It’s a Pac-Man world

Yes! Somebody made a T-shirt showing the Pac-Man arcade game crashing after someone has played a perfect game of Pac-Man eating every dot and ghost and completing all 256 boards. I want one. It would be an almost perfect (hey, my game play isn’t quite that good) way to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the World’s Fair in Knoxville. Why do I mention the World’s Fair? Well, the biggest thing I remember from it is that Pac-Man was everywhere. There was a special arcade set up and of course people were selling Pac-Man paraphernalia.

Go much faster, much better

A New York Times article (free registration required) describes the complexities of creating a computer program that can play Go. Unlike the logical play of chess, where computers are able to beat grandmasters, Go is a game of pattern matching and intuition where casual human players can generally beat the best computer programs. Strong human Go players seem to be able to evaluate the board and intuitively make the best moves. The challenge in creating a computer Go player is that processing speeds are currently too slow and that evaluating the board is notoriously difficult:

In the course of a chess game, a player has an average of 25 to 35 moves available. In Go, on the other hand, a player can choose from an average of 240 moves. A Go-playing computer would take about 30,000 years to look as far ahead as Deep Blue [the chess-playing computer that five years ago not only beat but thoroughly humbled Garry Kasparov, the world champion at the time] can with chess in three seconds, said Michael Reiss, a computer scientist in London.

For a computer program to be able to play Go, we will need to greatly improve computer pattern matching techniques and probably create programs that learn from their mistakes. Perhaps someday this will be possible. In the meantime, let’s enjoy playing this ancient game.

The article also reminded me of a scene in the movie A Beautiful Mind (Recommended!). Early in the movie, the mathematician John Nash plays Go and gets frustrated at losing. In a deleted scene available on the DVD we’re shown that the experience motivated the real Nash to create his own game called Hex. He also is responsible for a mathematical proof that the first player should win the game. I need to figure out how to play this, too.

Around the world in a balloon

People seem to find it mildly interesting that a balloonist has managed a solo flight around the world. Perhaps the fact that this is the balloonist’s sixth attempt makes it a bit less impressive.

The recent news about ballooning reminds me of a wonderful book called The Twenty-One Balloons. I first read this whimsical and inspiring tale as a child and it is still one of my all time favorites. The book, written and illustrated by William Pene du Bois, won the 1948 Newbery Medal. The story recounts an imaginative balloon adventure and describes many fanciful inventions which are beautifully illustrated in almost blueprint detail. The illustrations emphasize and expand the story, immersing you more deeply in it. When I think of a creative effort reaching perfection, I think of this book.

2 for II

I just got back from seeing Episode II for the second time. I was surprised at how much more I found in it than the first time. There are many parallels with The Empire Strikes Back and I enjoyed picking up on some I hadn’t noticed. Perhaps knowing the plot changed my perception, but the acting seemed more nuanced than I thought in my first viewing. I caught echoes of Jake Lloyd’s portrayal of Anakin in Hayden Christensen’s vocal delivery, particularly in the early scene where he complains about Ben. It’s always difficult to be believable when using different actors to portray young and old, so even minor cues help. (Ewan McGregor seems perfect as a young Sir Alec Guinness.)

There’s a line in Episode II that got me thinking about R2-D2. In the diner, Ben says something like “If the droids could think, none of us would be here.” Throughout the Star Wars universe, droids pretty much do what they’re told. This was the downfall of the droid army in Episode I. Non-battle droids are pretty simplistic. R2-D2, on the other hand, appears self-directed, motivated, perhaps even sentient. No other droid seems to be so aggressive or loyal. He seems to be much more than a simple astromech droid. For instance, he leaves the ship after receiving the communication from Ben and surprises Amidala and Anakin by seeking them out. Interestingly, C-3PO does not seem to have this quality; it is amusing how he follows R2-D2 around.

I’ve heard comments that the story in Star Wars is really about the droids. R2 plays a primary role here. If I’m right, and he is sentient, it adds impact to Ani’s line to Amidala about having R2 with them. It’s fun to ponder anyway. I’m just thankful that R2 doesn’t behave like Number Five.

Star Wars: Attack of the Clones

I saw Episode II yesterday. I thought it was awesome and far better than Episode I. After the chase at the start of the movie, I realized I had my mouth open watching the stunning visual effects. Very cool movie and fun to watch. Just don’t think too much about it.

Warning: Spoilers Ahead. The following contains information that might ruin your viewing of Clones. If you have not seen it yet, you might want to skip the following.

Some people have obviously thought about the Star Wars movies. The Weekly Standard has a humorous and controversial article suggesting that the Empire is good. The author makes a compeling case, but not without faults. He claims you cannot trust Leia’s claims because she willfully lies to the Empire, but accepts Chancellor Palpatine’s comments despite the fact that he is manipulative and deceitful to the Senators and Jedi.

Jerry Pournelle critiques the silliness of the movie, complaining that the Jedi bring knives to gunfights. Of course, light sabers aren’t just any old knife, but an energy weapon that can reflect blaster shots. Pournelle makes a good point about the silliness of the plot, particularly the knowledge of Ben’s friend at the diner, and the incompetence of the Jedi, Senate, and assassins.

Despite all this, I really loved the movie. The action and scenery are amazing. I found it perfectly believable that Jar Jar caused the galactic war, but cannot fault him too much–the Chancellor would have been able to manipulate someone else if he hadn’t. At least Jar Jar was treated as annoying and his lines were minimized. The one-liners from Threepio were great. Talking with friends after the movie, we decided that R2-D2 is like Batman’s toolbelt: anything he needs he has. It was fun to watch him climb stairs. I definitely want to see it again.