Tuesday, August 31, 2010

The Bible as an Online Video Game

I certainly hope this is being taken seriously by its creators, and honestly it's about time someone seriously considers the stories of the Bible as a rich source of video game material.  Sure, it's a hot topic rife with controversy.  But if some literary allegory about ancient figures is more taboo than stealing cop cars and shooting hookers then your society is broken.

Penny Arcade chimed in on the topic as well and raised some good points.  Namely that the stories provide an absolute ton of rich content for adventure, not to mention that the characters have a lot of room available for depth.  Even the most pivotal and important characters have wide gaps in the story which can be filled with all kinds of interesting adventures.

Naturally, I'm already a fan of the subject matter.  And I would be lying if I said I wouldn't enjoy holding any kind of small tactical advantage over the average douchebag gamer as a result of my familiarity with the subject matter.  (Where's your precious flying spaghetti monster now, mofo?  *unloads a full clip of sanctification on opponent*)

The subject has come up before, actually.  I remember a discussion about this very topic on Slashdot many moons ago.  And, in usual Slashdot style, I was engaged in a pseudo-argument by some random windbag.  And, let me assure you, nothing brings them out like a discussion even tangentially related to religious beliefs.  Seriously, it's textbook Pavlovian behavior.  My wife is the same way.  Mention anything that can, in 4 degrees or fewer, be in any way linked to anything remotely religious and expect to get a diatribe about the evils of religion.  And of course by "religion" they invariably mean "American Christianity."  It's difficult for some people to separate the two.

Anyway, what basically happened was I made some random point on the topic.  Something about how I like the idea and how the Bible has a ton of content that can be used for video games.  Then someone randomly added to the conversation by stating his views on how God isn't real and none of the stories in the Bible actually happened and how even the events that inspired it were historically insignificant, being confined to that little corner of the world.  And, of course, that we're all idiots for following ancient superstitions.

First of all, -1 Offtopic.  Nobody cares about your religious beliefs, we're talking about a video game.  (And, yes, unshakable faith in the absence of a god is, by definition, faith.  It's a religious belief.  Deal with it.)  But more to the point... what was the point?  Was he insinuating that only historically significant events can qualify for video game material?  Please, explain to me the historical significance of Mario and Luigi.

And even still... "historically insignificant"?  The Bible?  Whatever this guy's been huffing, he may want to lay off for a bit.  I can see where he was trying to go with that, being stories of random little prophets and comparatively small-time kings (except the king in Esther, which may very well be my favorite Bible story, who was likely Xerxes or some Persian king of that period and very much not small-time) and tribal skirmishes otherwise unnoticed by the more developed societies surrounding them.

But then it was written down, and boy howdy did it become significant.  Wars and empires, kings and heroes, for thousands of years they have risen and fallen under the weight of the Bible's pages.  Granted, I see as the great irony the fact that western Christianity has traditionally been a Roman institution and not necessarily a Christian institution.  Thanks Constantine, you simultaneously put Christianity on the map and forever altered it to suit your own views.  But that institution has been far from "historically insignificant."

I guess this guy had his own religious beliefs on history.  Again, the irony is delicious.  It's one thing to not believe in God, it's another thing entirely to plug your ears and shout "la la la..." whenever the subject of history rears what you consider to be its distasteful head.  Yes, pretend the whole of human history and all the colorful religions that have decorated it never happened.  That'll lead to true progress.  Science be praised!

Now, here's hoping this turns out to be an interesting online game.  Again, tons of stories from which to choose.  And, as Tycho from Penny Arcade also pointed out, it's conveniently all public domain.  No licensing, no lawsuits, and a time-tested brand with proven earning potential.  I've heard it referred to as a niche market.  Are millions of devout followers considered a niche?  Well, those millions of people are historically insignificant, so their brand loyalty doesn't matter.  Right?

Monday, August 23, 2010

Light Cones and Retro-Causality

Maybe I'm just not understanding something about this, which is entirely possible given that we're talking about quantum mechanics.  I was watching something on television last night (I know, hardly a means of studying the subject, but bear with me) and there were various guests, filmed in silly locations where they try to use real-world objects as analogies of quantum mechanics, talking about time travel.

Now, there was no shortage of discussion on forward time travel.  Enter or leave various gravitational effects, approach the speed of light, etc.  Forward time travel, as presented in this program, wasn't really time travel at all.  It was merely a change in the relative perception of the passage of time.  It had the perceived effect of time travel, but so does freezing yourself and being revived in a thousand years.  The passage of time, relative to your perception as you zip through space at near-luminal speeds, remains.  That is, you continue to physically exist throughout the entire time as perceived by anybody.  You don't blink out of existence and re-emerge in the future across any kind of event horizon.

But when it came to backward time travel, that was a whole different story.  There was really no way around the fact that speeding up or slowing down one's relative passage of time doesn't make it go backwards.  (Much in the same way as when someone misses their turn on the road and suddenly begins to drive very slowly as they try to figure out how to go back and make that turn.  There is no forward velocity that's slow enough to take you backward.  Deal with it.  Take the next left and double-back.)

So the only segment the program had on this subject was a professor who is conducting experiments for the purpose of using quantum entanglement to send information backward in time.  Experimentally we're only talking about a couple of photons, not a letter that you can write to yourself in the past.  But it's a start.  But the way he described it just didn't sell the idea to me at all.

He spent some time attempting (with delicious looking pizza, boardwalk style) to illustrate the idea of a light cone.  Well, the concept isn't terribly difficult.  Looking forward and backward on the scale of time, a cone shape outward into the scale of space emerges relative to the speed of light from any given point.  This cone contains the realm of causality for that point.  Anything within the scope of the reverse cone can affect the point, and the point can affect anything within the scope of the forward cone.  This is based on the idea that nothing can travel faster than light.  And, even if we can travel faster than light, we simply change the volume of the cone.  The cone itself still exists.

Enter quantum entanglement.  Quantum mechanics may indeed tell us that anything can happen at any time for any reason, but more specifically it tells us that particles are linked together by a means that has no limitation of velocity.  If you affect one state of the entanglement, the other state will instantly know.  This happens regardless of distance.  Even separated by light years, the two states of the entanglement share information instantaneously.  Somehow the information is transmitted and received trans-luminally.  No energy is sent, and energy is bound by Einsteinian physics anyway so it wouldn't be able to traverse any distance instantly.  It's just... instant.  On the light cone the information remains on the same plane as the point.

The professor with the pizza barely touched this as he attempted to explain the idea of sending a message back in time.  Basically, the idea was that you can use quantum entanglement to transmit information to a distant recipient.  But he kept describing it as the recipient receiving the information before you sent it.  This was where he lost me.  As I see it, perhaps the recipient is watching the sender through a telescope, receives the message, then later witnesses the sender transmitting the message in the telescope.  But that's not "back in time."  That's just causality outside of the confines of the light cone.

Essentially, on the scale of relative perception of the passage of time (remember the speeding or slowing velocity of the passage of time), you've discovered the number zero.  The light cone becomes entirely flat.  It's now a plane.  Don't get me wrong, this is a big deal.  But it's not "backward in time."  You haven't actually crossed back over that plane.  You've achieved a non-positive time difference, but not a negative time difference.

Consider two machines with synchronized atomic clocks measuring time to within the trillionth of a second.  One machine sends a piece of time-stamped information to the other via traditional means.  When the other receives it, the time stamp is different from (lower than) what it currently knows.  Time has passed.  Now instead imagine that one machine sends a piece of time-stamped information to the other via quantum entanglement.  When the other receives it, the time stamp is exactly equal to what it currently knows.  Some time later, it may perceive through conventional means that the first machine is about to send a message... the message that it has already received.  But it didn't receive that message before the message was sent, merely before it knew that message was sent.  Not time travel.

The idea of sending a message back in time is the idea that, after something happens, you can send a message into the past to someone who can prevent that thing from happening.  Causal paradoxes and alternate universes aside, what you're talking about is retro-causality.  The future affecting the past.  But that's laughable compared to what is actually physically being attempted.  The physics is describing trans-luminal causality, that's all.  The idea that the present can affect the present, where previously it could affect only the future.  It does nothing to change a past event.

It's possible to conceive of a machine which could, using all kinds of ridiculously advanced control over quantum mechanics, affect things outside of the scope of time.  But it still can't touch the past.  The past is, and always will be, gone.  This machine can, from the moment it is activated, affect any point in space or time forward from its initial relative position.  But it can't go back to any point in time prior to its own existence.  The Wonkavator can go sideways, slantways and squareways, but I'm afraid it can't go backwards.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Kindergarten Geocache

Cammy is currently enjoying her first day of Kindergarten.  She even rode the bus by herself like a big girl.  Quite literally by herself, in fact.  When we saw her off in the morning she was the only child at the bus stop.  Then, being the concerned and involved parents that we are, we went to the school to make sure she got to her class fine and knew what was going on.  What we discovered was that she was, in fact, the only kindergarten student (at least from her class) to arrive on that bus and it was the first bus to arrive at the school.  She thoroughly enjoyed the process, though.

(By the way, I love her school.  They have a smart board/projector system in every class.  I no longer feel agitated about buying all kinds of supplies at the behest of the school, a brief tour through the facility and interactions with the staff and seeing them handle the first day of school indicates that they're running a pretty good shop there.  Though I still think the excessive cleaning supplies are unnecessary.  Kids get dirty.  It's good for them.  I'm fairly certain that if I wrap my child in a magical cone of Clorox for 18 years then as soon as she steps out into the world on her own she'll probably get cancer and die.)

Anyway... As we were seeing the facility and meeting the teachers earlier this week, one of the things the teacher asked Cammy was "do you like treasure hunts?"  She then handed Cammy a sheet of paper which listed key points of interest throughout the classroom, and Cammy's job was to go find them and come back for a prize.  Nice little way to get Cammy comfortable and familiar with the room.  Naturally, Cammy responded well to this.  You see, Cammy and I go on "treasure hunts" all the time.  It's what she (and, by extension, we) calls Geocaching, since that's kind of a big word for her.

Cammy and I go out pretty much every weekend (weather permitting, etc.) and find a few more geocaches, and she loves it.  We both do, really.  It's a fun hobby, it's good father-daughter bonding time, and it's just great to go out and see interesting little pieces of the world around us that we otherwise would never have bothered to notice.  This got me to thinking, and I have since cobbled together the pieces of an idea for her Kindergarten class that may be a fun little project for the kids.  And, of course, it would be by certain measures good for them.

The idea is to have an official geocache for the class.  Something near the school (it's in a pretty good location, being surrounded by trees and near a park) that the children can hide the cache and occasionally monitor it as a class.  It's at the very least a nice little walk in the park field trip, which is always a good thing.  But they can make it even more involved than that.  Here's what I'm envisioning:

Each child draws a picture, potentially of his or her self, and writes (in classic 5-year-old style) his or her first name on it.  Something small, smaller than a 3x5 index card.  It would be dated (even if it's just dated "Kindergarten class of 2010-2011" or something of that nature), and each one would share a label describing what it is and why it's in the cache.  The label would be something akin to:

"Hi!  I'm a geocache item created by a kindergarten student.  I was hidden in a cache along with lots of others just like me.  I'd really like to travel to other geocaches so I can see new and interesting places.  Please take me with you and hide me in another cache.  Also, if it's not too much trouble, could you send an email to _____@gmail.com telling me where you found me and where you hid me?  Don't forget to mention my name and class year, there are a lot of us!  Thank you, and happy geocaching!"

You get the idea.  Each of these would of course have to be laminated to protect against the elements.  The more durable we can make it the better.  The email address (and it doesn't even have to be email, it can be any form of notification and tracking) would just be a school-monitored (or parent-monitored if someone were to volunteer for this, which I would be glad to do) account and the information sent to it could be passed along to the kids so they can see where their cards are going.  Maybe even have a map of some kind to track its travels.  (Again, I would thoroughly enjoy putting together a digital representation of this.)  Sort of a pen-pal to the world kind of setup.

Now how does this benefit the kids themselves, other than just be really fun and maybe learn a little bit about maps and distances and such?  Well, let's take a look at the things I think Cammy is slowly gaining from our geocaching:
  • Going outside.  It's that simple.  Go outside, go to a park, go into the woods or through a field, get your hands and clothes a little dirty.  Go do something.  It's certainly a heck of a lot better than sitting around in front of the TV all day.  Sure, I'm a huge fan of the smart boards in the classrooms, but I'm equally a fan of stepping out into the blinding sun and enjoying the outdoors.
  • Leaving no trace.  Geocachers, as a community, tend to be considerate of the environment around them.  Not in a hippie tree-hugging way, but in a not trampling through the woods and destroying things way.  For example, one of the caches Cammy and I found was near an old farm house building of some kind.  It was very much off the dirt road, which itself was off the beaten path.  Nothing around it, nothing can be seen.  But it's there.  It's interesting, and we were curious as to what its function was and how old it was and all that.  The cache specifically said to please not touch it, don't break or disturb anything.  Not because that guy owns it, but because he would hate to see it damaged or ruined in any way beyond what years of nature has already done.  And, as geocachers, we tend to all think that same way.  When we find a cache, we don't just toss it back on the ground.  We carefully place it back as it was found.  We don't leave any trace that we were even there, save for the log entry in the cache itself.  We don't disturb the environment around us.
  • Taking no more than you give.  One of Cammy's favorite things about geocaching is that she gets new toys.  She's a small child, after all.  But she understands at this point that she must bring toys to trade.  She may not fully grasp the idea just yet, but on some basic level she's beginning to understand that it's poor form to just take things from these caches.  Every time something is taken, something else must be left.  (The kids would especially love this part because they can see the interesting things that people leave in the class' cache, and possibly trade them out with other things.)
  • Being considerate beyond your personal scope.  We try to teach children to be considerate to people, naturally.  These people generally include friends, family, teachers, etc.  Basically, people with whom the children interact.  But what about the people with whom the children do not interact?  The people whom the children never even meet or see?  This is similar to the "leaving no trace" point above, but on a different level.  Other people, people whom you'll never meet, enjoy these geocaches and/or the places in which they're hidden.  Be considerate to those people.  If something about the geocache needs to be fixed, fix it.  Or at least report it back to the owner of the cache.  Don't take up excessive space in the log book, don't damage the log book, etc.
  • Appreciation of the little pieces of the world around us.  This is probably my favorite part of the activity.  We're not talking about deep woods camping here, just little spots slightly off the beaten path (or sometimes on the beaten path) that we otherwise would never notice.  I mean, think about how you view the area around you.  There's your yard and your neighborhood and all the nooks and crannies you notice on foot there, but outside of walking distance it sort of breaks down to a series of destinations and paths to reach them.  We tend to neglect that those paths, and the paths near them and so on, are also filled with little nooks and crannies and interesting walkable things.  The simple act of standing still and looking around, in an area where you normally drive by at 40mph, gives you a different perspective and a new appreciation for that area.  It doesn't make your world bigger, it just reminds you of the fact that the big world is made up of many little areas.
There's probably more that I just can't think of right now, and I may add it later.

I really think the children would enjoy this and would learn from it.  And, over the years spent at that school, they can continue to see how their class' items have traveled and how other class' items have traveled, etc.  New kids in the class can add their own, the kids can continue to interact with it if they so choose as they grow into older classes, they can involve friends and family, etc.  And I think it would help teach them some important life skills beyond the usual classroom rhetoric.  The teachers and administration may enjoy it as well, seeing what's become of something their kids made, etc.

I'm definitely going to have to put together a proposal of some sort for the school administration.  Heck, maybe this could be something our non-starter Kiwanis Club (the club that doesn't want to go on the cart) could host.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Playlists and Albums

I've recently been listening to a lot of Rush.  This is, of course, a good thing.  But in this I've re-discovered the value of the "album" in music.

These days, in this age of iPods and eWidgets, playlists are becoming more common than albums.  After all, it's my music collection and I should be able to organize it as I see fit, right?  Well sure, that's fine in some circumstances.  Creating a party mix of various songs from yesteryear, or a driving mix of enjoyable music that keeps one awake without being distracting, or even a nap time mix of soft classical.  But it's important that we don't lose sight of the value that an album itself can represent.

I had lost sight of that, and that's why my first attempt to "get into Rush" met with failure.  For this, I apologize.  See, I've never really been a Rush fan.  Their music is fantastic, and I've always recognized that, but I just never really paid any attention.  At some point I decided to give it a try, so I loaded up my iPod with as much Rush as I could muster and set it to random.  And, well, I just didn't get it.  I didn't see the fanatical appeal.  But, of course, that was my fault.

To go from Moving Pictures to Vapor Trails to Fly By Night to Counterparts to Hemispheres and end up on Power Windows... That's not the musical journey that the artists envisioned and produced, but rather a disorienting maelstrom of sounds and experiences.  I was hearing Rush music, but I was not listening to Rush.

Since it didn't click with me, I moved on.  I went back to what I was doing.  A few gems from that attempt made it to my regular playlists, but that's it.  Then sometime later my friends and I went to go see the Rush documentary, Beyond the Lighted Stage, at the Nickelodeon theater downtown.  (It is, by the way, an excellent documentary.)  This gave me a little more insight into the career of Rush and helped me understand the progression of their albums.

See, unlike other bands which tend to have a sound and just stick with it, Rush has evolved tremendously over the years.  They've truly perfected their craft in the sense that perfection is a journey, not a destination.  Over the years they've produced a lot of albums, but each one is its own discreet unit.  While some may be grouped into eras of the band's career, the albums themselves are atomic units.  Some songs may be taken on their own, but the album is the true unit of music being presented.

So shortly thereafter I tried again.  I commuted to and from work one day listening to Moving Pictures, in the order in which the songs were intended.  I.  Was.  Hooked.  And so it continued, album after album, commute after commute.  One need not necessarily listen to the albums themselves in the order of the band's career, but one does need to keep each album in its proper era context.  If you just came off of Roll The Bones and you're in the mood for 2112, take a moment and get into the right mindset.  You're not just moving to the next song in your playlist, you're embarking on a musical journey.  Prepare yourself accordingly.

I think I'm just about ready to load up some prog metal concept albums.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Hello, Cruel World

I guess I'm really getting into this whole blogging thing. (I've even recently been delving into the Twitter micro-blogging scene, which I've always personally seen as a solution looking for a problem.) I have the developer blog and I really enjoy contributing to that, but now I guess I also need a place for my personal entries. A little personal stuff is fine there, but not too much.  (And of course I also have the Google Voice blog, but that's just silly.)

There used to exist my personal website, where the primary content for a long time was pretty much a blog, but like many things that has faded away into history. That site was more about being a web development playground than about its content. And the content just wasn't all that great, with a few exceptions that I may migrate to here in time.

And as I've moved away from self-hosting everything, which was more effort than it was worth, and more toward using the tools that are already available, here I find myself creating another blog to fill the gap of that old site. Maybe I'll be able to generate better content this time, maybe not. Either way, writing is better than not writing.