Saturday, June 25, 2011

Evangeline Lilly joins The Hobbit cast

Last week, Peter Jackson announced two new cast members for The Hobbit. Barry Humphries will play the Goblin King, who will be a CGI character, and Lost star Evangeline Lilly will play a woodland elf created for the movie named "Tauriel," which Jackson says means "daughter of Mirkwood." (

No. "Tauriel" does not mean "daughter of Mirkwood." It means "daughter of the forest". "Taur" is a generic term for forest, and "-iel" is a generic female name ending, usually translated as "maiden of" or "daughter of". This name is so generic that it's actually the name I made up when I was 17 to use to sign my Quenya poems. (This was before I chose the name "Eleni", which is equally generic but has the advantage of looking like a real-person name.)

Hobbit purists can debate the wisdom of adding yet another character who wasn't in the original book. I will reserve judgment until I see the film; Peter Jackson has earned my trust. And I don't really mind made up characters getting generic names easily constructed from a few minutes with an English-to-Elvish glossary (for example, the one in this book). But at least be honest and translate the name correctly. Claiming "Tauriel" means something more specific than it does comes off as pretentious. "Mirkwood", by the way, would be "Taur e-Ndaedelos". Hmm, "Tauriel e-Ndaedelos"... I guess that's a bit of a mouthful.

P.S. The second thing that went through my mind upon hearing this news, after my disdain over the name "Tauriel", was "Lord of the Rings--Dominic Monaghan--Lost--Evangeline Lilly--The Hobbit--squeeee!"

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Ghost Stories board game

Ah yes, there are more types of games than video games. I sometimes forget this.

After getting hooked on Dominion over Christmas break this past year, I was excited to remember how fun it can be to play games that aren't on a computer screen. Lucky for me, I soon found out that a new friend from school was an avid board game player (board gamer?). We bonded over our February research cruise, during which we played many rounds of Dominion. Since classes have ended, we've started to have occasional gaming parties.

It was at one such party that I was introduced to a game called Ghost Stories. It's a cooperative game in which the players (four seemed the ideal number) are Taoist monks with kick-ass fighting skills who must defend their village from invading monsters led by Wu-Feng, Lord of the Nine Hells. The design of the game is of Oriental influence, which was a refreshing change after the medieval Europe flavor of Dominion. And though we lost to the monsters in both of the rounds we played, I still had a lot of fun.

Here's the gist of how the game works: An unseen Wu-Feng card is selected out of the Wu-Feng deck (so you get a random "boss" monster for each game), and placed near the bottom of the normal monster deck (there are quite a lot of them). At the beginning of each player's turn, a monster card is drawn and placed in a spot around the edge of the board, which consists of nine tiles arranged in a 3x3 square. To defeat a monster, a player must move her monk to the tile adjacent to the monster, then roll three dice that have a different color on each side. The monster card indicates how many of which color the player needs to roll to defeat it, though there are colored tokens a player can acquire that may be spent to augment an insufficient roll. Each player has a unique power, such as rolling an extra die, or selecting a colored token each turn. The monsters too have special powers, such as forcing players to use one less die while the monster's in play, or introducing the dreaded ghosts that begin to move across the board to "haunt" tiles. Each of the nine tiles has a special ability, such as granting extra tokens, reviving a fallen teammate, or killing a monster in exchange for a point of health, which players can use on their turns in lieu of attacking. If a tile gets haunted, though, the ability is no longer available, and if too many tiles get haunted then the players lose the game. Players win by defeating Wu-Feng, but lose if they all die (obviously) or if the monster deck is used up before Wu-Feng is vanquished.

The monsters start coming out really fast (some monsters' special power is to make you draw another monster immediately), and some are very tough. Things are complicated by a Curse die that you have to roll in various situations to get a random disadvantage, such as losing a point of health (you start with 4). The game is stressful, but that makes it exciting. The game is also really hard; we never even made it to the Wu-Feng card, as Wu-Feng's minions finished us off first. I think we were even playing with the "easy" version of the rules. Ouch. But I still had a great time.

I like the cooperative gameplay style, where everyone is working together and rooting for each other. When I play multiplayer video games, I prefer PvE to PvP, so I guess this is the equivalent of that. It keeps a friendly environment.

I've never played Arkham Horror, but I understand this game is similar, but simpler and shorter (the game takes about an hour--maybe less, if you die fast like we did ;). If you like board games, I highly recommend Ghost Stories. The game is challenging, the atmosphere is ominous (best played after dark), and any progress made is highly satisfying. But not as satisfying as defeating Wu-Feng will be. I'm ready for a rematch.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Mathematical Monday: The Monty Hall Problem, Star Wars style

Probability and statistics were just about my least favorite math topics in school (give me some calculus, any day), but this is one probability problem I learned in my statistics class that I LOVED. It's just so counter-intuitive, yet so elegant and relatively simple. It's called the "Monty Hall problem" because it's based on a game show that was hosted by Monty Hall, called "Let's Make a Deal" (though I don't know how close the problem is to the actual rules of the game show). If you haven't heard it before, you need to know this one. It's makes GREAT dinner party conversation. The classic problem involves Monty, a new car, and two goats, but I've changed the language here to be a bit more accessible to my likely audience.

You're on a game show in Cloud City, and host Lando Calrissian is giving you a chance to win one of the starships in his lot on Nar Shaddaa. There are three closed doors on stage. Lando explains that behind one of them is his marker for one of his starships, while behind each of the other two doors is a womp rat. Whichever door you choose to open, you win the prize behind it. Lando asks you to choose one of the three doors. You do. But before you open that door, Lando says he'll help you out by opening one of the two OTHER doors. He opens one, revealing a womp rat. (He knows what lies behind each door, so he will always choose to reveal a womp rat; if both of the OTHER doors have womp rats, he will choose one to open at random.) He now gives you a choice: Do you want to open the door you originally chose--the SELECTED door--or switch to the other closed door--the REMAINING door?

Maybe you're very attached to the door you chose at the beginning, but ultimately the question is, What is your chance of winning if you stick with the SELECTED door, and what is your chance of winning if you switch to the REMAINING door? Take some time to think about it.

The intuitive answer is that it's 50-50 either way. There are two closed doors at this point. One has the ship, one has the second womp rat, so there is clearly a 50% chance the starship voucher is behind either door. Right? Wrong (you saw that coming). In fact, you have a 1/3 chance of winning the ship if you stick to the SELECTED door but a 2/3 chance of winning the ship if you switch to the REMAINING door. Switching doubles your chances of winning, so that is the better bet to make.

What I love about the problem is how easy it is to be fooled by this question. It blew my mind the first time I learned it. When the question was presented and correctly answered in Parade magazine's Ask Marilyn column in 1990, about 10,000 readers including, apparently, nearly 1000 with PhDs wrote in arguing that her solution was wrong--that there was a 50-50 chance and thus no advantage to switching. There was some ambiguity in the phrasing of the problem as presented in the magazine (basically the details that I put in parentheses were left out), which would affect the answer. But most people assume those details, anyway, and barely any of her critics noted that ambiguity. She defended her answer, and others jumped in to defend her as well (NYT article). They prevailed: the better choice is to switch.

Here's what I think is the easiest way to understand the solution. There are two situations that you can find yourself in:
  1. Your SELECTED door has the starship voucher behind it. If that happens, Lando will open one of the two womp rat doors. Keeping the SELECTED door wins you the ship, while switching to the REMAINING door gives you a womp rat.
  2. Your SELECTED door has a womp rat behind it. If that happens, Lando will open the other door with a womp rat. Keeping the SELECTED door gives you a womp rat, while switching to the REMAINING door wins you the starship.
Because you have a 1/3 chance of choosing the starship door at the beginning, there's only a 1/3 chance that you'll find yourself in Situation 1, where you win by keeping the SELECTED door. You're twice as likely to choose a womp rat door at the beginning, putting you in Situation 2. Therefore, you're twice as likely to win the starship by switching to the REMAINING door. In other words, switching only loses if you originally pick the starship door, but this only happens with a 1/3 chance. So switching loses with a 1/3 chance, and thus wins with a 2/3 chance.

Want an explanation that doesn't involve counting up possible outcomes? When you choose the door at the beginning, there is a 1/3 chance that the ship voucher is behind that SELECTED door. The two OTHER doors together have a 2/3 chance of having the starship. But Lando makes sure that you can only open one of those two OTHER doors (you can't open the one he's already opened to reveal a womp rat). Thus, if the ship voucher was behind either of those two doors (2/3 chance of this), it will be behind the REMAINING door. This means that there is a 2/3 chance that the starship voucher is behind the REMAINING door.

Pretty cool, right? I'm telling you, people at parties love this stuff. Well, particularly if they're nerds.

Further analysis, explanations, and variations of this problem can be found on the Monty Hall Problem Wikipedia page.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

The PHD Movie!

I love PHD Comics. It's sort of a must for grad students. Grad school is a crazy time of working really hard but making no progress, slacking off and surfing the internet when no one's looking, hiding from your advisor, and generally feeling overwhelmed and undervalued. We who choose this path are a crazy bunch. We work full time for half-time pay, earning less with a college degree than most people can earn with a high school diploma. And for what? A PhD? The promise of getting the title "Dr." before our names, and, if we're lucky, the ability to be professors, a profession of grant-writing and minimal glory, earning surprisingly little on average compared to people with similarly advanced degrees (e.g. medical doctors).

PHD (Piled Higher and Deeper) Comics finds the humor in the absurdity. With its main characters in varying stages of never-ending graduate programs, as well as an accurate collection of supporting characters (the sugar mama, various flavors of infuriating advisors), we see ourselves and our lives in its comics. Sometimes it encourages me, knowing that what I'm experiencing is something every grad student experiences. Sometimes it depresses me, knowing that the misery is inevitable. But it always makes me laugh.

The comics are all done by Jorge Cham, who did manage to complete his PhD and now tours the country giving lectures on the virtues of procrastination. Sometimes he takes suggestions for strips from grad students who write in from across the country. Lately, though, the comic has been publishing less frequently than normal, because he has been working on a live action movie based on the comics. And now there's a trailer!

See the website for the movie here.

I love it. I'm not really active in, well, any organization at my university, but I hope I can get someone to sponsor a screening on campus. It would be so much fun, as well as a great way to procrastinate.

If you're looking to procrastinate, here are some of my favorite PHD comics:

Bright and early Happens more often than I'll admit
Why? Why? This past Wednesday for me, just about
Dork Barrel Spending
A tranquilizer with graphs in it Best way to fall asleep
We're all doomed
You know you've been grading too long when... My office mate says this has happened to her.
Incoming freshmen So true. I know maybe 6 buildings on campus.
Things to do...
The Economic Meltdown
How Grad School is just like Kindergarten
If TV Science was more like REAL Science

Friday, June 10, 2011

E3 2011: BioWare, and the others

E3, the video game industry's big annual expo, was held this week in L.A. Upcoming games were presented, new hardware was introduced, and there were tons of press conferences, interviews, Q&A's, and demos.

Some of the biggest reveals at this year's E3 are things I don't really care about. I'm always behind the times in terms of smart phones and tablets, so whatever Apple was talking about on Monday won't directly affect me in the near future. I haven't played consoles since the original PlayStation, and I don't have the need for a portable console at this point, so it's highly unlikely I'll get a Wii U or PlayStation Vita. I was mostly interested in the games. And of the games, I was mostly interested in BioWare. That's just my taste.

Star Wars: The Old Republic
I've been excited about this game since the summer of 2008, when EA announced that they were working with BioWare and LucasArts on an MMORPG sequel to the two Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic games. I adored KotOR and KotORII, which take place approximately 4,000 years before the rise of Darth Vader, and I was a bit disappointed that they weren't making a straight single-player sequel to finish out the series. But the more I learn about the MMO--personal ships! different companions for each class! fully voiced PC's and multiplayer conversations!--the more excited I get about it. This year at E3, they showed a kick-ass new trailer that has me squeeing.

See on the SWTOR website here.

The SWTOR team showed off Tattooine in their demo at E3, allowing people to explore the iconic planet. This video gives an idea of the gameplay, player companions, types of choices made on quests, and multiplayer conversations.

See on the SWTOR website here.
I find the speeder bike a little goofy, only because the companion disappears as it appears, making it almost seem as if the companion transforms into the bike. Oh well. More videos and info can be found on the SWTOR website, which is updated quite frequently with new reveals. The game is expected later this year, but no date has been announced.

Mass Effect 3
This is the climactic final installment of the epic Mass Effect trilogy, and it's promising to be the best of the three. Throughout Shepard's quest, the Council has dismissed her warnings about the looming Reaper attack, in which an unbelievably ancient and powerful race of machines will attempt to destroy all sentient organic life in the galaxy. Now, as the Reapers launch their attack, it falls to Shepard to rally the galaxy and lead the races to war.

For their E3 press conference, EA debuted a live action trailer for Mass Effect 3. The coolest part about it? Holly Conrad and Crabcat Industries (whom I've mentioned before on this blog), made costumes and the husks for the video! They did an awesome job.

Rumors had been flying for the past week or two that Mass Effect 3 would be Kinect compatible (for the Xbox 360 version only, of course), but this was finally explained at E3. There will not be any motion control, but the game will make use of the Kinect's voice recognition capabilities. Players will be able to select dialogue choices from the dialogue wheel with their voices as well as deliver voice commands to their companions in combat. Check out this demonstration:
Personally, I think that the use of voice commands in the dialogue is a bit redundant. First you say one thing out loud, then Shepard in the game says a different line with similar meaning. I'd rather just hear each idea expressed once. But the voice commands in combat are pretty sweet. That's how the commands would be delivered in the battlefield (not with clicks), and the thought that your companions are responding directly to your voice increases the immersion. Chances are I won't ever get to play the Kinect version, but it's fun to see anyway.

Mass Effect 3 is scheduled for release on March 6, 2012. Find more details about Mass Effect 3 and SWTOR at E3, with interviews, demos, and Q&A's, on BioWare TV:

Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim
I played Morrowind, but skipped Oblivion. The games are beautiful, with vast continuous worlds to explore, and Skyrim looks to be more beautiful and more vast than the previous games in the series. I'm undecided whether I'll get this game or not. It's all well and good to be able to explore, but it's also nice to feel like I have a purpose. In Morrowind, I found myself doing quests for umpteen guilds because they were there, and not because I cared about them or what they stood for. That gets boring after a while. There are many merits to the Elder Scrolls style of games, I just have a preference for BioWare-style dialogue, stories, and NPCs. Still, I have little doubt Skyrim will be a great game. It has big frakking DRAGONS! See a gameplay demo here:
Skyrim will be released on 11-11-11.

Tomb Raider reboot
I never played any of the original Tomb Raider games, and I know very little about this newly announced reboot, other than that it's an origin story. But I'm intrigued because the trailer looks so cool.

Kinect Star Wars
Check out this trailer:

I love the idea of a Star Wars Kinect game. I want to be a Jedi, wielding my lightsaber and tossing enemies around with the Force. But while the Kinect has much to offer in terms of delivering an immersive Star Wars experience, it also has limitations. The problem is traveling. You the player can only move across the space of a few square feet in front of your TV, so how do you get your character to travel more than that? The solution in Kinect Star Wars is that the game moves your character "on rails"--as if you're on a big moving sidewalk that controls where you go--and you just control the character's combat as the game scoots you around. The game may still be fun, but this lack of control could be annoying, and may negatively affect the immersion of the game.

I don't know a good solution to this travel problem. Bend forward slightly to make the character walk forward? That's just asking for back pain. Use a small Nunchuk-like joystick in the left hand to control your walking while the rest of the body is left available to control the character's motion? The point of the Kinect is that you don't need a controller--your body is the controller. Voice commands? Tedious, unwieldy. DDR-style directional pad on the ground to direct travel? That probably would be complicated and tiring. For every idea I come up with, I can think of a reason it won't work. I guess it's up to the developers to solve this conundrum. Once they do, they can finally start making for the Kinect the types of exploration games I love to play.

So I don't leave you on a downer, how about a short little clip of Felicia Day playing Kinect Star Wars?

I didn't follow E3 that closely, since I was working all week, so I know I missed a lot. Let me know of any other awesome games I need to check out!

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Default Geek

Joey Heflich, aka @MrBalls, just published the results from a survey he put together to investigate a certain gender issue in geek culture. But before I discuss that survey and its topic, let me give the background behind the survey, at least as I understand it.

Last week, I saw a link from @TheNerdyBird to a recent post by Joey Heflich on Guerrilla Geek, titled "Not all geeks are misogynists". In it, he discusses some issues on the perception of women in geek culture.
Recently a lot of words have been thrown back and forth between people debating whether or not women are accepted in geek culture. Some say that male geeks tend to create hostile environments unwelcome to women. Some say that beautiful women dressing up as Wonder Woman aren’t really geeks and are only pandering to us. Others say that being a geek girl means being subjected to a lot of undue prejudice. Almost no one is saying that we’re all equals. It’s all a lot of ugliness, something not normally associated with our culture and it has to stop.
Given some controversies that have broken out in the geek online community in recent months regarding geek girls, this is a topic worth discussing, and the post received many thoughtful comments. One commenter pointed out that the use of the term "geek girls" where there is no male counterpart (few ever refer to themselves as "geek guys") may "invite some of the unwanted attention that some female geeks receive". This is a valid point--that when we use the term "geek girls" we necessarily set ourselves apart from geek non-girls--and the commenter recognized that the attention gained this way is unfair. I bear him no ill will. However, I was inspired to respond to the comment in an attempt to defend the use of the term "geek girl". It's not a term that I really used until I started making friends in the online geek girl community. Now I embrace the term, as I associate it with all the friendly, awesome, and geeky ladies I've met through these social channels.

My response to the comment wasn't the tightest argument ever*, but one of my points was that in the current culture, the word "geek" defaults to male. Thus, some may use the term "geek girl" as a necessary clarification. From my comment:
I was on the subway** this morning and there was this huge geek explaining to a friend what the “Han shot first” debate is and how it’s actually a bit of a misnomer.

Can you picture the scene? What does it look like? Is the geek a guy or a girl? I’m going to go out on a limb and say that most likely, you’re picturing a guy. Heck, I’m even picturing a guy, and I’ve had this conversation myself in a public place. My point is that males are widely perceived as the “default” for geeks.
This leads me to the survey I mentioned, which Joey put together in part to investigate this hypothesis of the "default male geek". He presented a situation with two geeks (Geek A and Geek B) described in gender-neutral terms, and asked survey-takers to indicate which gender they thought each geek described was. See the survey questions and results here. The survey was written fashioning Geek A after a male geek and Geek B after a female geek. The vast majority of respondents (86 to 10) identified Geek A as a male, but about half (49 to 47) identified Geek B as a male as well. This is in spite of only 3 of the 93 survey takers claiming that being a geek is a "guy thing".

Now, Joey admitted that this survey is informal and unscientific. I'm no sociologist, but I imagine it would be difficult to draw any strong conclusions from this study. Still, it's a good start, and there's at least enough in the results to provoke a conversation. The respondents to the survey, all geeks themselves (56:44 male:female), tended to assume that a geek, without any gender-specific information, was a male. Of course, it may be that the majority of geeks are male, so people who guessed that both Geek A and Geek B were male were just making the safest bet given the odds (not that there was a "right" answer in the survey). But it's one thing to recognize a majority and another to ignore the minority to the point of feeling comfortable assuming a default gender. If such a default gender is assumed, then perhaps it is appropriate for female geeks to clarify their gender with the term "geek girl".

Looking at the survey, there are a few issues I'd be interested to see investigated further:
1) What would happen if more geeks were described (in separate questions, in separate situations), with some fashioned after male geeks, some after female geeks, and some meant to be entirely ambiguous?
2) What if survey takers were not asked directly what gender they believed the geek to be (which may make them second guess their initial assumption)? This might be achieved by instead asking survey takers to write four complete sentences about, for instance, what Geek A did for breakfast that morning. Since it is remarkably hard to write multiple sentences in the third-person without using gender-specific pronouns, this could reveal which gender respondents pictured the geek to be without asking.
3) How geeky do survey respondents think a person is given their gender? For example, "At a con, Geek A is dressed as Han Solo. Geek B, his wife, is dressed as slave Leia. How many times do you think Geek A has seen Return of the Jedi? How many times do you think Geek B has seen it?" or something to that effect. Basically, is there a perception that he's the geek and she's just wearing the costume to make him happy? Or does anyone think it's the other way around?

Here I am asking a lot of questions, but I do want to put forth another question along with my hypothesis and some reasoning behind it. All of the people who took Joey's survey identify themselves as geeks. That is what the survey was made for: to look at gender perceptions within the geek community. What would the survey results be if the questions were posed to the general public, non-geeks included? I hypothesize that the geek community is much more aware than the non-geek community of the presence of female geeks. If you've been to a con, you've seen plenty of geeky women there as well as men. If you read gaming, comics, sci-fi, or fantasy websites, you've read columns written by women. But I think many people outside the geek community*** see geeks as much more stereotypically male.

I like to bring up the example of "The Big Bang Theory". It is one of the most popular sitcoms on television right now, an accomplishment it couldn't achieve by having only geek viewers. Four of the show's five main characters are true and total geeks. They are also men. Leonard, Sheldon, Howard, and Raj are nerdy, dorky scientists who love video games, comics, science fiction, and fantasy. The fifth lead of the show is Penny, an aspiring actress who never really understood these geeky interests of theirs (she prefers shoes). In seasons 3 and 4, the show has introduced two regular guest stars who are both female scientists, showing that indeed women can be nerdy science lovers as well (though in biological sciences--leave the engineering and physics to the men). Still, who's at the comics shop every Wednesday? Maybe I missed it, but I have not noticed these ladies geeking out about comics, sci-fi, gaming, or any of the common geeky subjects that the men of the show love to gush about. This, dear readers, is the general public's weekly dose of geek culture, their window into the geek world. As much as I love the show and hope that it's helping non-geeks appreciate how lovable geeks can be, I wish they'd gone a step further to make one of their girls a geek. Who knows? Maybe Bernadette speaks Quenya, or Amy likes to cosplay as Zatanna. I guess there's still time to find out.

geek, geek, non-geek, geek, geek

* Have you ever found yourself typing a response online only to discover that what should have been a 15-minute internet-surfing break has blossomed into a forty-five-minute essay-writing session and you should probably get back to work before your advisor comes by and learns you still haven't made any progress? Happens more often than I'd like my advisor to find out. Also, see

** Not sure why I chose the subway--we don't even have a subway in Honolulu. Oh well.

*** People like Ginia Bellafante