Van Gogh inspirations

During our recent France vacation, we stopped in Arles, France.  Why?  Because my favorite painter, Vincent Van Gogh, was inspired in Arles to produce over 300 paintings!  We had to take a look — some photos below — and we weren’t disappointed.

In my “best of issue” science fiction short story “Light Echo”, the portal at the Church of St. Trophime (picture below) was an important element.  I really enjoyed seeing the magnificent Romanesque sculptures.

Portal of the Church of St. Trophime in Arles, France

Portal of the Church of St. Trophime in Arles, France

Garden at Espace Van Gogh in Arles

Garden at Espace Van Gogh in Arles

Café Van Gogh in Arles

Café Van Gogh in Arles

 

French inspiration – A drive through France

Rick_atMillauViaduct

That’s me standing in front of the Millau Viaduct in Millau, France.  It’s the tallest — not the highest — bridge in the world and considered one of the greatest engineering accomplishments of all time.  Not to mention it’s beautiful.  That’s a creative inspiration to me!

My wife and I recently came back from a wonderful vacation in France.  Being a game designer and science fiction writer, I am always looking for creative inspiration. We met many challenges on our drive through France, but I suspect that some of my future stories or game ideas will come from this experience.  I will post a few entries on my blog with details and pictures of the places we visited — particularly those that might provide inspiration — but for now here’s a summary of what we learned as Americans travelling and driving in France.  Since there are many great websites with details on how to travel or drive in France, this is just meant to supplement those offerings based on my personal experience.

COST: If you are wondering what the price of things are in France, just double whatever you think it will cost in America.  This isn’t exact, of course, but generally it seems to work.

PARIS: The Paris metro is really easy to use, especially when you have a map.  We had a 2-day metro pass that we used several times to get to museums and sites, visit family, and travel to restaurants.  About the only issue we had was getting on the subway headed in the wrong direction.  This was easy to correct, however, because we just got off at the first exit, crossed over to the other side, and got on going the other way.  Happens when visiting New York too.  Also, when we didn’t know exactly where we were going, we sometimes exited the metro on the wrong street — forcing us to walk to the other side of the building.  Pay attention to the signs leading you to the street exit, because it’s easy to lose track and end up one level too high or too low.  We also had a 2-day museum pass.  Except for Notre Dame Cathedral, we didn’t have to enter long lines to buy individual tickets at the museums in Paris.  This saved us hours during our short stay in Paris.  Driving around the Arc de Triomphe really can be confusing, even with GPS.  I suggest going around more than once, if necessary, to figure out exactly where you should turn.  I got off at the wrong exit, and it took me 15 minutes to get back to the right place.

RENTAL CAR: If the car you rent takes Diesel gas — like ours did — it will probably be called Gasole, Gasoil, or Gazoil at the pump.  There may be other spellings too, but this is what we found.  Generally it cost around 1.3 euros per liter.  At about 3.8 liters per gallon and $1.35 per euro, that works out to about $6.70 per gallon of diesel gas.  About double what it costs in Florida.  Some websites indicate that you can probably purchase gas at the automated pumps after hours if you have a credit card with a chip.  Don’t count on it!  We had a credit card with a chip, but I was unable to use it at the pump.  I ended up always purchasing gas at stations with an attendant there.  The same was true for tolls on the major roads in France.  Near Paris, we had no problem paying tolls with our credit card, but otherwise we were unable to use our credit card at tolls.  The first couple of times this happened, we had to press the button for assistance and get everyone behind us to back out so we could move to a cash-pay lane.  So from then on we always paid cash for tolls.  Often, there were no lanes that were manned, so we just looked for the lane that had a green arrow, but NOT a credit card symbol.  These took cash (Euro bills and coins).  By the way, the roads in France are excellent.  And, yes, I did have an International Driver’s License with me that I got at AAA before I left Florida.

GROCERY: Grocery shopping is not unlike shopping in America.  Even the self checkout machine at Intermarche was easy to figure out, though I think you need to have a credit card with a chip to pay — and we did.  At Carrefour I learned that bananas should be weighed BEFORE coming to the cashier — by the way, the bananas were very good and the store employees were very friendly and helpful.  For our car snacks, it was easy to find items like Cheerios, peanuts & almonds, bread, hummus (hoummos in French), Coke, and bottled water, but we were surprised that we couldn’t find crackers or walnuts.

PARKING:  I didn’t have to park in Paris, so the only place I had any trouble was finding a spot in Dijon near the central shopping area.  The other issue with parking is that the spaces and rows are very narrow, so it is difficult to turn directly into a parking spot.  Often I found myself taking two or three efforts to get into an opening, and a couple of times my wife helped me judge distances.  The car had a backing up camera and warnings, but that didn’t help for the sides and front.  Always have Euro coins and cash on hand, because some parking lots will not take your credit card.  Our success using our credit card was about 50-50 for parking lots.

ROUNDABOUTS: Other than Arc de Triomphe, I did not have any trouble with these and there are many all around France.  On some routes I probably went through 10 to 20 of them in a 50 miles drive.  Beware, though, because even if you have the sign that gives you the right away inside the roundabout, there will always be someone who attempts to enter from the right by cutting you off.  I had this happen a couple of times, and it happens here in Florida too — such as at the Clearwater Beach roundabout.

GPS: I had a portable Garmin device for directions, and it worked great all over France.  Although I also had Michelin maps as a backup, I got used to and dependent upon the Garmin very quickly.  There are so many tiny streets, roundabouts, French signs, fascinating architecture and natural beauty, and other distractions to deal with.  I think it would take much longer to navigate with maps.  Plus it was nice to have our own device rather than rent one, because we were instantly familiar with the settings and usage, as well as the language was already set.  So whenever we parked the car, I put the Garmin and its power cord in my backpack for our walk.  It only took a minute or two to set it up again when we came back to the car, so this worked out well for us.  One item of note: I got a great price on French maps for Garmin on Amazon.com.  Most of the maps and information (restaurants, gas stations, etc.) were still perfectly useful, however, I noticed in at least a couple of places that the directions were outdated because roads had been changed or eliminated.  That’s the price you pay for saving by using older maps.

RESTAURANTS: I love ice, and I did miss it in France.  Although some restaurants will put a little ice in your drink if you ask, don’t expect much.  I’m always in search of a great vegetarian burger, even in France.  So I’m happy to report that we really enjoyed veggie burgers at “Le Shanti” in Dijon, France and “Annette’s Diner” at Disney Village near Paris.  Note that in some small towns, some restaurants only take cash.  I found that I like galettes — French pancakes — too.  Many restaurants are closed between lunch and dinner — often between 3pm and 7pm — so check times, if possible, before you go.

 

 

 

 

Doctors are creative too

Dr. Anthony Jahn, otolaryngologist and volunteer medical director for the New York Metropolitan Opera, has patients with specialized needs.  He practices the art of caring for professional singers.  Whether you are a writer, a game designer, or someone pursuing a creative career, I think it’s valuable to see how others are being creative and exploring their varied interests.

Is poker the face of future AI?

In the past, chess was the target of AI (artificial intelligence) programmers.  I wrote a 4k chess player in assembly language on my old Intel 8080 computer — a Processor Technology Sol-20, to be exact.  To be even more exact, I wrote it in machine language, manipulating everything in hex code because I hadn’t yet purchased an assembler or learned how to use one.  It did played pretty well for a 1970’s microcomputer program — competing to a tie with a commercial product — but I never entered it in competition.

But chess is a game of perfect information, where the state of the game is known by all players — not to mention spectators.  I wonder if it is harder to program an AI for a game like Stratego, where the value of pieces is not known until an attack occurs?  Poker may be even more difficult, because not only are there missing pieces of information regarding other player’s cards, but their style and mode of play — including such things as bluffing and facial expression — is so integral to the game.

This may make poker an interesting game from the standpoint of creating robots that better understand humans.  Yet, there doesn’t seem to be as much press these days about poker playing software (poker bots) as there used to be about chess playing software.  Could this be because poker is usually associated with gambling?  Could it be that an AI algorithms that understand how to play poker well are worth more — and thus less sharable — than chess algorithms?  Or has AI press in general been dominated by science fiction themes of workers losing jobs?

I was just wondering, because it occurred to me that from a video games and AI developer perspective, it seems that poker bots are a very interesting challenge.  It’s not that there isn’t a lot happening in the field — such as this computer poker bot competition — it’s just that I don’t see a lot of press on the subject.  Even the Wikipedia “Computer Poker Players” listing is quite a bit shorter than the “Computer Chess” listing.

IBM’s Watson got plenty of press regarding playing Jeopardy.  Does this mean that the press thinks poker is not as interesting to the future of AI?  I don’t know.

Introverts on Mars

The Atlantic recently published an article entitled, “Extroverts Don’t Belong on Mars.”  So introverts do?  If so, then some software engineers might fit the bill.  As the article points out, programmers might be “really sick of the open-plan offices here on Earth.”  I can just picture it now, a bunch of engineers fighting over who gets the only or best office on Mars.

I never programmed in an open-plan office, nor would I want to.  Well, maybe that’s not entirely true.  At Mattel Electronics around 1979-1980 we had a large building with a large open space for game developers, but we did our best to surround our desks with large file cabinets, plants, and anything else that might give us a bit of privacy.  After all, we also needed a little protection from remote control cars careening around the office.

I’ve always had a fascination with the planet Mars and its moons, maybe partially because I like the remoteness of the place.  Though I doubt I’ll be going there in my lifetime, I thoroughly enjoy writing science fiction stories like my award nominated “A Comic on Phobos”. 

AComicOnPhobosBookCover_ForAmazonKindle

Cli-fi popularity on the rise

What’s cli-fi?  It’s fiction, often science fiction, that’s climate related.  The first cli-fi I remember reading was Michael Crichton’s “State of Fear”.  It wasn’t one of his best novels, and it has mixed reviews, but I enjoyed it because it made me think about what I know and don’t know about climate change.  In my own writing, my short story “Above the Mississippi” in my e-book “Science Fiction: The Arts” is a cli-fi story — though I didn’t know the term cli-fi when I wrote it.  It’s a Mark Twain like story in a science fiction setting.

ScienceFiction_TheArts_Cover

 

A Beautiful Path

30 years ago I designed and developed “Truckin'”.  I wanted players to deal with travelling salesman or shortest path problems, without thinking of that as a math problem.  During testing, I saw a number of players come up with excellent paths over the roads to reduce time while delivering goods.  Even with the limited number of routes and roads in the games, many players enjoyed the challenge.  Now researchers have developed new algorithms to find not the shortest route, but rather the most beautiful route.  Think there’s a game idea there?  Maybe.  In any case, I’m looking forward to being able to do a map routing online for a vacation by searching for the most beautiful route between cities rather than the fastest route.

Self Driving Cars

Bits on The NY Times blog had a nice piece recently about the challenges of self driving cars.  While it may not be easy to bring self driving cars to city streets, small trip electric automated cars may eventually replace subways and light rail for lots of people who want to go exactly from point A to point B.  Taxis will remain competitive until such time that small trip automated cars can provide rides cheaper and safer.  I have no idea what the time frame will be, but I think it may soon make sense for city leaders who are evaluating future transportation needs to consider how small trip automated cars will fit into the mix.  Mercedes (below) and others are working on self driving cars for the highways, but if car manufacturers can beat the issues for city driving too, the rewards may be huge.

Math and Movies

My love of mathematics is what drove me to a variety of careers in education, game development, software engineering, and science fiction writing.  I often enjoy solving math problems and reading about recent research in mathematics.  If you share my interest in all things math, you might also enjoy this Harvard website I discovered that lists “Mathematics in Movies“.  I’m not sure why they don’t list “The Day the Earth Stood Still” or “Torn Curtain”, so I suggested these as possible additions.  In the trailer below of “Torn Curtain” you’ll see the math scene at about 1:40 into the video.

Microsurgeon makes list of top 10 Intellivision games

It’s nice to see that my classic video game “Microsurgeon” recently made the Retro Gamer Team’s top 10 list of Mattel Intellivision games.  I’m also glad that they picked two other fun Imagic Intellivision games, “Demon Attack” and “Dracula”.  I didn’t know until I saw this 1980’s Sears Catalog video game advertisement on The Retroist website that the ad incorrectly says “Microsurgery” instead of “Microsurgeon”.  Below, the Museum of Classic Chicago Television shows an old Imagic advertisement for Microsurgeon and a few of the other games.

The Best of E3 2014 and “Corpse Killer”?

So why do I think that CNet’s “Best of E3 2014” and the old Digital Pictures game “Corpse Killer” have anything in common?  Because when I saw the game “Dead Island 2″, I immediately thought of the game (“Corpse Killer”) that Ken Soohoo and Ken Melville created at Digital Pictures in 1994 for the Sega CD.  I suppose zombies will never go out of style.

Where do game ideas come from?

If you are an aspiring game designer, then please don’t limit your knowledge or your visions.  Good game ideas can come from any field of study.  For example, if you had enjoyed solving maze puzzles and studied shortest path algorithms many years ago, you might have invented Pacman.  Growing up, I enjoyed going on family driving trips and seeing the trucks go by on the freeway, which lead to my interest in later developing the game Imagic “Truckin'”.  You might not realize it immediately, but an understanding of the travelling salesman problem would help you in playing this game.  To my knowledge, no one — including me — has ever done an analysis of the game to see what the best routes are for the best payoffs.  One of these days I should take a look at that.  Speaking of game ideas from anywhere, maybe the 6th International Meeting on Origami in Science, Mathematics and Education (6OSME) at the University of Tokyo will generate some great game ideas for attending game designers.

Eternal hope for the driverless car?

Are we all so in love with the idea of a car that will drive for us, that we underestimate how long it’s going to be before self driving cars are a reality?  John Markoff recently blogged a piece entitled “Police, Pedestrians and the Social Ballet of Merging: The Real Challenges for Self-Driving Cars.”  Though Google and others continue to do useful and important research on self driving cars, this blog entry brings up some interesting issues.  If you enjoy reading about robots, particularly fiction, you might enjoy my science fiction e-book of published short stories entitled “Science Fiction: Robots & Cyborgs“.

RobotsAndCyborgsCover

 

Death in The Fog

The Fog, also known as The Internet of Things, will eventually contain untold numbers of sensors and devices that work continuously or at intervals over periods of years, decades, or even longer.  Computerworld recently reported that In-Q-Tel’s Dan Geer warned “The longer lived these devices, the surer it will be that they will be hijacked within their lifetime.”

We’re not talking about a simple toaster that lasts long past it’s expected lifetime, but rather smart devices and sensors — even autonomous vehicles — that essentially have a life of their own.  Unfortunately, there will be hackers who will try to break their security.  Society will have to deal with these things.  How long should such a device be expected to survive?  What are the rules that define why one device should be allowed to run longer than another?  Who should be held responsible if programmed death — or perhaps as we’ve called it in the past, planned obsolescence — is not included as a feature in one of these things?

This has been the stuff of science fiction in the past and present, but it will become reality very soon.  Governments, legal systems, and society will have to deal with these things.

Another spooky action at a distance

Almost everyone has heard of Einstein’s description of quantum entanglement as spooky action at a distance.  Now, we have a new kind of spooky action at a distance.  According to The Scientist magazine reporting on interferon signaling, “Interferons released by infected cells typically only travel nanometers to alert neighboring cells. In this study, interferon responses appeared more than a million times farther away.”

It is not known how these messages are transmitted so far and quickly.  Is it possible that it has something to do with quantum entanglement?  That’s doubtful, but it might provide food for science fiction thought.

How to keep up on games research and development

I recently commented in a Game Developers group on LinkedIn about how to keep up on games research and development.  The response to my remarks was very positive, so I thought I’d share my thoughts here as well.

Gamasutra.com, IGN.com, GameSpot.com are some good places to keep up with video games news. As for research, websites tend to be category specific. GamesforHealth.org is the website for the conference that covers Health-related games and research. There are many others like that for AI, Social Media, Education, and other games related research. Even Variety.com has some game-related news, in case you want entertainment/Hollywood oriented games news. If you want science-only research, you might try going to http://arxiv.org/ now and then searching on “games”.  There are usually quite a few in-depth research publications related to an aspect of games and/or serious games. The ACM offers http://cie.acm.org/games/?searchterm=games and IEEE Spectrum provides game news and research on games at http://spectrum.ieee.org/consumer-electronics/gaming. IEEE and ACM also have endless conferences and special interest groups related to games.

For example, this week I found an arxiv research paper on “Solving Triangular Peg Solitaire“, a more generalized version of the Cracker Barrel peg game shown below.  You never know when something like this could lead to later insights on some new game concepts or even a science fiction short story idea.