Saturday, January 31, 2009

It came apart in me hands, honest

Someone broke Google. Then they fixed it. It wasn't me, I swear. Though a colleague did greet me a few weeks back by saying he had brought down YouTube for 15 minutes that day. On the one hand, oops, but on the others, it's kinda cool to have the power to do it.

Friday, January 23, 2009

More exciting than I would like

Well, we just had a magnitude 3.4 earthquake centered only about half a mile away. It's not the biggest earthquake since we've been living here - there was a 5.2 a bit further away last year - but because it was so close, it felt much more intense. There was probably 10 seconds or rough shaking, compared to 3 or 4 seconds of rolling in the 5.2, just long enough to be scary, especially for the dog.

My first instinct in an earthquake is not to get outside or check for damage. Oh no: it's to go the USGS web site to see where it was and how powerful. And I'm not alone, as several people on the neighborhood mailing list and on local blogs have already posted links to the report:

Saturday, January 10, 2009


I have an idea for a blog post which I don't have the skill to execute. So I'll write the bare bones of it here, and then it'll be almost as if I wrote it without actually having to do the work.

Flann O'Brien, when writing as Myles na gCopaleen, published some pieces in the Irish Times which appear to be in Irish, but if read phonetically turn out to be in heavily accented English. For example, one short piece starts
Aigh nó a mean thú ios só léasaigh dat thí slíps in this clós, bhears a bíord, and dos not smóc bíocós obh de trobal obh straigeing a meaits.
which reads as
I know a man who is so lazy that he sleeps in his clothes, wears a beard, and does not smoke because of the trouble of striking a match.
I wanted to put this together with the idea that Japanese uses different orthographies for different things: hiragana for native words spelled phonetically, katakana for imported words spelled phonetically, kanji, which is pictographic, for most content-bearing words, and occasionally romaji, the Latin alphabet you are reading now. So then I might write a little Star Wars parody, in which the country bumpkin hero (るくさかいをくる) speaks hiragana, and the villain (ダルトベイダ), who is clearly foreign, speaks katakana. Yoda would of course speak Kanji, and, just possibly, Wookies and those little teddy bears would use romaji.

Naturally, I would also have needed to think about word order, especially for Yoda. Japanese is a head-final language, which means it generally puts the word with the most oomph at the end of each clause, so for example in a sentence the verb comes last. Thus for "I like drinking beer" you might say something like "watashi wa nomimoni wa biru ga suki desu", which reads roughly as with regards to me, in the matter of drink, beer, likeable is. (With apologies for any errors in this: it's more than 10 years since I studied Japanese.) Then everyone could talk like this, except for Yoda, who would use English word order. Because in the English version of Star Wars, backwards speaks does he.

Alas, I could never take this beyond the germ of an idea. But it does trigger off one other thought. There is a discussion of Yoda's syntax in an old language log posting, in which various word orders for Yoda's speech are discussed, and it is also pointed out that occasionally he follows ordinary English word order. The question that troubles me is that given that he can follow English word order, why doesn't he do so all the time? He has had (we assume) several hundred years of exposure to the the language, which is surely enough to smooth out his idio-grammatical quirks and get him to native speaker competence. Speaks funny, then why does he? I believe there can only be one answer: that Chomsky was right all along. The innate language component of Yoda's brain is such that he intrinsically cannot get the words in the right order, no matter how much he studies and attends the Berlitz school for Jedi. The universal grammar of Yoda sapiens just won't allow it.

Saturday, January 03, 2009

Riddles in the light

I've had some fun over the last year with online riddle games. A couple of years back, I played Qwyzzle after reading about it in Alison Scott's Live Journal. It is an example of the "URL-changing" style of riddles, in which you get a web page which contains a puzzle to solve, and then change part of the URL based on the solution to advance to the next puzzle. As far as I can tell, Qwyzzle is now off-line, though there are many others like it.

Late in 2007, a metafilter posting directed me to a list of room escape games. These are usually built with Flash, and typically have a scenario where you have to escape from a locked room by finding and combining objects and solving brain teasers. Most of them are of poor quality, partly in the game mechanics (pixel-hunting, for example), but more particularly because the puzzles are often rather arbitrary or just daft, and they didn't really hold my interest for long. (With one exception: the submachine series by Mateusz Skutnik).

The same list also included The Roomz. Superficially, this looks like other room escape games, but is really closer to the Qwyzzle genre. It consists of a number of levels, each with a password that gets you to the next one. Some of the early levels are a bit like point-and-click games, but most of them involve breaking codes and solving logic puzzles, sometimes with a bit of lateral thinking thrown in. I don't want to reveal any details, but to give an outline of one "room", you start by seeing some pictures and a string of letters. Working out who and what the pictures refer to gives you a lead in to what kind of code it is and the keyword to break it, and this gets you to the password. This is an early puzzle and is a fairly simple one. By the end (room 45), you are solving multi-layered puzzles, in which you need to crack codes, solve cryptic clues, assemble information from the web (or your own head, if it already contains what you need to know), and make a few inspired guesses. It took me about four or five months to get through the whole of The Roomz, with probably a month or more on the last room alone. I am only slightly embarrassed to admit that I solved the last puzzle while at work, in a particularly tedious meeting.

The Roomz was a good experience, both for the puzzles themselves, and also because it has a supportive and helpful forum for getting you past points where you just can't see what to do next. After I finished it, I cast around for something new to play. Clever Waste Of Time is one that many people speak highly of, but I didn't like that to solve some of the puzzles you end up installing extra software, and also that the forum has a rather hostile feel to it. Eventually, I came across The Labyrinth (and Labyrinth II) at puzzlefiles. In presentation style, it is very different to The Roomz: each puzzle is simply a web page with low-fidelity graphics and a text field to enter the solution. However, the puzzles have the same multi-layered nature, with codes and numerical and word games, and in many cases the need to make an intuitive leap once you've done the initial stage. It also has a forum which, like The Roomz, has people willing to be helpful and constructive. With some of the harder puzzles, I needed to get a gentle hint, then less gentle nudge, and sometimes thundering great shove to figure out what was going on. I finished the two labyrinths after about 7 months, with some longish breaks at various stages.

I found both The Roomz and the two Labyrinths engaging in the same way that a good cryptic crossword in the British style is. They mix conventions (e.g. "blind" often indicates there is some Braille in the puzzle just as broken signals an anagram in a crossword), a set of solving techniques which you might recognize when you see them or might require you to work out something new, and some leap in the dark guesswork. And there is same a-ha feeling when a particularly difficult puzzle resolves. Of the two, The Roomz has richer interaction, though the puzzles are a bit easier and occasionally become formulaic. The Labyrinths have harder and more disciplined puzzles, with a less interesting visual style. I've not yet found a new game to move on to, though some of the puzzles at puzzletome look promising.

(BTW: The Roomz only works with IE. I've had some weirdness in retrying it after recent Flash updates, though not enough to make it unplayable.)