Departures..
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Tonight was my last meeting as an Executive Senator with GPSS.. I’ve got mixed feelings. On the one hand, it’ll be good to have my Wednesday nights back, but on the other, I always find it a little anticlimactic and sad to move on from any organization I’ve been a part of.

In the case of GPSS, I’ve been involved for almost 5 years, about 3.5 of that as an Executive Senator. Through it, I’ve been on all sorts of committees: from search committees for the Dean of Engineering and Student Regent to the University Disciplinary Committee, from the Disputes Resolution Advisory Committee to the Science & Policy Committee. It’s been a good ride, and I’ve had the opportunity to meet and work with a wide variety of interesting people, to contribute to policy discussions at various levels, and to participate and help organize a variety of events. With the exception of the people I’ve met through FIUTS, my social life in Seattle is largely based on people I’ve meet through student government, and I’m very grateful for the friendships I’ve made. Even my D&D group is partly made up from people I met as the graduate student liaison with ASUW, the larger student government of UW.

Stepping down was of course inevitable. I plan to defend sometime in early 2014 and that’s only possible if I knuckle down and get on with my research project, but it’s a little hard to let go. I think part of it is probably my native perfectionism. Though I’ve been with GPSS for some time, it’s only really been in the couple of years that I’ve had the confidence to drive discussions and there’s far more that I could learn from the organization and its people. Every time we pass a resolution or run an event, there’s clear things I can see that I could improve on. That’s not to say that any of these are failures, merely that there’s always something to strive for. It feels strange to leave when there’s more I could learn and do.

Anyway, here are shout outs to some of the people that have inspired me in my time with GPSS: Jake Faleschini, President 2008-2010, whose open passion and humble approach to leadership did a lot to improve my estimation of the US when I first arrived at UW; Charles Plummer, President 2011-2012 and Exec Senator for years before, whose meticulous attention to detail and steady hand on administrative affairs always set a high bar I never quite felt I was able to meet; Adam Sherman, President 2012-13, whose marvellous charisma and positive outlook is just a pleasure to witness; and Melanie Mayock, VP 2012-13, who is about as tenacious and committed a lobbyist as I’m ever likely to encounter, with principles to boot.

Others have become good friends, even if I don’t see them often: Kristen Hosey, who is taking her never ending reserve of humour off with her to Africa for a year; Lindsay Morse whose quiet resolve and perspective I seem only to encounter at GPSS reunions and PAX; Shawn Mincer whose huge smile and never-ending comic book suggestions I hope to see and hear more often; and Yutaka Jono, who I’ve not seen since Osaka in 2011, but whose sense of humour and eccentric outlook on life I hope to experience again. Still others I’m still getting to know or never got to know as well as I’d have liked: Aaron Naumann, Chris Lizotte, Vera Giampietro, Evan Firth, Megan Gambs, Colin Goldfinch, Keolu Fox, Alice Popejoy, and many others.

But it’s the continuing flow of new people, passionate, principled, and engaged, that I’ll miss most. GPSS has been a privilege to work for and a pleasure. It’s been great. I hope to stay in touch.


x-posted from [meme-hazard]. Comment here or there - up to you.

3D High Frame Rate film
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Well, that was interesting.

I just saw The Hobbit in 3D High Frame Rate. Ignoring the plot, design, acting and so on for a moment, I was struck by the 3D response I got. Normally, I have monoscopic vision due to my extremely far-sighted left eye, so seeing something recognizably 3D was really surprising. It ran counter to all of my experience with the real world. I’m really not sure what was going on there – maybe there’s something about the technology that triggers it for me or maybe I do really see 3D after all, but without enough response to make it noticeable. Either way, it was awesome and new, and more testing is warranted.

As for the high frame rate, I really liked it. As a player of games, I really appreciate high frame rates as they let my eyes blur the motion rather than having it presented to me pre-blurred on film. There were a few moments of oddness early on, of course, Bilbo puttering around his house on speed and bunnies running faster that seems natural, but I got over that fast. In all, it felt a lot like an extremely well rendered computer game running on really good hardware. If we can expect that more from movies in the future, then I’m looking forward to it.

For another interesting perspective on 3D HFR in The Hobbit and the direction of high frame rates in film, I’d suggest reading Kevin Kelly’s post on the subject.


x-posted from [meme-hazard]. Comment here or there - up to you.

Paralympics 2012
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I’m far more inspired by these photos from the Paralympics than I was by anything I saw from the Olympics. There’s something much more moving about athletes overcoming physical adversity to even participate let alone win their events.

Some highlights:

  • high jump with only one leg
  • table tennis with irregularly formed hands
  • archery with feet
  • handstands without hands
  • blind running

Particular interesting are the measures taken to empower these athletes, such as guide runners for the blind, specialized prosthetics, and sports specifically designed around their capabilities (such as goalball). Also of interest is the rather sophisticated system for describing capabilities and disability used to ensure that athletes compete primarily with those who have similar capabilities.

While writing this, I started wondering whether disabled was a word I could use here, and eventually decided it wasn’t. If this isn’t an example of how physical adversity due to accident, genetics, or birth defect doesn’t necessarily ‘disable’ someone, I don’t know what else could be. These people are clearly just differently abled to the rest of us.


x-posted from [meme-hazard]. Comment here or there - up to you.

Avon Reserve
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There was a short opinion piece in the Press the other day about plans for the Avon River as Christchurch rebuilds. Read it here.

The plan they’re talking about is broadly that espoused by the Avon-Otakoro Network, and envisions rejuvenating the damaged lands along the river (where much of the heaviest quake damaged land is) by creating a park and reserve.

I’m generally in favor of something like that, and commented on the article accordingly:

I strongly support turning the banks of the Avon into a reserve. I don’t so much mind the specifics: a wetland, a park, a garden, or a common use space – all would be great, I think. A combination of the above would suit me best.

I think the following are important:

  • we shouldn’t rebuild houses that will slide into the river the next time we have a quake.
  • we shouldn’t solidify the banks with concrete. It’s tragic how deadened a city looks with that sort of land management.
  • we should use this as an opportunity to build and recast our city in a way that captures our shared ideals and that offers us opportunity to create meaning in our lives (whatever that means to each of us individually).
  • we shouldn’t let a small group of powerful individuals (be they politicians, business, or the wealthy) tell us how to use the land. It may be held by the government, but it’s our city, and we should have a say in how it’s used.
  • we should cater to as diverse a selection of citizen’s interests as possible.
  • we should respect and showcase the land and its flora and fauna. They’re a big part of what makes NZ so special. Living overseas as I have on and off for the last few years, I’m struck with how much the rest of the world is jealous of our country, and it makes me sad when we take that for granted.

I’d like to see nature reserves, bike trails, foot trails, gentle banks with willows, band rotundas, parks for markets and fairs, and more. So few cities have the opportunity to remake so much of themselves, and I’m really hoping we’ll be able to meet our own dreams and take advantage of that.

I grew up near Horseshoe Lake and the Avon. I’m in the US now, but I miss my home, and it strains me not to be able to be there as it rebuilds.


x-posted from [meme-hazard]. Comment here or there - up to you.

Anatomy class
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Tomorrow morning, I start the Anatomy and Embryology class that all medical and dental students here at the University of Washington take. I’m neither, but since my PhD dissertation work centers around teaching anatomy, I’m taking it.

Anatomy is typically taught using a combination of methods: lectures, living anatomy, and dissection. Of these, dissection is the most remarkable and unique. There’s really no other field of study in which you are so closely exposed to the dead and thus to thoughts of your own mortality. It’s an intense experience. I’m not sure what to think, or how to feel.

I know from visiting the dissection labs briefly last year that I won’t simply freak out and be unable to cope. But, I also know that there’s a pervading sense of unease and queasiness from being in the room that I’ll have to cope with. It’s not clear to me if that will come with time, or whether it will take substantial reflection.

I know that the smell won’t be intense or even particularly bothersome. But, I also know that there’s a raw physicality to it all that reminds me too much of cured meat for that to be an attractive food stuff for some time.

I’m not worried about being shocked. On the contrary, I expect to be fixated and fascinated. I’m worried about the slow moving emotional effect of being around the dead, and what effect that will have on me. Worried is the wrong word – curious and a little apprehensive is probably more accurate. Curious because I want to know how it’ll affect me, and apprehensive because I really have no idea what to expect.

Regardless, it will be challenging, and intensely meaningful. If that doesn’t make something worth doing, I don’t know what is.


x-posted from [meme-hazard]. Comment here or there - up to you.

Musical nonsense phrases
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Last month saw PSY’s ‘Gangnam Style’ video break big online. If you’ve not seen it, you should. The music’s catchy, and they clearly had far too much fun making the music video. Go on, watch it.

After a few days’ trouble keeping it out of my head, I took a look into some of his other tracks and found those amusing enough to prompt me to grab his album. And I discovered something interesting: rap other languages is way catchier than rap in English. Because I can’t understand the lyrics, the vocals become rhythmic instrumentation and, again because I can’t understand what’s going on, I’m not distracted or offended by the drivel that sometimes passes for lyrics in rap. That’s not to say PSY’s lyrics are drivel – I haven’t the foggiest what he’s saying. All I know is that I have trouble excising from my mind what seems to me to be musical nonsense phrases.

For kicks, here’s another of his videos. Again, having too much fun.


x-posted from [meme-hazard]. Comment here or there - up to you.

Augmented Reality films
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Recently, via the IEET, I’ve come across two excellent films exploring the possible impact of augmented reality on our lives. There are positives, but also negatives.

The first, Sight, is only 8 minutes long, and focuses on a guy using AR apps to help him date. All goes well, until, well, I’ll let you watch it. This one’s neat because it also explores different ways in which people might employ gamification to steer their behaviour.

The second, H+, is an ongoing web series. I’ve only just started watching it, but the production quality is excellent, as is the narrative pacing. It’s not yet clear how much of a role AR will play, but it’s clear and present from the beginning. The first episode starts out slow, but quickly grabs you and draws you into the setting and its characters. I’m looking forward to seeing the rest.

There are 10 episodes out so far, and it seems they’re still going strong. If you’re using RSS, grab the episode feed here.


x-posted from [meme-hazard]. Comment here or there - up to you.

Prosthetic Athletics
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I’m more than a little impressed by the audacity of Philippe Croizon. Despite having had his arms and legs amputated, he’s successfully swum the English Channel, the Straits of Gibraltar, a chunk of the Red Sea, and is now swimming Bering Strait.

To do this, he swims freestyle, with flipper-like leg prosthetics attached to the stumps at his knees. I’m intrigued that he still does arm strokes, despite having clearly atrophied muscles and no arm prosthetics – I’m guessing they help him with stability and steering.

What with Oskar Pistorius coming in 8th in the 400m at the London Olympics with his Cheetah Flex-Foot prosthetics, we’re closing quickly on a line where the performance of human engineered body parts exceeds that of natural ones in certain contexts.


x-posted from [meme-hazard]. Comment here or there - up to you.

Markets inside the organization
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There’s a double standard in the rhetoric around markets that’s always intrigued me:

  1. Free markets are the best way to organize society
  2. Central planning and command leadership is the best way to organize large organizations such as corporations and government

The first claim is regularly heard in political discourse, while the second is rarely made openly, but is instead implied by the status quo. The double standard comes from the fact that absent some clear distinction, if market-based solutions are the best approach to organizing society at large, they ought also to be the best approach to organizing large organizations. Worse, the first argument is most commonly heard from people established in positions of power within some centrally planned organization. Given that, it’s very hard to hear this as anything other than hypocrisy designed to maintain power and wealth.

This issue is not unknown to economists. This afternoon, I read Yanis Varoufakis discussing the issue in the context of Valve, a game company that uses a radically different management structure to most companies that is arguably much closer to the philosophic ideals behind free markets. He describes the situation as follows:

Interestingly, however, there is one last bastion of economic activity that proved remarkably resistant to the triumph of the market: firms, companies and, later, corporations. Think about it: market-societies, or capitalism, are synonymous with firms, companies, corporations. And yet, quite paradoxically, firms can be thought of as market-free zones. Within their realm, firms (like societies) allocate scarce resources (between different productive activities and processes). Nevertheless they do so by means of some non-price, more often than not hierarchical, mechanism!

The full article is a little long, and could use a little editing, but really interesting, particularly if you’re interested, as I am, in how to build organizations that can attract good people to work on interesting consulting jobs and projects in an open and distributed manner.

Read the article: Why Valve? Or, what do we need corporations for and how does Valve’s management structure fit into today’s corporate world?


x-posted from [meme-hazard]. Comment here or there - up to you.

Critique – Mass Effect
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The other night, after 5 years of putting it off, I finally completed Mass Effect. I see now why it’s so well-regarded.

Briefly, here’s what I think was awesome:

  • Elegant and succinct core plot. Mass Effect’s core plot was actually rather short; about 8 hours of play by my count. This kept it sharp and elegant. It employed some classic tropes, making it accessible, but did so with nuance and context so they seemed new and vibrant. It captured grand scope while remaining anchored in the motivations of individual characters. I’ll refrain from any more detail in case there’s anyone else left who’s not played it.
  • Sharply defined and well-rounded characters. Each of your team member’s motivations and background were unique, and the game wasted no opportunity to expand on these through background dialog, interjections, and excellent character driven side quests. Most other NPCs, too, were detailed in a believable way that made it easy to empathize with them and thus care about the eventual fate of them and their world. This also made side quests feel far less arbitrary and repetitive, despite the limited range of quest activities (kill this, talk to this guy, get this thing) and the frequent re-use of interior maps.
  • Excellent integration of PC customization. So many games let you customize your character’s appearance, background, and other attributes, then limit the impact of those choices to purely mechanical or cosmetic effects. There’s nothing wrong with either; character optimization is, after all, a valid element of play and a lot of fun. Furthermore, mechanical changes implemented well can afford different styles of play that lend a lot of depth – Deus Ex is one of the better examples of this. Mass Effect, however, does the best job I’ve seen in a CRPG of adapting the world and the plot according to those customizations by changing NPC interactions, providing different side quests, and, moreover, by reminding you of your choices at relevant points throughout the game instead of letting them fade away into irrelevancy.
  • Strong setting and backstory.The setting, as developed in in-game dialog and the game’s codex of background information, was coherent, internally consistent, detailed, and mostly plausible given current scientific understanding. Even the three notable exceptions of mass effect (necessary for FTL travel and comms, artificial gravity, and other space operatic tropes), biotic abilities (basically magic), and tech abilities (basically technology that’s indistinguishable from magic) were well fleshed out and justified. Two design details I really liked:
    1. Frequent opportunities to learn more about the world by interacting with computers and other objects, thus drawing you into the setting by reinforcing the feeling that you’re not just playing a game, you’re exploring a world.
    2. The detail, plausibility and novelty of many of the planet descriptions, and the look and feel of the planets you could land on really helped to establish a sense of place for the galaxy as a whole. Driving around lava plain looking for mercenaries is cool, but driving around an alien world with highly active geology caused by tidal effects from a nearby gas giant is way cooler. Maybe I’m just a nerd.
  • High production values. This one’s straight forward – if you design your world with care, but present it poorly, few players will ever take the time to appreciate it. If, however, you employ attractive and above-all consistent aesthetics throughout, in audio, graphics, and UI, it becomes much easier to appreciate the experience as a seamless whole and thus become immersed in it. Mass Effect does this well.

Shepard as I saw her

Nothing is ever perfect, though. I have the following critiques:

  • Failure to capture or emulate scale.  Space… is big. Really big. You just won’t believe how vastly hugely mindbogglingly big it is.It’s hard to believe, then, that all of galactic society is governed by a council of three. Or that the capital of the galaxy has exactly one trader, one med clinic, one banker, one dance club, and one seedy bar of note. Or that ambassadors would be satisfied with one room embassies. Or that there’s only 60 star systems in the galaxy. Or that all of the interesting features of a planet can be found in square patches 5 km each side. This is a classic problem for game designers – reality is big and complex, but your game has a limited budget, so you have to take shortcuts. There are strategies, however:
    • Allude to greater things. Players don’t need to see or interact with all of the parts of some system, but the presence of those parts should be acknowledged. Instead of forming a council of three, Mass Effect’s council members could have been presented as their spokes-aliens. Depict mass deliberations in the background of a scene, and have them occasionally consult off screen colleagues, and you’ve got something more believable. Add a sub quest that deals with alternate factions within the council, and the rest of the council feels real. Don’t dwell on it, but allude to its complexity. Mass Effect’s elevator newscasts are an excellent example of just this – you get the feeling that there’s a real news-hungry populace out there, eager to know what’s happening. But you never see them.
    • Don’t be limited by travel distance. Sure, travel helps players establish a graphical sense of place, and driving and navigation tasks make for fun game-play when done right. But in most games, travel is a means, not an end. Instead of trying to fit all meaningful resources into a single traversible environment, planets could have been represented as a globe or world map with places of interest marked. Planetary scale would seem more realistic and planets could be re-visited without repeating travel segments, and driving could be reserved for when it serves a dramatic or atmospheric purpose; approaching key installations, for example, as in the core plot. Weirdly, they got this right for planetary systems, but not for planets themselves. The same approach would have worked well for the citadel, too, and even reflects human behavior – most of us have a small number of favored stores & restaurants, ignoring the rest except for special occasions.  The same might apply to traders, med clinics, and other services.
    • Procedural generation. The most direct way to create a feeling of vastness is to actually provide it. Elite 2, for example, included a mind-bogglingly vast array of stars (100,000+) to visit in a game only 400 kB in size. Sure, 99.999% of these worlds were irrelevant, but they were there, and you could visit them, if you wanted. This made the universe seem real and huge, dispelling the feeling of game world as sandbox that so often becomes evident when you look back from the end and see that you’ve explored everything, done everything. Obviously, procedural generation needs to be supplemented with actual design, but this could be limited to customizing 50 or so important star systems. The key challenge here is keeping the UI uncluttered and keeping the player from getting distracted.
  • Uninterruptible animations. Games are interactive experiences, and interactivity is dependent on a sense of control. Unskippable cut-scenes and animations may be warranted in certain rare situations, but surely elevator animations are not. The only value I got out of elevators was from the newscasts in the Citadel, and even these only occupied 50% of the animation time. I really don’t understand why designers persist with this particular class of mistake.
  • Quest interiors. Mass Effect’s many secondary assignments involve visiting facilities on a variety of star systems throughout the galaxy. Disappointingly, only four fairly basic designs were used to represent these: the cargo ship, the above ground building, the below ground building, and the mine / cave. Slight variation was created by rearranging furniture and cargo, but the simplicity of these interiors really undermined the otherwise excellent senses of place created throughout the game. This was particular jarring in comparison to the detailed and diverse environments used for primary missions. Templates are a great tool for building large numbers of environments, but rather than whole area templates, they probably should have used room templates (a la Oblivion), as it’s much easier to explain regularities at that level (standard habitat construction components, for example).
  • Collection Quests. I understand why designers include collection quests, but I still don’t understand why they do them so badly. Their strength is that they appeal to our intrinsic motivation to complete easily measured tasks, and in doing so cause players to explore the world much more thoroughly. Their weakness, however, is that they can flatten the delight of exploration into an exhaustive grind. Instead of telling players ‘you must walk all over every planet to complete this quest’, games should tell players ‘keep your eyes open for hints about where to find these things’, then give them reason to trust that they’ll have ample clues to find them all, with perhaps some gradient of difficulty for the players who like searching for all of the eggs. It’s far more interesting to chase down rumours about the location of hidden artifacts than it is to drive back and forth looking for blips on your radar.
  • Inventory management. As previously mentioned, character optimization is a core aspect of RPGs, and that includes inventory optimization. On this front, however, Mass Effect fails:
    • Aside from a few special upgrades, all items in Mass Effect are labeled Name – Model, with name affecting the look of the item, and model the power. So, a suit of Onyx-I armor from the beginning of the game looks identical to a suit of Onyx-IX, but is much weaker. Upgrades, then, are a colorless matter of incrementally improving certain attributes, to the point that I found it more interesting to find a different but worse suit of armor than an purely better one. Furthermore, several makes and models were strictly better than others, meaning that whole sections of the inventory tree could be safely ignored. As a result, inventory optimization shifted from an exploration of cool things I could trick out my character with to a dry task of making sure all of the numbers were optimal. Borderlands provides a far better example of inventory optimization in an action RPG; another relevant consideration is the idea of ‘incomparables’, as explained in this episode of Extra Credits.
    • Inventory management is an element of gameplay best thought of as a task. You have specific goals in mind, specific choices to make, and can ignore much of the rest of the game while doing them. Like most tasks, then, the UI for managing inventory should be focused on helping you complete that task by providing relevant information when it’s needed and limiting the time delay and effort associated with each action. Mass Effect’s base inventory UI isn’t bad, but it’s not great – it only lists 5 items at once, for example. Where they really drop the ball, however, is in shopping for the rest of your team. You’re only able to modify team inventory when that team member’s with you, or when you’re on the ship (when that team member is not with you). Problem is, when you’re talking to a merchant, you can only compare their wares against the equipment of team members who are with you. So, you’re either reduced to taking your team to the merchant in small groups or writing down the key stats of their gear and managing it by going to their lockers in the ship. Managing this sort of information by hand is not fun and is precisely the sort of thing a good UI is meant to obviate.

All up, though, Mass Effect was excellent, and good motivation for me to move on to the next one.


x-posted from [meme-hazard]. Comment here or there - up to you.

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