Sunday, February 24, 2013

Game Mechanics

In a roleplaying game that I'm currently running/playing/somethinging, there's a mechanic built around an attribute called will. Roughly speaking, fighting monsters and making arduous journeys depletes will. Sleeping or relaxing in a safe place replenishes it. Will is also regained after achieving success in some way, which is a more complicated/interesting mechanic.

I think it has interesting consequences for how much attention one pays in lectures. See suppose the characters in the game had to sit through a quantum mechanics lecture (if you're playing the game: ooh, foreshadowing). One character pays attention, takes complete notes and asks questions. She loses a will point for all the effort, but regains it when, at the end of the lecture, she understands operator methods better and can consider her time well spent. Another character disagrees with the lecturer's interpretation of quantum mechanics, but thinks better of starting a philosophical debate in class. Rather than spending a will point stewing over it, she starts doodling in the margins between taking down the most salient points of the lecture. Her understanding of operator methods improves, but she's not satisfied enough to gain a will point. Nonetheless, between taking some notes and worrying about philosophy and doodling, she's lost a will point. She'll be more tired than the character who paid attention. (The character who bunked the lecture is also doing better, but only until exam time.)

Now, if only real life could be modelled by such simple mechanics. Quantisation of willpower, at least, sounds like a viable physical mechanism.

(This picture is mostly just because I like it. It has to do with lectures (phase space representations, not operator methods) and end-of-long-day/weekness. That's all.)

Saturday, February 23, 2013

Friday Five

1. It's the weekend. Yay! Given the amount of time I've spent drawing isometric projections of spiral stairways in the margins of my lecture notes, you might not expect me to be tired. But I do keep track of what's going on in class too.

2. We were going to play Catan tonight, but due to aforementioned tiredness it ended up abandoned. Instead, one who shall henceforth be called the Velociraptor-with-a-pea (kinda like Anne-with-an-e?) postulated that a goose is just a kind of iceberg with a periscope. We discussed other similarly profound topics too.

3. We made homemade potato chips (fries?) which were awesome and not as hard as I'd have thought. Chop up taters. Boil in microwave. Put in pan, drizzle lightly with oil, toss. Roast at 200ish C for twentyish minutes, tossing at intervals when you remember. Eat.

4. People seemed a little concerned by how thoroughly I executed the last step. Going to the bank burns many calories, okay? Or, uh, something. I do not regret it.

5. I got distracted by marking, so I could make this into the Saturday Six now. Oops! I think I'll go to bed instead, though.

Savo 'lass a lalaith.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

These Are a Few of My Favourite Things

Or at any rate, things that have made me happy recently, even if they aren't absolute all time top favourites.

Pausing to stand under a cascade of pink blossoms spilling over a fence on the way back from the supermarket.

Finding that an example I made to help some students has osmosed into nearly every workbook in the group.

Eating a perfectly ripe plum after a long afternoon.

Having my own keys to [parts of] the Physics department.

Lying on my bed with a supersized mug of milky tea.

Working out a proof until it suddenly blossoms into understanding of the general case.

Finding a skirt that hits at the ankle even if you're tall and high-waisted, marked down from the markdown price.

Watching and helping a student 'get' a new concept.

Scheming to make homemade hamburgers and chips on Friday night.

Drawing Koch snowflakes until the iterations get smaller than my pen strokes.

There are moments on the other end of the scale too, of course, but life is good.

Monday, February 18, 2013

Things they said

Discussing Lent at Sunday School, we mentioned doing things like giving up chocolate or taking up reading your bible. So one little girl asked "Can I eat chocolate every day for Lent?" Uh, not quite.

Also at Sunday School, one seven-year-old didn't like the way a game was being played. So she marched over to her own game and announced "I'm going to play this in the third person."

In my other natural habitat, the physics department, from a grad student who's competent in such mathematical topics as multivariate calculus and tensor analysis: "Why do minus signs have to be so confusing?"

And on the blackboard after a lecture involving the emission of UV light: "the ultra-violent catastrophe". Guess Max Planck was more of a hero than I thought!

Savo 'lass a lalaith.

Saturday, February 16, 2013


Today while I was talking to Sir Laughs-a-lot, because this is apparently what grad students do, we formulated an algorithm for research. I, uh, decided the world would be a better place for my putting on the internet. So here goes.

1. Get confused. (We totally have this one nailed. But as Sir L says, it can be fun.)

2. Get unconfused. (Easy, right?)

3. Write a paper. "Look! I'm unconfused, look at me! You can be unconfused too."

4. Win Nobel prize; become rich and famous (optional).

We were doing step two for a thermodynamics problem which has technically already been solved, but only by other people and we ended up with a (hypothetical) balloon that filled the whole universe. This is why I'm studying physics.

Friday, February 15, 2013

Friday Five

1. Lectures started this week! It's a bit odd only having nine hours of class time in a week, but there still seems to be plenty to do. I wonder how many of us are realistically putting in the other 3+ hours a week on project work.

2. Most of my project time this week has gone to watching video lectures on machine learning (via Coursera). One of the neatest techniques is an algorithm called gradient descent. For each iteration it considers each parameter A and a function J to minimise. Then it sets A to be A - c(dJ/dA) for a learning rate constant c. This means that at the top of a hollow, you move down the steep sides rapidly. As things shallow out towards the minimum, the steps get increasingly smaller. Awesome. (If you think of a derivative as the slope at a point, you can see this, as well as why the algorithm always moves towards the lowest point.)

3. Next week is going to be a toss up between machine learning videos and reading papers on things like Kalman filtering. Both are interesting and a little zombie-ish in that they tend to steal my brains.

4. I think students might be anti-zombies, since Statistical Physics, Quantum Mechanics and Partial Differential equations somehow have similar effects. Considering how many things are like that, it must be me, right? They can't all be zombie subjects.

5. Despite a bit of grumbling, this is totally what I signed up for and it's really great. Now I just need to get my brain into gear so I can stop confusing scalar products with scalar multiplication, which, despite the names, are not the same thing at all. Oops! I blame the zombies.

Friday, February 8, 2013

Book Log: The Lord of the Rings Part 1

We all know that Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings is one novel and not a trilogy, right? It was only published in three volumes because of paper costs and such. So I can just write about the three parts as I read them without ranting about how the first two parts do not have proper endings because they're actually middles and it's a pity so many recentish novels seem to think they can end as incompletely? Awesome.

I've read The Lord of the Rings too many times to want to write a proper reviewy thing as I read it. I get a bit too excited about details like when exactly the reforging of Narsil is first mentioned and will forget to say anything about the obvious and crucial aspects. So I thought instead I'd sort of pick out the theme of fellowship from The Fellowship of the Ring and talk a little bit about loyalties and motivations. (I shan't try to avoid spoilery things, since if you haven't read the book you've probably seen the movie.)

The most obvious at the end of the first part is perhaps Borimir's loyalty to Minas Tirith. I don't think it's just loyalty that makes him so desire the ring, but certainly the loyalty nearly gave the ring a path to being used as it wished. It's interesting to contrast Boromir with Aragorn, who shares a strong loyalty to the city, but tempers it with the counsel of the Wise, a better sense of scale and somethin akin to greater maturity (not that Boromir's immature by any ordinary standard). It's also interesting to compare Sam to Boromir, since he's loyal to Frodo in a way that strikes me as similar to Boromir's loyalty to Gondor. Sam's big tests of character are much further on, though, so there may be more to say later.

Legolas and Gimli are fiercely loyal to the elves and the dwarves respectively; but in Lothlorien and Moria both have to face up to certain shortcomings of their own races and merits of the other's. Ultimately their loyalties don't seem to lessen so much as to mellow into something wherein they can appreciate other civilisations along with their own. They grow, perhaps. I'll try to remember to revisit this thought at Helm's Deep.

Merry and Pippin follow Frodo, although Gondor and Rohan will, I think, claim their loyalty later. Gandalf is rather mysterious; I am inclined to think that he answers to Illuvatar. Gandalf the White may shed some light on that when I get there.

Frodo goes through an interesting change that pretty much frames the first part of the novel. Early on Bilbo says that Frodo still loves the Shiore too much to leave it. Although Frodo thinks of following Bilbo, he never does. It is eventually the threat to the Shire, through the ring, that motivates Frodo. But by the time Frodo sits upon Amon Hen, he is wrestling with fear and his knowledge of what he must do. The Shire isn't particularly a player in his decisions any longer. His new loyalties are perhaps to Middle Earth a a whole; I'm tempted to say to what's right, but I think there are right and wrong ways to express loyalty, which may be the difference between Boromir and Sam.

Frodo is beginning to gain some of the perspective that tempers Aragorn's actions and which Boromir never found. But "the finest hobbit in the Shire" is made of sturdier stuff than Boromir from the start, I think. Even Gandalf and Galadriel are sorely tempted by the offer of the ring; Boromir would take it by force; Bilbo only gives it up with much assistance from Gandalf. Frodo, even after bearing the ring and after the Morgul wound freely offers to give it away. And that, I suppose, is why he must be the ringbearer.

Friday Five

1. I made substantial progress in sorting out the direction of my honours project this week. It's really nice to have something worthwhile to direct my energy at, instead of worritting about admin. And the admin is slowly diminishing. Hurrah!

2. We played Settlers of Catan for the first time (except for one of the group) tonight. It was pretty awesome. I suspect some of the appeal is just in the newness of the system, but there's quite a bit of scope. I really enjoyed playing a strategy game that doesn't require attacking people. (Although the cutting off of other people's roads can get surprisingly intense.)

3. I think board games like Catan can be considered kind of nerdy, but do you know what would be even nerdier? Getting really frustrated that nine gets rolled more often than seven, which is not what the maths says should happen. Not that anyone I know did this. And it certainly didn't cause more upset than pretty much anything else in the whole game. Because we're not that nerdy. Oh, no!

4. My lectures start on Monday, except they don't, which is confusing. Depending on electives, we can end up with whole days free for project work (if you're disciplined) and other things (probably regardless). I don't have a timetable for my elective yet, so my actual first lecture is currently set for Wednesday. I'm finding that kind of weird.

5. The varsity notices today included a FameLab flyer. Now I'm wondering if coming up with a three minute talky thing about physics for the general public (and videoing it or driving a fair bit to actually speak in front of people) constitutes unnecessary stress. I think it's probably worth a shot, because it seems like there should be more fun than complicated, if there's some of both.

Savo 'lass a lalaith.

Monday, February 4, 2013

Book Log: Griffin's Castle by Jenny Nimmo

I first read Griffin's Castle in primary school for the Battle of the Books competition. It was an awesome source of good new titles and I read loads of books from those reading lists for years after I was eligible to enter. When I found my only slightly battered copy in a second hand bookshop for less than the price of a chocolate bar, I -- well, I would've jumped at the opportunity, but by the time I left that shop I was carrying too many books to make that wise.

Griffin's Castle is a bleaker story than I remembered. Dinah Jones is a tall, serious eleven-year-old who is very nearly both unloved and unwanted. Her young, single mother hopes she isn't a genius or something similarly horrid. Things might've been looking up when Dinah and her mother move into a proper house for the first time ever. But the house is falling apart and the landlord, Dinah's stepfather-to-be, perhaps, can't stand the strange girl, so unlike her mother, who hangs a handmade "Griffin's Castle" sign on the gate after finding a stone griffin in the garden and wants to visit his elderly mother.

That's what's so awfully attractive about Dinah. One could understand if she were sullen and sorry for herself, but instead she's fiercely independent. She papers her dingy attic room with cut out pictures and poetry. If she refuses to be friends with the children at school, she pushes them into friendship with each other. And then there's a little bit of magic that makes Dinah's independence scarily concrete. I think her not-quite-a-friend Jacob puts it best. [Fair warning: this might be very mildly spoilerish.]

"Dinah Jones is different. She's seen things, been in places that are horrible. But she'll never, never tell. They've got right into her, like, right deep into her and she can't get away. And the animals are the same. They can't talk about what it's like to be hunted and chained and to have your claws and teeth pulled out, or to starve very slowly. So she's invited them into her garden, where they'll be safe together. Safety in numbers. But Griffin's Castle is falling down. And supposing all the animals come. Maybe she'll never get out again. [. . .] Perhaps a desperate person, like Dinah, can make things happen. Things that could never normally happen, in real life, I mean. D'you think that's possible?"

At first Dinah welcomes the fantastical animals. She doesn't want to leave Griffin's Castle, which is, she persists in believing, going to be a beautiful family home. But soon she finds she can't escape them - she very nearly dies trying. I don't think words like "depression" or "suicide" ever occured to me when I read the book about ten years ago, but they do now. I think I'm glad; the animals were freaky enough then as it was, but seeing more of the symbolism now makes the book well worth rereading.

Dinah can't escape the animals on her own, but fortunately, in the end, she doesn't have to. And then she cries. Which, oddly enough, might be the happiest moment in the book.

I said at the beginning that the book was bleak, but I didn't find it depressing. It's a story about light in darkness, not about darkness. About a spark that, just as it seems about to be snuffed out, is kindled into flame. I expected to enjoy it and it surpassed my expectations.

Friday, February 1, 2013

Friday Five

1. It turns out that running around varsity trying to perform multitudinous administrative tasks is more tiring than sitting at home doing interesting projects. In consequence I'm going to borrow some things other people have said (as well as I remember them) to make five.

2. While discussing shapes of trees that are good to climb: "a melting candle, which is like a squid."

3. Talking (initially) about time zones:
"I always get my pluses and minuses mixed up."
"Always? What's three minus four?"
"And four minus three?"
"So subtraction commutes! Is addition distributive then?"
"And multiplication."
"Yes, it's normal."
"Wait, the integers aren't a ring then."
"Nope, they're a helix."

4. Trying to work out if I can take PDEs as an elective:
"The lectures aren't timetabled; the students and lecturers will negotiate the times."
"Clashes shouldn't be a problem then."
"Well, that depends on your negotiating skills."

5. "Can I quote you on that?"
"Yes. In or out of context."