(Ln(x))3

The everyday blog of Richard Bartle.

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1:14pm on Monday, 6th July, 2020:

Way In

Weird

You can see what they mean, but the phrasing might have benefitted from a little more work.





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12:29pm on Sunday, 5th July, 2020:

Jaguar

Weird

This is an illustration of a jaguar from an 1867 book on natural history.



Well, jaguar from an 1867 book on natural history, if you're frightened of heights you shouldn't have climbed the tree.



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9:46am on Saturday, 4th July, 2020:

Blue Boots

Weird

In an effort to keep people socially-distanced while they walk around shops not buying anything, Colchester has introduced a one-way system in some busy streets. To indicate this, these symbols have been spray-painted onto the pavement.



They're generally not well-positioned, in that you don't always notice them until you've already committed to walking in one of the directions (which may be the wrong one). Barriers prevent people from switching to the correct lane, so if you do spot one pointing against you then you have to do a U-turn and go back the way you came.

I think the idea of having them looking like blue footprints from size 12 boots is to associate them with law enforcement in the minds of pedestrians. Blue is the colour of the police (even though these days their uniforms are black) and the size and heavy tread match the popular conception of police boot footprints. Having seen the footprint a police boot left when an officer broke into the house of my father-in-law to rescue him after he'd fallen and fractured his hip, this popular conception seems largely correct, too.

What I don't get is why the footprints are standing still rather than showing movement. It may be to do with stencil size, but you only need a reversible stencil of one boot to spray walking footprints.

This shows why interface designers are in demand.

I took this photo a couple of weeks ago, by thw way, since when I haven't been into Colchester town centre. It's entirely possible that a different system is now in place, ready to deal with the mass of people expected to descend on bars, restaurants and hairdressers following today's relaxation of the lockdown rules.

Given what's likely to happen if a mass of people does indeed descend on bars, restaurants and hairdressers, we're probably going to need similar symbols painted outside the intensive care units of hospitals two weeks from now.



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8:55am on Friday, 3rd July, 2020:

Naga

Weird

One day last week, I wanted to know if the half-person, half-snake mythical creatures known as nāga were said to live underwater, so I looked them up. They weren't.

Now I'm seeing clickbait adverts featuring television presenter Naga Munchetty.

This is both impressive and unimpressive at the same time.



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1:10pm on Thursday, 2nd July, 2020:

Dishonoured

Anecdote

My title of Honorary Professor of Computer Games at the University of Essex has expired. It does this every two years, but this time it's not being renewed. The university has changed its policy since 2018 and no longer awards honorary titles to current members of staff.

I'm not sure whether my title of gästprofessor at Uppsala University is still valid. I think it may be good for another few months, but could be wrong.

There'll be no more requests for me to speak at conferences or to the media, then.



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8:43am on Wednesday, 1st July, 2020:

Speeds

Anecdote

My experiments are complete. My walking speed is 6 miles per hour and my cycling speed is 12 miles per hour. I'd have stated the numbers in kilometers per hour but it's pretty well exact in miles per hour.

I never actually walk or cycle for an hour, of course — that would be crazy!



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2:18pm on Tuesday, 30th June, 2020:

Number 94

Anecdote

I bought a double pack of patience playing cards on eBay recently, for the remarkably low price of £5.



I already have a pack of these cards, which I bought in 2011. At the time, I thought they were likely to be made by Dondorf, but since then I've discovered that they're actually by Müller of Switzerland; they were "inspired" by the Dondorf Swiss Costumes design. The Müller pattern was created in about 1920, but this double pack probably dates from a bit later than that.

OK, so why did I buy this double pack when I've owned one for 9 years? Ah, well the thing is, occasionally I encounter students who are interested in playing cards, and I like to encourage them by giving them a pack from my collection. Thanks to rules about impropriety, I'm not allowed to give them to students I'm actually teaching, but I can give them to other students or to the same students once I've stopped teaching them. I thought I'd buy this double pack to give away some day.

Unfortunately...

On the box, there's a circle with the word "PATIENCE" written underneath it. In the circle is a picture. The picture is a circular cut-out from one of the playing cards. On the box of the packs I've just bought, the playing card concerned is the King of Diamonds; on the box of the pack I bought in 2011, it's the Queen of Diamonds.



If the boxes are different, I can't give them away. Worse, it means I have to collect the rest.

Looking at the picture, you may note that the court cards have two different faces on them. My King of Diamonds on the box is "Major Davel, Vaud" as opposed to "Schultheiss von Steiger, Bern".. My Queen of Diamonds on the box is "Graübunden, Grison" as opposed to "Tessin".

Instead of 12 possible faces, there are 24. Augh!

Maybe I'll just collect diamonds, that will save me some expense and effort.



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9:21am on Monday, 29th June, 2020:

Research

Comment

Ah, those non-teaching months when academics finally get a chance to do some research!





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9:58am on Sunday, 28th June, 2020:

Fortune

Anecdote

On Friday, we ate out (which these days means we ordered a takeaway and ate in). This particular Friday, we went with Chinese food from our go-to Chinese restaurant, Fai's. The meal came with three fortune cookies.

My wife and I opened one each, and we gave the other to our daughter who dropped by on Saturday.

The message in our daughter's fortune cookie said "You are very expressive and positive in word, action and feeling". While this is more of a statement than a fortune, it's nevertheless rather more reassuring than what my wife and I found in ours: nothing. Both of us had empty fortune cookies.

I don't know if this means we have no future for the fortune cookie to predict, or we do but it wants to spare our feelings by not telling us.



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9:37am on Saturday, 27th June, 2020:

Without it

Weird

I hadn't realised that the spell-checker for Microsoft Word so sophisticated that it could develop an opinion regarding the coolness of the foregoing text.





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11:09am on Friday, 26th June, 2020:

Diversity

Comment

Next week, the School of Computer Science and Electronic Engineering has a Research Away Day, in which our new members of staff will be introducing us all to their research. We have 14 new members of staff:

Dr Shoaib Jameel
Dr Xinruo Zhang
Dr Sefki Kolozali
Dr Eirina Bourtsoulatze
Dr Caterina Cinel
Dr Jianhua He
Dr Jichun Li
Dr Zulfiqar Ali
Dr Cunjin Luo
Dr Anish Jindal
Dr Yunfei Long
Dr Michael Kampouridis
Dr Alexandros Voudouris
Dr Michael Barros

Every so often, we receive emails from the university high-ups telling us to be aware of the importance of diversity.

Do we have a problem with diversity?



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9:04am on Thursday, 25th June, 2020:

Odd Call

Weird

My mum told me yesterday about a telephone call she'd received from her cousin. Here's how it began.

Cousin (worried): Hello? How are you? Are you alright?
Mother (confused): Well, I'm not so bad, thanks.
Cousin (relieved): Oh thank goodness! I'd been told you were dead.

My mother was actually shaken by this and wanted reassurance from me that she was indeed fine.



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10:26am on Wednesday, 24th June, 2020:

Suspect Specs

Weird

Here are three Miqo'te NPCs from Final Fantasy XIV.



All of them wear glasses without any visible means of support. The first one is even the focus of a quest to get her some new glasses.

OK, so if I'm prepared to accept that the world of Eorzea has dragons, so why is its treatment of spectacle-wearing cats worth mentioning?

Well, just because a world has dragons, that doesn't mean anything goes.

When you play a game or read a novel or watch a movie, you are entering a world of fiction. There are truths about the world depicted that are not true of the world we live in, Reality. You are a medieval general. Sherlock Holmes is a person. A mother and daughter are looking for love. The fiction of the game, novel or movie constitutes the premise you have to accept if you're to invest yourself in its world.

What about everything the fiction doesn't describe, though? Well, as I've said, it defaults to how it is in Reality. Horses can't shoot arrows. Queen Victoria was a person. People live in the United States of America.

So far, so good.

What about things that neither the fiction nor the defaults of Reality describe? Arrows fly further than they should. Watson limps in the wrong leg. Germans speak English to each other.

Obviously, we do know why this is the way things are. Longer-range arrows make for better gameplay . Watson limps in the wrong leg because Arthur Conan Doyle forgot in which one he'd previously said he was wounded. An English-speaking audience won't necessarily comprehend a conversation in German. They're there for reasons outside the context of the fictional world: the fiction itself is an artefact of Reality.

Although such incongruities may well be understandable, they're somehow unsatisfactory. This is because they poke holes in the fabric of the fictional world. We can't buy into them; we simply have to accept them and move on. This makes the situation less than ideal.

The reason that everything the fiction omits defaults to the way Reality does it is that we have an understanding of Reality. We need to be able to make rational deductions about what will happen if we do this or that, or what must have happened for things to be like that or this, and unless the fiction tells us otherwise we defer to Reality.

This is true of any work of fiction.

Suppose we're reading a novel. We're following a story: we want to be able to think about why things have happened and what that means for what will happen. This requires us to have an operational model of the fictional world. Without one, we can't establish hypotheses or make inferences. In the 2010 TV series Sherlock, Watson's change of leg to limp in is found to be psychosomatic as a result of post-traumatic stress (he was in the army), so placing it nicely within the fiction. As a result, the next time we see something seemingly at odds with the fiction, we can feel more confident that there'll be an in-fiction explanation rather than an out-of-fiction one.

This raises the issue of trust. When you have a good game designer, or a good novelist, or a good director, you can trust that what happens happens because it fits the fiction. If the enemy doesn't advance its forces, then it's waiting for support from its allies, not because of bad AI. If a boy hugs himself while being asked questions then he's afraid, it's not just a bit of acting business to slow down the pacing. If the grandmother starts to lose weight, it's because she's developing a terminal illness, not because the actress has changed her personal trainer.

In the early days of virtual world development, we called this concept "realisticness". A better word would be "verisimilitude", but realisticness was preferred because it tended to be used in the negative: concepts were said to be "unrealistic" if what happened didn't match the player's understand of what "should" happen. If I drop a hedgehog off a tall cliff, the hedgehog should die. My character dies when I fall off that cliff: so should the hedgehog. The hedgehog doesn't die, though. That's unrealistic.

If the hedgehog had previously been flagged as being magical, OK, well you might feel able to cut it some slack. If it appears to be just a regular hedgehog, though? Well, in a game that you feel you can trust, the reason it doesn't die is perhaps because it really is magical despite looking ordinary, so its survival gives you information about the creature that you didn't previously have and which you can later perhaps exploit. You would feel justified in exploring this possibility, and so be somewhat disappointed if you discovered that it is indeed just a nothing-special hedgehog that ought to die when tossed from a cliff but doesn't.

You can also get unrealisticness when the fiction doesn't hold. I've just melted a hole through a castle wall with this wand: why can't I use it to negotiate this insurmountable waist-high fence? Yes, I know than in Reality I can't do much damage to a fence using a stick, but this one can melt holes in walls so it ought to be able to remove a less substantial obstacle with relative ease.

When something is unrealistic, then, it means there's an inconsistency. Either the fiction has failed or the non-fiction has failed and the fiction can't cover the failure. In both cases it's bad fiction, and this is why people don't like it: their model of the made-up world is being broken for no good reason and their theories about what might happen next are now worthless .

The reason, then, that Miqo'te glasses-wearing is problematic but the existence of dragons isn't, is that the fiction explains the dragons but it's silent on the subject of gravity-defying spectacles.

There are several reasonable reponses that could be provided to explain this away. "They have side ridges you can't see because of their hair"; "gosh, we hadn't noticed that, thanks, we'll give them all lunettes from now on"; "yes, they shouldn't be able to wear them that way but we need to re-use the art assets". It would not, however, be reasonable to respond "why are you saying that glasses-wearing cat people are unrealistic when cat people themselves are unrealistic?". This is because we know the answer: the Miqo'te, like the dragons, are covered by the fiction, but the spectacle positioning doesn't seem to be. If the fiction addressed the issue, the glasses couldn't said to be unrealistic.

This point is important, because (as I said) it's all about trust. In the Game of Thrones TV series, there's a sequence in season 7, episode 6 (Beyond the Wall ), in which the character Jon Snow falls into water through broken ice and is utterly drenched through, yet he drags himself out into the polar conditions without any ill effects.

Realistically, Jon should have hypothermia, yet he doesn't. OK, so why doesn't he? Well, if I can trust the fiction, it's telling me something. Maybe his sword is magically protecting him? Maybe he has an innate ability to resist cold that mirrors the one Daenerys Targaryen has to resist heat? Maybe something as-yet-unknown warmed the water? All these hypotheses have interesting implications. However, if the reason he doesn't suffer is that he's wearing plot armour, frankly this isn't good enough. It's effectively saying "don't worry your pretty head about it, audience dear, just accept it like you accept the dragons". The point is, if I did accept it like I accept the dragons, then his survival should mean something special: the dragons are something special.

So it is with Final Fantasy XIV, but in a more productive way. In the great scheme of things, of course it's not important that Miqo'te wear their glasses the same way as Arthur out of the cartoon series Arthur. This is a whimsical world which at times goes out of its way to acknowledge how bonkers it is. That's kind of the point, though. Little examples such as this serve to reinforce the idea that you can't actually trust everything all of the time; on occasion, you simply have to go with the flow. In other words, it's establishing the principle that the game world isn't realistic, and that you can expect minor plot holes and inconsitencies from time to time. It's being honest with the player, which is rather refreshing.

Realisticness matters, but if you don't have it then that can tell you something about the virtual world, too.



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1:31pm on Tuesday, 23rd June, 2020:

Page 119

Anecdote

Here's a page chosen at random from my mother's copy of Everybody's Pocket Dictionary, a perennial favourite read of mine.



This dictionary is full of weird definitions. Look at the one for Franc, for example; compare Fortieth with Forty. Some of the definitions, such as those of Foul and Foxglove, require a knowledge of words more obscure than the one being described. There's also a cavalier attitude to generality and specificity (compare Fowl and Fox). I particularly like the definition of Fortify.

The last three definitions are like a three-act play.

I could have chosen pretty well any page to show you — it's packed with delicious not-quite-rightness. The previous page defines Forearm as "to arm beforehand", which is correct but completely misses the possibility that it could mean a part of the human body. It defines Ford as "a place where water can be passed". The word Form, referred to on the page I've scanned and several times in definitions on the previous page, has no definition of its own. Even some basic words, such as Water, have no definition in this dictionary.

It has pride of place on my bookshelf.

Incidentally, the final definition in the dictionary is pertinent to the present: "Zymotic — relating to epidemic or contagious affections".

I'm going to the ford now; I think I drank too much tea earlier.



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11:09am on Monday, 22nd June, 2020:

Africa 1869

Weird

In addition to playing cards and issues #4 of Knights of the Dinner Table, I also collect maps of Europe from 1869. Recently, I bought a school atlas from, 1869 (it cost 5 shillings in 1869 money). Being an atlas, it contains not only maps of Europe, but also maps of other parts of the world.

Here's the map of Africa:



I have to say, it's a little hazy in places.

At least the cartographer didn't write "here be dragons" on it.



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Copyright © 2020 Richard Bartle (richard@mud.co.uk).