The slide rule

I, and my classmates, used a slide rule in my physics and math courses at UCLA.  I could have purchased a HP pocket calculator for around $400 in 1972, but my slide rule was far cheaper and still adequate for my needs.  Back in the early 70’s, I was probably in the top 10% of my class in how fast and accurately I could compute with a slide rule.

By the late 1970’s, everyone was using a calculator — including me — but I still had my trusty slide rule.  I don’t remember, but I might have even taken my slide rule out a few times to do some calculations when I was prototyping the algorithm for the path of the bowling ball in Mattel’s Handheld Bowling and later Mattel Intellivision’s “PBA Bowling”.

For nostalgia, I still keep a slide rule around in my office.  I enjoyed reading an article on npr.org recently regarding “The Slide Rule: A Computing Device That Put A Man On The Moon“.  I’ve tutored mathematics for many years, and I can usually tell pretty quickly whether a student uses a calculator as a tool or as a crutch.  The calculator is not a wand, and it won’t form equations for you out of thin air.  I wonder how many math teachers today even realize that a slide rule is an excellent example of the use of logarithms?

Infographics can be wrong

When infographics show data in an interesting way, they can help one quickly comprehend the results.  That’s assuming that the visualization correctly portrays accurate data — or at least indicates where the data came from.  When infographics are made to convey an agenda, they are often as misleading as many of the political commercials we see on television.

That’s why I was uncomfortable recently when I saw an infographic on Pinterest — it was posted in several places related to teaching — that asked whether we wanted our kids to “make an app” or “make a difference”.  The agenda seemed pretty clear, and many who commented seemed to indicate that they’d prefer kids who make a difference.

What’s disturbing to me about this — especially when you see the graphic has already tried to decide the answer for you by placing the wrong wants on the left and the right wants on the right — is that it presumes there is one right answer.  This is especially odd because the high technology industry in the U.S. keeps telling Congress that we don’t have enough software engineers — who know how to make an app.

Comparing making an app and making a difference is just a restatement of the age old chicken and the egg dilemma: Which came first?  Is the person who sets out to make an app like Twitter or Facebook somehow less of a useful kid because they had the ability and the interest to make a cool app?  Nowadays the kid who decides to make a difference often needs a cool app like Kickstarter or even their bank’s mobile app to do so.

Infographics at their best are beautiful, creative, and informative.  At their worst, they can be incomplete, misleading, or just plain wrong.  You may find that an infographic conveys information in seconds or minutes that would have taken you hours to read about in a book or magazine journal article.  But like a political television commercial, often you need to read into the details to fully understand the graphic.

How informative is the infographic of infographics below?  Perhaps to be complete it should also show how much additional research is necessary to really understand the information shown in most infographics.

Infographic of Infographics

Dangerous juggling, Halloween style

I enjoy juggling 3 or 4 balls, or 3 clubs, or 4 rings, but I have never tried anything more dangerous than juggling a bowling ball, ping pong ball, and a tennis ball.  That was scary enough for me, but Three Finger Juggling has something truly dangerous for jugglers.  I’m not recommending you try any of these items, and I don’t intend to try them myself, but for the sake of Halloween, I’ve provided the link to their website.

Note at the bottom of their website they claim: “Due to the nature of these props, they are for use of experienced jugglers only…”  I would add that they are not even for use by most experienced jugglers.  These juggling props are DANGEROUS!

T5 next summer

I posted an entry on my NEWWorthy blog regarding the movie “Terminator 5″.  But I don’t really know if it’s NEWWorthy or OLDWorthy, because I don’t know how they are going to try and work in the old timelines with the new one — which is expected to go at least 3 new movies.  Personally, I enjoy the entertaining aspects of the Terminator series, but I try not to think to hard about the time travel aspects.  There are too many holes, especially if you include the television series “Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles.”

But what if the new movie takes this into account?  Perhaps they will take the route where going back into the past creates alternate timelines.  None affects the other, so you can keep telling the story differently as often as you want.  But then it’s a bit less fun, because plots like T4 no longer make any sense, or at the least they no longer matter.  On the other hand, if going back into the past affects the future, then how do you ever complete the loop back to the first movie?  Maybe you don’t.  Maybe it’s not a loop.  Maybe it’s just a big headache thinking about it.  And maybe it’s better just to enjoy the entertainment and not think about it too hard.

If you would like to chew on more time travel plots, check out my anthology of 4 short stories “Science Fiction: Time Travel”.

Can computers become conscious?

MIT Technology Review had an interesting article recently titled “What Will It Take For Computers To Be Conscious?”  Judging from the Comments section on that page, consciousness is a hot topic.  There’s even a recent remark by Stuart Hameroff, one of the proponents of Quantum Consciousness.

I know that many science fiction and horror stories have dealt with this question in one way or another, but I feel the need to write at least one short story to add to the discussion.  I’ll let you know when I’ve done that.  In the meantime, you might enjoy my “Science Fiction: Robots & Cyborgs” anthology.

Theoretical Physicist Michio Kaku did a good job of describing the basic question a few years ago in the video below.

Game with the human body as a map?

Doc2

A few times a year I enjoy perusing the internet to see what new comments I find about my classic video game, “Microsurgeon” (1982 Imagic) — no, that’s not “Microsurgeon” graphics above (see my note below).  Today I was amused to find the answer to a November 2013 question on Quora.com: “Is it possible to create a RTS/FPS game with the human body (and its blood vessels) as a map? And then to use it to help with anatomy training in med school?

I love that a responder posted a note about “Microsurgeon” to indicate that — along with other games — there have already been games that have done this.  While generally speaking this is true, and I do think “Microsurgeon” does a good job with 1982 graphics, I don’t think anyone has yet done a surgery or health-related game where the player can navigate a robot or whatever through a completely — or at least very detailed — accurate map of the human body.  I’ve seen several games with interesting attempts at providing first-person or side shooter type views of travel through veins and arteries, but I’m still waiting to see a really detailed and more accurate than “Microsurgeon” top-down view and gameplay in a modern video game.  I managed a few rough drawings and prototype gameplay some time ago but well after 1982 — (see above) I’m no artist — but something much more detailed and realistic could no doubt be done nowadays

Finally, in order to accentuate what was said on the Quora website in response to the question, here is the text of a letter Imagic Corp. and I received from the University of NC at Chapel Hill back in 1983 related to the use of “Microsurgeon” in teaching various aspects of anatomy and health to seventh graders.

“Ladies and Gentlemen:

A health education group was established this year at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Medical School. The program entitled S.T.E.P. consists of medical students going into the public schools to teach seventh graders about a heart disease called atherosclerosis.

Atherosclerosis is the number one killer in the Western World and only through early prevention by education can we combat it.  One of the educational aids used to teach about heart disease was a Mattel Intellivision video game and an Imagic video cartridge. A group of students played the game to learn how atherosclerosis actually effects the body.

This letter is to thank and give credit to all those responsible for supplying the game. The original idea was spurred by a Wall Street Journal reporter, Laura Landro, who wrote about the game in an article entitled “The Latest in Video-Game Villains: Plaque, Intestinal Worms and Nerds.”

 

Tetris movie?

According to the Wall Street Journal, a “Tetris” movie is in the works.  Considering how many people have played “Tetris”, one would think there will be quite a bit of interest, though it isn’t clear how you make a story from a puzzle.  It will be interesting to see if and how they work Tetrominoes into the storyline.

I worked with Alexey Pajitnov, the creator of “Tetris”, for a few months at Microsoft.  He has a wonderful mind for game design, particularly puzzles.

So maybe the music below will be the theme for the new movie.

Video Games History museum finds home

The Video Games History museum has travelled to E3 and Classic Gaming Expo, but more recently its creators have been looking for a permanent home.  I’m happy to report that — according to Gamasutra magazine — they appear to have found one in Texas.

In the past they have included games I’ve worked on, such as Intellivision “Microsurgeon”, “PBA Bowling” for Intellivision, and Mattel “Handheld Bowling”.  Sometime when I’m in Texas I’ll enjoy stopping by for a look.

I support our national parks

I support the National Parks Conservation Association’s (NPCA) goals for support by our next and future U.S. Congress.  I have visited many national parks as a child and as an adult, and I treasure those moments.  Those experiences have positively influenced my life’s works.  My science fiction story “Home Renewed”, part of my “Science Fiction: The Arts” anthology, is about a boy from Mars who wonders why “old” things are kept around and admired on Earth.  Visit a national park, maybe even one where you can admire a few old buildings.  It’s an inspiration.

null

Genealogy translation tools

Family Tree Magazine blog listed some good tools for genealogy language translation.  The tools for entering foreign text are very handy, especially for translating tombstones.  I’d add, however, that Microsoft’s Bing translator works quite well too.  If you attempt to translate a foreign language tombstone, first check out some websites to see if there are common passages of text used in the language and religion you are investigating.

Mathematics inspiration – The Geometry of France

I’ve always enjoyed mathematics, and I still have fun reading about new research, tutoring for the SAT, and participating in online math contests.  On my recent travels in France, I found several fascinating geometric shapes — descriptions below.

The Eifel Tower can’t help but make one think of fractal mathematics, with the shape of the supporting structure being repeated as one looks towards the top.

EifelTower_FromTopOfArcDeTriomphe

The spiral staircase of the Arc de Triomphe is not only mesmerizing from above, but it captures ones imagination all the way up.

LongSpiralStaircaseToTop_ArcDeTriomphe

Though not strictly a geometric shape, this large stone on the Pink Granite Coast in Brittany, France is a beautiful and interesting rock.  One can’t help but think about the winds, rain, sea, and other forces that shaped it.

MonkeyFace_PinkGraniteCoastFrance

This clock looking out from the Musee de Orsay in Paris is an attractive circular lookout.

MuseeDOrsay_Clock

How about the winds and other forces that continue to shape the Dune du Pilat south of Bordeaux, France?  It’s the tallest sand dune in Europe.

DuneDuPilat_France

Moet & Chandon’s 18 miles of caves that house their champagne bottles are pretty amazing.  It’s also impressive that the bottles and stacks of rows of bottles are so perfectly shaped and maintained that there are literally thousands of bottles behind each of the stacks of bottles that you see here.

MoetChandonCave

Life reflecting art or art reflecting life?

I took this photo during my recent visit to the Louvre in Paris.  It struck me as fascinating that the crowd — and it is crowded at the Louvre — scene flowed so well from the painting (The Wedding Feast at Cana by Paolo Veronese, I think; ) across the room from Mona Lisa at the Louvre.  The colors almost seem to cross time from the wedding participants in the painting to the modern crowd — or vice versa.  I had to wonder: Is this art reflecting life or life reflecting art?

PaoloVeronese_WeddingAtCana_Louvre

Da Vinci inspirations

RickInGarden_ChateauClosLuce

Rick Levine at Chateau du Clos Luce

Did you know that Leonardo Da Vinci spent the last years of his life in Amboise, France at Chateau du Clos Luce?  During our recent vacation to France, we toured Clos Luce as well as Chateau d’Amboise.  Whether standing outside Leonardo’s last home, peering out from his bedroom window, or standing in the chapel where he’s buried, I kept wondering what it must have been like to walk into this home and see Mona Lisa — which he had brought with him from Italy.  In the basement and the gardens were many concept models made to show off Da Vinci’s many inventions and ideas.  I hope that a few atoms of his creative genius were still in the air to rub off on me.

LeonardosView_ChateauClosLuce_AmboiseFrance

View from Leonardo Da Vinci’s bedroom at Chateau du Clos Luce

LeonardoDaVinci_BuriedHere

Chapel at Chateau d’Amboise where Leonardo Da Vinci is buried

 

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 of way 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