Monday, 30 December 2013

Christmas Puzzles

The family coffee table this Christmas saw many retro toys and puzzles come and go across it's veneered wooden top; table-top crazy golf, rubber band cars, a plastic miniature Connect Four and even a couple of Transformers Robots with realistic firing missile launcher bits!

Tetris jigsaw, and, if you look closely - PacMan Socks!
Particularly exciting in my Christmas present pile was an official Tetris jigsaw puzzle.  One hundred cardboard pieces of rainbow-coloured tentromino shaped fun.  It'd been ages since I'd last done anything approaching a real jigsaw puzzle, often a Christmas cracker would contain a small token effort, but they are always a disappointment, so to have a medium-sized bite of an incredibly intricate pattern of tiled pieces was the perfect start to my Christmas morning.  I managed to get my organisational skills into place, first identifying corners and constructing edges. Then, upon spotting that there were only two types of non-edge piece, quickly categorised the remainder and could work my way in from the outside.  The puzzle was quickly solved, though some patience was required to match up the colours on the tabs and surrounding the blanks. But, as the number of pieces put into place became greater, and the time to hunt became less, the gaps became smaller, the picture clearer, until finally the puzzle was completed with a jubilant and resounding "done!".  Then the Smirnoff vodka-flavoured chocolate truffles were started in celebration.

A family Christmas wouldn't be a family Christmas without my brother and I wading through some of the latest video-game releases.  Between Assassin-pirate pilfering, heist holding hooliganism, Roman risen revenge and zombie apocalypse antics you would think there to be little time for much else.  Except a rather nice puzzle game named Fez that, despite my best efforts, took up a rather large chunk of my holiday time.  We'd recently watched "Indie Game: The Movie", in which the development of the game features heavily, and where curious about what it actually entailed.   Running around a 2D-3D puzzle world searching for yellow cubes mostly.  The puzzle element of the main game was entertaining, with a particularly nice art style and some really stunning mind-bending puzzle/lateral thinking/realisation moments.  However the game also featured it's own set of meta-game puzzles, necessary to find the blue "anti-cubes".  As a child I would have loved transcribing and translating the in-game language to solve these elaborate puzzles. Unfortunately now, as a time limited, cynical adult, I could appreciate their beauty, depth and execution, and could also reflect on the fact that I no longer have to have solved said puzzles by myself (or call up some extortionate tips hot-line while my parent's weren't looking), because there's a million YouTube videos and web-based walk-throughs to save me from having to work out things that "I know how to work it out, but guess what, I don't need to!".

Finally, there was one other puzzle that occupied a lot of my time.  To go with the plastic miniature Connect Four, there was also a mini Draughts, Chinese Checkers and, most interesting to me, English Peg Solitaire.  I spent quite a few hours click-tap-clicking away at the pieces of this latter game, trying to understand the patterns and the dance the pegs and holes could form.  Eventually I realised that it'd require a fair amount of thought (or days of trial and error) to get to a solution.  Plus, I think I was starting to drive my family mad with the constant click-tap-click-tap-click, "oh grrr" coming from the sofa.  So, on Christmas day, after finishing the jigsaw (and celebratory vodka-truffles), I broke out the laptop and knocked up some code to find and then draw out step-by-step instructions.  Once followed and the game solved, I did a bit of reading up on Wikipedia, the problem has a lot of interesting properties including memonics for helping to remember a nice solution based around composite moves.

My step-by-step graphical solution follows, though it's not an intelligent or minimized one, just the first that my naive solving algorithm spat out.  The Haskell code to do this is on-line for the really interested.

Saturday, 30 November 2013


Argh - the last month has flown by, and I've not found the time to write a real post.  (Have lots of ideas for things planned though - just need to actually sit down and write something!).  In the meantime, here's some rubber ducks distracting me during my day...(also, I want one of these machines).

Thursday, 31 October 2013

A Deck of Cards: Part I

The summer between finishing my degree and starting a PhD left me with a whole lot of time with nothing to do.  The last time this happened (the summer four years prior between A-Levels and University) I invested the time in "learning" to program (this was a time when I thought Java In A Nutshell (3rd Edition!) and  Borland JBuilder were the best thing since sliced bread), ready for a new hobby, course and ultimately my "inevitable" (hah!) career four years hence.
Second time around, and I wanted to spend the time learning something radically different that might be useful when interacting with people, and so decided that this would be the summer that I learned all about card magic.  In retrospect, any sensible person in my position would have gone backpacking round South America, but (as I'm sure I rationalised it away at the time) at least when I decide to go take my backpack and "find myself" in an Inca ruin, I'll be able to entertain any fellow travellers with some half forgotten slights, ill timed patter and misjudged misdirections.

So, learning card magic, where to begin?  Well you need something to learn from - back then it was a book, something to practice with - a deck of cards, and some people to practice learned tricks on - family, friends, and a mirror.  Note the singular, a book, a deck of cards (a mirror...).  The point was to learn tricks and to entertain others.  You can do all this with any standard deck of 52 cards* and one book (The Royal Road To Card Magic).  Unfortunately, I got a bit obsessed with card magic books and, separately, collecting decks of cards.

Card magic books are fascinating -

A spring flourish, beautifully illustrated in Royal Road, brought to life by yours truly.

- the really good ones I own (Royal Road mentioned above and The Expert At The Card Table) are written in an olde-world english with charming hand-drawn illustrations of the slights.  To read them is to be drawn into a secret world of misdirection, manoeuvres, patter and handed-down practice.  The author of the Expert At The Card Table had written a book of so closely guarded secrets that the identity behind his pseudonym - S.W. Erdnase - is still a mystery.  Many look to it's mirrored form, E.S. Andrews, as a clue.
Regardless, Erdnase gathers you round, as though you were a small child, and in hushed tones patiently explains his treasures, one step at a time.  The slights and techniques needed to manipulate the cards are explained first, and then, once you have practised hard enough, you can advance to the second half - the tricks - and glue together hard earned muscle-memory manipulations with patter (what you say), and timings, off-beats, smiles and laughs in order to build up a wonderful effect - the impossible event you hope to build for your participants and audience.

Olives to start, Fresh Lemonade and
Skinny with Cheese as main,
and then Mint Tea for dessert.
Many of the mechanical techniques I still play with, and have a few favoured mini training routines of false shuffles, cuts, deals, lifts and shifts (moving entire blocks of the deck across each other) that I'll find myself doing whenever a deck of cards is in my hands.  Actually just a single card sets this behaviour off, as anyone who has ever been to Byron's Burgers with me will know.  A nervous habit I picked up from passing the time on long daily train journeys to and from Uni during my early PhD years.
Aside from the physical mastery, there are also many other mental skills to be learned.  Rote memorization of 52 cards in order can set up some very powerful magic, as-well as peg and linking memory tricks used by the Nikola card system to quickly do location maths in a stacked deck.  To this day I still imagine the Jack Of Clubs as a Bartender holding a Mug (M = 3, g = 9, position 39), or the Six of Diamonds as some Doped  (D6 = Dp = Dope) Ale (l=1, position 1).
Around the same time, I was also a bit of a Derren Brown fan (I'm sure the two interests played off each other), and I managed to get hold of his books aimed at the magical fraternity.  The card tricks contained therein were way beyond my ability, but his essays on performance technique were incredibly useful (to this day I partially judge the interest in my lectures by the amount of coughing that can be heard.  If it's a lot, then I either need to slow down and start again, ask a question, or take a break, as people are getting bored), and on building an effect that connects with the participant as opposed to leaving them wondering "how did you do that?".  The answer is carefully, with a caveat of it's very hard to do.

The problem with magic, and the reason I never really stuck to it, is that deep down it is incredibly deceitful.  A some point, you start lying to and misleading the person you are entertaining.  You deliberately leave clues to throw them off the scent.  When dealing with a magician you have to believe that everything - every word, every motion, every joke, every look, every shrug - has been rehearsed, scripted and put into place.  They'll build up a world where the only obvious solution is so complicated that it's impossible (the card must be heat sensitive!) and you'll miss the fact that, actually, it has to be done simply, and so simply that you won't see it.  In fact, you don't see the simple solution because if it was done that way, you would feel cheated - and that is a feeling you want to avoid, so you don't even consider it.

Magic and mirrors, me and myself as my beautiful assistant.
The (lovely/gorgeous/stunning/artistic/narcissistic) picture of me left is (perhaps?) a(n attempt at a) great example.  It's impossible right?  It's not photo-shopped (it really isn't), and yet there's me, holding a 5 of spades, looking at me in a mirror, also holding a 5 of spades.  Yet both cards are facing the right way.  I must have used a second mirror? or a sticker on the glass? or maybe the real me is the one in the background and the foreground is a trick with a glass plane? Think of the feeling you're experiencing right now.  Curiosity? Wonder? Frustration?  Intrigue?  The next sentence will grant you deflated irritation and you won't believe that you felt what you're feeling right now.

Or, maybe, I'm just holding two cards back to back, and one of them is a 5 of spades printed in reverse?  (You can just see the card in the picture below).

How do you feel?

Knowing how a trick works sucks.

One other thing I got from Mr Brown's words was that I wasn't alone in wanting to be a "pure" card manipulator.  While I did spend some small amount of time and money on trick decks and apparatus, for the most part I hated them - preferring to invest my skills into techniques that would work on only normal cards, and not needing to mark or cut or shorten or treat the decks.  What I found easy to forget is that genuinely no-one cares about how you do a trick, they only care about the perceived effect.  (Fair warning, I'm setting up a rather tenuous analogy with writing computer software and users here...).  Getting obsessed with being able to fake shuffle a deck while keeping 5 cards in known locations and using that skill isn't necessarily all that useful if the trick only needs one card moving to the top of the deck.  (In software, you don't need to break out Factories and Dependency Inversion just because you've read a book).  There are some magical effects that are very easy, powerful and quick using specially rigged decks of cards (and there are situations where having  the user able to see or do or test something tomorrow by writing a hack is much more important that spending two months creating the worlds most beautiful code that no-one will ever touch again).
Of course being puritanical with cards (and thus writing nice clean, well designed and abstracted software) has its benefits too. You can easily make magic with anyone's deck of cards, and after a trick is done, you don't have to messily hide short cards (or worry about copy-pasted code).  There are trade-offs, but it is important to remember there is a participant (or user) in the equation who is not supposed to know you just used a Vernon Multiple Shift which took a month to learn (or that their app is based on an Actor Framework because it took a month to learn), they just want to be amazed before they get bored (ditto). (End analogy).

This isn't even close to the
whole collection!
So, away from the lies and deceit there's the decks of cards.  Oh so many beautiful decks, in so many different designs and styles and finishes and sizes and smells.  I ended up collecting these - anywhere I went that sold a custom deck I'd pick up, or any kind of beautiful deck I could import from the 'states I'd clock up ridiculous amounts of import tax on.  And I'd have to have a few of each, one to stay pristine, and one to use.  And a spare 'lest I destroy any cards in a trick.  That after a week of shuffling drills a deck would be destroyed always filled me with a feeling of dread - I just couldn't (actually, still can't) throw any of these cards away.  And so they piled up.  I'm still drawn to them, perfect boxes of light clean rectangles of card, four symbols, two sharp, two soft, two black, two red (or inverted or faded or gilded).

Two new gorgeous decks arrive -
Black and White Artisans by theory11
Case in point, if you were wondering about the random '*' in the second paragraph at the top of this (now ridiculously long) post, the Amazon search to find the link to a Red Bicycle deck came up with a lot of very, very tempting new designs of cards that I don't own, and two of the most gorgeous card designs I've ever seen, that I now do.  Oops.  Even worse, a wider google has made me angry for missing out on this Kickstarter for a stunning Typographic Deck.

I could write more, but my hands really want to play with my new cards, which makes typing challenging!

Monday, 16 September 2013

Maidens and Vampires

A recent pub dinner with a friend turned into a rather geeky trading of logic-and-mathematical puzzles.  I have a couple of interesting ones used for interviewing potential undergraduates, and he has some to help make his somewhere-between-primary-and-secondary age pupils think.

One we spent a while discussing was the vampires and maidens problem.  In short, three vampires and three maidens need to travel from one floor to another of a building, using a lift that can carry up to two people.  Some extra constraints: the lift needs someone in it to move (as my friend pointed out, this problem really would be better stated using a boat and two shores, but I guess all those boats are busy moving cabbages and foxes...), and if any maidens are left alone with a greater number of vampires, they get turned into lunch.  Can you come up with a plan to move all six from one floor to another without breaking the rules?

A verbal discussion of the problem very quickly becomes unwieldy, so it wasn't long until my notebook came out and diagrams were drawn.  Based on the diagrams and discussion, there were several interesting observations we managed to make about the puzzle.  The moves going back from the end are a mirror of those from the start (from the start, one or two vampires, or a vampire and a maiden could leave.  To reach the end, one or two vampires, or a vampire and a maiden could arrive).  It also is really important to track where the lift is when drawing pictures, lest you try and teleport a maiden!

Since I've been reading up and thinking a lot about visualising information for clear explanations recently, I thought it'd be fun to try and apply some of that thought to both the problem and solution.  In reality, it's not a very hard problem once you understand it (certainly it doesn't have a hugely branching state space), but I guess for kids it could be used as a good introduction to thinking about enumerating possibilities, of logically structuring thought about a problem, of exploiting symmetries, and drawing insights. Or something.  I also added in the fun challenge of trying to describe this problem through the medium (tedium?) of poetry.

One note, if you Google for this problem you'll find it's usually stated (e.g. in Dara O'Briains School Of Hard Sums) as from the ground floor to the top floor.  For the dual purposes of having the six actors adjacent to the line introducing them, and to make the third line of the poem work, I switched the direction of travel.

Super-high res versions in-case anyone wants to actually turn them into posters (if you do - I'd be interested in knowing if they were useful!  Assume the graphics are licensed CC-By-SA).

Saturday, 14 September 2013


"You're a skinny mother******, ain't ya?"
Well yes, I guess I am, I thought.  Though right now that's probably the last observation I expect you to be making, given the circumstances.  I roll my eyes and simply point at the open door.  My friendly insulter nonchalantly saunters out, heading down the stairs as I close the door behind him.  Across the closed doorway my flatmate and I share a glance of utter disbelief, before he goes to return the rather sharp 6 inch knife in his hand to the kitchen.

It's weird the things that can mess with your head.  You can do, act or think "normally" every day, and then one tiny, incredibly unlikely thing happens, and you suddenly live in fear of something stupid that will never happen again. This results in you taking preventative measures to stop these things happening again, (even though they won't), and it slowly messes up your life, one newly acquired ritual at a time.

I have a vivid memory from my childhood of watching The Really Wild Show, and being informed by Michaela Strachan (who, Wikipedia has terrifyingly let me derive, would have been 27 at the time, which is younger than I am now!) that just thinking about insects crawling up your legs, or wriggling in your hair, or nuzzling into your ear, is enough to make you want to scratch or itch or scrape.  Since that lesson, I've found myself not too worried when I feel like something is wandering around inside my t-shirt.  I'll still scratch the afflicted area, but rationalize it as arm hair being squished against sleeve fabric or leg hairs and jeans rubbing the wrong way.  But I'll feel slightly smug and intelligent at understanding the complicated science of cloth causing thin hairs to press into nerves in my skin, and pleased that I'm not leaping to paranoid imaginings of something malevolent trying to turn me into lunch.

A few weeks ago, a nice summer morning.  My room is a little hot and I'm sleeping these days under a thin sheet as opposed to a full duvet.  A good night's sleep and I'm a little dozy in the morning.  I move, the sheet slips and I feel a little itch on my leg.  Something feels slightly unusual, but I dreamily scratch and it goes away.  A few minutes later and another itch on the other leg.  Another dreamy move of my hand to my leg. Another scratch and


The quiet sunny morning is broken by my yell.  The sheet flies off the bed, and a tiny black and yellow dot obliviously buzzes to the window and bumps into the glass.  Again, and again, and again.  I look at my painful thumb, it's (very slightly) swollen. Ow.

And so, eventually, we find ourselves at the first exemplar of my point.  I have been sleeping terribly recently.  Every shift of the sheet, every tickle of my leg hair, every bit of skin that changes temperature in the breeze from the window.  Every single thing that before would have been a simple scratch is now a battle not to turn on the light, strip the bed and re-assure myself there is no wasp out to eat me.  My smug knowledge that there is no insect has been gone, replaced with the overblown memory of that one time I went to itch and got (very mildly) stung in return.

At this point you might be wondering what my moaning about insects has to do with the me being insulted by a stoned guy at 2am.  Well that night also left me with a different irrational fear.  That of scaffolding.  Or, more precisely, scaffolding erected near to somewhere I'm living.  Like the wasp sting, it only takes one slumber to be broken by the sound of your flatmate rummaging through the knife draw in the kitchen to find something to use in self defence, followed by shouts of "who are you?" "what do you want?" out the French windows to an incoherent and rather smelly mass that found its way onto the balcony, for you to become scared of something.  And my mind decided to lock onto the tubular and wooden tower that had (most likely) given the guy access to our third floor exterior.

Back in the present, next door are having some work done, and a scaffolding tower has gone up very close to my window.  Those sleepless nights worrying about whether there are monsters in the bed have been made worse by constant worrying day and night about whether monsters will climb the tower and break in through the skylight.  To allay the panic, I make sure that I have closed all the windows before leaving (because, obviously, locked windows are like force-fields that will keep you safe).  Of course I don't really factor in that it's been a heatwave here recently, and I'm on the top floor, so it will be hot and sticky when I return, which makes it more likely for me to itch and think I'm being attacked by a wasp...

So what can you do?  Force yourself to remember that for over ten thousand sleeps you've only ever been awoken by a wasp once?  Take a deep breath, count to ten and decide that this time it is ok to go out with the window locked open instead of locked closed?  Take to the internet and inflict a thousand words of frustration on whichever kind souls are still reading this?  Or perhaps accept that things will rattle you sometimes, and you know what, that's ok.  Rituals fade and change over time, and as long as you can see them come and go without obsessing too much about them, then you'll be fine.  At least, that's what I tell myself.  Now if you'll excuse me, I need to roll up my jeans as it feels like something is crawling up my leg...

Monday, 12 August 2013


Carcassone.  I play a lot of this at the moment.
This particular game has gained a wayward pig.
Games, competitions, challenges and races.  There are many reasons to take part in such activities, but "to win" (to outperform the other entrants) really isn't a good one.  That's not to say that winning an event is without its upsides -- I still smile when walking past a framed certificate at work that heralds a win at a team challenge day in 2004, the prize that day was my first IBM laptop -- but what happens when taking part, the people you meet, the experience you gain and the stories you can and will tell again and again are much more crucial.  Sure, I'll try my hardest to win at a friendly game of Carcassone, but I'll also enjoy the opportunity to catch up with my friends, and have a laugh at each of our fortunes with the little cardboard tiles.

Some challenges are bigger than others.  A game of Carcassone can last up to a few hours (sometimes as long as "gone midnight"), but recently I've found myself involved in a couple of much larger events, and having a lot of fun with them.

This artist's impression of sunrise over Jack & Jill,
as this artist's camera phone is rubbish in low light!
First up was the Oxfam TrailWalker a few weeks ago.  A friend decided to form a team ("Gimme Shelter"), and look for team-mates.  The idea of walking 100km in 30 hours really didn't appeal to me, but being part of the support crew sounded like a lot of fun.  Staying up all night, reading driving instructions to our driver, making hot chocolate and finding the one tube of Deep Heat lost down the back seat of the car for the walkers - count me in!

Here the point was absolutely not to win, it was a team effort and every checkpoint reached was an impressive feat.  Having said that, the the team did amazingly well (they completed it!).  Acting as support was of course a lot less challenging than walking  but I still got a lot out of the overnight experience.  If nothing else, it is very rare that I get to watch the sun set, stay up all night talking and drawing and pouring drinks, and then see the sun rise again.  I even got to have a nap on a sunny morning on the south downs.

Early morning at Jack & Jill

Mini jelly-babies make good, if not somewhat
temporary morale boosting team mates!
The second event is one that has become a bit of a ritual for me.  Days get booked off work for it, and preparatory shopping takes place to ensure I have enough pot noodles, breakfast bars, and Haribo to sustain me for 72 hours.  It is, of course, a programming competition.  The Programming Contest of The International Conference On Functional Programming.

The challenge problems set are always deeply interesting (this year's can be found at, and I find it really refreshing to fully engross myself in a problem for a fixed set of time, knowing that (for those days at least) the rest of the world can be on hold.

What's even better though is that at the end of the competition, I have something I can look back on.  My friends and I still discuss previous competitions, what we did, what we could have done differently, laughing about the horrible hacks and stupid tools we wrote in a frenzy to help increase our score.  We do try to do well (and usually don't completely embarrass ourselves), but we know we'll never win, and that's OK.  The clich├ęd taking part isn't what counts, but that you come away knowing more about yourself, with more experience to draw on, fun memories to keep, and hopefully interesting stories to tell.

One of my ICFP Competition traditions is to make some overblown complicated visualiser for the task.
Usually using some gratuitous and highly dubious technology choices.  This was the year of websockets!

Saturday, 27 July 2013

Hayle Beach and Tate St Ives

Summer, and a heatwave has hit the UK.  Taking full advantage I took a short holiday in Hayle, Cornwall, which has a glorious beach.  Five days of listening to the tide come and go, watching the sun set, and leaving only footprints in the sand is a great way to escape from the noise of London and just switch off and reset.  Then, by night, I had Haven's entertainment offerings to provide hours of quizzes, Spice Girl tributes, drinks and silly dancing.  What more could you possibly want?    
Moss, White, Red and Black 1949
(not at the Tate, but an illustrative example)
Where I was staying was a few minutes away from St Ives by train, and I spent a day there looking around. Particularly interesting was the Tate gallery, especially an exhibition of the works of Marlow Moss.

Her works were varied and striking.  She had links to Mondrian (rumours abound that she influenced him with parallel black lines), and several of her abstract canvases of white, with black lines and red, yellow or blue colour squares were on display.  A particular favourite was her Composition in Red, Black and White - (if I could find a print of it I'd buy it, but no such luck).  Having never really paid much real attention to art, Neo-plasticism and Mondrian like works were only really on my radar from a particularly good episode of Hustle, however I am now starting to see the appeal.

But you could see her work evolve.  Later the black lines were replaced with raised solid white blocks, and the colour rectangles were painted in the wells.  Black was replaced with shadow, to create a different set of effects.  And then even later the abstract blocks and colour were gone, replaced by everyday objects (like strings or rope) stuck to a white canvas and painted white to match.  Akin to my paper city from a while ago, the interest was in the change of shade and tone.  Other works more physical works of sculpture also provided distraction, mechanical constructions that look like they were designed to rotate but are in-fact fixed, and granite and gunmetal juxtapositions.

Afterwards the cafe there also did some very nice Smoked Salmon sandwiches, before returning to the beach.

Sunday, 7 July 2013

Emotional Games

Mostly recovered from surgery now, however the recovery time included a nice few days of video-game bliss.  I managed to polish off Naughty Dog's 'The Last Of Us' in a couple of days, and then spent the potted hours during the rest of the week ploughing through That Game Company's 'Flow' and 'Journey'.

The Last Of Us

For those that missed it, The Last Of Us is set in a post-apocalyptic america (yay zombies), where veteran survivor and smuggler Joel ends up having to escort a fourteen year old girl, Ellie,  to a group of freedom fighters called the Fireflies.  The game really is about the relationship between Joel and Ellie that develops across this journey, mixed in with stealth, action and adventure and tied up with a crafting and experience system based bow.

Well 'game' is probably a bit strong, as that conjures up connotations of it being fun, which it really isn't.  Compelling story, yes.  At times rewarding game-play, sure.  Stupidly frustrating at times?  Yup.  Fun? Never quite gets there.  It's probably more enjoyable to watch someone else play the game than it is to play it.  At least then the movie-like story and action don't get interfered with by your inability to not get your neck chewed on by blind mute cauliflower headed dead people.

However don't let this put you off, it really, really is compelling.  The game has a way of drawing you in and switching things up.  (Minor spoilers ahead)... About three quarters of the way through the game, major emotional stuff had gone down, we had a horse and were armed with a flame-thrower.  It felt close to the end, I thought the final goal was in sight, and, like my characters, I just wanted to get there.  I wanted the adventure to reach its resolution.  And so, for five minutes, I stopped being diligent, fully searching every corner of every building for desperately needed supplies and ploughed forward, aching to reach the door that was obviously round the next corner, with final cut-scene, and credits.

Except the door didn't come, and instead a load of stupidly difficult hunters did.  And I was out of resources, stuck with a now painfully tense fight, and (silently) cursing myself for daring to dream that end was near.  Luckily I had several more hours of game-play to not make that mistake again!

The interesting thing about TLOU is that while the game-play made you feel tense, or excited (or when you repeatedly become dinner, really really frustrated), the major driving force (the bond between Joel & Ellie), and the emotional heartstrings it tried to pull, were almost exclusively developed by the story, told through cut-scenes and action sequences.  Engagement and empathy being two sides of a coin that were never quite allowed to meet in the game.


That Game Company's Journey on the other hand was a short (about three hours for a play-though) marvel. Everything about the game is designed to engage you the player with your avatar, and make you really feel their world.  You start a lonely figure lost in a desert of graves, with a mountain in the distance.  As you progress to the mountain you get lost in a sea of sand-dunes, slide into a forgotten city, and eventually claw your way back up to the peak.  An interesting quirk is that as you explore you meet others, silent avatars controlled by other players, your companions, who may help (but can't really hinder), but that make your adventure less lonely.

There are language-neutral murals that tell the story of the game, which are really telling the story of your journey - what has been, and what is to come.  And the foreshadowing towards the end is poignant.  (Minor spoiler ahoy) I cannot overstate how much it hit me when I found myself on the mountainside, three foot in snow.  My companion had been lost to a beast, and I suddenly realised how utterly alone I was. Slowing down, being broken by the blizzard, my avatar finally crumpled into the cold white blanket, and I genuinely gave up hope.

I guess the difference is that the Last Of Us offered an adventure, Journey offered an experience.

Sunday, 30 June 2013

Lost Voices

(the squeamish might want to avoid this half of the post)

I was thinking of this room the entire time. 
So, this week I did something I've never done before.  I underwent surgery.  Having never really gone through the process of being cut up by the NHS, I thought things would be a lot more complex than they actually were - turn up at a set time, throw some details at a computer and go find a waiting room.  Then a person calls your name, you go into another waiting room, then another person calls your name, and you finally go into a small room with a chair and who I assumed were two friendly looking medical types, are ushered into said chair and talked at for a few minutes.  A consent form is signed, and then the surgeon asks "Have you got any questions?".  "Is this real?" I muttered inaudibly, as the transition from watching Judge Judy on TV while waiting, to being in a room reminiscent to one from the opening of Half Life Two had caught me slightly off guard.  What I should have asked is: "What are your names?", as I'm pretty sure  the two strangers who proceeded to operate never really identified themselves. 

The procedure itself was nothing major or serious, but it did involve three injections of a local anaesthetic.  I'm sitting there, with one half of my tongue being held in place by the assistant, and a big needle coming towards the other side, and the surgeon suggests "you can close your eyes, if you want".  I opted to stare at the massive needle that inflicted an almost disappointingly small amount of pain.

A few minutes later the inability to feel anything kicks in, and then everything becomes a bit routine.
I just sit there and watch, detached, as tongue holding, scalpel cutting, blood flowing,  gauze soaking and four stitches (the surgeon seemed to be enjoying his needlecraft a little too much) all floated past.

Ten minutes later, everything was finished, and I walked out fine.  Done. Nothing to worry about.  May as well go into work.  An hour later, on a bus five minutes away from work, the anaesthetic wore off.


Now, if I'd thought for a second about what had happened in the hospital, it was obvious that it was going to hurt...
I'm now recovering at my parents.  They live near a field.
Needless to say, I've since spent quite a while living with a very sensitive, slowly shrinking, golf-ball in my mouth.  This has meant no talking, no solid foods, and some rather interesting shopping receipts.
In retrospect, I should have bought soup, lots of soup.
A while ago I started watching The Voice UK, Season 2.  It finished last week, and the obvious winner didn't win!  This is probably more a statement of the kind of person likely to phone in to vote for a TV singing competition than it is about any level of talent.  Regardless, I am somewhat irritated by this obvious miscarriage of justice, and am therefore resolved to never watch another season of The Voice UK again.

Having said that, since The Voice has ended I have been watching quite a few of Leah's performance videos on YouTube.  One striking thing about her videos is the rather high number of views that they have, and watching the numbers change between my ridiculous number of repeat plays of "I Will Survive" showed what I was doing was insignificant compared to the rest of the internet.  One wonders if these is the same for all of the show's finalists.

So, for a bit of fun, during a (quite literally thanks to my oral incapacitation) quiet afternoon I decided to spend some time messing about and looking into this.  A nice excuse to do some programming with a couple of web technologies that I'd been meaning to play with.

So, below is a screenshot (click to go to the real thing) of what I came up with.  For each of the four artists, you have their performances (roughly in order), and the number of views on their respective YouTube videos as of 12:00 today.    

Click to see the web-version
My conclusion: people who watch YouTube videos don't like making phone calls.

Sunday, 23 June 2013

City Layers

Drawing Lines

My growing interest with graphics and communication has recently started meandering towards drawing as a hobby/pastime. I guess this is somewhat unsurprising given the proliferation of tablet-based drawings appearing on this blog.  In addition to the digital artworks, I am also scratching pens into a couple of sketchbooks (which is proving a nice excuse to sit in Holland Park during the intermittent sun that London seems to be enjoying at the moment).

One of the things I'm finding it hard to draw is lines.  Or, more precisely not drawing lines where there are no lines.   I've realized that I find it very easy to see objects, and to draw my model of what they are, instead of what they actually are.  So, practice, practice, practice - but what to practice on?

Ever watched the video to Adele's Rolling In The Deep?  In the middle of it there's a huge paper "city" (ice-white cuboids and dodecahedrons), that rather symbolically gets burned to a crisp by some sparklers.  What's particularly interesting about such a construction is that the edges aren't marked by heavy lines, but by dramatic changes in light and shade caused by shadow and sharp changes in angle of reflected light.

Deciding that "I want one of those", I headed out to my local CASS shop.  Now, it turns out I've moved to about 10 minutes walking distance from one of these shops, and I have a horrible feeling that my bank balance is going to suffer for it.  I should do more crafty things, and the number of ideas that such a shop spawns makes me want to buy most of it.  Lucky that I went in there with a set project in mind!

So, some white card, a polystyrene base, a knife set, uhu glue and a few hours later, I have my own mini white city.  It's not perfect, but it is really interesting. In particular, the shadows caused by the different structures and multiple light sources really change the scene quite dramatically.  I expect I'll be putting some sketches of this up over the next few weeks.  I also have half a mind to wire it up internally with some LEDs for more weird effects.

On the subject of white worlds, I've also been playing "The Unfinished Swan" on PS3 (trailer video left, which is somewhat representative of the gameplay).  The game has an interesting set of mechanics - centered around you throwing balls of liquid into the world, which affect it in different ways.  For example in the first level, black ink turns things black.  This may seem slightly redundant, but for the first level, the entire world initially a shadeless white. No shadow, no imperfection, no way to see where on earth you are going.  It's only through the motion and occlusion of your created black ink-splotches that you can recover a sense of form, of depth and of shape of the world around you.

If you have a spare couple of hours, I hugely recommend this game, it's very pretty and very entertaining.

And to end, I have also been having fun seeing lines instead of limbs.  A friend has been keeping a photo-a-day blog, one of my favourite pics of his is a particularly moody night shot of a netball game.  I took a few minutes to reinterpret the photo on the tablet.

Sunday, 16 June 2013


Oh! I do like to be beside the seaside! I do like to be beside the sea!

Rather unexpectedly, I found myself in Southend-On-Sea.  It was something to do with a local families trip that a friend was helping to organize.  Regardless, £10 and a small 90 minute coach trip for sticks of rock, arcades, a theme park and a pier? Yes please!

I find there is something incredibly calming about the sea.  Well, at least a calm sea, stretching out to the horizon (or, at least in the case of Southend - nearly to the horizon).  A mass of water, rippling away.  Sea and sky meeting in an arched line of blue.

The pier there is a monster.  Over a mile long, it has its own train going up and down it to take those sightseeing, fishing, lobster-potting or lifeboating from one end to another.  In order to fundraise, there is an adopt-a-plank scheme.  For a regular donation, you can have your name on a plaque on the wall, and I assume, your plank will write to you quaterly to tell you of what it's been up to.  Most likely it'll be complaining about the weather, like a good British plank.  I assume your informational letters will come with photos similar to that on the left, to let you know how your plank is getting on.

Back on slightly dryer land, and away from things made of wood, there is a fair amount to do in Southend.  There's a theme park, Adventure Island, which can swallow an unlimited amount of money in a very short space of time if you're not careful.  Soft-toy side stalls intermixed with rides are a great amount of fun.  I did go on the big rollercoaster, Rage (the big yellow thing, right) - which was a hilarious 90 second shot of pure adrenaline.  Adventure mini-golf was also good fun, if not very tactical by the end of 18 holes of interestingly decorated (but otherwise fairly vanilla) putting.

I did snap a few shots from my phone while going round Southend.  On the pier I took a few.  Once I'd got them into Google Plus' photo collection, I discovered that some deep magic on a Google server had stitched three of the photos together automatically without my intervention.  It's not perfect, but I was quite impressed by the effect of the result!

 I didn't even ask for this picture, Google's Picasa Web Albums auto-magic stitch just made it appear!

I tried to take a shot going the other way, from land out over the pier.  However the M&S coffee shop window  I  took it out of caused a huge amount of reflection in the picture, and it looked pretty gloomy (the clouds had started to set in by that point).  So in a recent effort to be more arty, I had a got at it with my graphics tablet - the end result, I think, isn't too bad. 

My bleak photo of the view back taken through the window of an M&S coffees hop didn't work out so well.
Lucky I've been playing with a tablet, so I photo-edited it a bit to make it more cheeful.

Sunday, 2 June 2013

Two Trees

The weekend has run away from me, and my phone is being unhelpful by deciding it doesn't want to wirelessly sync photos from the seaside with the interwebs.  Manual intervention, phone disassembly and boxes of electronic kit may need to be dived through to find the right wire to get photos from the microsd card to the computer.  I'm sure I'm overcomplicating this somehow...

Anyways, in the interim, enjoy another graphics tablet experimental doodle.

Monday, 27 May 2013


For the past couple of years I've survived without having a computer on a desk at home.  Or even a decently-sized rectangular desk at a reasonable height.  Now with the rise of laptops and popularity of reclining on a sofa one may think this not really a problem, at least, when I took on the shoebox-in-shepherds bush that was to be my abode I rationalized away that the provided sofa looked comfy, and my netbook was cute.  Besides, if the worst came to the worst (and it did) my computer is small, that the chest of drawers can fit a monitor keyboard and mouse on top, and that standing up to code/browse/spotify would have a side benefit of keeping me fit, or something.  What I had forgotten to take into account is that desk space is useful to keep other transient items on when using the keyboard.  A glass of water, a snack (currently soya-coated savoury seed mix), a pad of paper, a pen, etc.  A chest of drawers doesn't really provide the space to hold all these things, and allow you much room to use a mouse!

A new setup
Lesson learned.  I've just spent the last bank-holiday weekend, and most of the weekend preceding it setting up my new room in my new flat.  A desk, a chair (oh how I've missed these) at the correct height to use (that only took two attempts walks to argos to get right), a keyboard.  What more could you want?  Oh - a mouse?  Ah, not really enough horizontal space on this desk for that and the keyboard and for you to sit towards the edge of the desk that feels right.  A journey to PC World and a trackball is acquired. Ok, great, everything's ready to go.  What else, oh, yeah, internet?

Now at this point, everything that could go wrong, went wrong.  Forgive me for venting some frustration, but arghghg!  First - on the (completely reasonable and fairly prompt) day that BT were supposed to activate our internet connection they instead decided to disconnect our phone line. Second - three days later, the engineer that was supposed to come out and look at the problem was cancelled.  Why? - The fault was mistakenly reported as fixed in the meantime.  Third - three days later (again) the engineer comes and fixes the line and broadband is established! Huzzah!  So I connect and upgrade my machine.  Only now my computer's wireless card stops working!  Fourth - a trip to PC world to get a piece of kit that will absolutely definitely work with our setup yields a piece of hardware that half works.  And by that I mean it will give me an internet connection for  five minutes and then resets for literally a second, and the works fine for five minutes.

Now in reality, this isn't a problem - iPlayer still works (it just pauses occasionally), and the odd webpage needs refreshing.  There were (well, there still are) about a million things I wanted to do this weekend that didn't even involve the internet.  But the knowledge of an incomplete set-up, that was waiting to distract me with an unnecessary buffering ring or missing web-page alert at any second, really broke any flow I could get into.  Similarly, the stress of worrying whether my mouse would hit the windowsill was probably more problematic than the restriction in movement by the adjacent windowsill.  I've found this hindering worry-of-distraction in several other places as-well, notifications (email, IM, SMS, facebook, twitter, etc) are like poison to me. Not only do I catch myself checking these systems in-case I've missed something, I'm also checking my phone hasn't gone away so I don't miss things as they happen.  Heck, even the incessant on-the-minute-every-minute beeping of the microwave after my porridge has finished, but deliberately ignored so it may cool down, keeps me from leaving the kitchen so I can open the microwave door to shut it up before it even has a chance to complain.

All these problems have solutions - for every mouse, there's a trackball; for every broken internet device, there's a lovely walk in the sun back to PCWorld, followed by exchanges with three sales reps to replace the device; and for every notification there's a silence button and an attempt to realise that if anything urgent happens that needs me, I'll get a phone call.  Hmm. Unfortunately I've not yet found a way to silence the microwave.

On a lighter note, in amongst all the to and fro to PC World, a graphics tablet caught my eye.  After trawling through the collected works of Tufte, my ideas for projects have been gaining a slightly more graphicsy angle so I could just about rationalize the decision to get one.  They are devices I like having around, even though I know I don't use them anywhere like as often, or as well, as I should - text editors really should find some way to integrate pressure sensitivity into their interfaces somehow!  Anyway, with the sun pouring through the window, and a spare 30 minutes set aside to playing with it and a paint program, I managed to draw something abstract (I don't claim that it's any good).

"The Journey" or "Green Cat".

Sunday, 21 April 2013

Soldiers Pay

A scale model of what Fishbourne Roman Palace may have looked like
During a sunny weekend away for my mum's birthday I found myself in Fishbourne Roman Palace.  A large estate, with many mosaic floors, a few graves, some plaster, a replica garden, but, due to the value of stone after the palace burned down, no walls.  This ancient act of theft turned out quite lucky for our tour guide, as the spaces where the walls where have been filled in with modern concrete and turned into special walkways for him to traverse the site on, while the rest of us untrusted public had to remain behind little barriers and look at small informational plaques.

Like many of these places where the remains of places of historic interest[1] are found, along with the historic find, a load of ancillary stuff has sprung up to make a visit a fun trip for all the family - a research facility with separate tour, a scale replica model of what the original site might have looked like (along with a ship placed in a now-known-to-be impossible shoreline), a museum, and (everyone's favourite!) a little shop!

A small self-indulgent digression, if I may.  I, like so many others, have a bad habit of collecting things.  Over time what I collect varies, but there is usually some class of thing (or sometimes, to the detriment of my bank balance, things) that I will irrationally want to acquire more of.  Also, interestingly, most of these collections can be fuelled by tat that is offered up in the little shops that support historically interesting sites.  Growing up it was glass marbles.  When they were lost I built up a massive collection of keyrings and keyfobs.  Much later, after finishing my degree, it was decks of playing cards.  Now, my fetish-de-jour seems to be acquiring dice games.  The collection is currently small, comprising Zombie Dice (plus expansion) and three sets of Rory's Story Cubes, but the Fishbourne shop presented the opportunity to buy "Tabvla" -- a Roman predecessor to backgammon played with three dice -- and I could hardly refuse such a generous offer for five quid.

An arch kit to keep kids (of all ages) amused :)
The museum at Fishbourne was well worth a look round.  For kids (henceforth classified as those under 30 years of age) there were practical things to do, such as building a Roman arch from lurid pink blocks and weaving bits of ribbon on some dodgy wooden contraption held together with string.  However one thing that really urked me was an informational board adorned with the title "Soldiers Pay".  It described how much a Roman soldier would earn, what they could or would likely spend it on, and their career prospects.  However I couldn't quite shake the feeling that something was wrong with this title.  Now I'm not about to turn into Lynne Truss on apostrophes -- my command of the little blighters is not one to be envied[2] -- but in my gut I feel like there should be one somewhere as there is some notion of ownership going on.  "A solider's pay", or "Soliders' pay", or somesuch.  "Soldiers pay" reads to me as though the soldiers in the Roman army had to pay for something.  I'm pretty sure I'm right in claiming this is at least ambiguous?

Anyway, I have a hard time letting irritating little things like this go, and over a burger at Byrons with a friend, I started to relate this tale of possible ambiguous apostrophe abuse.  However my diatribe was distracted when I noticed our waitresses' T-Shirt. "Today's special".  'You are or it is?' I thought better of asking when she asked us if everything was all right.  Looking round, the male waiters were instead decorated with the singular "medium".  The possible ambiguities here are great - cooked meat preference?  t-shirt size? or perhaps a secondary job skill that could provide hours of out-of-this-world tableside amusement during dessert?  I ordered a mint tea instead of finding out, shame on me.

[1] The importance of Fishbourne in Roman times is actually pretty unknown.  A rather interesting question posed by my father revealed that there no known written references to Fishbourne (as in, the Roman name for the location is unknown), despite it being (currently) unique in terms of size and scale in Britain.

[2] The number of its v.s. it's mistakes in my Ph.D. thesis was almost legendary.

Monday, 8 April 2013

London Design Museum

The London Design Museum. From [1].
A friend's birthday drinks near Tower Bridge provided me a nice excuse to tick off the London Design Museum from my list of unvisited London attractions (despite having studied, lived and now worked London for what feels like forever, that list is a fair bit longer than it should be - for example The London Eye is one really rather shameful entry...).  Located on the corner of Shad Thames and Butler's Wharf, the LDM is an unassuming white building, with two floors of exhibitions, a cafe, and a rather lovely (if not teeny tiny) shop.

On the top floor the Collection of Extraordinary Stories About Ordinary Things was a fun exercise in looking at the interesting side of really boring items.  The history of the design and uptake of chairs (wooden, tubular, plastic, vanity, useful), biros (with both transparent and opaque cases) and anglepoise lamps (with two or four springs!) was a bit random.  However, having only relatively-recently passed my driving test, I did find the section on British road signs really quite interesting.  A 1963 review of road signs (The Worboys Committee) had made several contraversial changes, for example the move to mixed (instead of all caps) type, and that the size of the informational signs is determined by content and fixed spacing rules - and is not a set of fixed sizes that the content is made to match.

On the first floor, one of the first things that hits you is this really irritating electronic chirping sound every minute or so.  Only after walking round for a bit do you discover it's an installation of a mobile (ahem, iOS) app called Chirp, which allows iOS devices to share content using sound.  Yup, that's the future - not content with bumping phones to share content, iOS people can deafen their neighbours and make their devices literally tweet!

Walking around, the first floor was a bit of a mad mix of really interesting things.  For example, products that took liquid plastic, mixed it with iron fillings, and applied magnets, moulds and movement in the right way to produce crazy looking stools.  Or, remember lego? k'nex? sticklebricks?  Wish there was a way to mix them together, so you can build super mega things?  Well thanks to 3D printers, it's now possible to home-print converter pieces for any combination of the above and about half a dozen other toys.

One other tid-bit I picked up was an insight into the redesign of Exhibition Road.  This is the main road that runs through South Kensington's museum district (and happens to be directly adjacent to where I work!).  Next to a rather lovely wooden model of Exhibition Road and the surrounding buildings the text description describes how the designer chose to remove all standard road signs to make an unfamiliar environment for pedestrians, cyclists and drivers.  The intent of the unfamiliarity is to cause all shared-road users to pay more attention and take more care, while mingling together on a large pavement-road.  I'm not entirely convinced, but, to be fair, as a pedestrian I'm sure to be bloody careful when meandering down that stretch of concrete!

The final notable piece from the LDM was a superstitious fund -- an automated trading algorithim that buys and sells based on superstition.  It won't trade if the day is the 13th, or a full moon.  It also has "lucky" and "unlucky" beliefs that affect it's choices.  Ignoring the obvious statements about the randomness of markets and the place of "luck" on a trading floor, there was something that really struck me about the presentation of this piece.  There was a piece of explanatory paper on the desk that tried to explain the algorithms running this experiment.  On that paper was printed code - from what I could tell, it was a variant of C that actually was incredibly clear, mostly because the logic was reasonably straightforward set of "if condition then action" statements.  Unfortunately the code had been wrapped, as the lines were slightly too long for the columns that it had been forced into, making it (and the lovely comments it contained) appear really ugly and unreadable.

The code was also quite obviously assumed to be inaccessible to the exhibition goer, and was deliberately faded out and overlaid with some very simplistic boxes that crudely outlined some parts of the logic of the algorithm (e.g. do not buy if the date is the 13th, etc).  However there was no rhyme or reason to the boxes, their arrangement, and they didn't really clarify anything.  If only the code could have been made clearer, then everything would have been explained perfectly!  Sigh.

Actually, what really, really struck gets me while walking around the LDM was that many exhibits invoked computers as if they were "magic".  I came away with the feeling that "algorithms" are perceived to be like Dragons, with mystical abilities to do things that normal people couldn't - and must only be handled by skilled warriors lest the simple villager gets burned.  Maybe I took that too far, but the point remains. I know I've spent a long time immersed in code, computers and well formatted comments, but surely the ability to understand an algorithm can't be beyond the reach of, well, anyone?

[1] By Oxyman (Own work) [GFDL (, CC-BY-SA-3.0 ( or CC-BY-2.5 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Monday, 1 April 2013

Doctor Who, The Voice, Labyrinth and Jonathan Creek

Easter break - and I find myself at my parents, indulging in an unhealthy amount of TV and videogames.  After a full day of Tomb Raider (100% single player completion), two half days of the original Paper Mario (which, as far as I can tell, is basically Pokemon with mushrooms) and Uncharted (which is not being used as a Tomb Raider surrogate, honest), my attention turned to non-interactive media.

There was also some football on - I didn't really understand it...
I don't generally watch a lot of TV - certainly nothing live any more.   I think I'm only regularly tracking Big Bang Theory, Doctor Who, Nikita, and Castle via the interwebs, but since there's a large flat screen TV here, it seems a shame not to take advantage...


Doctor Who (Series 7, Part 2, Episode 1 - The Bells of St. John)
The Doctor Hacking
Great joke at Twitter's expense
I love JLC

The Voice (Series 2, Episode 1)
Never seen before
Interesting twist, judges begging
I love Jessie J

Labyrinth (Special, ep 1 & 2)
French grail quest, past and present
I love Katie McGrath

Jonathan Creek (Special, The Clue of the Savant's Thumb)
Danse macabre
Mystery with nuns and chainsaws
I love Sarah Alexander

Sunday, 24 March 2013

Jurassic Park

I can hear the theme starting up...
Give or take a month, the film is twenty years old.  A re-release (in 3D!) is being planned for later this year, and a fourth movie is slated for next year.  I remember seeing the film in the cinema when I was little, the excitement for a giant t-rex and science and computers and pack hunting velociraptors and hissing dilophosaurs stayed with me for a long time, and no doubt influenced some of my future life choices.  I still hear John William's theme tune play when walking through the dinosaur section of the Natural History Museum, and, like many of my generation, I have an irrational fear of tip-toeing around a shiny metal kitchen in the dark -- luckily not something that interferes too much with daily life!

The film, of course, is based on a book.  And, of course, the book is well worth reading.  The story is slightly different, in particular the ending is less 1990's Hollywood.  In addition many of the memorable scenes from the sequel movies can be found in the book (the aviary from JP III in particular struck me as being ripped straight from the novel).

The book was also interesting for non-dinosaur related reasons.  Each chapter title page featured an evolving line drawing, with a slightly abstract title ("First Iteration", "Second Iteration", etc), and some text underneath that was always a bit ominous and technical sounding to my young mind.  Now I recognise the evolving pattern as a dragon curve fractal (Wikipedia claims the specific instance is the Heighway dragon, or Jurassic Park dragon).  I do have some feint recollection that deliberate errors were introduced - meaning to foreshadow and reinforce the regular patterns of man being disrupted by nature trying to find a way - but I could just be making that up.

However, the things that have really stuck with me from Jurassic Park are its theme of science, curiosity, and responsibility.  Dr. Ian Malcolm's haunting line:
Yeah, yeah, but your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could that they didn't stop to think if they should.
is something to reflect upon.  Even in the little sub-section of computer science that I'm involved in, it's very easy to dream up seemingly good ideas, without necessarily thinking through all the consequences.  The idea that sparked this post's self-indulgent nostalgia was an early morning reverie on how awesome Google Glass is going to be - and the crazy things that could be done with it while (say) teaching.  For example, lecturing with an autocue in your eye.  Or in a tutorial you could face recognise the students, work out automatically who was missing, and get the display to provide small little graphs to indicate progress.  It would be amazing, you could work out who needed help - even before they knew to ask.  But then Malcom's quote reminds you to think.  Would students react well to being so obviously tracked, logged and monitored?  What are the privacy concerns?    I'm sure I could work out ways of doing all of the above if I wanted to,and the challenge of making it all work is something I'd find ridiculously enjoyable (it's like a game or a puzzle to glue such technologies together and work around current limitations).  But, like breeding velociraptors, can it be made safe?  Is it a good idea at all?

Away from such moral ambiguities, let me end on a lighter note.  Any reasonable discussion of Jurassic Park has to include a nod to Lex Murphy's cry of delight at:
It's a UNIX system, I know this!
The graphical viewer she uses in the film was a real program, fsn (3D File System Navigator, developed by Silicon Graphics).  There's a linux reimplementation, fsv, which is great fun to play with.

And I think I'm all dinosaured out.