Douglas Hofstadter – I Am A Strange Loop

Finally a book that proves we are fractals. Joking aside, in a more serious approach Hofstadter states in his book that consciousness can arise from a pattern called a “strange loop”.  The core problem of cognitive science in general is, that how can chemicals and inanimate matter form such thing as consciousness, that seems to be much more complex and chaotic than the machine-like environment of biology and physics. A strange loop is a hierarchy of levels, each of which is linked to at least one other by some type of relationship. In a strange loop hierarchy there is no well defined highest or lowest level, moving through the levels, one eventually returns to the starting point. Self-referential thought patterns, fractals, the ideas behind some works by Escher, certain music pieces like canons are examples for this. In short, a strange loop is a paradoxical level-crossing feedback loop.

The famous Liar’s Paradox (“This statement is false.”) is kind of a strange loop, as the sentence is refering to itself causing a logical paradox, we are oscillating between two levels of it’s hierarchy, always arriving back to another layer.

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One rarely comes across such an exciting book as anything by Hofstadter, his writings are challenging but rewarding. The author has a really gentle way of explaining, I’m pretty sure he must be a really good teacher, but this doesn’t change the fact that his books have such technical depth that is often not so easy to understand, I read this book two times already and probably will need more reads still.  Even if you can’t follow every threads and puzzle pieces, it is enjoyable to rediscover familiar thoughts or get new perspective on things by the concept of a strange loop.  Because as you see from the examples, the actual subject of the book are everyday things, like well-known biology, ancient tales, or famous theorems like Gödel’s.

There are several novel-like parts, the introduction already feels like a biography, and yet it’s the perfect introduction to such subject. Hofstadter mainly explains why he became vegetarian, and how do the consciousness of plants and animals differ greatly. Besides the economic reasons (the land you grow crops for animals to eat later could be used to feed us instead), this part of his book was a great fuel for my vegetarian diet as well. Though eating either plants or animals are killing, the main diference is in consciousness, as plants have no capability of self-refering thoughts. They feel pain, but they don’t know the magic concept of “I”.  Pain is truly a chemical reaction in this level, not a personal phenomena like for animals and especially for humans.

Compared to his earlier book, “Gödel, Escher, Bach”, this one is kind of easier to read because of the biography-like parts. While the first one was filled with technical examples, this latter one is filled with stories of life. If you decide to read any of them, then you may need to read both, the order is not important.

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About dungeon mechanisms and PvE in general

Recently I started playing Aion again, that I plan to write about later as well, but for now it made me think about PvE (Player versus Enemy) content of mmorpgs in general.

There are a lot of things that can be done well in such games, but usually they still end up requiring you to smash two or three buttons only, according to your class. The challenging content is shifted into the endgame, only players accessing them are the ones who already invested a serious amount of hours into the game.

There are, and there always were exceptions, and sometimes you find them at strange places. A semi-recent example could be Scarlet Blade, where even the first dungeon boss summons minions, and stands in a toxic water so you need to stay on leaves. Then the second one is a giant computer mainframe with several attack waves and repairing bots that heal during the boss fight. In several these phases, the mentioned boss release special attacks that can shock the players, so they need to move out of it’s way.

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Let me mention the important part once again, this is low level content. You can get here in a day or so. Actually the game is full of nice mechanisms even in arenas where players fight each other, so if someone wasn’t scared away from the game because of the skimpy clothing then they could have some really fun times. What really killed the game is Aeria Games as usually, being greedy and trying to milk every cent from the game whatever it may cost. Yes, this is what you call p2w (Pay To Win). When you can’t get enhancement items in-game, only through an item shop then you can tell if a game is doomed to sink into this money devouring pit.

A friend of mine mentioned Final Fantasy XIV as a counter-example, but complicated boss mechanisms are endgame there as well. The situation is a bit different, because lighter variants of some fights occur on lower levels. For an example, I could say the Titan fight.

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Players need to avoid damaging puddles, fight summons and the whole area you fight on becomes smaller and smaller with time. Of course, designing boss fights like in the famous game Shadow of the Colossus would be quite difficult for more than one players, but with such twists we are getting there. Maybe it’s not obvious, but too simple gameplay became an issue since the (in)famous Blizzard title, World of Warcraft. In most games all knowledge you need to know is your class type. Tanks try to get aggro (aggressivity, attack from enemies), healers heal, long-range and melee types are don’t even need to  do anything but pushing two or three buttons for a long time, usually. On another note, if you consider that these fights are done over and over again, then an overly complex mechanism like in Shadow of the Colossus could fail badly over time, as it becomes more and more dull and boring.

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In a game I played for two years until the english side got shut down, the only twist was the kind of complicated weakness system. This was Shin Megami Tensei: Imagine Online, and after learning some basic information about your enemies in a boss room, fights went quite the same every time. An exception was the so called Diaspora, but that is more like a raid or event than a real dungeon. You need to get keys, combine them, and know right order while defeating challenging bosses. And once again, those runs are almost end-game content, as usually. My question is, that why? It doesn’t need to be this way, lower level fights can be challenging as well, without artifical difficulty of insane hp amounts or so. (Some fun fact: the highest level content players got on the english-side were the Shiva/Vishnu runs and those were basically textbook examples of button smashing. You kind of used 1-2 skills for half a hour, keeping Shiva or Vishnu harmless with curses and hitting it with as many damage dealers as possible, even with demons if you could.)

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You would say that the possibilities are not endless, and designing such fights are lots of work. And yet, another game with exciting PvE content could be Phantasy Star Online 2. There are random mini-events on maps with giants enemies, that needs to be damaged limbs by limbs. Or even after a few maps, you encounter a giant dragon that can burrow itself into the ground. Fights require all of your attention, and they are exciting. Again, I mention this game because this is low level content as well. You can get to these things in a day or two.

 

So the thing is, I never said that big games nowadays like Tera, Rift, or even Aion wouldn’t have such content, but the games introduce them too late. It’s just my opinion, but working for weeks or even months if you are lazy, just to enjoy a game is way too much time. Players need to learn their classes and skills, but I seriously disagree if they would need this much time. It’s most probably about keeping people playing it, as in my opinion, these games are designed usually to be played the most time possible so they can generate income for long years. People are less likely to stop playing something they already invested thousands of hours into.

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In my all time favorite mmorpg (SMTI) the content was quite straightforward, but it was kind of a learning game. You had to know what do you do or you were dead in seconds. Study skills, study enemies and their weaknesses. The interesting map mechanisms were shifted towards endgame as well, what kept me playing was the Shin Megami Tensei world and the nice community only. Well, the combat system was quite different as it was more like a rock-paper-scissor system just like in Mabinogi, but in the end you ended up casting Megidoraon all the time. Either you, or your demon, if you wanted the easiest way, that is.

The case of SMTI is a bit similar to Wakfu, as it offers no interesting gameplay twists in boss fights but you are forced to know what are you doing, and it is fun to learn. Nothing but the skills of your enemies and your group, so a tiny bit similar to chess, even if equipment has an effect on it. But to be honest, what actually keeps me going is the lore, I can’t really help it, but I’m a sucker for occult, dark fantasy or cyberpunk, post-apocalyptics settings and such games can grasp my interest even with such flaws, and since Aion reminds me of the Planescape universe, I may be generous to it and keep grinding until the good part.

 

 

 

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James Gleick / Chaos

“There’s a fundamental presumption in physics that the way you understand the world is that you keep isolating its ingredients until you understand the stuff that you think is truly fundamental. Then you presume that the other things you don’t understand are details.”

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This book is maybe the most popular one ever written about chaos science and nonlinear dynamics in general. Gleick kind of wrote a non-fiction novel that is very accurate even if non-technical. It’s even a better read than Hawking’s books because it has all the details to understand some concepts without the really lengthy, almost document-like history parts. It may be a personal preference of course, but I’m not that interested in scientists lives than their actual work.

I’m just presuming things of course, but it may be an effect of the online anonymity I’m used to, and the idea that paradigm shifts happen on their own, certain persons just accelerate the advancing tendencies, so in the terms of a historical scale they are not that relevant. You can see it in several places, and I don’t question the genius of great scientists but no work can exist without a strong background, there is no genius without context.

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In general, nonlinear systems and chaos is like everything in physics besides the textbook examples. Turbulence, meteorology, population growth, market prices, but the famous example of Mandelbrot about the coast of Britain can show one how easy is it to find such phenomena in everyday things. The example is about scaling – you ask how long is the given coast, and give an answer in kilometers or miles. With a smaller scale you measure it again, like in inches or centimeters, so the coast seems bigger. Next you could move on and start measuring in nanometers, then so on until the very core of matter.

The problem shows that in nature a circle is not a circle, a coast is not a line, but most of the systems are turbulent, almost chaotic in the sense of physics. This is not the real problem yet even, as you can get quite close values by working with lines and circles, but some things are more sensitive to (their initial) values than others. Friction, weather, fluids… Extremely little changes can lead to entirely different results. This is why chaos is important.

When you talk about this subject, usually you can’t be really technical and careful wording is important. After all, fully understanding this matter takes years of mathematics and physics studies lots of people including myself, don’t have. Non-linearity in general is a concept that is well-defined, but without giving the certain area we use it in, there’s not much to say about it unless you state something like “functions that change in a way that don’t resemble to a line”. Little changes lead to big ones, they have ups and downs, often hills and mountains seemingly randomly, as the output of such a system is not directly proportional to the input.

Actually we meet such things a lot, because even the trigonometric functions or anything with an x on power is in fact, not linear. As these systems change in time, their corresponding differential equations require linearization or other tools so we can handle them.

The book starts with introducing us to Feigenbaum and Lorenz with their adventures in meteorology and modelling weather environment with computers. Gleick carefully avoids real details of the field, that is kind of understandable because of their complexity. He does not skip through important ideas or parts, though. Very early in the book we meet strange attractors and phase space, and they are difficult enough to fill a whole book with fully explaining them, but in elegant manner the author skips the little details to give us a picture of them we can grasp.

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Although these systems seem unpredictable, an approach is finding strange attractors that are like small areas of regular behavior in the mentioned phase space. The phase space is not real space but an abstract map of a whole system. All possible states are represented, with each possible state of the system corresponding to one unique point in the phase space.

Through the stories of people we learn new concepts like fractals, turbulence and the state and frequency changes leading to such behavior, how population biologists use chaos theory as well, and such fields of science discovering the methods of chaos for themselves. Calling it chaos is misleading, the most important thing is that the methods Gleick writes about can predict numerous systems that were believed to be truly chaotic, like signal noise in cable transmissions.

Though being 300+ pages this book is an easy read, so really recommended in my opinion to anyone interested in a (new) field of physics. Yeah, well. It’s not new any more since decades, but still extremely fascinating.

Pictures:
http://mathworld.wolfram.com/LorenzAttractor.html
http://fractalfoundation.org/OFC/OFC-10-4.html

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co’o logji bangu

For starters, Lojban is a constructed language (just like Esperanto) but the main goal of it is not to be an international auxiliary language, but to prove or disprove the so-called Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. In general this hypothesis says, that the structure of a language affects the ways in which its respective speakers conceptualize their world. Through the years it’s own community and inventors added optional usage goals and fields it could be used in just like in AI-Human interactions, or even to be an Esperanto-like auxiliary language.

The problem with Lojban is quite same with Chinese, it’s about understanding (visual) concepts . Kanjis in the case of that asian language, and grammar in the case of Lojban.

The strongest aspect in Lojban is that all gismu (root words) and compound words give a full concept, it encodes a whole, as objective idea as grammatically possible. For a quick example, xislu means wheel, but more specifically it means “x1 is a wheel [tool] of device/vehicle x2, made of materials/having properties x3.” The arguments and usage rules are fixed just like a dictionary entry, but this also means that you need to learn the whole “entry” even though most of the argument list for example is kind of easy to guess in most of the cases. Just as the widespread xkcd comic strip hints, this is not really different from actually making people learn dictionary entries. Personally I found it really challenging to learn words this way, and I haven’t even mentioned all the pro-sumtis, abstractors and other types of words. Instead of using your own ideas and learning words with words, you are forced to learn a whole dictionary entry for everything. This is highly useful in the terms of disambiguity but makes studying a nightmare.

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Learning materials mention tanru concepts in the first few chapters usually, and it becomes quite obvious already, that a fully unambigous language is not possible. Anyone trying to find the final semantics, a Holy Grail in Lojban will be already surprised as even with all the tools to make it a safe environment for concepts, Lojban cannot provide perfection. In certain cases you need to give a description of what you mean, just like in natural languages. Some authors call the attitudinals innovative, but with a more skeptical look it’s not really different than for example using emoticons.

For human usage you need to give up some grammatical parts like terminators that make it fully possible to parse (by a machine or software) but make the language really inconvenient to use. Lots of features are not innovative or new, and can be found in natural languages like the space-time system is very similar to the ko-so-a-do system in japanese. Natural languages don’t work in bridis, you may think, but as you advance in your lojban studies you can be quite surprised that natural grammar can be perceived in a really similar way. Do people need a constructed language that use natural language tools quite efficiently, and forces a framework within the language that only exist in some people’s mind usually? The lojban framework is quite similar to how people can perceive grammar as whole, it’s closer to some kind of meta-language just like some Chomsky-like universal grammar.

The conclusion from this adventure for me is, that Lojban needs more attention. People should study it. But it’s not more than a beautiful thought experiment. It’s not really suited for common usage, because despite the really easy grammar it’s a pain to learn and a pain to use. You can make difficult structures in no time with a dictionary, but actually using it is just mind-numbing and hard. Overall I’d suggest everyone to study some Lojban, but wouldn’t recommend to actually learn it. It’s quite like an amazing thought experiment, useful in many ways but way too much impractical.

Kind of an edited and extended translation of this blog entry from January.

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Massive MultiLayer (Neocron)

Choose a company, choose a life. Or be prepared for a ride of nightmare. Welcome to the future.

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Atleast this is how cyberpunk environments generally work. The genre in the most compact summary means “high tech, low life” but varies greatly from Gibson novels even to The Matrix movies. Although a few mmorpgs can be quite cyberpunk-like (eg. Anarchy Online) they usually aren’t, besides a few aspects or areas, except Neocron of course that has clear goals with the mentioned genre.

Most of the people can mistake this game for a Deus Ex mod quite easily, and it’s hard to blame them. The closest game to the general ambience and graphics quality would be that one for sure. All in all it’s still a quite reasonable quality for a free game without any proper backing options. No in-game item shop, no subscription. Don’t forget the first release date either, as this is from 2002 originally.

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The game UI is not intuitive at all, but you can get used to it and it’s not bad after a while. It’s probably just old, and nothing works the way you would expect it to do so. It’s like finding a tool that looks useless, but turns out to do everything you wanted it for, just right. Even if you can’t find a district or a shop, there is your Nav-Ray to show a route to your location and the whole path will show up on your screen, little green arrows and a dotted line showing the way.

There are classes and professions that may sound like you have all possible combinations to choose from but don’t get fooled. Professions limit a lot of things, so you will most probably use certain combinations only.

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Your skills advance as you use them. That is a system I like a lot, but some could find it frustrating. Why? As you may guess, it means a lot of skill grinding with higher values. Instead of just killing for xp then distributing points you really need to use your skills, over and over again. A lot. Think of the same mechanics The Elder Scrolls games use. With my implanter/poker (a character that applies biowares or implants into others or themselves and optionally repair or even construct them) I ended up removing and equipping implants for long-long hours just to gain some skill points.

On another note, this is still nothing compared to most of the asian mmorpgs. You can just put on a chill tune, chat to people, or even watch a movie while you grind your skills and you will get there eventually. Every time someone mentions grinding, people’s taste scale greatly and it’s hard to find the perfect amount as well.

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You get a small apartment from your corporation, loud club music coming through one of the walls, making your mind numb so you stay in the other side of the room instead where your computer is located. You log in to check the news, but it’s all the same, every day is exactly the same.

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There is a really neat in-game BBS system that has serious bugs (like no reply function, it’s kind of annoying) but still a nice feature. You will mostly find old messages though, the most people I saw at the same place at Plaza SEC1 was maybe 20 or so. And that is the district people afk or gather and meet at. So it’s a really, really low number for an mmo.

Why would you even care about a 12 years old game? You could also ask though, that why isn’t it completely dead? Because of two main factors. It’s still under active development, and has a true and strong atmosphere. The music, the environment, even the game mechanics are just like a spell cast on you, and you end up standing in the subway looking around charmed. I can’t really emphasize how important active development is, especially when you consider that most of the free mmorpgs are released and never really fixed or took care of after their short open beta phase. They are only used by publishers to generate some income through in-game purchases.

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On  a negative note, maybe the only real problem with Neocron is not the dated graphics or the low population but that it has no feel of a direction, your game time seems pointless quite often. There is not much of a main story here you could follow, only your new life and usually the ad-hoc missions you get or make up to grind your way up the virtual hierarchy of the game. This is a pretty big issue, especially when you try to introduce someone to a new game. The only main quest you can follow is a so called Epic Mission that has 6 quests, depending on your Faction (usually a corporation).

Despite being a Windows only release, the game runs smooth under Wine, even some old posts you find about messing with configuration files (eg. to skip precaching) is very often not needed at all any more.

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There is another possible reason Neocron is not really successful, and it’s because cyberpunk kind of lost it’s original charm through the years. As more and more aspects of the genre became non-fiction, you don’t really need games or books any more to experience it. You shouldn’t forget, that runners are just criminals and the whole, the usual cyberpunk setting became reality even if with a few twists of course. Maybe it’s easier to see in Eastern Europe than in the USA but this is the case nonetheless. Touchscreens were science fiction not even long ago, something you only see in Star Trek, but now nobody is surprised by them. This is quite the same pattern. Most of the privacy and surveillance issues are all real, and just as neglected as in the once-was fiction stories. Most of us are enjoying the safety of corporations, even Megacorps (Shadowrun term) could become a thing quite soon with Google, Facebook, Apple, Microsoft, Wal-Mart and so on. Suddenly the cyberpunk genre is too real, and not subject of games any more, but the news instead.

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Ghost in the circuit

Autumn is getting pretty close now, and I think about a world piggybacking electrons. Some people leave empty websites and end-game characters behind when they stop living, pure data and pure personality as the human shell is left behind.
I don’t really talk about my interest a lot offline, the only people who knew the person I consider being myself (atleast at a given time) would be people living really far away. If we consider something like samsara an idea worth preserving for thousands of years, these ghosts in the circuit could hold interesting knowledge as well, and yet rarely connecting their remains to the offline world. As memories and ideas are left from a human being, and it’s “reborn” in a way that it still shapes others’ reality through the actions (karma) they took, then a digital rebirth could work kind of the same way.
Maybe it’s not even obvious that the analog and digital world are so different as they connect all the time, but without proper tools and technology this secret layer of our world remains silent and inaccessible. Only the human shell remains, and older methods to connect us all.

The encryptions and data strorage techniques making the digital personalities and neural networks alive are all man-made, and kind of a new biology in this sense. If all documentation would be lost to these machines and the ideas and ghosts inside, then it would need to be reverse engineered, almost a new techno-biologist approach. While bitrot is aging and there is a mechanical death of storage units, the true passing away is a brand new function to us with new range and new domain.

We already store people in a way, as long as we store context. Maybe you don’t really need to compute and model the whole wiring of one’s brain, because meaning is the real information.

Let’s just all love Lain, I guess.

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