Monthly Archives: September 2006

Modeling Opinion Flow in Humans

This is another cool, indepth article published on Gamasutra. Skip Cole wrote this one, with the full title of Modeling Opinion Flow in Humans Using Boids Algorithm & Social Network Analysis.

Do you like the idea that you, me, our friends and our communities can all be reduced to a numerical estimation of our opinions, and our likely behavior based on them? 😀 Yes, I am again getting at the point that games and simulations are not just games and simulations – that they can be useful tools for studying, analyzing and predicting the “real” world. Indeed, that I think we will hone and polish them into the best of all possible tools for doing those things.

Here’s his introduction, which lays out what he’s talking about. The other 7 and a half pages actually detail it and explain it. If you’re interested in algorithms, games or simply how society works, you’ll be interested in all of this.

Given the opinions and desires of a non-player character (actors), it is possible to devise a cost-benefit calculation to decide what they are likely to do. This is a common problem in Game AI and much good work has already been done on this. But this supposes a fixed set of opinions (beliefs) in the actors. We would like to allow the actors to evolve and change their opinions over time, just as real people do. We also want to replicate the fact that while the opinions people hold are often understandable, they are not always rational. In this paper we introduce a methodology to do just this.

Modeling opinion flow is a big topic. People’s opinions are understandably multi-faceted and complex. Here we are saying dash to this complexity and reducing the decisions on one particular issue (the topic at hand) to one simple number. At the end of the day in our game universe, one supports King John, supports King Richard, or doesn’t particularly support anyone. If the bulk of the population supports King John, then his troops will receive more resources – and that is an effect that can be felt by King Richard1.

To perform our calculation, we are borrowing concepts from the Boids algorithm and from Social Network Analysis. This technique makes possible new types of conflict, such as a Public Relations battle, and can make concrete the ‘battle for hearts and minds.’

People’s opinions are influenced by events, but also by what they perceive to be the opinions of the people around them — people tend to believe what the people around them believe. The central analogy of this paper is that just as birds, fish, and other animals move their bodies in groups, humans move their opinions in groups2. Animals flock with their bodies. People flock in their opinions.

This technique can be applied to large populations or small populations. A large population example could be an entire population of a country and their support of a particular armed militia group. (If the player can reduce public support for the militia, its resources will decrease.) A small population example could be the actors around a key decision maker. (If the player can locate and change the opinions of the people around the decision maker, it will be possible to influence the decision maker.) Both examples will be explored here.

From a sidebar, here’s the bird example of Boid’s algorithm as it relates to the real world:

A bird that strays from the flock
will change its course to move
back toward the flock, even as the
flock may begin to veer toward it.
Most people feel uncomfortable if
their thinking is too far unaligned
from that of the group, and will try
(either by trying to change the
group or their own thinking) to
minimize that distance.

Could Apple Become Games Console King?

If you haven’t thought about Apple’s ability to compete with Sony and Microsoft in the living room convergence market, and ESPECIALLY if you haven’t heard of the iTV yet – yes, that’s like iPod for your TV – than you really want to check this short article out, by Aaron Ruby of Next Generation.

And it’s as entertaining as it is full of very very thought-provoking information. How unusual!

You really should click and read the whole thing, but if you won’t, here’s the snippet chock full of the most mind-blowing information:

According to Disney chief Bob Iger, the iTV wireless streaming media device will have a hard drive. He recently said “It’s a small box about the size of a novel, and not War and Peace, by the way. It plugs into the television like any other peripheral would, like a DVD device. It’s wireless. It detects the presence of computers in your home; in a very simple way you designate the computer you want to feed it and it wirelessly feeds whatever you downloaded on iTunes which include videos, TV, music videos, movies or your entire iTunes music library to your television set.”

A plausible argument by Roughly Drafted’s Daniel Eran has the iTV being held just long enough for Apple to introduce 802.11n, which would allow 200 Mbit connections to an access point, nearly 10 times the a/g variety and more than enough to stream DVD-quality content wirelessly from a Mac (and possibly a PC). That would help explain the inclusion of an HDMI connection on Apple’s new device. As Eran points out, you don’t need an HDMI connection if you are simply streaming downloadable 640X480 content.

Some have speculated that the iTV may also be destined to get one of Intel’s Conroe-L processors, which it would need to process the HD content Apple eventually wants to sell over iTunes. Further, according to some, it’s very possible video card drivers could be written so that graphic output data could be sent to a network port instead of the monitor connected to the card. That opens the possibility of using iTV and a wireless controller to remotely play Mac/PC games (*cough* WoW *cough*) in your living room.

Convenient then, that on September 7, 2006, Apple filed a patent application for a handheld electronic device with “multiple touch-sensitive devices.” Sure, the primary application of the patent is likely to layer a touch screen over the iPod’s display, but applications that involve improving gaming control with Apple products is not far-fetched.

All of this basically means that Apple could be on the verge of launching a slimmed down, single-core Mac Mini capable of streaming interactive content from a host computer and capable of storing and playing casual games locally.

I’m sure I don’t need to point out how well this builds on the ridiculous social AND business phenomenon that the iPod has become. And I’m sure I don’t need to point out how much sense this makes for truly enabling digital convergence – something which to this point has only been lamely satisfied by PC and software and console makers who are more interested in selling their own product than in allowing people to enjoy their media and games where and how they want to.

But what I feel like I DO have to point out is the implications of this bit:

Further, according to some, it’s very possible video card drivers could be written so that graphic output data could be sent to a network port instead of the monitor connected to the card. That opens the possibility of using iTV and a wireless controller to remotely play Mac/PC games (*cough* WoW *cough*) in your living room.

That is yet another reference to World of Warcraft, yes, everyone’s Holy Grail in the post-dot-com quest for the return of gigabucks. Like the idea of playing WoW on your couch, with a paperback sized touch screen controller?

But WoW isn’t the point or the end, it’s just a one gigabuck per year example of what this could be capable of. The really really interesting potential for this, if they do it like customers would want it, instead of as proprietary business instincts will want it – the really interesting potential for this is to make it a cross-platform convergence device, which will let us do whatever we want with our TV and entertainment center:

  • play music from our iPod or other mobile music device
  • take calls from our cell phones
  • watch DVDs or MP3s or Tivo or any other video stream
  • play a game that runs on our PC or Mac or Linux box
  • play a game that runs on our XBox 360 or PS3 or Wii
  • play a game that runs on our PSP or GBA or Zune
  • play a classic arcade game running in an arcade emulator running on the iTV itself
  • surf the web – putting that in one bullet isn’t really fair; there’s a whole range of Web apps which would be unprecented on a good audio/video entertainment system – just think about how much is happening with digital media of all kinds on the web, and how ideal our home entertainment system is for all those kinds of digital media
  • manage, organize, tag and edit our audio or video or digital photo collections, right from an ideally comfortable, loud and big-screen seat

I highlighted my own personal favorites, and I could go on – but tell me, am I exaggerating the potential importance of a wireless digital box which can feed our TV/stereo systems content from ANY digital source? I don’t think so. I think this could be Apple’s next iPod-scale success. Could being the operative word.

Microsoft, Peter Jackson to form game studio

Yes, that’s the Lord of the Rings and King Kong Peter Jackson. Cool! Here’s the full article, by Daniel Terdiman of CNET.COM.  This is a more good proof that Hollywood is paying serious attention to computer and video games than they have in the past.

I also blogged an interview with Peter Jackson last week, which in hindsight was part of the backstory leading up to this game studio announcement.

There’s more in the article about the XBox360 generally, so its worth a read if you’re staying up on the Console Wars. Here are the Jackson highlights:

The studio, which will be called Wingnut Interactive, will be a joint partnership between Microsoft Game Studios and its subsidiary studio, Bungie. It will work on the creation of a new title in the hit “Halo” series of games.

Jackson and his Academy Award-winning screenwriter, Fran Walsh, will be directly involved in the creation of the new “Halo” title.

Microsoft also said Wingnut Interactive will work on the creation of an entirely new video game, though it would not give details about it.

According to Scott Henson, director of the Xbox Advanced Technology Group, the new “Halo” games will likely come out sometime after the 2007 release of “Halo 3.”

Henson was otherwise tight-lipped about the new “Halo” titles. He did say, however, that both “Halo” titles would run only on the Xbox 360–excluding Sony’s PlayStation 2 and PlayStation 3, and the original Xbox.

Wingnut Interactive will be based in New Zealand, Henson said. But he would not elaborate on the business terms of the deal.

There’s no question that the arrangement with Jackson and Walsh, who collaborated on the wildly popular “Lord of the Rings” trilogy (also produced in New Zealand), and who are known for innovative storytelling, is a coup for Microsoft. The software giant has been putting a great deal of effort into differentiating its Xbox offerings from the forthcoming Sony PlayStation 3 and Nintendo Wii next-generation consoles.

David Brin proves blogs work

If you’re not convinced yet check this out.

So a week ago I blogged about David Brin’s “Why Johnny Can’t Code” essay at

Hello? David Brin? Are you out there?

Click and check it out my blog entry, mainly because David Brin is out there, and he found me, and he answered on my blog. How cool is that?

Hi David! Great to hear from you! 🙂

And no, I didn’t ask anyone who knew him to ask him to stop by. David, can you tell us about how you found the blog post about you, please? That’s a metaquestion about the way blogs and the web work. Better than I thought, obviously – and I’m writing one!

Apart from that interesting metaquestion, this post is essentially a reply to your comment, David, done as a new post so that I can use a good code example and a screenshot – which I can’t do in a comment. So here is your comment on my previous post:

Har! Cool writing. Nice blog.

As for my essay on Salon, “Why Johnny Can’t Code”… alas, It was NOT about BASIC per se. Only a small minority seemed at all interested in even looking at my core idea, which was how to create a nice, comfortable starting point for millions of kids, so they could use their computers to do a little COMPUTING for mild classroom assignments, and so get a taste of this way of looking at the world.

Indeed, the tiniest fraction seemed to grasp how valuable it once was (but no longer) for ALL kids to be able to easily type in little illustrative examples at the end of each math or physics chapters. Everyone seemed to think it could still be done. But it cannot. I repeat that. It cannot AND it simply, simply cannot be done.

It does no good to preach what languages kids SHOULD have. Most don’t. Period.

People who praise their specific beloved language, without noticing that millions of kids have no easy, quick, turnkey pedagogical access to ANY common computer language, are missing the whole point.


With cordial regards,

David Brin

And here’s my answer:

David, we are in violent agreement on all points that you raise, and as proof I submit that myself and my coworkers (Jonah Stagner and Walt Morrison) have spent the last 18 months of our lives designing, building and offering to the world educational freeware that (yes, for the first time in decades) allows beginners to learn a simple way to do real programming. Last year’s version was literally called Kid’s Programming Language – and this year’s version is Phrogram (it’s not just kids any more).

I am particularly glad that you clarified that your point is not about BASIC per se, because we believe that we have built what you and your son are looking for – and that what we have built is not only more modern, it is also (important seperate point) far superior to the variants of BASIC that you and I and millions of others played with as beginners 20 or 30 years ago. Can I also mention that we have versions of Pong available both in KPL and in Phrogram – written in 160 simple english-language instructions?

We believe that the only thing we are missing is indeed your most important point: making Phrogram and KPL common languages so that they are available to millions of beginners, including but not limited to schoolkids. We are working on that, but as you’d guess, this is a tough thing for three independent-minded and un-funded inventors to do on their own. Grassroots word-of-mouth is all we have ever had for marketing and PR, though despite that we think if you take a look at the KPL and Phrogram sites you will see that this is already quite a success story. Hundreds of thousands of downloads and 17 international language translations provided by volunteers around the world already prove that point.

We are a success story precisely because what you are asking for is important and badly needed, and because many around the world agree with you, and because when they found KPL and Phrogram they found them to fill that need.

Allow me to answer a specific request in your comment with an actual working example from Phrogram. First, your request:

how valuable it once was (but no longer) for ALL kids to be able to easily type in little illustrative examples at the end of each math or physics chapters

Here’s a screenshot of an example I put together in just a few minutes, which plots the cosine function, but also can plot sine, tangent, arctangent and a parabola, with modification of a line of code:

Phrogram Plot Cosine example

And here is the complete Phrogram code. Please pardon the lack of formatting in the code here – WordPress is not made for code formatting. In Phrogram, this code is all nicely indented to match its structure, and it’s color coded, with comments in green, keywords in blue, etc… The ZIP file of this example, as well as properly formatted code, is available here in my forum post on the Phrogram site.

Program PlotCosineFunction
Method Main()
Define X As Decimal = 300.0
Define Y As Decimal = 0.0
Define myPen As Pen

// Draw the axes
myPen.LineWidth = 3
myPen.Color = Colors.Black
300, 0)
myPen.DrawTo(300, 0)
myPen.DrawTo(0, 300)

myPen.Color = Blue
Define LastX As Decimal
Define LastY As Decimal

// draw the function
While X < 300

LastX = X
LastY = Y

// Divide and multiply by 40 in order to exagerate the
// function so it’s pattern is visible using pixel
// coordinates. You can see different functions plotted
// by commenting one out and uncommenting another
Y = Cos(X
/ 40) * 40 // Cosine function
//Y = Sin(X / 40) * 40 // Sine function
//Y = Tan(X / 40) * 40 // Tangent function
//Y = ArcTan(X / 40) * 40 // ArcTangent function
//Y = ((X/40) * (X/40)) * 40 // X squared is a parabola

X = X + 3

// Don’t draw the line when calculating the very first point
If LastX > 300 Then
myPen.DrawTo( X, Y )
myPen.MoveTo( X, Y )
End If

End While
End Method
End Program

This could of course be a fancier example, but in the interests of blogging an example I wanted to keep it as simple as possible. What do you think? I look forward to hearing from you again!

Luis got $500,000 for being smart. Really.

Check out the Computer Scientist who just got $500,000. For free!

OK, not exactly for free. He got it from the MacArthur Foundation for being brilliant, and for doing cool stuff.

Dr. Luis von Ahn is 27, a native of Guatemala, and a computer scientist at Carnegie Melon University. He had offers in hand from just about every research, corporate or academic Computer Science institution on the planet when he finished his Ph.D. in 2005. There are some fun stories and anecdotes about him in the article above – it’s a fun read.

Here’s his home page (you can play his games from there)

Here’s Carnegie Melon’s press release

Oh, and Popular Science just named him to their Fifth Annual Brilliant 10

Here’s a fun Google Video tech talk from him, on Human Computation

Let me show you a highlight, just one slide from his talk, which I hope will tweak your curiousity enough to click and listen to what Luis has to day on Human Computation:

  • 9 billion human-hours of Solitaire were played in 2003
  • Empire State Building took 7 million human hours of construction (6.8 hours of Solitaire)
  • Panama Canal took 20 million human hours (less than a day of Solitaire)

Watch for a highlight, just after minute 21:00. 😀

OK, another highlight to make you click:

The ESP Game is an “algorithm”
Input: An image
Output: Set of keywords
It is an algorithm running as a computation in people’s brains instead of silicon processors
As an algorithm, it can be tested, and its results can be reviewed. In fact, people playing the ESP Game as a game produce keywords for images as accurately as professional editors who are being paid to do it.

He’s not just talking about any of this stuff, he’s making it work. Here’s his ESP game, which is what Google just licensed, and is using to get thousands (eventually millions) of people to actually PLAY A GAME WHICH ALSO RAPIDLY PUTS ACCURATE TAGS ON ALL GOOGLE’S IMAGES. Nice!

So: if you’re thinking about Computer Science – whether you’re in the US or anywhere else in the world – Luis is a great example of why you should, and a cool role model of how you can have fun and do lots of interesting things if you do.

The funkiest art you’ve never heard of

OK, we’re all used to digital art by now – but how about pixel art? As in, art created digitally, one pixel at a time, using only something like a pixel pencil tool? Have you heard about that one? Well, check this page out, by Jason Huang in Taiwan. Note how wide and how long the page is as it loads, tile by tile. If you wait til the page loads fully and pan around it, and it’s doesn’t blow your mind, I’ll, umm, shave my head. Yeah. 😀

And there’s SuperTotto – you really gotta explore a bit here, too:

Then there’s The Joint at:

And you don’t want to miss the highest rated pixel art in the PixelJoint galleries:

Here’s the piece de resistance, a music video from Royksopp illustrated completely with pixel art. The music rocks, the art blows the mind, and the whole experience is this wild slice of life in our 21st century world. I watch this and I can’t help but think about lots of art I’ve admired, hanging silent on museum walls in 2D, scenes that show me what it was like in Holland in 1630, or Italy in 1500, or America in 1870. Are people two or three or four hundred years from now going to look at and listen to this, call it art, and understand something about us and our world and our lives? If our world and our art and our lives are so different now from the things we gaze at in our museums, what will theirs be like in 2400?

I have blogged a lot in the past about user-created content – and this is a whole new kind of user-created content I thought I should introduce. Sure, much of this is done by professional artists – but look around the galleries at PixelJoint to see lots of cool art by regular people. And check out PixelDam and PixelMoon as a couple mindblowing examples of user-created art projects/communities built around pixel art.

So: the trend toward user-created content enabled by digital technology continues – albeit this is still fringe stuff and cutting edge stuff compared to Wiki and YouTube and MySpace.

So: do you think some pixel artists might like an anyone-can-program tool like Phrogram that allows them to turn their pixel art into easy-to-manipulate “sprites”, animate them, build interactive games around them, or direct and record machinima based on them?

I do. 🙂

Peter Jackson: producing Halo film!

I hadn’t even heard this was happening – cool! Note he’s not directing – too bad! – but still, Peter Jackson rocks, and he gives me more hope than I’d otherwise have that the movie based on the video game might actually be a good one.

Here’s a link to the GameSpot news story about this, by Tim Surette

The article got me to click through to the original interview, and it turns out it’s in five parts, on a site called Ain’t It Cool News. The site design is, umm, curious – but if you like Jackson’s work, check out these topics for the five parts – maybe you’ll want to click through:

Quint interviews Peter Jackson about his next Fantasy Epic: Naomi Novik’s TEMERAIRE series!!!

Quint and Peter Jackson, Part II: THE LOVELY BONES!!!

Part 3: Quint and Peter Jackson talk HALO!!!

Part 4: Peter Jackson and Quint discuss THE DAMBUSTERS remake!!!

Part 5: Quint and Peter Jackson talk THE HOBBIT and a potential return to low budget horror!!!

Reading, Writing and Video Gaming

Here’s a link to the article at AlterNet, by Marco Visscher.

From the abstract:

Teachers are learning that video games can actually improve our schools. As education adapts to please the gamer generation, will textbooks become obsolete?

Here’s the bit that should make you want to read more about the teacher and technique he presents:

An average of 75 percent of English children between the ages of 9 and 11 reach so-called “level four literacy levels” in reading and writing (including spelling, grammar, vocabulary, etc.). At Chew Magna, that percentage stood at 77 in 2000, rising to 93 four years later after Rylands began using computers to help teach writing. Boys in particular, who normally score lower in these areas, have made tremendous progress. One hundred percent reach level four, compared to 67 percent in 2000.

Nolan Bushnell wishes his children had a teacher like Tim Rylands. “The digital life in which kids live today is turned off at school. That leaves them with boredom and frustration. A man in front of a blackboard with a piece of chalk is just very boring.”

You go, Mr. Rylands!

Ever heard of Nolan Bushnell? Well, in 1972 he founded this company called Atari. 🙂 Check this bit out:

Bushnell also sees a solution for the educational system — the very idea Tim Rylands is already putting into practice: using video and computer games to inspire learning. He’s an expert in the field. Back in 1972, Nolan Bushnell founded Atari, the pioneering computer company. As the creator of classics like Pong — remember the Ping-Pong game between two discs on opposite sides of the screen? — Bushnell is generally recognized as “the father of the game industry.”

And because he is also the father of a 12-year-old son who can distinguish between 200 different Pokémon characters (“If they were plant and animal species, he would be able to pass sophomore biology”), Bushnell now spreads the word about how video games can help kids learn. Games, he asserts, teach you creative problem solving. They teach you to formulate hypotheses (“First I have to get the key from the magician so I can open the door”), to test these hypotheses (“Game over”) and revise them (“Oh, no, I have to drink my elixir to get to the magician!”). Games can even teach you the fundamental principles of scientific research.

Much more there – I highly recommend you click over and read.

Where’d The Whiz Kids Go?

Today’s article of that name, in the Seattle Times, by Nick Perry, is here.

Even if you’re not in the Seattle area, it will be of interest to you, since the article reviews and addresses many of the factors which define this problem around the country. The article is also related to the Johnny Can’t Code fuss which David Brin and Salon stirred up this week.

Just about every part of the country could write their own version of this story, and as the article says, Computer Science education is actually holding up better in Seattle than it is anywhere else in the country:

Computer-science enrollment at the UW has remained flat for seven years, but it’s holding up better than at most institutions, where it has dropped sharply since 2000. It got so bad at Seattle Pacific University that this year administrators considered closing their computer science department altogether, a plan that’s been shelved for now.

In case you haven’t heard, there was over a 60% drop in the US nationwide percentage of incoming freshman intending to study Computer Science, from 2000 to 2004. Think about this practically: how fast are CS programs going to disappear, with that kind of decline in their business? Even the ones that don’t disappear will, for purely budgetary reasons, inevitably shrink to match.

This is a major national competitive issue at this point, and should get much more attention from us all than it yet has. We already know India and China are ramping up technical education very quickly – the timing of this collapse in US Computer Science education is going to simply concede the entire field to them if we don’t turn this around quickly. I hate to say it, but the phrase that comes to mind for me is “You snooze, you lose.”

Check out this Newsweek article on exactly this topic, from January, by Fareed Zakaria: We All Have a Lot to Learn. He also did an excellent long analysis in March of India’s economy, and America’s connections to and dependence on it, in India Rising.

Helping to address the decline in US Computer Science enrollment is one of the goals and opportunities for KPL and Phrogram, of course, and we’re getting a lot of interest as a result. There simply is no easier or more fun way to learn and do real computer programming than Phrogram at the moment – which puts us in a very timely spot. Adoption of Phrogram is just beginning, but we expect given this issue and our position, that it’ll happen very quickly. International universities have been using KPL for nearly a year, and Ohio State University is a major US CS program that’s leading the way by starting a new CS course this week using Phrogram – a week before Phrogram even releases officially.

It has been ironic to us, and a bit telling, that from the beginning it has been international teachers, schools and students who jumped on KPL first – jumped on it so enthusiastically that a year later there are volunteer translations of KPL into Chinese, Russian, Thai, Portuguese, Spanish, French, German, Italian, Danish, Czech, Polish, Greek, Dutch, Norwegian, Romanian, Swedish and Catalan. Something for us to think about is that India doesn’t need a translation from English.

So: Where’d the Whiz Kids Go? It’s great for the rest of the world to have their share of Whiz Kids. The question is whether we’re going to have any here.

Rise in price of computer games puts up inflation

My first reaction to this was half disbelief and half humor – but it might even be true! I’ll keep watching for the data – if anyone else finds it, please comment. Here’s the link to the headline at The Independent. It’s a UK paper, UK headline and UK data – but still an interesting thought, eh? Are “games and toys, in particular computer games” really big enough now to have that much impact on our ecomonies?

Does anyone have UK game data, as compared to the rest of the world? I’d like t see whether or not the market there is significantly different, given this story.
The gamenews blog at wordpress posted what looks like the complete story.

Here’ a followup story from GAMASUTRA: The Euro Vision: ‘Kids, Inflation, Infogrames – All Games’ Fault’