WFB July 2016

IMHO, ths colums roxs

The Associated Press released a story a while back about a new world record being set. Normally when you see a report of a new record they usually are something trivial or useless, but this one really takes the cake.

Kimberly Yeo, a 23-year old student in Singapore, managed to type a complicated 26-word message on her phone in 43.66 seconds, setting a new world record.

The message was as messed up as the record was. Contestants had to type: “The razor-toothed piranhas of the genera Serrasalmus and Pygocentrus are the most ferocious freshwater fish in the world. In reality they seldom attack a human.”

How often does something like that come up in normal conversation, let alone some techno-savvy teen’s text messages?

People who are well versed in technology and are frequent users of text messaging on cell phones and instant messaging on computers have developed their own language. A typical exchange usually reads something like this.

G33kboy456: sup?

c-utipi112: wrkn.

G33kboy456: wrk sux.

c-tipi112: lol - I kno.

G33kboy456: wat u d’n ltr?

c-utipi112: dunno.

G33kboy456: c-ya ltr.

c-utipi112: k.

And on and on.

I own a cell phone and tried to see how fast I could type the record-setting phrase. I gave up after about two minutes when I spent an eternity trying to find the hyphen after the second word. I asked around the office to see if anybody else could get close to the record time, and those that din’t scorn me outright only got about halfway through before giving up.

It was then when I stumbled across an interesting thought…I am not physically adapted to text messaging. My fingers are long and thick, not suited to the relatively tiny keypad on my phone. In fact, none of my coworkers had digits suited to navigating the miniscule device with any accuracy. This did not bode well for us.

If Darwin’s theories of evolution are correct, human beings will evolve to have short, thin and dexterous fingers to better maneuver their way around a cell phone key-pad.

But text messaging may not only be changing the way we look, it is also changing how we communicate.

I can’t begin to tell you about the number of people I have seen over the past year, hunched over their cell phone, furiously typing away at the key-pad with their thumbs and then waiting for a reply. This goes on for what seems like hours; type…read response…type…read response...and on and on.

I just wonder why they simply don’t just call the person they are “talking with?” Wouldn’t that be easier? Is the person on the other end of the phone locked away in some secret government facility passing along classified information? Or perhaps they are a monk in a monastery who took a vow of silence but really likes to socialize.

I guess it won’t be long before verbal communication has gone the way of telegraphs and morse code. Our language will exist only in written form and face-to-face contact will be extinct.

Until then: Tlk 2 U nxt wk. Brdmn.

Rise of the machines

I’m not saying the robot apocalypse is coming: but the robot apocalypse is coming.

Scientists are getting closer and closer to building a true artificial intelligence for machines, and once that happens we all know what follows – Terminators.

To whit: a group of researchers built a computer capable of learning language and stories – then proceeded to drive it crazy.

The above statement is 100 percent true.

Psychiatrist Ralph Hoffman of Yale and computer scientist Risto Miikkulainen of the University of Texas build an artificial neural network using computers designed to mimic a biological network. Each module had its own programming that assumed the role of learning language. One learned nouns, another verbs, another down the line learned how to put the words together to form sentences, one learned the meaning of the sentences, and so on, until they all linked together and developed a system that could hear a story and pick out the plot, context, setting and other details.

The scientists then began to tell the computer stories. The machine, dubbed DISCERN, learned 28 different, simple stories, using only 159 individual words. The process worked, and DISCERN could not only understand the meaning of the stories, but could retell them after given certain inputs.

Then it got strange. The scientists purposely damaged some of the modules, mimicking brain damage.  The computer began learning at an accelerated rate, and was forced to remember irrelevant details of the story, which it had previously learned to discard.

Being a computer, you would think that such a thing wouldn’t matter, but the scientists learned that the computer became confused and soon it began mixing up the stories and inserting itself into the plots of some of the tales.

At one point the computer told the researchers that it had planted a bomb, which had been an element from a story about terrorists.

It became apparent that DISCERN had developed schizophrenia.

Instead of immediately unplugging the machine and destroying the abhorrent computer, the scientists published their findings in a medical journal, and developed a new theory on how schizophrenia develops.

They claim DISCERN will help them learn more about the psychological condition and may lead to new ways to treat victims.

I’m all for medical research. Curing diseases, new life saving devices, even some genetic manipulation is ok with me if done for the right reasons.

But to purposely make a computer go insane is too far in my book.

What happens if the “disease” they programmed into the computer gets out? What if DISCERN, in its paranoia, secretly connects to other computers and spreads its code outside the lab?

Soon your home PC will start acting strange.

Perhaps you are looking on the internet at a new computer, and your PC will want to protect itself and devise ways to stop you. It could trash your credit rating, send bogus threats to the FBI, or create embarrassing pictures of you and post them on Facebook.

I tell you – it could happen.

Eaten by a Grue

“You are standing in an open field west of a white house, with a boarded front door. There is a small mailbox here.” 

This is the opening lines of the greatest video games of all time…Zork.

I was a teen when I first entered the Great Underground Empire, where the series is set, and became instantly hooked.

I cut my teeth on the old Atari systems, and early computer-based games, where the graphics were nothing more than blocky shapes, and there was only so much you could do.

Then along came Zork and my gaming life would never be the same.

Instead of images on the screen, the only thing that greets you are the famous opening words quoted above, and the rest is up to you.

Strictly using simple commands such as look, go east, and hit troll with sword, you navigate the twisty corridors and solve puzzles along the way. It was the dawn of text-based adventures.

There is no rule book, no in-game hint system, just you and your wits. If you forgot to bring a lantern along, you could be eaten by a Grue – a monster that really never was described, but it became legendary, and your imagination filled in your own description.

If you were to ask the game, “What is a Grue?” – you’d simply get this reply…

“The grue is a sinister, lurking presence in the dark places of the earth. Its favorite diet is adventurers, but its insatiable appetite is tempered by its fear of light. No grue has ever been seen by the light of day, and few have survived its fearsome jaws to tell the tale.”

That was all it needed.

Of course, the game predates the internet, and the only way to get past a particularly tough puzzle with some help was to purchase a hint book printed in invisible ink.

It is much easier to get through today (the game is still popular and can be found for free all over the internet) as walkthroughs are common.

But I love the simple text-based adventures Infocom put out back in their heyday. They even produced a version of “Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy,” my favorite book. The game was true to the book’s style as author Douglass Adams played a big role in development.

These days games are more complex, as computing power has grown by leaps and bounds. The newest games come stuffed with highly detailed graphics, epic sound tracks and are almost feature length movies.

But I think the rush to put out games have forced developers to focus more on what the game looks like than actually how it plays.

Sure, it can be fun to drive a realistic sports car though downtown Los Angeles, or pilot a space ship against hordes of alien invaders, but it all devolves into mindless action. There is no imagination or complex puzzle solving. I like games that make me think.