Thursday, 21 June 2007


I decided that my optimised relaxation was too much stress. This doesn't mean I've abandoned my Japanese work, I've just taken a day off. ;)

So I have spent some time working on an old hobby I resurrect from time to time; computer game design. The following series of articles will follow my stream-of-consciousness approach to game design for one specific incarnation - an MMO. (I decided I liked the idea of running an on-line game when they were still known as MUDs, but that term now implies text-screens...)

One of the problems I have with most existing MMOs is their inability to solve the consistency problem. This is roughly the inability of interesting content to be customised to each player - the basic reason why everyone who plays game A kills ten rats (and similar tasks) before doing anything else.

The long-term solution to this, I feel certain, is player-created content. Unfortunately, because of the GIFT effect, a small minority of players cannot be trusted to create content for others. I'm not proposing any specific solution to this problem right now, but it's one I'd like to address, and I'll be thinking about ways of doing so through this exercise.

I spent some time considering different milieux, but had already decided to let my first attempt to write up a design be a relatively mainstream one. That means focusing on a setting where I could justify lots of combat, because - let's be honest here people - combat is easy to design. So, what setting justifies endless violence, plotting, and fighting?

Well, it's obviously Hell.

I'm thinking of a detail level somewhere between a typical RPG and a RTS; a more tactical focus, something similar to Fallout or UFO: Enemy Unknown. I might even borrow from Fallout's game mechanics; I think the feel is different enough for the result to be distinctive.

To which Lord will your soul Fall?

We have two excellent literary sources for Hell. One is Dante's Inferno; the other is the Wizards of the Coast interpretation, Baator. These two documents have very different areas of focus; Dante discusses the landscape to some extent, but is mainly concerned with the inhabitants, whereas Wizards focus mainly on the rulers.

Dante defines nine circles of Hell:

  • Limbo : The virtuous pagans and unbaptised. Those whose fault was a lack of faith. The lower 8 layers are selected between by Minos
  • Second Circle : Lust. Their souls are blown by a violent storm without hope of rest.
  • Third Circle : Gluttony. Cerberus guards those who are forced to lie in mud and consume their excrement in continual cold rain and hail.
  • Fourth Circle : Miserliness and decadence. They push weights around against one another. Guarded by Plutus.
  • Fifth Circle (River Styx) : Wrath and Sloth. The wrathful fight on the surface, the slothful lie drowning. Phlegyas.
The lower circles are within Dis, which is surrounded by the Stygian marsh.
  • Sixth Circle : Heretics are trapped in flaming tombs.
  • Seventh Circle : the Violent; the Minotaur guards the entrance to its three rings. There are different punishments for crimes against property, suicides, and those violent against god, nature or art. Respectively these are boiling blood immersion, guarded by centaurs; suicides turned to bushes and torn at by harpies; and the desert of flaming sand.
  • Eighth circle : the fraudulent. Malebolgie of many different tortures.
  • Ninth Circle : traitors. Guarded by giants. Frozen in ice.
Wizards, on the other hand, describe nine planes and their rulers. Fortunately, like Dante, their first plane of Avernus can be ignored (its description is dependent on the Blood War, which I don't intend to include in my cosmology). That leaves eight planes and eight circles of Hell to match up.
  • Dis ruled by Dispater (The City of Burning Iron)
  • Minauros ruled by Mammon (an endless bog of vile pollution)
  • Phlegethos ruled by Fierna and Belial (just Belial in 1st ed) (Volcano and lava)
  • Stygia ruled by Levistus (Geryon in 1st ed) (the Styx-ocean)
  • Malbolge ruled by Glasya (Baalzebul via Moloch) (an endless rocky slope)
  • Maladomini ruled by Baalzebul (ruins and gruesome places)
  • Cania/Caina ruled by Mephistopheles (unimaginably cold wasteland)
  • Nessus ruled by Asmodeus ("pits and ravines")
Obviously there are some problems with a one to one match. After playing around with a few options, I decided on the following correspondence:
  • Stygia, ruled by Lephistus, is the Second Circle, the freezing Styx-Ocean with its iceberg capital. The souls here are mariners and those lost on the water.
  • Minauros, ruled by Mammon, is the Third Circle, an endless bog with foul rain and hail. Here the gluttonous feast on excrement. They are the revolting dead - zombies and suchlike.
  • Plutus, ruled by Glasya, is the Fourth Circle, a place of laborous torment. (As in Wizards' work, Glasya is the daughter of Asmodeus and rules as Queen, served by the former ruler, the god Pluto.) The minions of Glasya are weak-willed but numerous.
  • The Fifth Circle is Maladomini, ruled by Baalzebul. This bizarre realm of ruins and subterranean dungeons is immersed in an endless swamp. The wrathful fight a continual war above the surface as the slothful drown forever beneath the water.
  • Dis, the city of Dispater, is the Sixth Circle. The heretics burn here in flaming tombs. Dispater's minions love intrigue and ceremony, although their lord rules definitively.
  • Phlegethos is the Seventh Circle, the domain of violence, ruled by Fierna and Belial. There are several geographical environments here, all hot. The denizens are the most violent of all Hell's creatures.
  • Caina, the frozen Eighth Circle, is ruled by Mephistopheles. Here the traitors are locked in ice eternal. You should not avert your eyes from them, as they move faster than their condition implies.
Finally, the Ninth Circle of Hell - Nessus - is the domain of Asmodeus, who is somewhat above the endless squabbles of the other Dukes. The Lord of Nessus rarely leaves his home in the deepest pits, except to punish those who insult him.

Although a variation from both my primary sources, this is one that I find satisfactory. It produces a few of good hooks and synergies; Mephistopheles the traitor, Glasya the woman behind the throne, Asmodeus distant and all-powerful.

By building a correspondence, I now have two sources to draw on for each Lord of Hell, which gives me more variety to use in creating their minions and their single-player mission structure. (I did mention that, right? No - well, there will be a campaign for each Lord, something like an normal offline tactics game - your progression in which will determine what units you can deploy in free PvP).

I'll post something about the combat system, probably tomorrow. I've spent quite a bit of time working on it, and I hope it'll be fun to play with.

Monday, 11 June 2007


Damn, I don't think I've ever relaxed this hard. I keep catching myself trying really hard to make good use of my off-time. I think that somewhat defeats the point of it being off-time ;)

I have been playing a lot of Slime Forest - 83 katakana, 51 hiragana, 132 kanji down... a couple thousand more kanji to go - writing random bits of fiction, reading webcomics (I finally read the back archive of QC - that was a mighty task*) and generally chilling. I think L would have killed me out of envy by now if it wasn't for the fact that I'm also doing all the housework. That and she brought friends over yesterday, and I'd baked a cake which was conveniently fresh from the oven when they arrived. I think Dee was slightly jealous.

* - but one I'd highly recommend if you've ever been tempted to start a webcomic; not only is Jeff's character writing excellent, watching how fast his art improves is also very encouraging.

I even have a backup plan for financial stability, if A isn't able to start paying me as soon as we'd like. I've signed up with an agency which finds freelance tutoring work for Oxbridge graduates. I knew there's be an advantage to this aside from 'B.A. (Cantab)'. Although that itself is actually pretty cool.

Not much else to report, really. There's a lot of celebratory dinners and suchlike over the next few weeks. I look forward to free Trinity-party food. Hopefully there will be breadcrumb ice-cream.

Tuesday, 5 June 2007

High Dynamic Range

The weather outside is beautiful. The leaves are a beautiful emerald green where they catch the sun, the shadows are dark and cool... I want a new camera. *hee*

I am thinking Canon Powershot S3 IS. There's a newer iteration of the series, the S5, with higher resolution and a bigger LCD screen, but it's quite a bit more expensive at ~£400 rather than ~£270. The S3 also compares respectably the Powershot Pro 1, which was a £1,000+ level prosumer camera from 2 years ago. (Note to self: fix desktop computer today. Getting very tired of having to use charmap every time I need a pound sign)

The S3 can't do RAW images off-the-shelf, but there's a firmware hack to enable it. It has AVI recording (640 x 480, 30 fps) and continuous shooting at full resolution at 2.3 fps. These are all nice things, mentioned in this rather good review. As a bonus, MMC have an adapter for the S3 that allows it to be used with any standard trinocular microscope; that'll be handy when/if I want to go into real micro-photography. I'd like to try doing darkfield photography of little invertebrates - they can be very beautiful.

So this will be my next present for myself, although I have no idea when there will be money for it. I'm relaxing for a week or two before I have a chat with A at which we'll probably decide my start time with him - which obviously will determine my first pay day... but I'm determined to take this time to unwind properly, and not stress too much about the summer.

L and I are thinking of visiting a bungalow we saw advertised for rent in Bar Hill. It would be nice to have a detached property, rather than an apartment... not that it's likely to still be free by ~September, when we move out of here. Something else might be, though.

I am off into town to enjoy the sunshine and do some shopping. There's a lot of housework that fell behind while I was studying. ^^;

If you are interested in learning Japanese, this game is a really effective (and ever so appropriate) way to get started learning kana.

Saturday, 2 June 2007

And on the seventh day He shall rest...

The last exam finished six hours ago. I'm happy that I did a good job on all four papers. I know I could have done better under different circumstances, but that's okay. I did the best I could, which is kinda new to me.

So the question forms in my mind. What to do next?

There are literally dozens of projects lying around that I conceived over the last two weeks or so of revision, creating spasmodically to relieve mental tension. I should look back over them, make a table or something... rate them all on their merits and work out what ['what' in the plural. this word has no plural in English. hmph] to do first.

Incidental bizarre web site of the day; I think it's a cult. We shall see if saying this gets me trolled. ;)

So I think my first line of attack for hobbies are going to be physics, photography, music, and D&D. Let's see which one takes off fastest tomorrow.

But for now, I am going for a long overdue good night's sleep.

Saturday, 19 May 2007


Study continues - not as well as hoped, but possibly better than expected. After a month and a half of revision I actually feel fairly comfortable regarding about half of the material on the exams, so hopefully in another ten days I'll be comfortable with the rest? :|

The papers are May 29th/May 30th/June 1st/June 2nd... 12 hours of exams in 4 days. Why oh why they can't put some breaks between the things, I have no idea. I'm beginning to wonder if my fingers are up to writing for three hours straight like that - I haven't really done more than a few minutes of handwriting in the last two years. I don't really have much time to practice now either, although I'll probably do one or two exam-style essays this week just to check how long an hour is in 'writing time'...

After the last paper I plan to spend the first week of June doing very little at all... meditate, draw, write, and generally unwind. I'm looking forward to that. I think it's much more beneficial to look forward to the post-exam relaxation than to stress too much over the exams ;)

Thursday, 10 May 2007

Free Will and Retrocausality

I discussed yesterday's post on retrocausality with a few people and thought I'd make a quick post to explore an analogy that shows what a successful demonstration of the phenomenon would really mean for free will.

Some of you may be geeky enough to remember the Fighting Fantasy books - one incarnation of the 'choose your own adventure' concept. For those who aren't familiar with them, the books are divided into paragraphs (usually a few hundred) which are numbered; after reading one, you're offered a choice of which paragraph to read next to continue the story. Some choices lead to an ignoble death, some lead to the eventual solution.

When you read a paragraph (let's say #150), you take the information in it, plus any previous information you know, and make a decision on which paragraph to read next (we'll say #200 or #60). In fact it's probably fair to say that you pick the option that seems most sensible - given what you know (i.e. the past). That's analogous to any other decision-making moment. If you'd taken a different route through the story to reach #150, you might know that paragraph #60 means certain death - so you'd pick the other option. You do make a 'real decision'. (In reality, unlike Fighting Fantasy, you can't go back and start again, so you only make one decision in practice - this is really what determinism means.)

Now let's introduce retrocausality. This is very easy to include in our Fighting Fantasy analogy - you can just cheat. You glance ahead, read #60, realise it'll kill you, and go back and pick #200 instead.

What may not be so obvious is that back-in-time signalling has exactly the same effect. The signal from the future changes the information you have, so your decision changes. There's no paradox, because at the time you received your signal from the future, it accurately described what the future would be. However, now knowing that, you can deliberately pick a 'different future'. (It's not even a problem that the future where you sent the signal back is now probably not going to happen - although the explanation of that is more complicated.)

This is really the key distinction between determinism and fatalism, so I'm quite excited about it - if we can really send retrocausal signals, we should be able to thoroughly put the latter to rest.

Wednesday, 9 May 2007


It says something about me that I take breaks from revising for my Biochemistry finals by reading about quantum mechanics. Exactly what it says I'm not sure. :|

John Cramer has published an update on his progress to try to demonstrate retrocausal signalling. I'll summarise in a few sentences for those who don't have time to read the article or prefer a less technical phrasing:

Quantum mechanics allows non-local signalling between entangled particles. This essentially means that an interaction with one particle that changes its state can change the property of its entangled partner at arbitrary distance, instantly (not just at light speed). The 'reality' of this phenomenon is disputed but there is a great deal of experimental evidence that it exists.

If we take two entangled photons and pass one into a long optical fibre, we can delay the arrival of the second photon at its destination by a few microseconds. We detect both photons, but the delayed photon is detected in a specific fashion that changes its state - the non-delayed photon is detected without forcing it to take any particular state.

If the quantum prediction holds, the two photons will always be in the state induced by the measurement of the delayed photon, even though several microseconds passed between the first 'free' detection and the delayed detection.

So what?

Cramer's paper is a progress report and doesn't speculate about applications of the phenomenon if it's demonstrated to be possible, but any number of science fiction authors have considered possible 'future-scope' devices, some more credible than others. I have a feeling Greg Egan wrote one such story, but I don't recall in which collection.

The most obvious application is a device for 'signalling back in time'; by delaying one entangled particle for longer than a few microseconds (this is hard, of course, without breaking the entanglement - the same problem is encountered in quantum computing - but not impossible), i.e. for minutes or hours, we can then 'immediately' receive information on what the state of the future will be. This throws up all sorts of interesting potential paradoxes (although it may simply deal a final decisive blow to the concept of free will).

Spooky Sensing at a Distance

Slightly less obvious is the idea of using the phenomenon as a sensor - fire one photon at a distant object (like an extrasolar planet), and observe how the entangled partner changes. This should in principle reveal information about the 'target', again 'instantly' - even though the sensor photon takes subjective time to reach the target. Only certain kinds of information could be retrieved, but astronomers are very good at making sense of sparse data.


More obscurely - and perhaps most interestingly, although I have a niggling feeling it may prove to be impossible - one could in theory perform long computations 'without actually performing them, by 'sending the answer back' to the beginning of the computation. If that's really true, then a suitable computer can perform any finite-length computation 'instantly'.