Category: Games

CGI model of what the first flower might have looked lke

A recreation of what the first flower might have looked like, 140 million years ago. A carbon-nanotube random-number generator. A comic strip about Lyft’s experiment in charging its employees to park at work. Why do porn sites have social-media “share” buttons? A cool list of coders’ side-projects. A guide to JOVIAL, a 60s-era embedded language the US military used for embedded systems. A hacker who has made a living, for twenty years, via exploits of the economics of online games. Quantum tunneling appears to not be instantaneous.


Dataviz of which links are dead in the Million Dollar HomepageA study looks at the Million Dollar Homepage, and finds that “link rot” has set in: Of the 2,816 links, only 1,780 are still reachable. In China’s economic view, “Iran is at the center of everything.” Why do people Google words? “Echo Chambers In Investment Discussion Boards.” A study finds that people like analog pens for “drafting”, and digital pens for “crafting”. Yikes: RealDolls with AI “personalities”. “Brotters Common, Normannegg, Twettle Row”: @hondanhon trains a neural net on UK placenames, then generates new ones. At Mozilla’s “Common Voice” project, you can record yourself saying things to contribute to open-source voice-recognition. A report from the procrastination conference. Nintendo’s designers for Mario Kart ponder, but decide against, removing the Blue Shell. A brief history of the closet.



Picture of Mcdonald's Pikachu McFlurry

“Would You Eat A Pokemon McFlurry That Looks Like Pikachu’s Swirled Corpse?” Why we need to reboot the web culture of “view source”: My latest Wired column. (And here’s Sam Arbesman reflecting on the same thing from the Commodore-64 80s — including some lovely BASIC programs his father wrote for him.) How to attach a camera to a humpback whale. The EFF ranks online services by how well they protect your privacy. If you spent tons of time on social media, you’re exposed to an ideological wider array of news sources. The advent of easily-faked video. I am a sucker for all scientific research that suggests you should DRINK MOAR COFFEE


Artists rendering of Macrauchenia patachonica by museum of natural history
Scientists finally figure out the genetic tree of a “very weird mammal” that vanished 10,000 years ago: It’s part of the horse family. “Those whose past is legible will be exhorted to repeat it.” Behold the “Encounter Editor”, Chris Crawford’s tool — 25 years in the making — for scripting interactive stories. “Quibits” are quantum bits that can represent two states, 1 and 0, at the same time; but now we have “qudits”, which can represent ten. How to replace yourself with a very small shell script. Behold “Brogrammer”, a theme for the Sublime text editor.


A map of the Internet from 1969

A map of the Internet from 1969. Some thoughts on the 10X coder. “Braitenberg’s Law” notes that it’s easy to understand a complex robot or piece of code if you wrote it; if someone else did, it’s insanely hard. “Taking turns is a primary expression of justice”: An essay on the moral dimensions of phys ed, from 1922. Meet the Girl Scouts who are earning cybersecurity badges. Why Grenfell Tower burned. My favorite piece of 19th-century punctuation is the “colash”, a colon followed by a m-dash, like this … “:—”. My New York Times Magazine feature on computational thinking and “The Minecraft Generation” from a year ago; and a podcast with me talking about it.


Alexander Graham Bell's tetrahedral kites
Behold Alexander Graham Bell’s gorgeous tetrahedral kites! Wait, wait — they just pushed out a software update for Google Glass? (Guess I should dust mine off: I wore them for three months back in 2013 for a story in the New York Times Magazine.) “Floating nests of fire ants” is the creepiest thing I’ve read about today. Parametric fonts, from Google. “What was your childhood pet?”: A fiendish and elegant way to steal the answers to someone’s security questions. Thomas Edison was one of the earliest engineers to refer to a “bug” when high-tech equipment was malfunctioning. (Earlier yet, Shakespeare seems to have used “bug” to mean a troublesome person.) Reading someone else’s code isn’t like reading literature; it’s like naturalism, observing a strange creature in the wild and trying to figure out its habits. Why Uber’s problems stem from the cult of the founder in Silicon Valley. A Inuit man tells you the proper way to build an igloo. omg someone please stop me from playing this game, I’m supposed to be writing a book.


Wooden prototype of a Palm Pilot made by inventor Jeff Hawkins

Above, a fake, wooden version of a Palm Pilot, made by inventor Jeff Hawkins to figure out whether he’d want to carry around a personal digital assistant all day long; such fakes are known as “preotypes” — “pretend prototypes.” The perils of self-driving cars were predicted in this witty movie from 1911. A list of Mastodon instances looks oddly like lists of BBSes or USENET groups from the early 90s. This guy makes pretty awesome art using Excel. omg I can’t stop playing Flipping Legend! Instructions on how to build an igloo, by an Inuit man trying to preserve this historic skill. Transcriptions of the chitchat on your first date: Some predictions on how high-quality voice dictation might change everyday life.


“One third of the invertebrates and some of the fishes found during the expedition are completely new to science.” They’ve discovered that Cook pine trees always lean in the direction of the equator — the ones in the Northern hemisphere lean towards the south, and the Southern hemisphere ones lean towards the north. (If you want to read the actual face-sound scientific paper, it’s here.) Behold the many religious-themed handheld LCD games of the 80s and 90s. Does the sound of your name match the shape of your face?   This neural net produces some unsettlingly realistic faces. “Nothing much, just painting a Renaissance manuscript with dissolved fish bladder, you?” An interesting hypothesis about how and why whales got so insanely huge.


Awesomely nerdy dice

"NYC Cuisine Dice" by Eric Harshbarger

The other day on Twitter, Benjamin Edwards posted a picture of some gorgeous milled-aluminum dice a friend made for him. In response, Eric Berlin pointed us to the work of his friend Eric Harshbarger, who designs insanely cool custom dice.

Above is one of Harshbarger’s creations: A set of dice for New Yorkers who are heading out to eat dinner but are paralyzed by the paradox of choice. The dice are labeled:

Die 1: West Village, Chelsea, EV/Nolita, LES, Soho, Roller’s Choice

Die 2: Italian, Roller’s Choice, Sushi, Mexican, Asian, Ethnic

Heh. Below, an even nerdier concept: Binary dice. I’m going to order a pair of these for my son to bring to his middle-school math class …

Binary dice by Eric Harshbarger

Here’s some deep meta — a die of polyhedral shapes:

Polyhedral die by Eric Harshbarger

And here are some DNA/nucleotide dice — useful for synthetic biologists want to add some randomness when they’re inadvertently creating unstoppable superbugs!

DNA/Nucleotide dice by Eric Harshbarger

Below are perhaps my favorite — a pair of dice Harshbarger created after he posed himself a puzzle: “What is the greatest number of dots that can be removed from a die and it still be determinable what is rolled?”

Behold …

Two-pip dice by Eric Harshbarger

His fuller explanation of how to read these:

  • If the ‘center-side’ pip is face up, then a “6” was rolled, because that is the only number with a dot in that position.
  • If the center-side pip is not visible anywhere on the die, then it must be face-down. Meaning you rolled a “1”.
  • Otherwise, the center-side is on one of the four side faces. In this case, look for the ‘center-center’ pip (which, given its position relative to the center-side pip, must be the “5” face). If that center-center dot is face-up, you’ve rolled a “5”. If it is not visible, you’ve rolled a “2”. If it is also on one of the side faces, then you need to know that the 4-5-6 values are placed counterclockwise about their shared vertex (on Bicycle Dice); with that knowledge you can determine whether a “3” or “4” is face up.

This guy’s a genius. Check out the rest of the dice on his page; the ones here are only the tip of the iceberg.

What I love about Harshbarger’s work is how it leverages humanity’s longstanding fascination with randomness — a force that has long tweaked and teased society’s ideas about logic, reason, the will of God, the arc of life. Over at Aeon, Michael Schulson wrote a terrific essay on the situations where a random choice can be better than a reasoned one, and he opens by noting the peculiar allure of the random:

As moderns, we take it for granted that the best decisions stem from a process of empirical analysis and informed choice, with a clear goal in mind. That kind of decision-making, at least in theory, undergirds the ways that we choose political leaders, play the stock market, and select candidates for schools and jobs. It also shapes the way in which we critique the rituals and superstitions of others. But … [snip]

… As any blackjack dealer or tarot reader might tell you, we have a love for the flip of the card. Why shouldn’t we? Chance has some special properties. It is a swift, consistent, and (unless your chickens all die) relatively cheap decider. Devoid of any guiding mind, it is subject to neither blame nor regret. Inhuman, it can act as a blank surface on which to descry the churning of fate or the work of divine hands. Chance distributes resources and judges disputes with perfect equanimity.


The joy of grinding, or, Why young men would rather play video games than get a job

Danny Izquierdo playing a video game in front of a TV

This is Danny Izquierdo, “a 22-year-old who lives with his parents in Silver Spring, Md.”, as the Chicago Tribune reports (their photo, too). Izquierdo, the Tribune writes, is part of a trend: Young men who are opting out of the job market because it’s more emotionally fulfilling to play video games. It’s not that they couldn’t find a job. It’s that they don’t want to. Games are a better mode of living.

Can this trend possibly be true?

University of Chicago economist Erik Hurst says so. He’s been studying the workplace fates of young men who haven’t completed a four-year degree. In the 2000s, their employment rates took a nosedive. What were they doing with all those newly free hours? They weren’t going to back to school. Mostly, all the hours they used to work are now leisure — and fully 75% of that leisure is one activity:

Playing video games.

It’s practically a full-time job for them. And they’re pretty happy about it! As Hurst puts it:

The average low-skilled, unemployed man in this group plays video games an average of 12, and sometimes upwards of 30 hours per week. This change marks a relatively major shift that makes me question its effect on their attachment to the labor market.

To answer that question, I researched what fraction of these unemployed gamers from 2000 were also idle the previous year. A staggering 22% – almost one quarter – of unemployed young men did not work the previous year either. These individuals are living with parents or relatives, and happiness surveys actually indicate that they are quite content compared to their peers, making it hard to argue that some sort of constraint, like they are miserable because they can’t find a job, is causing them to play video games.

So, why exactly would games be more appealing than a job? In one way, the answer is screamingly obvious: A game is designed to be fun, to immerse you in teasingly intriguing goals, and there are few real-world consequences if you screw it up. Of course it’s more pleasant than the sorts of crappy service-sector jobs guys like Izquierdo have been getting.

Ah, but it’s worth looking a little more closely at a point that Izquierdo himself makes in the Chicago Tribune piece. He mentions playing Pokemon Go, Fifa 16 and Rocket League, and then adds:

“When I play a game, I know if I have a few hours I will be rewarded,” he said. “With a job, it’s always been up in the air with the amount of work I put in and the reward.”

Ah, now this, I find fascinating. And familiar!

He’s talking about the joy of grinding.

Back in 2008 for Wired, I wrote about this phenomenon. In many modern video games, there’s a mechanic of “leveling up”. You begin the game playing a character that’s relatively weak, but after you complete a few simple quests or tasks or nail a few early victories, you get more powerful: You go from level one to level two. And at level two, hey — suddenly you’re noticeably a bit more powerful! All that work was worth it! So, duly encouraged, you set about playing some more, because you know that pretty soon you’ll hit level three, and sure enough: Boom, another level up, and you’re more powerful yet.

People will spend hours and days and weeks doing this, going around and tackling every tiny sidequest in a game just so they can get a teensy bit closer to the next level. It can get kind of monotonous; that’s why it’s called “grinding”. But the reward — that jolt of satisfaction when your character erupts in a halo and emerges more powerful yet — is so catalytic, you can’t stop.

That’s the joy of grinding. And as I argued in Wired, grinding is in a certain sense the American Dream. If I just do the work, dutifully and over and over again, I’ll be rewarded. 

As I wrote back then, while talking specifically about playing World of Warcraft (WoW) …

… there’s something enormously comforting about grinding. It offers a completely straightforward relationship between work and reward. When you log into WoW, you know beyond a shadow of a doubt that if you just plant your ass in that chair for long enough, you’ll level up. It doesn’t require skill. It just requires putting in the time. Play 10 hours, you’ll do better; play 50, you’ll do better yet; and yet more so with 500 hours.

The thing is, almost no arenas of human endeavor work like this. Many are precisely the opposite, in fact. When you go to your job at the office, there’s little or no linkage between effort and achievement: You slave like a madman all year long, only to watch the glad-handing frat guy hired two months ago get promoted above you. And if you’re a really serious nerd, the logic that governs interpersonal relationships — marriage, kids, your parents — is even more abstruse: Things can actually get worse the more time and effort you put into them.

But grinding? Grinding always works. Always. You get a gold star just for showing up. This is a quietly joyful experience. It feeds our souls, as well as our sense of justice and fair play. We grind because we can’t believe what a totally awesome deal we’re getting handed here, often the first time in our entire suck-ass put-upon lives.

So maybe it’s not just that these men are avoiding work because they’re lazy or immature or short-sighted (though these things may certainly also be true). Maybe it’s partly also that they’re craving work that feels like it’s progressing somewhere — that isn’t just punching the same entropic card every day. Which is what too many of those go-nowhere service jobs are like, frankly; they’re dispiriting even to someone who approaches them with the chirpiness of a Dale Carnegie. If the economy offered better jobs, maybe the competition from games wouldn’t be quite so stiff.

Mind you, another factor here is that today’s games are fine-tuned to provoke compulsive, nonstop playing. Young guys get sucked into playing all day long because — well, that’s sort of what the games are intended to do. It’s in the design spec, a feature and not a bug. I can attest to this compulsive power, because as a lifelong gamer, I wrestle with it all the time!

In fact, I’m currently getting sucked into Trove, a new game that’s a mashup of Minecraft and World of Warcraft. Oooo, it’s grindalicious. I spent three hours grinding last night, and plan to do the same long march tonight. And frankly, these binges of play inevitably interfere with my actual work. Unlike the twentysomethings in that Chicago Times, I actually enjoy my job as a journalist; even so, games are an amazing mental respite, because they’re a relief from the sheer complexity of reporting. When I’m working on a book, the way forward is often foggy; I often struggle with the question of, what should I be doing today? Next hour? Right now?

In contrast, grinding gives you a neat list of tasks to check off. Put your butt in the chair, play for an hour, and you’ll level up. Working on my book is confusing, a tramp through a fen. Trove gives me goals that are militarily clear.

I can't stop playing Trove, help

I can’t stop playing Trove, help

This siren call of games has become a subject of regular conversation between me and my kids, as I try to impart what I’ve learned about the need for moderation. I tell them, more or less, that a lifetime of gaming has taught me that a) video games are a total joy and proof the universe wants us to be happy, but b) their talons wrap tightly around your immortal soul and do not easily let go. It is the samurai work of a lifetime to keep games in harmony with a balanced life. I’ve done it (I hope!) But whoa, it takes self-awareness.

But, back to the young male gamers who are avoiding the workplace. In the short run, they’re happy. But they’re almost certain to develop massive problems down the road, as Hurst points out: “The obvious problem with this lifestyle occurs as they age and haven’t accumulated any skills or experience.”

One more thought about games as a radical alternative to daily life: This reminds me of a passage from Jane McGonigal’s terrific book Reality is Broken. Early on she quotes Herodotus’ tale of an ancient king who used games to conquer the pain of hard times:

When Atys was king of Lydia in Asia Minor some three thousand years ago, a great scarcity threatened his realm. For a while people accepted their lot without complaining, in the hope that times of plenty would return. But when things failed to get better, the Lydians devised a strange remedy for their problem, The plan adopted against the famine was to engage in games one day so entirely as not to feel any craving for food … and the next day to eat and abstain from games. In this way they passed eighteen years, and along the way they invented the dice, knuckle-bones, the ball, and all the games which are common.

(Thanks to Morgan for pointing out the Chicago Tribune story to me!)