Saturday, August 30, 2008

Puzzles and Games

In honor of the fact that I will be a teaching assistant for the first games-related course a student in our game development stream will take, I'd like to reflect on the state of puzzles in today's games.

I'm intrigued by the words of a gaming blogger from about a month ago:
Despite my fondness for the adventure games of yore, it appears the days of puzzles in narrative games have come and gone. Puzzles, especially the serial unlocking variety found in the old LucasArts games, seem to have become a relic of a bygone era. Where they once provided a necessary ludic element to a clever and often complex narrative - designed to add challenge and force the player to earn his progress through the story - few modern players have the patience for such challenges anymore.
I fondly look back on playing games like King's Quest. Ok, so maybe this series wasn't as complicated as, say, Myst, but I do seem to remember long series of tasks to be done in order to unlock to the next stage. You could get stuck for hours sometimes, reduced to just clicking on anything and everything until you got a step further. Sure, this could get frustrating, but you know what? When you finally finished the game, you felt like you actually accomplished something.

These days, it seems that even the games that once had the best puzzles have dumbed things down for the modern gamer. I'm pretty sure the older Zelda games were a lot harder to finish than today's Twilight Princess. The latter has become more of an interactive story than a puzzle-filled adventure game (disclaimer: I still love it anyway!).

Perhaps this has happened because of technology. In the good old days, with less power available on the graphics side, and not enough storage for high quality sound, it was the puzzles that drew you in. Nowadays, the eye candy, beautiful music and recorded voice immerse you into another world without needing to solve innane riddles. Your reward at the end of the game comes more from the resolution of the story itself than the feeling of conquering the brainier requirements. As an added bonus, you usually also get gorgeous, rendered cut scenes to tie up the loose ends.

If modern gamers really aren't interested in hard-core puzzle solving, then so be it. The industry has to continuously mould itself to fit its current audience. It's not that interactive stories aren't fun, after all. I just hope that there will always be a place, no matter how small, for the Mysts of the modern gaming world.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Fall 2008 Goals

For your amusement, here are my goals for the upcoming school semester. While many things are listed, working on my thesis will be my top priority. I would like to get the research done by Christmas so I can spend some of the remaining time (as per my funding) working on other things.
  • Thesis
    • Develop milestones to reach so I always have a clear goal in sight
    • Finish research and be ready for writing by Christmas
  • TA
    • Take TA training courses and try to get the Teaching Certificate (don't have to do it all this semester!)
    • Will be TA'ing first year game development course
  • Seminars
    • Do a really good talk for OCICS seminar series (requirement for Masters students)
    • Attend weekly algorithms seminar put on by our computational geometry group
  • PhD?
    • Apply for NSERC just in case (due around the end of September)
  • WISE
    • Continue with planning and participating in events (one per month)
    • Attend Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing (should try to present next year!)
    • Get experience working with younger girls in high school/elementary events (such as GoEng Girl etc)
  • Schedule
    • Develop a weekly schedule (reading time, lab time, seminars, etc) and stick to it
  • Mini-course
    • Hoping to have paper about this year's course published in ACM SIGCSE's December inroads (submitted July 31)
    • Apply to run a similar course again (around October/November)
  • Technical writing
    • Keep practising by updating blog regularly (including Nerd Girls)

Friday, August 22, 2008

CU-WISE Final Logo and Brochure

The Carleton University Women in Science and Engineering group, also known as CU-WISE, is really picking up steam now!

We have our final logo finished up. Some configurations of it can be seen here, with one example shown below.

We also made a brochure to be printed professionally and passed around to students at various events and fairs. You can take a peek at the PDF version.

Keep your eyes peeled as there's lots more to come, including a promotional booth poster, and our brand new website!

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Girls Really ARE Good at Math

This article was originally written for

A lot of people think that girls just don’t “do” math. In fact, many of these same people believe that this is related to girls just being better at different things than boys. This might be true in some areas, but recent studies have shown that, when it comes to math, girls just might be as good if not better!

You might be surprised to learn that not all of these studies are recent. Janet Hyde, a psychologist at the University of Wisconsin, found that girls tested in math just as well as boys before high school. That was in the late eighties/early nineties. Now, nearly twenty years later, researchers took another look at standardized test scores in a report published recently in Science. They found that there is actually no difference in mathematical ability in high school, either.

Now, that’s not to say that girls and boys both approach math in the same way. For instance, Hyde noted that she thought “the boys tend to be a little more idiosyncratic in solving problems, the girls more conservative in following what they’ve been taught.” But, of course, we know that approaching a problem in a different way doesn’t necessarily lead to being more or less good at solving it.

So it kind of makes you wonder: why does the perception exist that girls aren’t as good at math, and why aren’t more giving it a try in high school and college?

As discussed in the Kellogg Insight article titled Women and Math, the Gender Gap Bridged, environmental factors, including culture, seem to have a lot to do with it. From the article:

Across generations and cultures, women have reached remarkable levels of scientific and social achievement. Yet five years into the 21st century, the leader of one of the world’s most elite universities, in one of the oldest democracies, opined upon “the unfortunate truth” that women probably are not as mentally equipped for work in math and science as men (Summers 2005). While this would be most unfortunate, is it true? A recent study in the journal Science [the same study mentioned earlier] shows that “the so-called gender gap in math seems to be linked to environmental factors, which means it could be eliminated by education or social programs.” So said Paola Sapienza (Finance), one of the authors, along with Luigi Guiso (Instituto Universitario Europeo) and Ferdinando Monte and Luigi Zingales (both of the University of Chicago). In fact, she continued, “this gap doesn’t exist in countries in which there is greater gender equality”.

To drive home this point, researchers looked at the correlation between the social structure of many countries and how well the girls from each performed in math. For example, they “found that improved social conditions for women were related to improved math performance by girls.”

Interestingly, this sort of finding doesn’t rule out biological differences between men and women when it comes to ability in a certain subject: “the between gender differences in a single discipline - reading or math - certainly appear to be influenced by social features, but the within gender differences between reading and math, and between arithmetic and geometry, appear to be much more stable across environments, suggesting possible biological roots.

Let’s recap. Many people think or have thought that girls just weren’t as good at math as boys are. Studies are showing that this apparent gap in ability is closing, or is non-existent in some countries. While environmental factors seem to contribute to the gap where it exists, there’s no denying that there could be some biological differences between male and female brains that make certain problems easier for one or the other.

Since many of us live in areas where this gap still exists, at least in perception, we can ask ourselves what we can do about it. In my opinion, initiatives like the Nerd Girls help make a big difference by spreading the word that girls are capable of both excelling in subjects like math and enjoying it, too. What do you think needs to be done?

Monday, August 18, 2008

CCCG: How to Give a Talk the Right Way

Day two of the Canadian Conference on Computational Geometry featured a few treasures. There were a couple of talks that, in my opinion, showcased how to give a good presentation.

A quick side note before I begin. Imagine my surprise when Martin Demaine, Erik's dad, told me at the conference banquet that he had read my previous day's blog post that included a mention of him. When asked where he'd found it, he said "the Internet" quite matter-of-factly. Of course ;). I suppose he had a blog watch on his or Erik's name? In any case, he told me he thought I wrote well, which was probably more flattering than he knew. If you're reading this now, Martin... hi! You guys are great!

Ok, back to the presentations. I first have to give a hat tip to my own academic supervisor, Jit Bose. He started his talk with a story. In this story, Jit explained how he didn't really want to give the talk (these things are stressful!), but hadn't heard from his other co-authors, so did what any mature adult would do: go on vacation for three weeks and ignore email. Alas, when Jit returned, the other author who would be at the conference was surprised to learn that Jit, like himself, thought the other would be giving the talk. So Jit told us he'd come up with a compromise. He'd do the odd slides and Stefan (the present co-author) would do the even slides. Stefan pops up in the audience, pretending to be completely surprised (and very convincingly, too!). He finally gives in and helps out with the talk. The slides were formal looking at first, but as they advance, funny scriblings and beer-related changes are made to the formal problem definitions. These guys pulled off the humour thing perfectly and did a good job of switching speakers to keep things interesting.

The other tag-team that worked out remarkably well consisted of Erik Demaine (yup, him again!) and his girlfriend Vi Hart, who is apparently not a computer scientist, but a math hobbyist (how cool is that?). I think Erik did most of the talking, but Vi was able to interject throughout the talk, at times often enough to read every second item from a list. By the fact that my favorite talks had two speakers, you should be able to surmise that I strongly believe in this technique for presenting (assuming speakers have prepared enough to pull it off properly). Another trick to learn from Erik and Vi is the generous use of photos and minimal amount of text on their slides. Nobody wants to read on the screen exactly what somebody is saying (I could do that from home!). In the same vein, nobody wants to read a lot of text that's different from what a speaker is saying because, in the end, it's impossible to pay attention to either. Finally, the dynamic duo were able to make use of something that's not always easy to incorporate: props. Their talk was on balloon twisting, so, of course, they brought balloons to twist!

These two talks skillfully incorporated several seldom-used but highly effective presentation techniques to make their talks the most memorable. Of course, none of these will help you if you happen to speak unclearly or unenthusiastically in front of audiences. But once you've overcome the basics of public speaking, consider trying to incorporate these ideas into your next presentation! Your audience will thank you.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

CCCG: Spending Time With Smart People Is Fun

Day one of the Canadian Conference on Computational Geometry has just wound down here in Montreal. Most of the Carleton crew is currently hanging out at what is allegedly the equivalent of our grad bar Mike's Place. I say allegedly because this place is more like a castle than our windowless watering hole. Anyway, the conference so far has been really cool, and I'm learning a lot.

I took the bus from Ottawa to Montreal yesterday, and then we walked uphill for about 30 minutes to the residences we would be staying in. Luckily, it didn't rain, but it was uncomfortably hot compared to home. The rooms turned out to be decent, though basic.

There was a reception in the evening in the better-than-Mike's Place. Because this edition of CCCG marks the 20th Anniversary and the return to McGill University, registration is free. So we got printed proceedings and a bunch of free food. Not bad! I chatted with a bunch of Carleton people I haven't seen in a while as well as some new folks. One of the most interesting was Erik Demaine's dad. Erik's a bit of a celebrity academic in my books. His dad was saying that he hasn't lived in the same place for more than five years or so (I can't remember exactly). He was pretty surprised to learn that the only time I moved in my life, I moved just down the road.

After the reception, we went to Brutopia, a brew pub I thought I had been to before (turned out I was confused). I tried to impress everyone with the beer knowledge I'd learned from Andrew, but eventually I got confused and had to back track on that.

There was a pretty good variety in talks today (Wedesday), both in subject and quality. The highlight of the day was the invited speaker Ron Graham. Not only did he work closely with Erdős and come up with the Graham Scan for convex hulls, but apparently he juggles!

I think that'll have to be it for now, given that we haven't had dinner yet and need to pick a place. All I can say is that hanging out with smart people is actually really fun!

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Recent Reports on Telemedicine

Perhaps, just as I had hoped in April, telemedicine really is helping to improve the state of health care.

A recent study "assessed whether telemedicine (real-time, two-way audio and video, and digital imaging and communications in medicine [DICOM] interpretation) or telephone was superior for decision making in acute telemedicine consultations". The results sound pretty positive (emphasis added by me):
The authors of this trial report that stroke telemedicine consultations result in more accurate decision making compared with telephone consultations and can serve as a model for the effectiveness of telemedicine in other medical specialties. The more appropriate decisions, high rates of thrombolysis use, improved data collection, low rate of intracerebral haemorrhage, low technical complications, and favourable time requirements all support the efficacy of telemedicine for making treatment decisions, and might enable more practitioners to use this medium in daily stroke care.
Check out Video: Emergency Room Stroke Exam with a Webcam from Wired for more.

Creature Evolution Fourteen Years Ago

In July I talked about using evolutionary artificial intelligence to create realistic animations. If you found that interesting, then this video from 1994 is a must-see.

Karl Sims,a graduate from MIT who studied computer graphics and life sciences, used Darwinian evolution to come up with the block creatures in the video, along with their behaviors. As Karl says on his site about the project:
A population of several hundred creatures is created within a supercomputer, and each creature is tested for their ability to perform a given task, such the ability to swim in a simulated water environment. Those that are most successful survive, and their virtual genes containing coded instructions for their growth, are copied, combined, and mutated to make offspring for a new population. The new creatures are again tested, and some may be improvements on their parents. As this cycle of variation and selection continues, creatures with more and more successful behaviors can emerge.
The last challenge shown in the video involves two creatures battling it out over a green block. Whichever is closest to the block at the end of the simulation is declared the winner. Some of the strategies for winning are actually pretty impressive, including what looks like actual hand-to-hand combat. Remember, this was done in 1994, when the beta for Windows 95 was released and Netscape was just founded.

You can read more about the technical aspects of this evolution system in Karl's paper here.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Canadian Conference on Computational Geometry

I'm heading to Montreal on Tuesday for the 20th Canadian Conference on Computational Geometry, and I'm pretty excited!

I have never been to an academic conference before. It's a shame that I missed this one when it was held at Carleton last year, but it was held the week of my wedding, so I suppose I can be forgiven. I hope to learn some new things about computational geometry, of course, but almost as importantly, I want to observe the presentation skills of the speakers. It should also be interesting to see who I talk to about what, and what kind of contacts I'm able to make.

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Things You Need to Succeed

According to this article on Lifehack, there are ten things skills you need in order to succeed at pretty much anything. That includes computer science. Problem is, a lot of these skills seem to be ignored by those in the field, and sometimes even the schools teaching it!

Time and time again I hear students complain about the electives they have to take as part of their Bachelor's degree. The arts classes drag down my GPA, they say. I just want to learn about computers, they lament. But sometimes these electives provide the only opportunity to break away from the logic and conciseness of computer science, and thereby the only chance to develop these essential skills Lifehack talks about.

Take number two on the list, for example: writing.
Writing well offers many of the same advantages that speaking well offers: good writers are better at selling products, ideas, and themselves than poor writers.
In addition to these points, consider the documentation you need to produce for your code, the specifications you will write, the proposals you may need to put forward, and even the emails you need to send to your boss and co-workers. Even in technical fields, being able to express yourself with the written word is very important.

How many essays did you have to write for a compilers class, or a course on algorithms? Exactly. While a few professors do take the opportunity to assign papers or other written projects to their undergraduate students, they often don't give much help in terms of how to write well. Practising this skill in arts classes that require multiple essays will help students improve it.

Another important skill listed is networking. There are definitely students that recognize this as being a useful skill, and take opportunities to meet others in the field whenever they can. The many that don't would do well to attend social events undergraduate societies organize. This includes both those events aimed at just students and those that include faculty as well. Career workshops often include relevant people from the industry and are as worth attending as job fairs. Because many events do already exist, perhaps a little more advertising and coaching from professors would help get more students to attend.

I'm a bit on the fence with number five, critical thinking:
We are exposed to hundreds, if not thousands, of times more information on a daily basis than our great-grandparents were. Being able to evaluate that information, sort the potentially valuable from the trivial, analyze its relevance and meaning, and relate it to other information is crucial – and woefully under-taught.
In matters of logic, computer scientists can certainly evaluate and sift away the trivial bits rather well. But I have observed that many students apply black and white logic to matters more complex. I remember taking a Canadian Studies class in my first year where the main theme was "critical nationalism." I was taught what it truly meant to think critically in matters outside of math and science. I'm sure many arts classes could do the same, again suggesting that these electives are rather valuable.

Luckily, there are a few skills in this list that computer experts tend to excel at. For example, math and research. I'm sure most undergrads could use some help in learning research techniques from the perspective of academia, but anytime we run into a problem we seem to be able to find the answer using the Internet, friends and colleagues, or controlled testing and trial and error. I shouldn't even have to comment on math, which is pretty much at the core of computer science. ;)

So why not think about this list at a deeper level, and see how you might be able to brush up on a few of your weaker areas? For example, if public speaking isn't your thing, join Toastmasters. If you find yourself working too long and too hard, join a sport or club to up your relaxation. However you choose to improve yourself, you will surely up your ability to succeed.