A blog for fans of Bananagrams, word games, puzzles, and amazing things

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Fun with collective nouns

In England in the Middle Ages, the common practice of hunting led people to coin terms for groups of animals that were specific to each sort of animal (such as a gaggle of geese or a pride of lions). These specialized collective nouns are therefore called "terms of venery" (where "venery" is another word for hunting). In the 14th and 15th centuries, this became a full-fledged fad, with silly terms being coined just for fun and with the process being extended from animals to groups of people.

These terms are still being concocted today. For those of us who like such neologisms, there is now a site dedicated to them: All Sorts (subtitled "a linguistic experiment").

A good place to start is the list of collective nouns sorted by popularity.

Some of my favorites are:

  • a seemingly empty room of ninjas
  • a brace of orthodontists
  • a hush of librarians
  • a _____ of mime artists
  • a heard of homonyms
  • a winter of discount tents
  • a clutch of handbags
  • a knot of string theorists
  • an array of programmers
  • a herd of eavesdroppers

The way the site works is that it catalogs whatever suggestions people make on Twitter (when they use the hashtag "#collectivenouns").

Naturally, I couldn't help but suggest a few:

  • a closet of skeletons
  • a clattering of abacuses
  • an epiphany of light bulbs
  • an ink cloud of octopuses
  • a curiosity of question marks
The All Sorts project is a great concept because it clearly demonstrates the frivolity and playfulness of minting new collective nouns. Try it. It's fun!

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

A review of the word-tree building game Konexi

I previously posted about how intrigued I was about a new game that involved assembling letters into a precarious tree of words. Now, I have finally played this game (Konexi [affiliate link]), and it exceeded my expectations.

The first player places a letter on the table, and then every successive move involves building letters off of that first letter, such that no other letter touches the table. The letters have little notches and also little isolated teeth, like the teeth of a gear, that fit nicely into the notches, while allowing a little bit of movement. By matching up a tooth of one letter with a notch of another letter, you can add the new letter to the tree, subject to the physical stability of the placement.

On your move, you have a choice between two (effectively) randomly chosen letters. You take one and try to add it to the tree in a way that allows you to connect together a set of letters that can be anagrammed to form a word. The letters must be a contiguous set. Your score is the number of letters in the word that you were able to make.

Even once you find a set of letters in the existing tree that you can connect your chosen letter to, to form a new word, it can often be a huge challenge to place that new letter. It must connect one of its notches or teeth to a complementary tooth or notch of one of the letters in your word, and it must result in a balanced structure that continues to stand on its own. Consequently, whenever someone is placing a new letter, there is a tension to the process that is similar to those moments when someone is removing a piece from a Jenga tower (though it is generally not at the Jenga level of pressure). However, Konexi is actually better than Jenga because you have far more options as to where and how you can place letters. It's also a good game for building intuition about concepts like the center of mass of an object.

This game can play out in very different manners, depending upon the structure of the tree that the players form, and the letters that they choose. With enough vowels in your tree, you may find that it is easy to make four- and five-letter words on every turn. If insufficient vowels are available, players may at times struggle to form any words at all.

If someone accidentally knocks down the tree, that player loses three points, and a new tree is started on the next play. Play continues until someone scores 20 points.

This game is basically exactly as cool as it looks, so if you think it might be your kind of game, you will probably enjoy it. Click this affiliate link to see the reviews of others and buy it at Amazon.

Friday, November 16, 2012

My addiction to, and subsequent recovery from, Drawception

In my last post, I explained the wonderful sentence-illustrating, drawing-captioning game of Picture Telephone. In the wake of the recent brief popularity of a game for mobile devices called "Draw Something", a lone developer created an online version of Picture Telephone called "Drawception". This is not the first such attempt, having been preceded by such implementations as Broken Picture Telephone and Doodle or Die, but it may be the best.

The first night that I played Drawception, drawing anything using a mouse and the simple controls was a struggle. The resulting drawings were crude. My goal that first night was to unlock the ability to start new games (which allows you to write the initial description that seeds the game). In order to unlock this ability, I had to first earn ten points.

While Picture Telephone is a purely cooperative game, Drawception has some competitive aspects, since players earn points when other players vote for their panel. Once the game has reached its pre-designated panel limit (typically 12 or 15 panels at present), the participants, and often other players, read through the game and have the opportunity to click a little upward-pointing thumb symbol on any panel that they want to give points to. Such voting is anonymous and has no direct benefit to the player, except that it lets them express approval and have some influence on what is considered "good" in the Drawception culture.

Many of the drawings from my first night earned zero points, but some earned a few, like my depiction of the description "Rubber ducky, you're the one":

The next morning, enough of the games that I had played in had finished that I had earned the privilege to start my own first game. This is how it turned out:

I was hooked.

This went on to become the top game for the day (where top games are determined by how many people "favorite" it).

As I got better at the game, technical aspects of the game were also being improved. Bugs that slowed down the drawing process and made the results look worse were fixed. Previously you could accidentally paint over minutes of detailed work with one false swing of the cursor; a new Undo button rectified this, expanding the horizon of what could be drawn in ten minutes. Sites of this kind are frequently plagued by trolls who draw offensive panels and try to disrupt games, and one of the biggest successes of the Drawception developer has been implementing a system that mostly negates the effects of such trolling by filtering out or hiding such panels (though there is still enough potentially objectionable material that does not get flagged by the community that children and the easily offended should still not play).

There was a satisfaction that came with contributing panels to ten or twelve games in a night: it felt like an investment because I knew that the next day, I would be getting some funny or entertaining finished games as a result.

One of the highs that I got from playing Drawception was the feeling that, within that small drawing box, I could draw anything. Not just anything that might appear as a Drawception description, but anything that I could conceive of.

The feeling of possibility led me to experiments such as starting games with a particular phrase, just to see what one person's imagination and drawing skill could do with it. If that first drawing then spawned a great game, I viewed it merely as a bonus. When I spotted this kind of description in the pool of possible drawing prompts (and yes, it is possible to develop a sense for which descriptions are the initial descriptions for a game), if I felt that I could do the description justice, I found it satisfying to produce for the game creator a drawing that would make them happy. So, for instance, when I encountered the description "Richard Feynman plays the bongos", I realized that since I knew who Feynman was, I might be the best person playing at that moment to attempt to give it a shot. I found a Google Images result showing Feynman playing bongos to use as a guide and did my best to convey it, but as time was running out, I notice that it was not sufficiently obvious who the bongo player was supposed to be. Then, in a moment of inspiration, I realized that he should be thinking about physics while playing (as this seemed like a very Feynmanesque thing to do), so I drew a thought bubble and put a Feynman diagram inside it.

That my Feynman was subsequently mistaken for Elvis did not bother me. The player who had started the game was pleased and left me a positive comment, which made me smile.

At the peak of my Drawception addiction, I wondered how long it would go on and imagined that it could be part of my daily life indefinitely.

As I become habituated to the initial wonder of Drawception, many of the next hundred games began to seem pedestrian. The games where the same picture and phrase got repeated for most of the 12 or 15 panels, with artwork that was not particularly striking, became old after a while. I yearned for more novelty.

The more common a reference or idea is, the more likely it is for the person writing or drawing the next panel to correctly interpret it. Consequently, it is generally the most widely known references and characters that manage to propagate without distortion across multiple panels. This leads to the majority of games involving pop culture references or Internet "memes" at some point. If you play enough Drawception, you will likely see a lot of whoever the popular characters are at the moment (Batman or Spider-Man or Worf) and you will learn to identify others (such as Trogdor and Nyan Cat and Chthulu and various anime characters).

From this active tide pool of Internet culture emerged a new lifeform: Trouble Muffin. It started out as an in-joke between two friends who played Drawception and created games about someone named "Trouble Muffin". Soon, other players wanted to participate. Trouble Muffin evolved into a muffin with an eye patch and a tough-guy persona. Those who did not recognize him when playing Drawception typically described him as a cupcake or a pirate muffin, but as his fame grew, he became an icon of Drawception. At the peak of his popularity, most of the top games were about Trouble Muffin and his many adventures.

The fun I had watching and participating in the development of Trouble Muffin helped me understand why people can be so enthusiastic about such Internet memes; it's just different when you are on the inside.

Since Drawception is played all around the world, little bits of the language and culture of other countries can manifest during the process of repeated translation between language and pictures. British English has a major presence on Drawception, so if you play long enough you will see police officers described as "bobbies", panties described as "knickers", mathematics called "maths", redheads called "gingers" (though according to this BBC article, the use of the phrase "ginger hair" in American English is growing because "ginger" appeared in Harry Potter books published in the U.S., even though there was an attempt to remove all the British English), and cookies called "biscuits". None of that prepared me for what happened when what appeared to be a speaker of British English encountered a picture of Cookie Monster:

I'm pretty sure that Sesame Street characters are fairly well recognized all over the world, but obviously not quite as well as Robocop is... At least he wasn't referred to as "Biscuit Monster".

As I continued to play, I became more selective in what descriptions I would draw. Only things that I had never drawn before, only descriptions that were inspiring. Sometimes I would skip descriptions for half an hour without finding anything I wanted to draw.

Toward the end, changes to the way the game worked by the developer tended to detract from my enjoyment of the game. Too many games were stuck in the queue, causing games to take days to complete. The blame was placed on descriptions that no one wanted to draw (typically because they were too difficult to draw or to understand). The developer dubbed these "dustcatchers" and decided that whenever a description panel had been skipped by too many players, it would be rejected, and the game would be backed up to the previous panel, which would be reinserted into the pool of available drawings to describe. My first two descriptions after this change were both rejected. I basically stopped playing at that point, feeling that the game was being dumbed down (as recently finished games suggested). The dustcatcher sensitivity was set too high initially, and while this was only a temporary state (I believe the developer must have started silently adjusting it (maybe even the next day)), my addiction to Drawception was finally broken.

It would be easy to say that I am done playing Drawception, that I have lived through a 15-panel pseudo-narrative arc and that my days of playing Drawception are over. But I still check in on the game periodically, and whenever the developer introduces new features, I play with them for a while. Mainly, I prefer to just start games now. It requires very little time and can sometimes yield cool results. And it is ultimately the privilege that motivated me to start playing in the very beginning.

Playing Drawception was a great experience. I got to draw a lot, which is something I enjoy. I honed my ability to paint tiny pictures using a trackpad to levels that didn't initially seem possible. I created popular games and panels. I enjoyed the challenge of trying to read the mind of the player who had drawn a particular panel, to try to come up with the most correct (or most amusing) description of it. And I participated in and enjoyed lots of hilarious and creative games with a good group of players.

The game has now entered a monetization stage, so the nature of the game, and the community around the game, are continuing to change, but there are enough good things about the game that I think I can still recommend Drawception to anyone who wants to try something new.

Monday, August 27, 2012

The irresistible game of Picture Telephone

One of my favorite games is Picture Telephone. Like the children's game of Telephone (in which a message is whispered from one player to the next, becoming garbled in the process, to hilarious effect), Picture Telephone is about transmitting a sentence through a sequence of players. What distinguishes Picture Telephone is that sentences are alternately written and then depicted through drawing. Players are not allowed to write words in their drawings; that would defeat the whole purpose of the game.

For an idea of how it works, consider this mock-up of a typical game:

(This image is from the now defunct site for an online version of Picture Telephone called Broken Picture Telephone. In my experience, actual Picture Telephone games will have complete sentences and will be funnier.)

Inevitably, there will be someone in the group whose drawings of a person talking into a microphone will be mistaken for a person licking an ice cream cone, and someone else in the group will routinely have trouble recognizing what the previous person drew. These players will only make the game more fun.

There are some unwritten rules to this game: Players must legitimately try to communicate the message that they are given. It is very easy to deliberately derail the game and really spoils the fun for everyone. This is fundamentally a cooperative game.

As a corollary, it only makes sense to write as an initial sentence, a sentence that you feel reasonably certain that the next person can draw. Action sentences, like "The picnic was ruined by ants", are good. Don't worry, the sentence will often become more complex and challenging as it makes its way around the circle.

The dynamics of this game are interesting. Occasionally one sentence will make it all the way through the game essentially unchanged. Sentences can even diverge from their original subject and then return to it. Certain concepts seem to have strange attractors in Picture Telephone, such as how many four-legged animals tend to converge to dogs or cats.

The core of the game is the challenge of receiving a written sentence and trying to figure out how you can possibly make a drawing from which the next person can correctly infer the original sentence. I enjoy tremendously this process. The drawing is fun too. Basically, there is nothing about this game that I dislike.

All that you need to play this game is a bunch of 3-by-5 note cards and writing utensils.

As your group becomes more skilled at communicating through drawing, you can use more complex sentences. Consequently, the sophistication of the game scales with the players, like Dixit and chess do.

I have enjoyed this game for years, and I consider it to be one of the most fun games to play whenever a group of seven or nine player is available. It is certainly the game that has made me laugh the most. I have decided to write about it now because I recently spent rather a lot of time playing a new online variation on Picture Telephone called Drawception, about which I will say a lot more in the next post.

Friday, May 18, 2012

The power of recursive drawing

An MIT student has released a simple CoffeeScript/JavaScript-based tool for creating recursive drawings - combinations of rectangles and ellipses that can have a fractal-like structure. It is available at RecursiveDrawing.com. This video briefly explains and demonstrates how the tool works: Essentially, you can:
  1. Drag shapes into the canvas area.
  2. Move a shape around by clicking on its center and dragging.
  3. Resize a shape by clicking on its edge and dragging in and out with respect to the center.
  4. Rotate a shape by clicking on it edge and dragging sideways.
  5. Change the aspect ratio of a shape by clicking on its edge and dragging while holding the SHIFT key.
  6. Move around on the canvas by clicking and dragging the canvas.
  7. Zoom in and out by scrolling on a mouse or trackpad.
You can make more drawings by clicking on the "+" button in the sidebar, and shift between them by clicking on them. And then, by dragging the little representation of the canvas in the sidebar into the main canvas, you get the magical recursive effect.
I found it very easy to form a close approximation to a golden rectangle, subdivided into squares...
...or this spiral of home-plate-like pentagons:
I then made a pretty cool fractal tree:
Every time I play with this tool, I make something even better.
The interface is intuitive and powerful, making it terrific fun to play with. I would like to see a triangular shape, some control over color, and perhaps some kind of symmetry operator to allow flipping and reflecting of drawings. And since the source code is available, maybe someone will eventually add these features...

Friday, May 11, 2012

Lexcavator: A cool word-exploding arcade game

A great new arcade-like word game has just been released for desktop computers. It's called Lexcavator, a name that evokes the idea of digging for words. In this game, you tunnel down through a bottomless grid of letters by forming words Boggle-style. Then you jump your little avatar (represented by the "@" symbol) around in the various tunnels that you create, as you try to avoid being pushed up to the top of the screen by the constantly rising letter grid.
The game feels like a hybrid of Boggle and an inverted Tetris. Once you get used to using the mouse to click and drag through letters to form words and navigating with the keyboard, the interface becomes quite intuitive. There are power-ups in the form of other symbols: "!" creates a deep one-column-wide vertical shaft, ">" clears all the letters in the row that it is sitting on, "_" destroys a random set of tiles, "?" randomizes all the letters, and "*" takes out all letters in a 5-by-5 grid.
You don't necessarily need to activate the power-ups when you uncover them. I find that using the "?" power-up usually causes the resulting letters to be harder to make words out of. You also have the option of delaying usage of a power-up by guiding it down with you: for instance, standing next to the power-up and excavating under both yourself and it works nicely.

Once you finish a game, you get a report of various statistics about your performance. If you enable the "Internet" option in the Settings, the game will also report your scores to the central server and tell you how well you did compared to other players...

and what words you were the first in the world to find:
As of today, only 2% of the words on the word list had been found, according to the Lexcavator Twitter account. According to the developer's blog, the leaderboard is completely anonymous, so you don't have to worry about generating a login or a password or recovering a password when you've forgotten it. It's simple and done the right way, just like everything else about the game.

This is the kind of game that you will find yourself wanting to play repeatedly. There is also a Quest Mode which consists of a series of untimed challenges (like, find four 4-letter words, all in lines, without finding any other words).

You can get the game at lexcavator.com. It is being distributed on a pay-what-you-want model. I initially downloaded it for free, but I'm going to go back and pay for a copy to support the developer.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

How good are competitive Scrabble players at recognizing words?

Researchers from the University of Calgary recently published a study (available in PDF or HTML) on how being an elite player in Scrabble tournaments affects one's word recognition ability. Although actually they tested for something much narrower than word recognition: wordness verification.

Basically, the researchers showed the subjects a series of words (half concrete words and half abstract) and non-words and asked them to identify whether or not they were real words as quickly as possible. There were three test groups in the experiment: a group of undergraduates, a group of competitive Scrabble players recruited from a tournament, and a third group of subjects chosen to have the same age distribution as the Scrabble players (with an average age of 57). Additionally, some words were displayed horizontally (like normal words) and others were displayed vertically (like on a Scrabble board).

The researchers found that the undergraduates were the fastest at responding to the word identification tasks (what the journal article terms "lexical decision tasks"), followed by the Scrabble players, and then the age-matched control group. Everyone was slower at identifying abstract words than concrete words, but the Scrabble players had the smallest added delay (120 ms for Scrabble experts versus 270 ms for the control group). The reason that this is interesting is that the added delay for abstract words is believed by some to indicate that people are thinking about the meanings of words when identifying them, and that abstract words take longer to verify due to the extra processing. (A previous study using fMRI scans showed that while certain regions of the brain light up with activity when the subjects are recognizing concrete words, extra regions of the brain come on line when recognizing abstract words.)

The fact that the Scrabble players could recognize abstract words with little additional delay suggests that they are not thinking about word meaning during the word recognition process. This is actually a well-established phenomenon called the concreteness effect.

The two groups of older subjects were far more accurate at identifying words than the undergraduates. Interestingly, Scrabble players and the age-matched group identified horizontal words with quite similar accuracies and speeds, but when the words were arranged vertically, the Scrabble players took a little longer, but had about the same accuracy. The control group took 35-40% longer (though the error bars are big), and made considerably more errors in recognizing words.

The paper then carefully analyzes these results:
The facility with vertical presentation shown by competitive Scrabble players in the present study may be attributable to experience processing words in vertical orientation on the Scrabble board. It is also possible, however, that this facility is due to the extensive word list practice that Scrabble players complete, or to strong word recognition skills that preceded the Scrabble experience. The nature of our design has not allowed us to infer causation.

The subjects were also given a variety of mental tests, and the Scrabble players only did especially well in the Scrabble-related skills (anagramming words and generating words that start with a particular letter). They were able to successfully anagram 3 times more words than the control group and 14 times more words than the undergrads.

The authors conclude the paper well by saying:
The behavior of these visual word recognition experts highlights the experience-driven nature of visual word recognition and pushes the bounds on what we previously considered the endpoint of development of the word recognition system.

So I am inferring from this study that either competitive Scrabble players learn to switch off the parts of the brain that think about the meanings of abstract words or else people who have this skill are preferentially drawn to Scrabble. Either way, someone should rustle up some more Scrabble experts and perform brain scans on them to verify this.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Results of the First World Palindrome Championship

Following up on my previous post about the first annual palindrome-writing competition, here is how it played out:

As mentioned on contestant Mark Saltveit's blog, Barry Duncan, who is the subject of an upcoming documentary (The Master Palindromist) had been invited to compete, but as he had not responded to the invitation, he was not expected to attend. Then he showed up on the day of the competition. His documentarian also attended and filmed the event, so we may get to see footage of the championship someday.

Doug Fink, writer of eight crossword puzzles (and more importantly the famous palindrome "Lisa Bonet ate no basil."), was selected from the audience as the final contestant.

Will Shortz announced that the contestants had to write palindromes meeting one of the following three constraints:
  1. The palindrome must contain an X and a Z.

  2. Or the palindrome must include a person or event in the news in the last 12 months.

  3. Or the palindrome must be somehow about the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament
I was rather surprised by these constraints because writing a palindrome about someone in the news is something that many of the contestants may have already done, so it didn't really guarantee that the palindrome might not have been conceived of beforehand. I was also a little disappointed that there were multiple allowable routes; it would have been more interesting to see what the results would have been if the contestants had competed head-to-head, writing the same kind of palindrome. But possibly this multi-path set of constraints was used because any single constraint could have been too limiting, potentially resulting in insufficiently diverse or entertaining palindromes. Still, in the future, I might suggest a multi-round scheme, where all contestants write palindromes for each set of constraints, the palindromes are all separately scored by round, and whoever's total score is highest, wins.

Based on the votes of the audience (mostly competitive crossword puzzle solvers who were there for the weekend crossword tournament), Nick Montfort placed fourth for his reversible poem about the Millennium Falcon. Jon Agee's submission placed third: "'Zoning' is Mr. Al Axe's sex alarm sign in Oz." The runner-up was John Connett who wrote "'Not Newt,' Ron's snort went on." And (by a vote of 169 to 165) the winner and World Palindrome Champ was Mark Saltveit who wrote "Devil Kay fixes trapeze part; sex if yak lived." which he later described as "a tale of kinky shenanigans".

Saltveit wrote other palindromes during the allotted writing period including "I tan. I mull. In a way, Obama, I am a boy, a wan Illuminati."

He explained his third palindrome (which was about the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament) in this Metafilter Metatalk thread:
If anyone saw the film Wordplay, Al Sanders was the guy who has placed 3rd about 10 years in a row, and was eliminated due to a tragic error in the film after he clearly had won.

This palindrome predicts that he will finally win the tournament this year:
"Gal, smiles are stellar ere crossword rows sorcerer Al lets era's elim's lag."
(Incidentally, Metafilter is one of the coolest sites on the Internet.)

Even before learning that the crossword puzzle tournament was going to be one of the possible constraints for the palindromes, I was thinking that including crossword references would be a good way to play to the crowd. Maybe something like this reference to cryptic crossword puzzles would do:
We hate Seven Across: "Or can Eve set a hew?"
(Hint: It's only a caricature of cryptic crossword clues and not intended to be solved.)

Writing palindromes is not as easy as they make it look, so congratulations to Mark Saltveit and to all the contestants!

UPDATE: As Nick Montfort informed me in the comment thread, all of the palindromes presented by the contestants are being posted at http://palindromist.org/results. They are definitely worth checking out.

Also, Nick Montfort has posted his reflections on the event.

Saturday, March 3, 2012

The First Annual World Palindrome Championship

I've learned that, as part of this year's American Crossword Puzzle Tournament (made famous through the documentary Wordplay), a live palindrome-writing competition is going to be held! Will Shortz will give some constraints on what the palindrome has to be about (presumably preventing the contestants from recycling old work), the contestants will write palindromes for 75 minutes, and the audience will choose the winners.

The contestants will include:
  • Jon Agee, writer of many books of palindromes illustrated with cartoons including Go Hang a Salami! I'm a Lasagna Hog!: and Other Palindromes
  • Martin Clear, who is apparently flying in from Australia to compete and who has definitely written a lot of palindromes. Like these
    Goddesses, bored now, assess a wonder-obsessed dog.

    Some modem telepaths in a Danish tape let me do memos.

    Tim lifted a cat; Elton did not let a cadet film it.
    He has even posted some palindromic poetry.

    But that's not why I'm subscribing to his blog; it's because of this poem:
    Mary had a little RAM
    It’s free space, wired and slow
    And every wire that Mary wet
    That RAM would short and blow.

  • John Connett, professor of biostatistics, writer of these:
    Eva, can I stack Rod’s sad-ass, dork cats in a cave?

    No cab, eh, Ted? I sat up. I put aside the bacon.
  • Nick Montfort who co-wrote 2002: A Palindrome Story, a 2002-word palindrome, written in 2002 (also available as an illustrated book). I know him from his contributions to the interactive fiction community, but he appears to be a professor of writing about interactive fiction and making cool online creative stuff (a field we can always use more professors in).
  • Mark Saltveit, editor of The Palindromist - a magazine dedicated to palindromes (and also a great site where I found out a lot about the world of palindromes.) He also does stand-up comedy about palindromes.

    Pay on time, emit no yap.

    Art, anise, riff of fire: Sinatra.
  • ... and one lucky contestant picked from the audience based on a demonstration of their palindrome prowess.

It's happening March 16th in Brooklyn. It costs $80 to get in the door. See the crossword puzzle tournament site for further details on the schedule.

Once I find out what the winning palindrome is, I will post a follow-up.

UPDATE: I found a soft profile of contestant Mark Saltveit and the World Palindrome Championship.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Indie Game: The Movie - a documentary

Last year I wrote a post partially about how great indie video games are, citing as an example the creativity of Jonathan Blow's temporal anomaly of a game, Braid.

Now I've learned that a documentary about such games has been made, and one of the primary interview subjects is Jonathan Blow himself. The documentary is called Indie Game: The Movie, and it focusses on the challenges of independent video-game-making and the passion of the creators. (Fittingly, the documentary itself is also an independent production, made by two filmmakers and funded by Kickstarers and DVD pre-orders.) The film also includes 1) Edmund McMillen and Tommy Refenes, the artist-programmer pair behind the action-based platform game Super Meat Boy 2) and Phil Fish, whose still-to-be-released game Fez involves exploring a 3-dimensional world with a 2-dimensional character. By rotating the perspective in 90 degree increments, new faces of the world become visible, and previously uncrossable gaps in the landscape disappear. You can see it briefly in the Indie Game trailer:

Here is a bonus video illustrating Fez gameplay:

Reviews from its Sundance debut were positive. The current IMDB rating is 9.4.

In March and April, the film will be have one-night screenings in Santa Cruz, San Francisco, Asheville, Seattle, Portland, Palo Alto, Los Angeles, Chicago, and Cambridge (Massachusetts), with another screening Toronto in May. All screenings will include appearances by the filmmakers who will answer questions. The film is also showing at the South By SouthWest Film Festival. See the full schedule for details. The film will later be purchasable from the documentary's official site.

UPDATE: This film is now available for streaming from Netflix in the U.S.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Group read-through of "Gödel, Escher, Bach"

Every few decades an unknown author brings out a book of such depth, clarity, range, wit, beauty and originality that it is recognized at once as a major literary event. [This] is such a work.

- Martin Gardner
One summer, long ago, I read the first half of an amazing book called Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid, but then I had to return it to the library, and I never found the time to finish it.

Now I've discovered that a group read-through of "Gödel, Escher, Bach" is being organized through Reddit. It's being run by Rob Speer who has previously taught seminars on this book (and who has read it five times!).

What makes it amazing? It discusses Escher's art, Bach's music, and Gödel's mathematics and ties them all together. It's got puzzles and paradoxes and ponderings about the nature of consciousness. And it is terribly fun. It has a whimsical style evidenced by its wordplay and humor. The author incorporated a wonderful dialogue written by Lewis Carroll called "What the Tortoise Said to Achilles" in which the Tortoise and Achilles have a discussion which illustrates a paradox of logical inference.

Here is how it begins:
Achilles had overtaken the Tortoise, and had seated himself comfortably on its back.

"So you've got to the end of our race-course?" said the Tortoise. "Even though it does consist of an infinite series of distances? I thought some wiseacre or another had proved that the thing couldn't be done?"

"It can be done," said Achilles; "It has been done! Solvitur ambulando. You see, the distances were constantly diminishing; and so—"

"But if they had been constantly increasing?" the Tortoise interrupted. "How then?"

"Then I shouldn't be here," Achilles modestly replied; "and you would have got several times round the world, by this time!"

"You flatter me—flatten, I mean," said the Tortoise; "for you are a heavy weight, and no mistake! Well now, would you like to hear of a race-course, that most people fancy they can get to the end of in two or three steps, while it really consists of an infinite number of distances, each one longer than the previous one?"

"Very much indeed!" said the Grecian warrior, as he drew from his helmet (few Grecian warriors possessed pockets in those days) an enormous note-book and a pencil. "Proceed! And speak slowly, please. Short-hand isn't invented yet!"
He then wrote similar dialogues with the Tortoise and Achilles and other characters to accompany and introduce each of the book's chapters. And these are just a fraction of the things that make this book so great!

The plan is to read the book slowly, over six months (from January to July of 2012), so even if you start a little late, there's plenty of time to catch up. Rob will post insights and discussion threads in the group forum at http://reddit.com/r/GEB.

It is a challenging book, but a rewarding one. If you have ever thought about trying to read it, this is a great opportunity to follow through.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

The Deeper Meaning of Liff

While cleaning out my closet, I came across The Deeper Meaning of Liff by Douglas Adams and John Lloyd. The preface to the original, unexpanded version of this book (The Meaning of Liff) read:
In Life* there are many hundreds of common experiences, feelings, situations and even objects which we all know and recognize, but for which no word exists. On the other hand, the world is littered with thousands of spare words which spend their time doing nothing but loafing about on signposts pointing at places. Our job, as we see it, is to get these words down off the signposts and into the mouths of babes and sucklings and so on, where they can start earning their keep in everyday conversation and make a more positive contribution to society.

* And, indeed, in Liff.

Lloyd had helped Adams on the original Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy radio scripts, and while visiting Greece, where Adams was supposed to be writing the novelization, they wound up playing a game that Douglas adapted from an English class exercise. As related in Neil Gaiman's
Don't Panic: The Official Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy (also from my closet),
...someone would say the name of a town, and someone else would say what it meant. [...] As John Lloyd explained [...] "Near the end of the holiday, I started writing them down, not having very much else to do. By the end of the holiday, we had about twenty of these things, some of the best ones in The Meaning of Liff, like 'Ely' — the first, tiniest inkling that something, somewhere, has gone terribly wrong."

Here are some of my favorite words from the book:

Ahenny (ah-HEN-nee) adj.
The way people stand when examining other people's bookshelves.

Ballycumber (ba-li-KUM-ber) n.
One of the six half-read books lying somewhere in your bed.

Boolteens (BOOL-teenz) pl. n.
The small scattering of foreign coins and halfpennies which inhabit dressing tables. Since they are never used and never thrown away boolteens account for a significant drain on the world's money supply.

Dalmilling (dal-MILL-ing) ptcpl. vb.
Continually making small talk to someone who is trying to read a book.

Delaware (DEL-a-wair) n.
The hideous stuff on the shelves of a rented house.

Duddo (DUD-doh) n.
The most deformed potato in any given collection of potatoes.

Dufton (DUF-tn) n.
The last page of a document that you always leave face down in the photocopier and have to go and retrieve later.

Farnham (FAR-num) n.
The feeling you get at about four o'clock in the afternoon when you haven't got enough done.

Ferfer (FER-fer) n.
One who is very excited that they've had a better idea than the one you've just suggested.

Frating Green (FRAY-ting GREEN) adj.
The shade of green which is supposed to make you feel comfortable in hospitals, industrious in schools and uneasy in police stations.

Fulking (FUL-king) ptcpl. vb.
Pretending not to be in when the carol-singers come round.

Hewish (HEW-ish) adj.
In a mood to swipe at vegetation with a stick.

Hoggeston (HOG-us-tn) n.
The act of overshaking a pair of dice in a cup in the mistaken belief that this will affect the eventual outcome in your favor and not irritate everyone else.

Kabwum (KAB-wum) n.
The cutesy humming noise you make as you go to kiss someone on the cheek.

Kent (kent) adj.
Politely determined not to help despite a violent urge to the contrary. Kent expressions are seen on the faces of people who are good at something watching someone else who can't do it at all.

Kentucky (ken-TUK-ee) adj.
Fitting exactly and satisfyingly. The cardboard box that slides neatly into an exact space in a garage, or the last book which exactly fills a bookshelf, is said to fit 'real nice and kentucky'.

Liff (lif) adj.
A common object or experience for which no word yet exists.

Millinocket (MIL-in-ok-et) n.
The thing that rattles around inside an aerosol can.

Nacton (NAK-ton) n.
The 'n' with which cheap advertising copywriters replace the word 'and' (as in 'fish 'n' chips', 'mix 'n' match', 'assault 'n' battery'), in the mistaken belief that this is in some way chummy or endearing.

Plymouth (PLIM-uth) vb.
To relate an amusing story to someone without remembering that it was they who told it to you in the first place.

Quoyness (KWOY-nes) n.
The hatefullness of words like relionus and KopyKwik.

Rochester (RO-ches-ter) n.
One who is able to gain occupation of the armrests on both sides of their cinema or aircraft seat.

Scethrog (SKETH-rog) n.
One of those peculiar beards-without-moustaches worn by religious Belgians and American scientists which help them look like trolls.

Thrupp (THRUP) vb.
To hold a ruler on one end on a desk and make the other end go bbddbbddbbrrbrrrrddrr.

Woking (WOH-king) n.
Standing in the kitchen wondering what you came in here for.

There ought to be a word for a book that you've never fully read and haven't looked at in years, but suddenly can't bear to part with. Inspired by Douglas Adams, I've decided to call it a "Spennymoor".