Friday, February 27, 2015

Fragile Things by Neil Gaiman: Darkly Beautiful, Quietly Violent

Picked up Neil Gaiman's Fragile Things at National Bookstore a couple of years back, for just PhP 350 more or less.  My first Gaiman book.  (We all have to start somewhere.)  We figured we'll sample his short fiction first before diving into his novels.  There something to be relished from the potent distillation of the short story form, and, man, in the hands of Neil Gaiman, the short story becomes a formidable force, a pure experience.

The stories in Fragile Things do a good job in sending chills down your spine.  Which is remarkable because they're supposed to be just short stories, takes one sitting to read, very low-risk and low-pressure.  Yet after each story, we have to look up from the book, check the room we're in to see if the world was still all right as we left it.

There's a great variety of style here, one could almost say they're on the verge of being gimmicky.  But good thing there's more of the really good ones.  

Our favorite stories in the collection:
The Facts in the Case of the Departure of Miss Finch. (Notice he didn't simply say Disappearance.  He meant Departure.)
The Problem of Susan (an explanation of why Susan, of the Narnia Chronicles, went astray)
Instructions (a poem, actually, steeped in fairy tale trope)
Closing Time (the story of a playhouse in the middle of a clearing, whose door simply closed in on three boys, leaving their other friend behind, alone and pondering the whole thing.  Perhaps the most disquieting story in the book.)
Monarch of the Glen (set in the mysterious expanses of Scotland, this novella length story picks up where American Gods left off.  We were thrust into a feverish anticipation of a party, whose magnitude has frightful consequences.)

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Time to print out those photos. From Fleeting Digital to Fixed Physical

On another front, it's not just the planet that needs saving.  Our digital lives are in danger of going up in smoke too.
"A huge amount of the information we consume and transmit in our everyday lives is perilously ephemeral. Every second, thousands of new photographs are uploaded to social media. Most of the images we take today are uploaded straight from a digital camera or a phone, with the picture never actually existing as a physical artefact.
So how will future historians and biographers piece together our lives and times without bundles of diaries, paper letters and professional correspondence? Family photos and emails are important to us personally, but what about more significant losses of our collective heritage? How do we preserve our interaction on Facebook, Twitter, comment threads and citizen journalism across the web? And does the “grey literature” of official reports, briefings and policy statements that are only published online also risk being lost to the future? In a speech last week, Google’s vice-president Vint Cerf warned that a whole century of digital material could be lost.

from The digital blackhole: will it delete your memories?, The Guardian

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Hasbro Updates Scrabble with Scrabble Twist

The classic Scrabble we know has gone from boardgame to hand-held device.

Hasbro's new Scrabble Twist does away with the cumbersome board and letter tiles, and updated it with a nifty gadget.  There are few other major changes.  Instead of 7 letters to work with, there are only 5 now, lit up on each of the five LED touchscreens.  When you've come up with a word, simply lock in the letters.  And now, you can also play by yourself, not just with friend.

At a time when our smartphones can have all the word games we could ask for, Scrabble Twist might be a bit redundant already, something for hardcore aficionadoes.  It sells for a very wallet-friendly  $20.

Friday, February 13, 2015

Fun with IQ Splash and IQ Smart

If you haven't run into them yet, SmartGames makes some pretty neat and bafflingly good educational games good for kids and adults alike.  

One time me and Edge made the mistake of stopping by a product display of two of their games: IQ Splash and IQ Twist, and almost didn't stop tinkering with them. Don't underestimate the generic names; beneath that and their colorful looks is a devious and frustratingly hard game.  

IQ Splash is a set of curiously-shaped jigsaw pieces which reminds me of biscuits with bite marks.  Although they also resemble splashes of puddles of water, which is why they're so-named.  

How to play?  You arrange them on the board according to the provided illustrations, and then you fill in the blank spaces with the rest of the jigsaw pieces.  Easy mode gives you lots of clues with jigsaws already in place, while the hard mode of course just gives you a couple of pieces to work around on.

It looks easy but suddenly you can't fit a piece because there's a protruding knob on it, and you'll have to start all over again.  Me and Edge were never sure if there's more than one solution to each challenge because frankly we didn't nail any.  (To be fair, we were standing the whole time, and the store clerks were watching over our shoulders.)  Here's a detailed look, as well as a nice historical background of IQ Splash; apparently it dates back to the late '80s.

Photo from

IQ Twist is pretty much based on the same principle of copying preset configurations.  There's a board you have to fill up, but instead of irregular jigsaw pieces, you have pegs and twisted loops.  Arriving at the exact combination of pegs and twisty loops give this a harder gameplay than IQ Splash, (although we rather liked IQ Splash better because for some reason the jigsaw pieces were very nice to hold in our hands.)

Photo from

After about thirty minutes of fruitless rotating and snapping into place, we had to give up.  We just weren't smart for SmartGames, which, apparently has designed other well-thought-of puzzle toys.  They're all there in their website.

Too bad there were no other IQ Splash games at that store.  The display item was the only stock left, and we wanted a fresh, intact one.  Weeks later the display item got sold too, and for so long no other stock came to replace.  Sad, I let a great game, a fun offline game, pass us by. 

Finding Wally Real Quick, Thanks to Science.

True story: We have no patience for the Where's Wally book series by Martin Handford.  We hate to brag but Wally/Waldo always pops out of the page for us in about thirty seconds, more or less.  (If you can spot him in less time, good for you!)  The point is, the book just doesn't have a replay value for us.

But for those who can't seem to find Wally no matter how earnest they try, apparently there's a science to finding dude with the least possible effort.

Michigan-based computer scientist Randal Olson decided to improve on Ben Blatt's previous technique for tracking down Wally.  Using the seven main Where's Wally books, Olson plotted the points on a page where Wally was usually found.  He then figured out which path can be taken to reach all the possible points in the fastest period of time. 

Olson explains in his blog:

In computer terms, that means we're making a list of all 68 points that Waldo could be at, then sorting them based on the order that we're going to visit them. So now we just need to try every possible arrangement of the points and find the one with the shortest distance traveled. Easy, right? Wrong.

Those 68 points can be arranged in ~2.48 x 1096 possible ways. To provide some context, that's more possible arrangements than the number of atoms in the universe. That's so many possible arrangements that even if finding Waldo became an international priority and the world banded together to dedicate the 8.25 million computing cores from the world's 10 largest supercomputersto the job, it would still take ~9.53 x 1077 years — about 6.35 x 1067x longer than the universe has existed — to exhaustively evaluate all possible combinations. (Generously assuming that each core could perform 10,000 evaluations per second.) In other words: if we don't have a smarter solution, Waldo is as gone as Carmen Sandiego. 
Thankfully, there are plenty of smarter methods for approximating the optimal search path for finding Waldo. Below, I visualized the best solution over time of one such method — a genetic algorithm — that found a nearly-perfect solution. As you can see, genetic algorithms continually tinker with the solution — always trying something slightly different from the current best solution and keeping the better one — until they can't find a better solution any more.

Olson's quick tips for honing in on Wally?

  • Start at the bottom of the left page. If he isn't there, then he's probably not on the left page at all.
  • Next, try the upper quarter of the right page.  According to Olson, "Wally seems to prefer to hide on the upper quarter of the right page."
  • Next check the bottom right half of the right page. "Waldo also has an aversion to the bottom left half of the right page. Don't bother looking there until you've exhausted the other hot spots," says Olson.

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Google's Robot Dog Is Scary as Shit

So how about that robot dog by Google, huh?  

It goes by the cute and harmless name of Spot, but seriously the first time we saw it walk I felt the hair on our skin stand up.  To be fair, Asimo, in all its various iterations, have never had a similar effect on us.

The canine robot was developed by Boston Dynamics, a Google-owned company.  And Spot is actually the smallest of the bunch; it's got bigger and more terrifying canine siblings.  We know, Google intends to use the robot dogs for search and rescue missions, and that's really a fine undertaking.  There's just this part of us which can't help but shudder, especially at that part of the video where people kick the dog to knock it over to no use because it can set itself aright immediately.  Like a real, proper dog.  Nimble and self-stabilizing.

Briefly, we recalled apocalyptic sci-fi movies where the protagonists battle it out with the oppressive robots, and the humans lose big time because they can't even kick the damn robots to topple them over.  A specific movie in our mind?  War of the Worlds.  Okay, those robots had tentacles, but you get the picture.

We don't mean to be a party downer.  Maybe this new age of robots will all be for the best. BTW, is someone training those dogs the Three Laws of Robotics by Asimov?

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Because Camping.

[Thanks to Grace for the alert]

A Twisted Tale | Carolyn Fisher

When I was a kid, the pinnacle of CGI were movies like Jurassic Park and Twister.  We can't forget Twister, that image of a crazy swirling vortex of air is just indelible in our mind.  

So when we see a book about twisters, we're naturally alert.  This one is called A Twisted Tale by Carolyn Fisher, about a girl who lives in a farm and the twister that twistedly mixed up all the sounds their pet animals make.  

There's a nice infographic printed on the endpapers regarding tornadoes and twisters, long before infographic became trendy on the Web.

Lovely illustrations, freely peppered with text that flies and float all over the pages, like being adrift in wind, and yes a twister too.  Makes for good reading with little kids, because you know you can do the mixed-up animals sounds.

So how does one correct this awkward situation?  There's a twist to that.  

Saturday, February 7, 2015

Book Review: Something Wicked This Way Comes | Ray Bradbury

It actually took me five years to finish Something Wicked This Way Comes, not because I was bored to death with it but because I kept hopping from one book to the next.  This is Ray Bradbury, for Chrissake, how could have I put him down?  For the longest time I had thought I only managed halfway into the book, and I’ve forgotten most of what happened so I had to reread it all the way from the start.  As I turned the page and the chapters, I realized I’ve actually reached about  9/10th of the book.  I might have forgotten most of it, but it’s sure worth rereading everything again.

Back to the review.  On the surface, Something Wicked... is a horror story about a mysterious carnival who arrives too early in October.  The two main characters are Will Halloway and Jim Nightshade (what names!), teenage boys as different from each other as night and day.  Will and Jim witness the strange happenings of the carnival, and the harm it brings to people.  But as always there’s no convincing the adults, except for Will’s father—the wise, quiet man who regrets he didn’t live a full life, envying his son and his friend, and whose only chance at changing his fate is by helping the boys fight the visiting dark forces.

Bradbury always does a great job fleshing out fear from the most innocent and unlikely objects and scenario.  The carnival of Mr. Cooger and Mr. Dark becomes a dual-faced venue: simultaneously filled with fun and fright, a place full of friends and enemies, an escape from monotony and a prison sentence.  There’s the carousel that adds or erases years with every spin, which Jim longs to ride to become an adult.  And the house of mirrors with its thousands of ever-shifting reflections, forcing its visitor to face terrible truths about themselves.

But Bradbury doesn’t just say these things are scary; he goes lyrical about them, mustering images and sensations that hit hard all the time.  It’s like poetry laced with impending doom.  I especially love how he uses seemingly simple monosyllabic words to great effect.  Great, bright, cool, dark, swift.  These often overlooked words actually pack a punch, their sinister charm lies in their simplicity.

The carnival of Mr. Cooger and Mr. Dark is thus a metaphor for life itself.  Suddenly, you’re no longer reading a horror story about an evil carnival; you’re reading a fine novel about friendship, what it means to grow up and leave childhood, what it means to grow old and regret things undone, the thrill of the great outdoors and the safety of quiet rooms, the inevitable clash of good and evil, and their often blurred lines.

It’s always a pleasure to read Ray Bradbury, especially when he’s being spooky.  Back in college, I read his Fahrenheit 451, his most popular novel for its classic portrayal of literary censorship.  At its heart though, Fahrenheit 451 is also a chillingly told, beautifully imagined horror story.  I’ve read two of his short story collections too, The October Country and S is for Space.  In the former, he melds horror with signature lyricism, in the latter he tries his hand in science-fiction.  He does great at both.  All the spooky elements in The October Country come together in Something Wicked, and I suspect his other short story collection, The Autumn People, which sadly I don’t have, also reworks those elements.

And as always, Bradbury isn’t just after cheap thrills and fast shocks, there’s always something behind his dark tales, something deeper and graver, because that’s how good horror stories should be.

Friday, February 6, 2015

Man Ray's Chess Set Is 95 Years Old But Still Screams Style

For some reason I was googling images of chess the other week and stumbled upon this:

It's a lovely chess set designed by Man Ray, originally made of beechwood.  I only know that Man Ray was a photographer, maybe because of his famous photograph of a woman with the perfectly spherical fake teardrops formed on her face, all emotions hijacked.

It turns out he was a visual artist, not just a photographer.  Hence the gorgeousness of his chess pieces.  Simplicity reigns all over, every piece has been distilled to its basic, most essential shape: The king is a pyramid, sharp and angular, while the queen is a cone, sharp too yet curved.  The pawns are bulbous knobs.  The bishop is a shapely flask, while the rook is a perfect cube because, of course, it moves only horizontally and vertically.  

As for the knight, instead of a predictable horse, Man Ray simply took the finial of an old violin that was just left lying in his studio and made it the knight.  A soft curlicue that reminds me of a fern's shy tendril.  Has nothing to do with a horse or knight, but still works.

Man Ray (left) and Marcel Duchamp

This chess set is actually Man Ray's gift to his friend Marcel Duchamp.  Because art.

And wow, Man Ray designed this back in 1920.  Ninety five years later and his chess set still screams style.  I'm not really good at chess; the AI in the chess games on my phone creams me every time.  But with a set like this to practice on, I think I just might be a better player.

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