Media review powered by Travel

I’ve spend the last two weeks traveling around the globe for work. There is a lot to talk about the trip, but today I just want to look back at some media that I’ve watched on the plane.

Better people manage to work or do their hobbies in an airplane, but for me long flights are a chance to catch up on movies, TV series and sometimes books. Here is what I was up to on the over 60 hours of flight I had recently:

  • The Billion Dollar Code — I think I first heard about this on Cory Doctorow’s blog? It is a German mini series about the tech art project TerraVision – How it was developed in the 90ies, and how Google copied/stole most of it to make Google Earth. It was pretty good for the tech/90ies nostalgia.
  • I’m a spider, so what? — Isekai anime series recommended by a friend on Mastodon. A person dies in this world, and is reincarnated as a spider monster in a megadungeon. The first few episodes are really tongue-in-cheek, and chock-full of memes, so it is fun to watch. But when I went to look for more information about it, I learned that it has a really convoluted story, that makes me not sure how far I will be following it. The old problem of fiction trying to explain all the workings of what should just be magic. Does remind me of covic.sys, which is nice.
  • That time I turned into a slime. — Another Isekai anime series, also about someone who reincarnates as a monster. However, I bounced off this one pretty quickly, because the series takes itself too seriously.
  • Amazing Attorney Woo — A Korean drama about an attorney with autistic spectrum disorder. Recommended by a lot of people, and I really liked the first 6 or so episodes that I watched. I usually avoid K-dramas for being overly sentimental, but this one feels a bit toned down, and just the right amount for me. I also like that there is a fair amount of social discussion in the episodes, not only about neuro diversity, but also gender issues, age issues, family roles, etc.
  • Everything, Everywhere, All at Once — Hollywood movie, also recommended by a lot of people. A pretty fun, absurdist romp, that goes around back to an interesting message in the end. Maybe worth seeing it on a big screen for all the special effects. The hotdog fingers were a bit too much for me, though.
  • Atlas of AI — a book by Kate Crawford, about the hidden global costs of AI, like mining, global warming, military complex, state surveillance, etc. For the past 10 years I have been feeling uneasy about this area of research, and this book, puts all those abstract fears and news, substantiates them, and throw them back at your face. I think there is a really good argument that we should scale down on AI research, not because of any fantastic images of killer robots, but rather because of the more prosaic problems caused by humans trying to greedly extract value without looking at all the problems that they cause to other people through that path.

Week 9 Blog: Maybe a lot of work got done?

Another post with a look back at the past week — can I make a habit out of this?

Work Stuff

I spent a lot of last week wrapping up the budget — so much paperwork! I got some nice books, and wrote about one of them yesterday. I also wrote a short text for the next Alife Newsletter, and reviewed GECCO papers. This year GECCO and Alife will be back to back, I wonder how that will turn out.

Talking about Alife, I helped my students to write their Alife papers. I’m kinda worried on whether they will make it by the deadline next week. I’m finding it really difficult figure out the right balance of helping them out with the writing more directly and letting them find their own voice. When I think about back when I was a student, my advisor was that kind of absentee advisor — I had to figure out almost everything by myself… I don’t want to be like that, but sometimes I’m afraid of meddling too much with their ideas.

Game Stuff

This week I bought Caves of Qud, a modern roguelike that tries to stay close to the roots of the genre. The game is really weird, with a somewhat scifi aesthetic in it. I’m still getting used to stuff and learning, though, so I can’t say much about it.

By the way, I learned how to quickly sell all those trading cards that you get on Steam, and after selling all the cards that I had accumulated over the years, I got almost 1000 yen, which felt nice (but is not that much in the grand scheme of things).

Talking about roguelikes, I’m still working on my pico-8 photography based roguelike, but progress has been slow. Probably because I have been feeling really anxious about my trip next week.

Finally I’ve been playing a bit of ONI as well.

Media Stuff

After 69 episodes, we’ve finished watching “Yakitate Japan!”, which is the most enjoyable mindless anime I’ve seen in a while. The anime is a shonen anime about cooking battles, where half of the battle is the judge having over-the-top reactions to the food the contestants made. The anime relies on puns and 4th wall breaking jokes to carry it over, and while it wears thin at times, it never takes itself too seriously, and is light-hearted enough to have earned my good will to follow it to the end. I’m not sure how strongly I would recommend it to other people, but it is not bad, per se.

If we are talking about bad stuff, I also saw the 2021 remake of Cube. The original cube was one of my favorite movies back when I was in university, and I felt this remake really did it dirty. The original movie was about the mystery and the gruesome traps, the remake seems to toss these aside to put the spotlight on the celebrities in the movie… people will only die on appropriately dramatic moments, and not out of nowhere like in the original.

I’ve now started watching “Junji Ito Maniac”, and I’m liking a lot, but I’m only in the second episode.

Next week

Next two weeks I’m going to be traveling to Brazil and Peru to participate in several student fairs. It will be a 10 day trip, and almost half of it will be spend moving around in planes… I am hoping that I can spend some of that time working on my roguelike, and catching up on reading. But I guess I’m just avoiding thinking too hard about it… I need some true vacations!

A nice book to get into Evolutionary Computation

I always had difficulty when someone asked me what they should read to get started with Evolutionary Computation. As far as I can remember (and I might be forgetting things, it has been 20 years already), I learned EC by reading lots of papers, webpages, short texts, and talking to people, but not by actually reading a textbook. It makes it really difficult for me to help new students retrace my steps.

So I was very happy this week when I read “Evolutionary Computation, A Unified Approach”, by Kenneth A. De Jong (2006). This book is exactly what I would recommend to a new student wanting to learn about EC. It feels easy to read, and focuses on the components of the algorithms, instead of the algorithms itself.

The first chapter describes a very simple and generic EC algorithm, along with the key concepts of EC. The second chapter gives a historical overview of EC, covering ES, GA and EP. The third chapter dives on these algorithms in more detail, and the fourth chapter on the components of EC independently from the algorithms. I really like how the components are compared against each other, specially a discussion on problem representation, which I think is a topic usually overlooked on EC research. There are further chapters on specific problems, theory, and “advanced topics” (multi-objective, dynamic problems), which I haven’t read yet.

It is an old book, so recent algorithms such as CMA-ES, MOEA/D and NEAT are not covered. GP and Alife are also out of scope. I’m surprised that DE is not mentioned either, even though it was published in 97. That said, these things can be easily learned after the getting a solid understanding of the basic concepts, which I think the book delivers very quickly.

A funny thing is that the book has an appendix on code for the algorithms described in the book, but as far as I can tell there is almost no code in the appendix. It doesn’t really matter, since the algorithms are so simple that someone could (and should, for the sake of learning) implement them from scratch using the descriptions in the book.

I will probably try to prepare a short intro to EC summer lecture based on this!

Week 08 Blog — Swamped with Work!

I’m trying something new: A blog in the original sense of the word (web log) — a gathering of thoughts about stuff that happened last week, but for one reason or another did not end up being enough for its own post.

Work Stuff

The big thing last week was me hosting the Alife-Japan Workshop. It was nice, but I took on much more work than I should have, and ended up stressed and exhausted — it basically cost me all of Wednesday and Thursday. Recovering. I need to re-think how I approach these events.

On a better note, on Friday I talked to a new student who is very interested and motivated in learning about GP. After the student who was working on GP graduated, I was looking for someone to carry on the torch on that part of my research portfolio.

This Saturday I participated in the second phase of the University Entrance examination. Almost 6 hours doing nothing but look at kids taking the exam, to be honest it gave me plenty of time to think about what I want to do in the short term future (program a cool pico-8 rogue-like).

What is coming next: This week I’ll have to sort out the three Alife papers which different students are working on, wrap up the lab budget for this Fiscal Year (You have to use every last single cent !!), and start preparing for the lectures in the spring semester.

Gaming Stuff

Spent a lot of time thinking about The Tower, a pretty cool pico-8 game with a bitsy feeling. I think this was the first time I felt really motivated to hack a game to learn more about it. Pico-8 is cool for that.

I have also spent a lot of time playing The Turgenev Study, a neat tiny game by the Punkcake gang. Although I think I’m almost weaning out of this one.

Talking about tiny cool games, I’m keeping an eye on Island Trains, a new “game/toy” that is about creating an island and then building a train diorama on it. Similar in spirit to Townscaper, I guess.

Last week there was a sale of Brazilian games on Steam — I was really looking forward to buying some games, specially because there were quite a lot of sub-500 JPY games made by people from my hometown that I was curious about… But I ended up missing it because of the workshop exaustion… Bleaugh!

Hacking Stuff

Earlier this week I added a plugin to make this blog visible from the Fediverse. It was really cool, although it gave me some trouble to set up. Next time I want to try to make a Fedi bot.

What I’m putting my effort now is on writing a rogue-like game in Pico-8, taking inspiration from LazyDev’s video tutorial. I hope I have something to show for it next week!

New interesting links

This week I learned about Melanie Mitchell’s blog, with some quite interesting discussion on what LLMs are and are not capable of, and why. I’m looking forward to buying her book (An AI guide for thinking people), once I can find it in print.

I hope you found some interesting stuff in there!

The Tower

Last week Mike introduced this neat Jam game to me: The Tower.

The premise is simple. You are climbing a tower with 100 floors. At each floor, you roll a d100. If it is higher than the floor you are in, you go up. If it is lower, you go down.

Screenshot of "the tower" game. Two human characters are in a dungeon-like room, with a bookcase nearby. An upstairs is behind a bubble door. On the right, a text prompt says: "Floor 1, Rolling... need 1+ got 20. Floor 2, Rolling... need 2+ got 85. Floor 3, Rolling... need 3+ got 74.
The beginning of the tower, from the project’s itch page.

What makes this game really fun is the great use of tiles, colors and text.

Each floor is unique, from traditional tower rooms, to parks, to caves, to more weird stuff. In some of the floors you can talk to people who are trying to climb or leave the tower, or just decided to live where they are.

Every floor has only three colors, and there are several visual and audio glitches, giving everything an uncanny vibe. And as you go up, the probability of going up goes down. You slip a few floors, and you start to calculate in your mind how unlikely it would be to get all the way to floor 100. And the game gets more and more glitch-y as you go up.

You start to think: Is there a trick to the tower? Is the dice fair? (Spoilers after the next image. Go play the game)

Animation from "The tower" game. The character talks to a person nearby, who says they want to go up the tower, but need to stay behind to take care of another character. The number 25 in the bottom right indicates this is the 25th floor of the tower.
Climbing a few floors, there are lots of people inside the tower… lost? (Image from the project’s itch page)

The first time I played this game, I went up to floor 43. I wanted to go all the way to 50, since that would be the midpoint where it would be more likely to go down than up, but gave up after a few slips.

I told people how amazing the game was on, and was planning on putting the game behind me, but got a lot of feedback on my suggestion. So last Sunday I decided to give the game a go again, and found out that it was available on the pico-8 BBS. Which means that I had access to the games’ source code. (Real spoilers after the next image)

A picture of heavily obfuscated LUA code, followed by some ascii art.
When you open the source code, you are greeted by an obfuscated mess, and some nice ascii art.

The source code of the game was very compressed. They used every single compression trick they could to fit all the tiles, text and the 100 levels. But it was fun that there was a large ASCII art right at the top of the code, like a welcome mat. I started digging through the code, and soon found the most important thing.

The dice roll is a fair one. No tricks (AFAICT). And it was easy to fix the dice to roll 100 every time. And so I did it.

A screenshot of The Tower game. It shows floor 99. Many doors stand between the upstairs and downstairs.
Floor 99. Good luck going through it the fair way.

Playing with god dice was, to be honest, a scary experience. When you roll a 100 in the game, a little happy tune play. But it seems that every time you roll it, a little counter or something goes inside, distorting things a little bit. Normally you can’t notice it, since you roll 100’s so rarely, but by floor 40 my sound was getting really distorted.

As I climbed the tower, things started to get more and more glitch. The music started to feel like someone scratching a blackboard. fake tiles started appearing everywhere, and sometimes replaced the real tiles. Sometimes they would replace the path or the upstairs, and I had to quit and reload the game.

Was this the game rebelling against my cheat? Or was this the expected experience? How could some one survive this glitch-land going up and down infinitely on fair dice?

The characters also got “glitch-y”, speaking really spooky things. What started as a quirky indie game soon became really creepy.

And when I got to the top…

Well, I will leave that last spoiler for you. If you want, leave me a message and I’ll tell you how to fix the game. But if you know how to use pico-8, it should not be very hard.

Just don’t be stupid and do it late at night like I did! Or do it! Maybe it is better that way :#