Archive for the ‘English Posts’ Category

My favourite song, today – Moving to Canada edition

Friday, May 13th, 2011

Sarah’s Run – an awesome indie game that’s as good as Portal

Sunday, May 1st, 2011

So you’ve finished Portal 2, completed the co-op mode and unlocked all the achievements. Episode 3 isn’t out yet and suddenly your life feels empty.

Thankfully, I have just the solution for you!

Created by indie game developer Sophie Houlden, it’s called Sarah’s Run: Escape from Capital Evil.
Only a short preview is available right now and you need to install the Unity Web Player to play it but, believe me, it’s totally worth it.

From the game’s indieDB page:

Sarah is a girl with super powers, trapped in an evil villain’s secret complex. In Sarah’s run, any surface could potentially be the floor at some point, but there is only one way to escape, you’ll have to warp your mind to as well as gravity to figure out how to get there!

When I first played Sarah’s Run, I was surprised by how much it reminded me of Portal. Its gameplay combines mind-bending puzzles with classic 3rd person platforming and, like Portal, it forces you to think in a whole new way. Their biggest similarity also happens to be the thing I love the most: It doesn’t feel like a puzzle game –there’s actual skillz involved in executing the solution to each level.
Seriously, just play it. You can thank me later.

Batman and Diffusion of Responsibility or “The Bystander Effect” – my Athens Digital Week speech

Friday, April 29th, 2011

The latest of my science speeches, this one was part of a group presentation titled “The Science of Superheroes” given during 2010’s Athens Digital Week. My topic was “Batman and diffusion of responsibility”. Diffusion of responsibility also happens to be the topic I would’ve chosen for the FameLab finals (which I never attended. Because I was in the army). The material is heavily sourced from chapter 4 of Opening Skinner’s Box, by Lauren Slater, and from Wikipedia.

(For the Greek version click here.)

I would like to talk to you about Batman and diffusion of responsibility.
Diffusion of responsibility is what happens whenever someone says “OK, I need volunteers for toilet cleaning”: everybody suddenly develops an interest in their fingernails, accompanied by an intense urge to whistle.
It happens to all of us. In fact, it’s one of the strongest and most replicable phenomena in social psychology. As the number of witnesses to an event rises, it becomes less and less likely for anyone of them to intervene.
After all, a sense of responsibility is possibly a hero’s most important quality. Batman, famously, doesn’t have any powers. He’s rich. He could be living a cushy, priviledged life. What makes him say: “only I can save Gotham city”?
Borderline psychosis.
Yet his psychosis is combined with an unusually developed sense of duty.
Of course, there’s a different superhero much better suited to talking about responsibility: Spiderman. Unfortunately, Spiderman was already taken.

It all starts with Kitty Genovese. Kitty Genovese is dead. She was murdered in 1964 outside her appartment in Queens, New York.
The reason Kitty’s murder is important is that, according to newspaper accounts, it took place over more than half an hour and was witnessed by around 38 people: her neighbours.
Kitty was a bartender. On her way home from work late one night, she was attacked and stabbed. Her yells drew the attention of her neighbours, and managed to scare the assailant off. Nevertheless, 10 minutes later, he was back to finish what he started.
The murder caused great outrage. Newspapers accused the 38 bystanders who heard the screams and didn’t help of being as guilty as the murderer. Violent movies and television were accused of desensitizing the public (no video games back then, though).

The witnesses’ inaction also prompted Bibb Latané and John Darley to conduct an experiment.
A student would enter a room with a microphone and a light. Whenever the light was on, he was invited to talk about the problems of student life. “Yesterday my coffee got cold before I had time to finish it.” “There’s always so much month left at the end of the money.” Whenever the light was off, he would listen to other students talking, all of them recordings of actors. At some point, one “student” would suddenly suffer an epileptic seizure.
What Darley and Latané found was that the probability of the real student running out to ask for help was inversely related to the number of “students” he thought were participating in the experiment. Whenever it was more than 3 or 4, the subject would rationalize: “someone else is bound to help” and do nothing. Only when under the impression that it was just him and the epileptic kid, could he be counted upon to call for assistance.

Apparently, most human beings would let someone die, or at least suffer, rather than stand out from the crowd.
Well, what if we are the ones in danger?
The scientists came up with the following scenario:
Three people enter a room, two of them are actors. They are asked to fill out a simple questionnaire. After some time, white smoke starts filtering in through the air vents. The subject notices and turns to his fellows, confused. Totally indifferent, they just keep on filling out answers. And that’s what he does, too. The study found that the vast majority of people would keep on writing, even while a thin film of white dust gathered on their head and shoulders!

Humans are pre-eminently social animals. In fact, it appears our need to “fit in” is so overwhelmingly powerful, that it suppresses our very instinct to survive! We would literally rather die than cause a scene.

Thankfully, a different, lesser known, scientist named Arthur Beaman decided to fight this. He discovered that, once someone is aware of his natural inclination to stand by idly, he becomes much more likely to offer help when needed.
And that’s what I hope to have achieved, today. To bring each of you just a little bit closer to becoming a hero.

Beaman’s 5-step plan to cure bystander apathy:

1. You, the potential helper, must notice an event is occuring.
2. You must interpret the event as one in which help is needed.
3. You must assume personal responsibility.
4. You must decide what action to take.
5. You must then take action.

Also, if you haven’t read Opening Skinner’s Box, do so. It’s a collection of the 10 most important psychological experiments of the 20th Century, and it’s fantastic! If you thought this was interesting, just wait till you find out about Cognitive Dissonance, False Memory or the Rat Park experiment.

Greek version after the jump

Bastard Tetris and Heaven

Monday, April 25th, 2011

You know how normal Tetris sometimes feels evil? How it sometimes feels like you never get sent the piece you want? Well, Bastard Tetris does that on purpose. It’s designed to choose the worst brick possible. See how frustrating it is for yourself.
I barely got a score of 450. Feel free to post your own.

Then there’s heaven.
Last week, xkcd made the above comic and someone actually created a Tetris clone that, every once in a while, sends you the absolutely perfect block.
And yes, it feels fantastic.

Play Bastard Tetris for a bit, then check this out.

(via BoingBoing)

OkCupid’s 10 Charts About Sex

Thursday, April 21st, 2011

Of course, one could argue that tweeting itself is a form of masturbation.

I love OkTrends. It’s where OkCupid (probably the largest online dating service [citation needed]) presents various types of statistical data about its users in a way that is both entertaining and insightful.
Their latest post, titled 10 Charts About Sex ranks among some of the most amusing, and features the image included above.

It’s mostly just an appetizer, though. If you enjoy it, you should really check out The Big Lies People Tell In Online Dating and Your Looks and Your Inbox.

Update: If you’re having trouble finding Greece in the last chart, it’s at the top right, between Kuwait and South Korea. Almost directly under Italy. If you live anywhere else, have fun searching…

My favourite song, today – Hello, I Must Be Going.

Saturday, April 16th, 2011

This is not the version I want you to hear. This is the version I want you to hear (embedding disabled :/ ) But if you can’t be bothered to click on that link, listen to the happy version instead:

Natural Selection and You – in 3 minutes

Friday, April 15th, 2011

This is my 3 minute presentation from the preliminary round of the Greek 2010 FameLab competition. Even though the judges were impressed, I never attended the finals because I wasn’t allowed out of Greek Army boot camp. If you liked the rainbow presentation, this one is much, much better.
The deer vs human bit was borrowed from Douglas Adams (a speech I have linked to on this blog on at least 3 different occasions). I was also heavily influenced by an article titled Human Evolution Has Stalled which, while quite incendiary, posits some interesting points. Mainly, that society currently holds two contradictory views:

1. It is wrong to attempt to create better humans through selective breeding, forced sterilization, genetic manipulation, or any other form of eugenics. (We should not play god).
2. Genetically inferior humans who would surely die if left to fend for themselves should be given whatever aid they need to survive, and should have the right to reproduce if they so choose. (We should play god).

I would also like to thank my very good friend Dimitris Plexidas for his invaluable help in choosing a topic and brainstorming the idea. Props to Panagiotis Theologou, as well, for finding the video of the entire event, which I had no idea existed.

The video is in Greek, but I’ve translated the text into English for posterity and the satisfaction of all my friends. Ελληνικό κείμενο εδώ.

Everyone, more or less, knows about Darwin’s theory of evolution, about natural selection.
The idea, roughly, is that if you take 10 deer, throw them in a colder climate and come back 10 generations later, the deer you find will have thicker fur. And the reason for that is that some of the original deer had slightly thicker fur than the rest. This gave them slightly higher chances of survival and slightly higher chances of sex, thus allowing them to spawn offspring with even thicker fur and so on and so forth.
So you can see that evolution is, in a way, much like vaccuuming.
I don’t want to dwell too much on the mechanism of evolution, what interests me is the way it has influenced the human species.
Evolution has been especially generous to us. We have been gifted with logic, language, opposable thumbs and armpit hair. We could have been like the platypus, which has neither logic, nor language, nor thumbs, nor armpits (they can’t carry watermelons, they can only nudge them forward with their beaks).
In fact, I suggest to you that evolution has favoured us so effectively that we have surpassed it. We have transcended the very process that brought us to where we are.
Because if you take 10 humans and throw them in a colder climate, they’ll look at the deer and say “Hey… that fur looks thick and warm. I’ll take it.”
Modern technology, modern medicine and modern prophylactics have resulted in our exclusion from the process of natural evolution. Their very purpose is to provide the same opportunities in life to everyone, regardless of their genetic predisposition, whether they be diabetic, high-risk for cancer, or Olympiakos FC fans.
All of this makes us very nervous. We’re nervous because we’re aware that all this knowledge hasn’t been internalised. It’s not in our DNA. There’s no gene for building cars, cell phones or the Internet. If something goes horribly wrong, if, say, the ocean were to rise by a meter, or we get hit by an asteroid, 10,000 years of technological progress will be reversed overnight. We realise this whenever there’s a sudden power failure, or if we find ourselves in a strange neighbourhood after dark: not much has changed in the last 10,000 years. Our chances of survival are pretty much the same.
Fortunately, evolution has left us with one last present. A sort of parting gift: Foresight. The ability to predict the consequences of our actions and to act in order to avoid them.
Now, it’s up to us to use it.
But even if we don’t, we’ll be taken care of by natural selection.

You’ll find a transcript of the judges’ comments right after the jump.


Color Vision, Diet Advice and How Rainbows Work: a 3 minute (or so) presentation

Wednesday, April 13th, 2011

I was about to post my FameLab presentation on human evolution when I realised I had never blogged my video on how rainbows work.

I took part in the preliminaries of the Greek FameLab competition in 2010 and made it to the finals, but never got the chance to compete because the Greek Army wouldn’t let me out of boot camp. FameLab is an international science communication competition. The participants are supposed to present a scientific subject in a clear, concise, and entertaining manner, in under 3 minutes.
I had the opportunity, along with the rest of the Greek finalists, to take part in a workshop on science communication and media skills. As part of the workshop, we were supposed to prepare a 3 minute presentation on one of the following subjects:
1. What makes pop corn pop?
2. What causes a rainbow?
3. Why do leaves change colour in autumn?
4. Why do I feel dizzy when I spin?
5. What are stem cells?
6. Why do some people have brown eyes – or blue?
7. What is the difference between bacteria and viruses?

None of these subjects are particularly fascinating to me. In the end, I picked rainbows, hoping to talk about colors and vision and xkcd’s fascinating color survey. Unfortunately, it turns out there’s only so much you can fit into 3 minutes, all while trying to explain a phenomenon that is not, in fact, as simple as saying “refraction”. Thanks to the internet, this can now be remedied. Here’s the text of the presentation I wanted to give, followed by the video of the actual one, right after the jump.


Influences and process

Sunday, April 10th, 2011

Sometimes (or even most of the time) I use my blog to collect things I don’t want to forget. As an archive for things I know I’ll want to find again, someday.

This is one of those times.

I read this fantastic article on Comix Cube, a while ago. It talks about work ethic and motivation and the fundamental drive that leads us to create art. It blew my mind (that happens a lot, lately…)

You ask whether your verses are any good. You ask me. You have asked others before this. You send them to magazines. You compare them with other poems, and you are upset when certain editors reject your work. Now (since you have said you want my advice) I beg you to stop doing that sort of thing. You are looking outside, and that is what you should most avoid right now. No one can advise or help you – no one. There is only one thing you should do. Go into yourself. Find out the reason that commands you to write; see whether it has spread its roots into the very depths of your heart; confess to yourself whether you would have to die if you were forbidden to write. This most of all: ask yourself in the most silent hour of your night: must I write? Dig into yourself for a deep answer. And if this answer rings out in assent, if you meet this solemn question with a strong, simple “I must”, then build your life in accordance with this necessity; your whole life, even into its humblest and most indifferent hour, must become a sign and witness to this impulse [Rilke. Letters to a Young Poet, Letter One].

[Source: Johnny Wander]

On worship

Thursday, April 7th, 2011

I’m thinking about this and going crazy:

In the day-to-day trenches of adult life, there is actually no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship. And a compelling reason for maybe choosing some sort of God or spiritual-type thing to worship — be it J.C. or Allah, be it Yahweh or the Wiccan mother-goddess or the Four Noble Truths or some inviolable set of ethical principles — is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive. If you worship money and things — if they are where you tap real meaning in life — then you will never have enough. Never feel you have enough. It’s the truth. Worship your own body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly, and when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before they finally plant you. On one level, we all know this stuff already — it’s been codified as myths, proverbs, clichés, epigrams, parables: the skeleton of every great story. The whole trick is keeping the truth up-front in daily consciousness. Worship power — you will end up feeling weak and afraid, and you will need ever more power over others to numb you to your own fear. Worship your intellect, being seen as smart — you will end up feeling stupid, a fraud, always on the verge of being found out. But the insidious thing about these forms of worship is not that they’re evil or sinful, it’s that they’re unconscious.

(from here)

Update: I was pointed towards the original, unedited speech (thanks sis!) and corrected the quote above to reflect it. You can also find a (more or less accurate) transcript of the entire thing over here.