Friday, November 18, 2005

18 November 2005: Adventure

Light relief from this AKTing lark is provided by occasional teaching and guidance for some undergrads learning languages such as Visual Basic, Java and, from next semester, probably Javascript.

One of my duties is to set and mark weekly labs and semesterly assignments. For the current bunch of second years, this means I get to choose what their object-oriented programming project will be. Ah, the choices, the choices. Could I go back to my MSc and steal the vehicle project which so clearly demonstrates subclassing? No, because it's tedious and boring. How about a theme park, where the rides, rollercoaster trains and customers are all objects interacting with each other? No, it'll probably require a fancy animated front end. Be a good one if they were learning Flash, though. So eventually I settled on a heavy extension of the project covered in chapter seven of the BlueJ book: write a text-based adventure game.

Now this, for me, is great fun. Brought up on the BBC Model B with its many limitations (how on earth did we survive with just 32k of RAM? I mean, really??), I quickly developed a taste for 'interactive fiction' as it was known. Colossal Cave, the model for them all, was ported across to the Beeb by Level 9 and provided me with many happy hours in a twisty maze of passageways, all alike. Acornsoft's Castle of Riddles and Philosopher's Quest were also great fun and quite challenging, while Scott Adams' Circus I just recall as being highly frustrating in terms of both the game quality and the extremely poor parser. Then one day my sister brought home the best game I ever played: L, the Mathemagical Adventure.

This was a school game, educational software in its early form. I knew a little of these games from 4Mation's efforts such as Granny's Garden and Flowers of Crystal. But this was different altogether. Here we had a sensible text-only GUI that didn't try to overpower me with teletext-style graphics, and the gameplay wasn't full of random monsters and clueless puzzles. The game fitted together wonderfully well and while certain puzzles I would still regard as too difficult (the clues to play 'three blind mice' on the piano were obscure, to say the least), it was sufficiently enrapturing to grab the attention of almost anyone who played, and keep their attention as the game unfolded. And the best thing was, I learned without even realising I was learning. At the time I didn't even know about Fibonacci, but I quickly worked out that the only telephone numbers that worked were 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21 etc, and figured out that you add the previous two numbers in the sequence to get the next one. I had no idea about normal angles, but the billiard table made perfect sense to me. A collection of bats explained to me what a triangular number is, a hole in a boat taught me about icosahedrons, a computer apparently running its own version of L taught me about recursion. I didn't know the significance of the names like Neumann, Crowther and Woods, Martin Gardner but I learned as time went on. I knew about square roots, so the drogo guards weren't a problem, but if the combination for the safe lock is a perfect square and a perfect cube, what can it be? Some scrap paper enabled me to figure it out one Sunday morning while eating a bowl of cereal. I was learning, and I never even knew it. Congratulations to the Association of Teachers of Mathematics for providing an environment where it was so fun to learn, I didn't know I was learning.

So back to today, and the undergrad assignment. While I don't expect the Squirrel Adventure to challenge L or even Circus in terms of its complexity, it's been worthwhile just to bring text adventuring to a new generation. I've barely seen any since the early 90's days of 'Guild of Thieves' and 'Fish' on my Acorn A3000 machine, and even then the pictures were starting to become more important than the text descriptions. Adventure games today mean something more like Trogdor's Peasant Quest (albeit a little more sophisticated - maybe GTA San Andreas is a better example) so it's therapeutic if nothing else for us oldies to get back to the roots of the adventure game.

Who knows, maybe this is the start of the textual revolution?

Saturday, November 12, 2005

12 November 2005: Budget

Small piece of good news from The Planetary Society: the Voyagers may be safe.

Some of you may remember my rant about the Bush administration cutting budgets and directing NASA policy such that, among other things, the Voyager probes were to be cut off, despite Voyager 1's proximity to the edge of the Solar System.

Now it seems that the Senate and House Appropriation Committees have passed NASAs 2006 budget and sent the bill off to the White House for Mr Dubya to sign. The Planetary Society website explained the Voyager position a couple of days ago:

The Society also advocated that the Congress direct NASA to continue operating the Voyager spacecraft, now on their way out of the solar system. While the appropriations bill doesn’t mention Voyager specifically, it gives NASA re-programming authority, and that authority is expected to be exercised in favor of continuing the Voyager mission.

All this on the twenty-fifth anniversary of Voyager 1 snapping those stunning shots of Saturn's rings. Maybe there will be a happy ending to this story after all.

Friday, November 11, 2005

11 November 2005: Tipping

Today is a day for remembrance, as at 11am we all stop for a couple of minutes and remember the war dead, particularly from World Wars I and II. It's also a day for working at home due to the Zepler building still being sealed off (although rumours are rife that we may be allowed some kind of access at some point next week). And it's a day for football, as I play my first five-a-side game of the Veteran's League season, hoping to pull 'ECS Footie' somewhere above mid-table obscurity this season.

And less important than all is a sad piece of news reported in The Times last Saturday, which I only just saw this morning. It seems that some killjoy Canadian scientists have further destroyed the notion that life in Devon can be occasionally interesting by announcing the results of their study into the physics of cow tipping. Not only would it take between two and five people to exert the force needed to tip your average moo-moo over, but they also state that when cows do the sleeping-standing-up thing, they're actually only dozing and would be easily woken. Therefore, you'd need a well-organised team of very quick-working cow-tippers to have any hope of success, and since this particular sport is the exclusive preserve of those leaving country pubs at chucking out time, there's little hope of them being well-coordinated enough to be able to perform such a task.

Now, this is all well and good, except for the fact that I've seen it first-hand. Growing up in rural Devon with a window that overlooked gently rolling farmland on the southern slopes of Dartmoor, you don't see much happening at any time of day, let alone after dark. But sometimes, just sometimes, you'd look out around 11.30 and see a couple of torches flashing around in a field over on the other side of the valley. Fascinated, I would continue to watch while the people - usually around six or seven in number - would walk unafraid towards some cows with the clear idea of tipping. Normally (actually, the vast majority of times) the cows would run away, thereby showing that they were not asleep in the first place, or perhaps were dozing as the Canadian study suggests. But on one occasion it happened: a cow, seemingly standing up, did not move as two tippers closed in. They got close, reached out their hands and pushed hard, while their companions shone their torches on the scene, lighting it up for anyone to see who happened to be looking. And yes, the cow did go over: not in the hilarious Del Boy fashion most people assume, it just kind of stumbled over, legs wobbling as it woke up and tried to right itself. The movement of the torchlight suggested laughter from the companions as the cow got back to its feet and ran off up the hill away from its assailants. The tippers then returned back in the direction of the main road and that was that.

So that's my cow-tipping story. Deeply unexciting, and probably backs up the Canadian study more than anything else, except it clearly shows one thing: cow-tipping is a sufficiently well-known 'rural myth' that it will be (and is) attempted by someone, somewhere on at least a semi-regular basis. And yes, it does work, at least sometimes: this letter to Canada's National Post offers an alternative view of the physics of it all. The problem, of course, is that the original scientists did their work based on a particular model of physics and theoretical analysis: they didn't actually go out and try it empirically. Would have saved them a lot of time if they had, but hey, that's the nature of scientific research.

Which leads to the secondary question: who on earth funded their study in the first place? And were they pleased with the results?