Collaborating in Fortnite

Fortnite is popular for tons of reasons, but chief among it is the "battle royale" style of combat -- 100 random players dropped on an island, foraging for defenses and weapons, and killing each other until only one is left standing. There's no in-game chat, so you have to assume that anyone you encounter is a threat. In such a situation, it's necessarily dog-eat-dog, yes?

Nope. As Robin Sloan -- one of my fave writers and thinkers -- discovered, it's also possible to hack a form of cooperation.

It works like this: Sloan unlocked an upgrade that lets you display a "heart" icon above your head. So he tried using it as a single-bit mode of game-theoretical communication. When he was dropped into the game, upon encountering another player, he'd refrain from shooting -- and instead toss up the "heart" icon.

At first, it didn't work. The other player kept on killing him anyway. Until ...

Then, one night, it worked. And, in many games since, it’s worked again. Mostly I get blasted, but sometimes I don’t, and when I don’t, the possibilities bloom. Sometimes, after we face off and stand down, the other player and I go our separate ways. More frequently, we stick together. I’ve crossed half the map with impromptu allies.

When it works, it is usually because I have a weapon and my potential ally doesn’t. When (shockingly) I do not blast them and (even more shockingly) do not pull a bait and switch, a real human connection is established, on a channel deeper than any afforded by the interface.

Read the rest

Interactive animation of why NYC's subway is so slow

In the last few years, the subway in New York has become clotted with delays. For just as long, the MTA -- the agency that runs the subway -- has claimed the reason was underfunding, rising ridership and overcrowding. Underfunding is a real thing, but ballooning riders isn't. Ridership has been mostly flat for the last five years.

So what's really the uptick in delays? Adam Pearce at the New York Times offers a better explanation: The MTA changed the rules of how trains run -- in a way that created gnarled, cascading slowdowns.

One rule: The spacing between trains had to be increased, because screwups in the signaling system made it hard to know precisely where the trains are. The second rule: If workers are at work on a line, the parallel lines running next to them have to slow down so they don't endanger those workers.

It's simple to state -- but hard to visualize. So the Times produced an amazing set of animations in their online story to show how these changes slow things down. About halfway the page, they really bust it out with an interactive element that lets you increase or decrease the number of temporary slowdowns on lines, so you can see how it causes ripple effects throughout the entire system.

Go check it out now if you can -- it's truly gorgeous and eye-opening.

I'm a huge fan of this sort of interactive stuff. Twenty years ago, during the first blush of Flash -- then the go-to tool for producing online animations -- I interviewed the head of the animation department at Sheridan College in Toronto, one of the world's top animation schools. Read the rest

Analyzing mouse-movement to see if you're lying

Here's an interesting experiment: Using mouse-movement as a lie-detection technique.

Cognitive psychologists and neuroscientists have long noted a big "tell" in human behavior: Crafting a lie takes more mental work than telling the truth. So one way to spot lies is to check someone's reaction time.

If they're telling a lie, they'll respond fractionally more slowly than if they're telling the truth. Similarly, if you're asked to elaborate on your lie, you have to think for a second to generate new, additional lies. "You're from Texas, eh? What city? What neighborhood in that city?" You can craft those lies on the fly, but it takes a bit more mental effort, resulting in micro hesitations.

So a group of Italian researchers wondered -- hey, could you use mouse movement as a proxy for reaction time?

In an experiment, they took two groups of subjects and asked them to respond to questions about their identity using an online form. One group was instructed to tell the truth; the other was to lie. The liars were given a package of information about their identity, so they could rehearse their fake persona.

But! The test also included some tricky questions which the liars hadn't rehearsed, but which were logically consistent with their fake persona. For example, if they were told you were born in January 1970, they'd be asked something like are you 48 years old now? In essence, the scientists wanted to see whether they could detect -- in the mouse movements -- the hesitation of someone concocting a lie. Read the rest

Age Gate With Attitude

Damjanski, a really witty digital artist, has released his latest work -- "The Age Gate".

I won't give any spoilers, but it's pretty funny. Read the rest

Scientists build a database of animal farts

Freshwater mussels? Goats? Wombats? If you've ever wondered whether a particular animal farts or not, hie thee to the #DoesItFart database.

It's not some weird, fake meme thing, by the way; this database is maintained by actual scientists who have, like, real scientific degrees and do science stuff all day long.

What happened was that a couple of them realized that, when discussing rare animals with the public, "does it fart?" was one of the most common questions. So they started inputting their info into a Google spreadsheet, available to the curious masses.

A quick glance at the spreadsheet suggests that the answer is nearly always "yes". Only a small minority of animals seem to be non-flatulent. Blue mussels, amonite, common whelks, moonsnail -- you guys are the very model of restraint. Oh, and in the "Description/notes" field, the scientists seem to be enjoying themselves quite a lot.

The Washington Post wrote a fun story about the database last year, noting that flatulence is actually a terrific entrypoint into the complex stew of animal biology:

And if engagement is the goal — or at least a byproduct — does it really matter what the topic is? “Just because it’s flatulence doesn’t mean it’s inherently silly,” said Adriana Lowe, a researcher of biological anthropology at the University of Kent in the United Kingdom. “The diets and digestive systems of animals are an important and fascinating field of study, and gas is just a part of that.”

Lowe studies chimpanzees in Uganda’s Budongo forest, animals whose gas appears to vary with their diet.

Read the rest

"The Philosophy of Beards" from 1854

Behold The Philosophy of Beards, a short 1854 book on the allure, upkeep, and clear moral superiority of the beard.

The Public Domain Review found this gem scanned at the invaluable Internet Archive, and have a terrific writeup describing why this weird tome is oddly telling of its Victorian times:

It is Gowing’s ardent belief that the bearded are better looking, better morally and better historically than the shaven. To call him a huge fan of the suburbs of the chin would be an understatement. “It is impossible” he writes “to view a series of bearded portraits . . . without feeling that they possess dignity, gravity, freedom, vigour, and completeness.” By contrast, the clean-cut look always leaves him with “a sense of artificial conventional bareness”. Gowing’s apology for the beard makes frequent appeals to nature, some of them amusingly far-fetched: “Nature leaves nothing but what is beautiful uncovered, and the masculine chin is seldom sightly, because it was designed to be covered, while the chins of women are generally beautiful.” Sometimes his argument transforms from a shield for the beard into a swipe at the chin: “There is scarcely indeed a more naturally disgusting object than a beardless old man (compared by the Turks to a ‘plucked pigeon’)”.

Gowing was writing at a time when physiognomy — the art of reading a person’s character in their facial features — was still popular in Europe and America. So it is no surprise to learn that “the absence of Beard is usually a sign of physical and moral weakness”.

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Gorgeous tiny synthesizers in wooden boxes

Love Hultén is a designer who builds gorgeous devices that merge faintly-retro stylings with digital guts (previously, previously, previously, and previously).

Now he's created the Bivalvia Synthesis, which is adorable and -- as this video shows -- capable of some lovely sounds ...

As he describes it:

The Bivalvia Synthesis is a small synthesizer toy based on Axoloti core, the open source hardware synth created by Johannes Taelman. The casing is handmade from wood and unfolds like a clamshell to reveal six dial/fader controllers combined with 15 high quality Cheery MX keys - 12 MIDI notes in chromatic scale, octave up/down and patch shifting. For output, there's stereo output on the back and a built-in full-range 15W speaker. Combined with Axoloti Patcher software - a user friendly and very graphic modular environment, you can create your own effects and sounds using oscillators (from subtractive to FM), filters, modulation, and much more. Simply connect the Bivalvia Synthesis to your computer via USB and start making objects. Build your own personal patch bank and store it on the built-in SD card.

Oooo I love it. Read the rest

Study: two spaces after a period makes reading easier

Amongst people who care deeply about typography and fonts -- which is, in our typographic age, probably a reasonable chunk of people online -- there's been a low-level war about spacing after a period. Specifically: When you finish a sentence, do you type one space, or two?

There are many heated views on this matter.

But recently, a couple of scholars decided to science this one out, and ... things did not turn out well for the one-spacers.

As the Washington Post reports:

So the researchers, Rebecca L. Johnson, Becky Bui and Lindsay L. Schmitt, rounded up 60 students and some eye tracking equipment, and set out to heal the divide.

First, they put the students in front of computers and dictated a short paragraph, to see how many spaces they naturally used. Turns out, 21 of the 60 were “two-spacers, ” and the rest typed with close-spaced sentences that would have horrified the Founding Fathers.

The researchers then clamped each student's head into place, and used an Eyelink 1000 to record where they looked as they silently read 20 paragraphs. The paragraphs were written in various styles: one-spaced, two-spaced, and strange combinations like two spaces after commas, but only one after periods. And vice versa, too.

And the verdict was: two spaces after the period is better. It makes reading slightly easier.

Mind you, the reading-speed improvement with double spaces was only 3%, so we're talking about a pretty tiny delta here.

Small enough, in fact, that this study has not so much resolved this debate as fanned its eternal, eldritch flames. Read the rest

Tool that turns text into ASCII art

I am heavily digging this ASCII art generator: Type in your text and it'll render it in one of several dozen ASCII fonts.

A few of my favorites ...

Read the rest

A search engine for old Geocities sites -- find yours, and you can start re-editing it

So, Geocities -- the service that, back in 1994, set off the first phase of everyday folks putting crazy, fun stuff online -- still exists as a hosting service. Better yet, it has also preserved an awful lot of those old Geocities sites, and has a rudimentary search engine to find them.

I searched for "anime" (what else, really?) and immediately found a zillion fanfic sites, like the one above.

When I posted about this search engine on Twitter, a lot of thirtysomething web developers immediately headed over to discover: Holy moses, the fansites they'd made when they were tweens were still up and running!

Bonus: if you find a site you created way back when, Geocities has a process for reclaiming yours. So you can start re-updating a site that you probably last edited when Bill Clinton was president.

Read the rest

Supercharging farm-soil to hoover up atmospheric carbon

Here's some promising eco-news: A simple scientific experiment tweaked the ecosystem of a California farm, and the soil began capturing tons of carbon from the atmosphere.

The experiment began in 2007, when some Californian farmers collaborated with some ecologists. They wanted to enrichen the soil so that it'd grow grasses and plants that trap more carbon, particularly "occluded" carbon, which is usually dead microbes. That stuff gets in the earth and stays there for a long time.

To try and encourage new forms of growth that trap that type of carbon, they did a simple treatment: They covered three acres of the farm with a half-inch of compost, bought from a nearby composting plant.

When they checked back three years later, the soil in the treated acres was indeed trapping far more carbon than untreated soil in nearby farms (which, interestingly, was mostly losing carbon, on balance). How much capture had taken place? About 1.5 tons of carbon dioxide per acre per year, which is "roughly equal to your car’s emissions if you drove from Miami to Seattle."

The scientists' research suggests that the soil will continue to capture carbon at that rate. That's particularly remarkable considering it was a one-time treatment!

This suggests something quite enticing: Treat farms all over America just one time with a half-inch of compost, and they could become sponges that soak up tons of carbon. Moses Velasquez-Manoff has written a fascinating long feature about the work in the New York Times Magazine:

In the years that followed, Silver’s analyses of soil cores indicated that the treated land kept taking in carbon.

Read the rest

Today's "lone wolf" killers are actually a pack

In the wake of the Toronto van attack (image above), media attention is turning to the next strand of online white-guy aggrievement that the mainstream hasn't yet discovered -- the self-described "incel" movement.

There'll be endless pieces attempting to interrogate the specific claims made by incel guys online, too many of which will somehow ignore their phosphorescent misogyny, and the many open calls to violence against women you see in these forums. Ella Dawson synthesized this nicely ...

Bingo. Mainstream reporters tend to treat each of these different little online cliques of angry, wildly entitled guys as being motivated by some specific, unique, granular problem: They're angry about gamer culture! Or dating and sex! Or immigration and the loss of some nebulously-defined national "culture"!

But they're not terribly different at all. Their beliefs all pivot around the same poles: A matter-of-fact contempt for women and minorities, and a radioactively bitter sense that white guys ought to be easily and widely recognized as inherently superior to every other group. This commonality between their worldviews shouldn't be surprising, because -- as David Perry notes in Pacific Standard -- these supposedly "lone wolf" mostly-white-guy killers in recent years are, in fact, all in loose communication with each other online. Read the rest

3,600-year-old tattoo kit found

Archaeologists have long known that tattooing goes back for millennia. But recently they made a cool find: what appears to be a Native American tattoo kit that's at least 3,600 years old.

The kit, which includes a bunch of pointy wild-turkey bones, was unearthed decades ago, but recently came under closer scrutiny. As Mental Floss reports ...

Deter-Wolf teamed up with Tanya Peres, a zooarchaeologist at Florida State University, to take a fresh look at the set of artifacts. They were initially interested in the toolkit because it resembled a medicine bundle—a collection of artifacts that was bound together to act like a portable shrine in more recent Native American cultures. But after examining the objects, the researchers thought they might be dealing with a tattoo kit.

"By the arrival of the Europeans, virtually every Native American group in the Great Plains and the Eastern Woodlands practiced tattooing," Deter-Wolf tells Mental Floss. "If it's something that widespread and that important, we suspect that it is very deeply rooted in Native American history."

Their theory got a boost from another study published last year, in which Christian Gates St-Pierre, an archaeologist at the University of Montreal, tattooed pig skin with bone tools to test the wear-and-tear patterns that prehistoric tattoo needles should exhibit. He found that when it was used for tattooing, a bone needle would develop a bright polish—but only on the first 3 millimeters of the tip.

Apparently Deter-Wolf is completely metal, because he tested their theory by giving himself a tattoo using period-appropriate tools:

Deter-Wolf recently took those experiments one step further.

Read the rest

Secret Nazi experimental plane was an epic piece of vaporware

Behold the incredibly weird-looking Horten Ho 229 -- an all-wing "wonder weapon" plane that the Nazis frantically developed even as they were collapsing and losing WWII. Read the rest

Inside Cuba's massive, weekly, human-curated sneakernet

Most Cubans have terrible access to the Internet -- estimates suggest only 5-25% of the populace can regularly get online. The government made it a bit easier in recent years with paid wifi hotspots, but they require dough, and they're super slow.

So Cubans have instead, in the last decade, evolved a complex, massive sneakernet. It's called "El Paquete Semanal", or "The Weekly Package" -- in which a loosely-connected group of Cubans assemble a bunch of files (video, audio, web pages, texts) and distribute them around the country via external hard drives, CDs and USB sticks. It's pretty stunning: A weekly curated version of the best of the global Internet, mixed with a ton of locally-produced Cuban content, too. The upshot is a population that is fully conversant in contemporary global TVs, movie and music, except they get it all via USB port and DVD drive.

A group of academics did a deep dive into how El Paquete works, and their paper is free online. They met with "Los Maestros" -- the folks who download and compile the material, relying on their own crowdsourced networks of Cubans who get files off the creaky public wifi, or, in the case of bigger files, from contributors who have fatter bandwidth at their government or university jobs. The Maestros also act as promoters of local content, finding Cuban music and video and putting that in El Paquete.

The next step in the chain is Los Paqueteros -- "The Packagers" -- who are the distributors: They buy the weekly package from the Maestros, and sell files to everyday customers. Read the rest

A video game that simulates building custom PCs

"PC Building Simulator" is ... kind of what the name suggests, yes? A sim in which one builds PCs.

I admit I'm intrigued. Sort of? As this review at Motherboard notes, the game has a "career" mode where you play the role of someone who inherits your uncle's PC-repair business, and is given increasingly complicated tasks ...

As you can see, my idiot uncle sold this poor guy a PC but forgot to apply thermal paste to the CPU. For this job, I had to open the PC, unplug the CPU fan, apply thermal paste, and then put the CPU fan back in. To make sure that the computer is working properly, I also had to install and run 3DMark, a real-life piece of software that tests a computer's performance by running 3D graphics demos.

One of the cooler things about PC Building Simulator is that it uses a lot of real brands. Some parts are fake, I'm assuming, because the developers couldn't get the necessary licensing deals. For example, PC Building Simulator seems to take place in some kind of utopian alternate dimension where everyone uses an operating system called Omega, which I'm assuming is a Linux distro that magically runs all PC games. But there are also a lot of real parts. I installed real EVGA GPUs and even worked on the Master Cooler brand PC case I have at home.

This is all fine, but I realized that PC Building Simulator really wasn't fucking around when it actually demanded I sit through the entire 3DMark test before I could finish the job.

Read the rest

New, unusued Robotron cabinet found still in the box

Robotron: 2084 is one of my favorite games of all time. It has the rapidly-escalating-curve-of-difficulty I prefer in arcade games -- the first level is easy, the second is harder, the third is like, huh, yikes, and then by the ninth screen you need heart defibrillation. Plus, the single-screen nature of play is wonderfully claustrophic: You can't escape anywhere, so you're frantically weaving through hordes of killer robots, constantly scanning for shifting escape routes that possess pixel's-breadth tolerances.

It's pretty rare to find functioning Robotron cabinets anywhere. The last time I played one was a few years back at Yestercades in New Jersey, and I hadn't laid hands on one for a decade or more before that. I've never seen hard numbers, but my suspicion is that Robotron cabinets simply weren't made in the volume of more-common games like, say, Asteroids.

So I was fascinated to read this post about a guy who got his hands on a completely new Robotron game, never-opened and still in its original box.

From whence did such an item emerge? An even crazier story: A warehouse in Vancouver of a former 80s amusements firm, which went extinct and left behind seven stories of mint, in-the-crate arcade and pinball games.

As Tony of The Arcade Blogger writes:

In 2006, someone stumbled across a warehouse in Gastown, Vancouver that had effectively been sealed shut in around 1983. I’m told the place was known to collectors, but the story of new games stacked floor to ceiling was regarded as an urban legend.

Read the rest

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