July 2012 Archives

Addicted to Quora

There are plenty of question-and-answer sites on the Internet-- places you can go to ask a question and have people you've never met provide their uninformed, unresearched, ill-considered and un-fact-checked answers that are little better than what you could have turned up with a simple search.  The concept is great in theory, but the landscape is so fractured that most sites lack enough voters to up-vote the best responses effectively, forcing you to wade through a morass of dumb people posting their opinions in response to questions of fact.

Quora solved the problem by getting rid of the dumb people.  Or more accurately, building their initial user-base around a core of smart people.  They started with the movers and shakers of Silicon Valley, enticing them to come to their service by asking questions targeting their areas of expertise and giving them a platform to share their knowledge.  Right from the outset, Quora built a culture of rewarding well-written, interesting answers.  And they came.  Ask a question about JJ Abrams, and JJ Abrams himself might answer.  Ask what it's like to fly on Air Force One, and people who have actually done it relate fantastic anecdotes about the experience.  The cream rises to the top very quickly through community voting.

I could wish for some better tools and interface.  It's actually rather difficult to just browse Quora and find coolness.  The site is structured around picking topics and people to follow, and then reading a feed of activity within those topics.  But a lot of the best stuff happens outside of your normal areas of interest.  That's why I love the weekly digest mails with links to the most interesting answers of the past seven days.  These digests reach outside my narrow interests and provide the most fascinating reading of the week.  How does Apple keep secrets so well?  What is the cheapest, legal thing a person could do to get front page coverage in the New York Times?  Why are e-mail scams written in broken English?  What is it like to be an Olympic athlete after winning (or not winning) the Olympics?  All of these questions-- and the fascinating answers-- have shown up in the digests recently.  If you haven't checked out Quora yet, prepare to lose the rest of your day falling down its rabbit hole.

Reading Quora is addictive.  You can heck out my profile, which links to all the questions I've answered (on topics that will come as no surprise to readers of this blog).  Another great place to start is with this Quora question, and its answers: What is the single best-written Quora answer?
One of my goals for the revived blog is to post a new puzzle every week.  A year or so ago I made a Rhyme TIme puzzle themed around Star Wars, which I eventually posted on Facebook.  Since then I've done a few more sets of Rhyme Time puzzles on other themes, not really sure what I'd eventually use them for.  They may find their way here eventually.  With the release of The Dark Knight Rises, it seemed like a good time to share this one.

In this puzzle, each clue is answered by a rhyming two-word phrase.  There is no meta-puzzle or final answer extraction step-- you're just trying to answer each of the 20 clues.  As a solving aid, the list of answers is in alphabetical order.

  1. Throw a weapon at "Constant Craving" singer 
  2. Secret meeting at a secret headquarters
  3. Surround the police commissioner with troops
  4. Flabby jaw-piece on certain headwear
  5. Tavern brawl with the Caped Crusader (more than 2 words)
  6. Bring shame upon Harvey Dent (hyphenated)
  7. Spread a costume accessory over the back of a chair
  8. Truce negotiation with Joker's admirer
  9. Harley Quinn, perhaps, while caressing her fella
  10. Ward distracted by affairs of the heart
  11. Flag hanging at the Wayne residence
  12. Henchmen with bowlers and bows, perhaps
  13. Parts a sidekick might use to mend his costume
  14. Short, pointy-nosed but cheerfully optimistic villain
  15. Bruce's mother or father, for example
  16. Trim Catwoman's accessory
  17. Signature vehicle as depicted by Salvador Dali
  18. Teach a former inmate how to break Batman's back
  19. Groom icy villain's eyebrows
  20. Spin Barbara Gordon around and around
Comments (2) | last by Larry Hosken, Jul 28, 6:18 AM

If you're lucky, you get to work on something great.  If you're very lucky, you get to work on something that makes a difference.

For the past few months I've had the profound privilege to work with NASA on a project called Mars Rover Landing, which went live last week.  MRL is a Kinect experience you can download for free on your Xbox 360 that enables you to use your body to navigate the Mars Lander safely through three stages of the landing process.  On August 5, a little over a week from now, the Mars Science Laboratory (more familiarly known as Curiosity) will end its 8 1/2 month journey and set down on Mars.  If everything goes well.

NASA's history is peppered with high-profile failures.  But despite Apollo 1, despite Challenger, despite Columbia, when I think of NASA I think of its many triumphs.  I think of humankind setting foot on the moon.  I think of multiple nations working together to assemble and staff an orbital space station.  I think of the relentless quest for exploration and scientific discovery.  And so I think that on August 5, Curiosity will land safely on Mars.

But at NASA, they think of the roughly one gazillion things that can go wrong.  Folks at NASA call the rover's landing sequence seven minutes of terror, because the engineers at Mission Control can't do anything but watch.  As the telemetry from the rover comes in, the game's already over.  The time delay between Mars and Earth means we're getting old news.  Any number of things could have gone wrong.  A charge misfiring.  A release mechanism failing.  An approach angle misaligned.  The slightest error could cause the spacecraft to skip off the atmosphere, or miss its landing target, or impact at critical velocity.  And there's nothing NASA can do about it.

I designed the Mars Rover Landing gadget to try to reflect some of that urgency while giving the player a level of direct control that NASA can only wish for.  It's a modern update of the classic Lunar Lander arcade game.  Take a look at this video, which inspired our three stages of gameplay, to get a sense of how crazy this landing really is (and yes, Curiosity has a frickin' laser beam it will use to vaporize Martian rock samples for analysis!).  NASA recognized that to achieve its outreach mission of inspiring young people to pursue STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) careers, it had to bring the mountain to Mohammed.  And Mohammed-- along with the rest of his teenage friends-- plays Xbox.  

There are hundreds of horror stories about working with IP holders, who can be notoriously protective and controlling of their franchise, or working with the government and its bureaucratic red tape.  This isn't one of them.  There were a few obvious constraints-- no aliens or graphic explosions, for instance-- as well as some less obvious ones (NASA is extremely protective about how and where its logo gets used).  The team at NASA, headed up by Jeff Norris at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory and Sharon Goza at the Johnson Space Center, were a delight to work with.  Right from the outset, they acknowledged that their expertise is in space flight, not video games.  They were always eager to offer feedback and suggestions, but left the decisions about gameplay to us.  We, in turn, strove to incorporate as much realism and accuracy as possible, right down to using the real mission director as our voice talent.  If you play the gadget and then watch NASA's feed of the landing, the voice narrating the event will be the same.  NASA's team provided us with all the 3D spacecraft models, rover photographs, and Mars landscapes we asked for, then threw in a host of supplementary materials in case they proved helpful.  Their level of knowledge about space flight and passion for their work were inspiring.

Everyone involved with the project on the Microsoft side got a gleam in their eye at the chance to work with NASA.  I'm sure many of us wanted to be astronauts when we were younger, and this project allowed us to reach back in time and touch that dream.  I think we also felt that NASA's work is important in ways that videogames generally aren't, and working on this project gave us a sense of a higher purpose that fulfilled our souls.  I think NASA is one of the last, greatest aspirational brands on the planet.  Having the chance to work with them and, however tangentially, be a part of their mission is like catnip to a company full of tech geeks.

The NASA folks, for their part, were equally geeked out over working with us.  They're all gamers and Xbox fans, and they relished the chance to play in our sandbox.  It was a great "Your're awesome!" "No, you're awesome!" relationship, and I'm grateful to Microsoft and NASA for creating this opportunity.  The team at Hellbent did a great job proving out a lot of the mechanics, and the incredible folks at Smoking Gun really hit it out of the park with the final implementation and presentation.

If this gadget makes even one child curious about the space program and sets them on a path to become the next generation of explorers, innovators, and discoverers, then mission accomplished.

I can't recommend Jesse Schell's The Art of Game Design: A Book of Lenses highly enough if you're in the field of game design-- board games, video games, whatever.  It's very well-written with some great personal anecdotes, and even when the book covered things I already knew, it gave me some new ideas.  Yet it was also breezy enough that I actually read it on a beach in Mexico.

Today the serendipity of the internet led me to discover that the entire book is available as a free online PDF file, so there's really no good excuse not to read it.  Go.

I'm Baaaa-ack!

At first there was the chaos of a new baby.  Then the comment system broke, and in trying to fix it I managed to break just about everything.  So I wound up taking an unplanned extended sabbatical from blogging. This week I finally got around to fixing the problem by installing everything from scratch.  A few details are still being ironed out, and I'll probably still make a few cosmetic changes, but at least everything works again.  So for those of you who are still here after two years of silence, let's get this baby going again!

For starters, here's an update on the little guy I'm holding in my previous post.

P1010779.JPG

That's the Doodle.  He's 22 months old now, and it's hard to imagine getting luckier in the baby lottery.  He sleeps well, he eats everything (Barbecue pork ribs?  Check.  Tom Kha Gai soup [two stars]?  Check.  Asks for more vegetables?  Check!), his memory and language development constantly astound me, and he's so cute it's a miracle I haven't gobbled him up.  I expect he'll feature more than occasionally in the blog from now on, because I'm an unabashedly proud papa.

Fatherhood has surprised me.  Not the fatigue or reduction of free time, I expected those.  I just didn't expect how much I'd change.  The Doodle makes me want to be a better person.  The best person I can be, really.  An example for him.  My priorities have shifted.  My perspective has changed.  It's like I stepped sideways into a world that's always existed right alongside me but which I was never able to see.

And everyone tells me it just gets better.

Comments (2) | last by Bruce, Jul 26, 10:30 AM

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