January 30, 2004

Links: Usage of Words around the Country (Soda vs Pop vs Coke)

I figured I should post the link to this very cool survery of usage and speech as it varies around the country. The soda question - "105. What is your generic term for a sweetened carbonated beverage?" was the one I was most interested in. I can't stand it when people say pop and was glad that at least soda came out way ahead overall.

Posted by aarondf at 04:24 PM | Links | Comments (0)

January 29, 2004

Trivia at the Kinvara

Returned to the Kinvara pub last night for trivia for the first time since December. Unfortunately, they have now switched Trivia hosts from a person (DJ Michael), format and questions we really liked to a really stupid format so we likely won't be back, which is also too bad in that we like the pub and our waitress, Leah, a lot. Still, they were extremely busy last night so this change may be a good one for them, but alas not at all for us. We did manage to take second despite the bad format.

As a gamer and strategist, a brief description of the format and why it is poor seems in order. The previous bidding element which added a ton of strategy to the game is now gone for the 16 'standard' questions, so mostly it is just a simple matter of knowing a question or not knowing it. They have also now added two shot questions which basically allow you to buy points in the game by buying shots at the bar. A funny idea, but one I still don't particularly like is the cell phone question which legalizes for one question the common cheating practice of many teams of calling friends for answers or to do Google searches.

Worst of all, though, is the change to the multiple of 5 questions (#5, #10, #15, #20). These questions now allow you to bid as much as you want of points you have previously earned and thus either double them or lose them. Also, based on last night, these questions are all related to a single theme (last night's was the New England Patriots). This has all sorts of problems: 1) Rewards the teams ahead as they can gain more if they know the answers. 2) Tells you you should instantly give up if you are really bad at the theme as these questions become the deciding point of the game and if you don't know them, you have no chance (we were 2nd last night only because Matt knew the answers to all of these so we doubled our score every time). 3) Causes you to be unrecoverably out of it if you bid it all and miss one of these.

Posted by aarondf at 04:50 PM | Events | Comments (0)

Movies: Thirteen

Wow, this was amazingly depressing but at the same time extremely good. I am sure I would find it even more depressing if I had children. This can be a hard world to raise kids in. ***1/2

Posted by aarondf at 11:38 AM | Movies | Comments (2)

January 27, 2004

Talk: Visual Illusions

Went to a very interesting talk today by Al Seckel of CalTech on visual illusions. He showed quite a few amazing illusions including the Ted Adelson checkerboard illusion that made the rounds a while ago. Another interesting one which we tried successfully later involves two people and a mirror and is called the "Cheshire Cat" illusion, as it causes you to see only parts of your partner's face, particularly the eyes and mouth which are most used for recognizing people. Many of the other images he showed are also shown on the site I link to above.

The basic deal with all of these illusions is that our brain expects to see one thing and thus fills in gaps or misinterprets information to better fit our expectations. Basically, we are willing to be wrong in very unusual cases in order to be right in the vast majority of cases. Whether this is genetic or due to experience isn't fully clear. Very cool talk.

Posted by aarondf at 06:01 PM | Events | Comments (0)

January 26, 2004

Movies: Spellbound

This documentary on the finals of the nationwide Spelling Bee from some years ago really is quite amazing. Eight children from incredibly different backgrounds are shown as they prepare for the nationals and it is amazing how different they and their families are. Some are from very poor backgrounds with limited resources (such as learning from the dictionary) while others are from rich families which have invested massive effort, money and time on rigorous training programs and spelling tutors. For some of these children, this event seems to be, for them and their families, perhaps the most important event ever in any of their lives. The kids however seem to handle the pressure quite well from what we see. Highly recommended ****.

Posted by aarondf at 02:21 PM | Movies | Comments (1)

January 20, 2004

MIT Mystery Hunt 2004 - Maps and Time Bandits

Well, I as usual had a great but exhausting time with this year's Mystery Hunt as a member of ecroForce/Palindromes. Kappa Sig/The French Armada put on a Pirates/Time Bandits themed hunt which had a lot going for it in terms of cool organization, not too much errata and amazingly nice maps and things, but in the end didn't really work for me.

They were first-time constructors mostly and it unfortunately showed. The hunt was way too long with 131 puzzles, almost all of them multi-stage affairs, and a ton of good puzzles but bad answers and with too many stages. A friend wisely said "With a good puzzle, you should never have to call in the answer - it should clearly be right." where here we would have 13 of 15 letters in a string which should be more than enough to figure it out, only to call in like 12 wrong answers before finally picking the, largely arbitrarily, 'right' one.

Congratulations to Setec for winning despite having a very small team of 20-25 and I confidently expect a great hunt from them based on past experience. Their 2002 Monopoly Hunt was definitely the best hunt I have participated in (I have done the last four on campus and one before lightly off-campus).

Our team ended up about 6th, solving 3 of the 7 meta-puzzles, but we definitely got a lot of help from hinting, although this was necessary here because of the bad answers and unreasonable leaps the designers often expected people to make. I was glad that every puzzle I worked on significantly got solved in the end and particularly glad when we finally finished Best Mate and the Yukon meta Private Diaries. No individual puzzles I absolutely loved this year, however. As with last year, I didn't solve a single puzzle (other than the trivial RummiKub playing activity one) on my own, but I'm not at all unhappy about that as the collaboration is really fun. I would have easily solved Snowfield on my own if I'd realized it was MineSweeper but there were so many puzzles I had only glanced at it for seconds. Once someone pointed it out as MineSweeper, I got the trick immediately and solved it in minutes, not surprisingly given I've written a clone.

Thinking towards next year, I think the main thing our team would need to move up is to have more of our top solvers there for more of the time. The committed core group who were there for the whole thing (excluding sleep time) was only about 15 so although we had 30 or so total, we really didn't have quite enough resources. Obviously having a couple more super-solvers would be a huge benefit too. Not sure either of these is that practical however. We could also organizationally do some things better although I didn't feel we were terrible on this other than our mediocre handling of our quite strong but small group of remote solvers, but this was our first year with significant remote solving (other than an individual calling a friend/relative for help on a particular puzzle which is always good and works well because there is a solid single coordination person in the room for each of these contacts).

Posted by aarondf at 05:20 PM | Events | Comments (0)

Movies: Full Frontal

This is apparently regarded as a semi-sequel to the brilliant Sex, Lies and Videotape, also by Steven Soderbergh, but I am not sure why really. I didn't find it nearly as psychologically interesting but few movies are. Still, a very good movie with a strong cast ***1/2.

Posted by aarondf at 04:56 PM | Movies | Comments (0)

January 15, 2004

Trivia Again

Well, the Kinvara doesn't start its trivia till next week but Bill and Matt convinced me to join them for Trivia at another pub in Cambridge, which turned out to be a nice place. The rules were very similar to those at the Kinvara despite being run by a different group, with a few minor differences like an "identify these pictures" round. We did pretty well the whole night but were still significantly behind till almost the end and thought we were mostly out of the running but we ended up coming back and taking second and getting $20. One team was amazingly good and led wire-to-wire, only blowing the last two questions except for 3 points lost earlier, but they had a big enough lead they could afford this with no problem. We were, I believe, the only team to get the last question and we bid the max so bounced over several teams for 2nd.

This was nice but I personally didn't contribute that much. I don't think there was a single question where I was the only one to know the answer. I knew quite a few answers but always ones that Matt or Bill or both also knew. Still, having multiple people who agree lets us bid higher so I was helpful to a limited degree. Fun time, regardless.

Posted by aarondf at 12:54 PM | Events | Comments (0)

Movies: League of Extraordinary Gentlemen

Well, this one wasn't nearly as bad as I expected and I definitely enjoyed it. All the critics hated it (Rotten Tomatoes score of 15%) but I am not sure why. It is definitely not faithful to the excellent Alan Moore comic (which I read a long time ago so don't remember the details well at all anyway) but it doesn't try to be. I thought the effects, particularly for Harker, were very cool and found most of the characters quite likable. A fine superhero action movie ***.

Posted by aarondf at 12:47 PM | Movies | Comments (0)

January 13, 2004

Movies: The Matrix Reloaded

Well, some of the action and visuals were pretty cool and the philosophy which I really didn't get into was downplayed from the first one. However, some of the fights like the one with the MANY Agent Smiths (played by Hugo Weaving who I now can't stand due to how much Elrond was ruined in the LotR movies due to bad writing AND acting) went on way too long. The style is similar to that in the brilliant Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon but those fights manage to remain fascinating to me throughout while these became boring. The freeway chase scene was much better. Overall just a pretty good movie ***.

Posted by aarondf at 03:41 PM | Movies | Comments (0)

Movies: Rat Race

Watched Rat Race last week which my brother had recommended. It is a pretty stupid comedy but with a very strong cast and definitely enjoyable. I think the ending didn't fit well with the rest of the movie but still fun ***.

Posted by aarondf at 03:37 PM | Movies | Comments (0)


Haven't posted in a while as I've been travelling for the holidays and then very busy since getting back. Had a very nice trip over XMas to visit my brother and his family in New Mexico. My nephew Isaac spent like nine hours opening presents. Also had some nice games (board and Diablo II), cooking and watching Babyon 5 DVDs which I gave to my brother. I got a bunch of things but a GPS is the coolest toy from Stefan and Samira although it isn't behaving quite right in some respects. Other family toys included a 15 foot trampoline for Isaac and a helium, remote-controlled blimp for Stefan.

Posted by aarondf at 03:35 PM | Events | Comments (0)