banner

Saturday was also very warm so I ate a late breakfast on the balcony overlooking the park. There was a race so there was a state police car diverting traffic just below me. I could hear aeroplanes overhead but it took a while for them to circle close enough to read the banners they were towing. One made me smile. I muttered quietly "I'm already here," and watched as the runners slowed and expanded according to their abilities.


Saturday was treating me with beguiling serenity but soon began to show it's true colours with the arrival of my first American evangelical cold-caller. A tall, jolly-looking chap with a clip-board and an arm full of propaganda, he shifted uneasily from foot to foot in his Saturday-best as if he was the harbinger of terrible news. Which of course he was. "Good morning!! Excuse me ma'am," and let's not forget I have padded down the stairs in my pyjamas and dressing gown, "I know you weren't expecting anyone," no kidding, "but I was wondering if you could spare a few moments to talk...". I peered suspiciously through the door and at those words felt my face start to screw up into that get-away-from-me-you-time-waster shape. Until I spied the title of the 'literature' he was carrying.

"Is that an 'Awake!' you have there?" I asked brightly. "...about faith in the community," he trailed off with a stunned pause, "why yes it is!" and he's all smiles now. "May I have a copy?" I ask. He hands one over and starts to explain it. "Yes, we have them in the UK," I absently interject - distracted by the faces of eeeevil on the front cover. He continues, "oh well they're just the same here, do you go to bible readings locally?" I smile and nod, "not exactly, no."

I made my excuses and retreated, noticing as I left that he was jotting down the apartment number. No doubt I can look forward to all sorts of fantastical, exclamation-mark-enriched Jehova's Witness leafleting from now on. I assume they were making a special effort because there was a 'Humanist' convention in Boston this weekend with Salman Rushdie in attendance. I settled back in to the apartment to read about the end of the world!, pollen - the dust of life!, dedication to Jehovah!, the road to eternal life!, and moral breakdown!, chuckling over a hot cup of Yorkshire tea.

Saturday, April 21, 2007


Neural networks, both simulated in software and naturally neuronal (sorry this alliteration is horribly har- err... difficult to shake), are wicked cool. I want to attempt to apply the connectionist paradigm to a network made of real neurons. There are three significant hurdles:
  • 1) Getting the neurons to connect up where and how you want them to.
  • 2) Stimulating specific cells within the network you have built.
  • 3) Measuring the response of the network to stimuli you have provided.
If you can control a network of real cells then you have a bio-computer. Now, imagine this is possible in a microfluidic device.... then you can start to teach a mini-brain! Okay okay so this is pie-in-the-sky science, but the what-ifs keep this game exciting :D

Sunday, April 15, 2007

IF: Ad Verbum addendum

George Fifield suggested I look up Nick Montfort's interactive fiction work 'Ad Verbum'. The puzzles, both amusing and engaging, are all based on wordplay and the game pokes gentle fun at the text-adventure genre. Having played it through (not stinting on the hints I might add but still simply scoring 99/100) I am left with a pervasive penchant for abstruse alliteration.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

Massachusetts Institute of Technology

I work at MIT one day a week both on microfluidics (with the Thorsen group) and, on my own time, cell modelling (with JackBackRack). MIT can seem much livelier than Harvard Medical School, but that's mostly due to the hordes of students churning down the 'infinite corridor' which connects many of the main buildings together.

I am becoming quite fond of the place for several reasons:
  • Everybody clearly tinkers with equipment to get the job done; surfaces are always covered in tools and technical detritus.
  • Departments are jumbled together in a very pleasing manner and smell of old schools (building 1 in particular). For example, as I passed a cabinet filled with 3D renderings of mathematical waveforms and a poster depicting reaction-diffusion models I could hear various musicians practising to my left. As I drew level with a skilful rendition of what sounded like Rachmaninov on a grand piano, I noticed that the door opposite was marked 'Scanning Electron Microscope room'. (Incidentally, the next door on the left housed a Dr Suresh for fans of Heroes.)
  • The Stata Center [sic] is the most wonderful place. It is the abode of the computer scientists and is composed of all things unexpected. The angles and curves disorient me but I don't mind, and its interior is brightly coloured in every way. The overall effect is one of infectious child-like enthusiasm and curiosity. The perfect environment.
Sean (the microfluidics lab manager) took me for a brief tour of some of the old interactive displays in the mechanical engineering department. They were mysterious and puzzling, reminding me strongly of the cabinetry in the Myst / Riven series of games (from whence Zork: Nemesis was spawned), as does the architecture of the Stata Center itself. I also recently met a curator of Musée Patamécanique and I think their exhibits might share a theme with those games. I will have to go and check it out!

Saturday, April 7, 2007

Interactive Fiction (IF) : my timeline

I think my first gaming experience must have been the educational BBC Micro adventure "Granny's Garden", it certainly didn't feel at all educational and I remember it being so popular that access was restricted. At home, the Fothergill lads over the road had some kind of BBC/Acorn archimedes (I remember the owl logo) on which we were hooked by "Sphinx adventure". The younger Fothergill brother pronounced it 'Spinks' irrespective of the number of corrections attempted.

There were also IF books where you could make decisions (take the knife - turn to page 188, take the rope - turn to page 12) to create different outcomes. Yes, I cheated with those, couldn't bear to lose but wanted to know all the permutations too. Alongside this foray into IF came the tv sensation 'Knightmare' where a team of kids had to guide a blindfolded (actually it was the Helmet of Justice lol) comrade through a dungeons past puzzles and hazards. The whole thing was quite frightening at times mostly due to the chunks of flesh being ripped from the life force icon to the sound of a labouring heartbeat.

After that came a slew of more action-based gaming but my real favourites were the ones I could play at my Dad's house on his Atari ST, 'Uninvited' (which I never finished and I still have pangs of guilt when I remember how I used a can of hairspray to immobilise a spider but never found a use for the mummified mite) and, of course, Zork. Actually it was Return to Zork which is a graphical point-and-click, I didn't get hold of the rest of the anthology with older text-based adventures until much later, at university. One of my favourite pieces of science fiction (Orson Scott Card's "Ender's Game") features an interactive educational fantasy game. I totally empathised with the main character's love of an immersive and responsive environment. University also introduced me to the internet and therefore MUDs. I found these a little less appealing because I couldn't be escapist when all these uncontrollable, real-life players kept coming over to clout me round the head for a measly number of experience points.

After I got my Masters I made an abortive attempt at a PhD in Natural Language Processing. Here I met Elliot Smith who was my show-the-newbie-around-the-scary -new-university 'mentor'. Since I had already been at Brum Uni for 5 years we got chatting about more fun things pretty quickly. Elliot is a sci-fi nut, writes his own, grows butterworts, and introduced me to memes. I think I recall some strange musical talents too. Elliot was the first person to convince me that you can be productive and creative outside of your 'day job' without it being just a hobbyist pipe-dream that never sees the light of day. I'm not sure how much of our conversations dealt with strictly 'interactive' fiction, but the subject brings him to mind along with an urge to say 'Ehhh' like The Fonz.

Finally, I was introduced to Emily Short's 'Galatea' by Ian Millington during my brief sojourn with Mindlathe. This particular work I have returned to again and again. The plot is a combination of science-fiction and Greek mythology. My favourite thing is the sensation of quiet space you get when you play it. If you just wait around the environment lets you breathe by not forcing the plot along but also doesn't freeze completely; giving you subtle, non-repetitive environmental cues like a moving curtain or the sound of Galatea breathing.

The point of this rather meandering walk through my past is that I have had a creeping interest in interactive games, books, and whatevers from smallness upwards. I only noticed because I had another one of those 'think about something then see it everywhere' moments yesterday. I was at the Axiom gallery looking at a piece by Jill Magid where she records meetings with a stranger in a diary. I was just thinking "the style of this really reminds me of Galatea" when it appears on the page in reference to the painting of Pygmalion (the sculptor of Galatea) and the lady herself in the Met. Now, I have no truck with coincidence being any more than that, coincidence. However the pervasive connectivity of the world around us sometimes absolutely astounds me.