Nanosecond bats

While doing some research into neural coding, I came across a reference for a paper that claims bats have nanosecond acuity with echolocation.

Say what? Nanosecond? Apparently so. I can’t really tell how they came to this conclusion by the abstract, but it’s been reliably cited in another paper. I’m definitely going to check this out at the library soon. Exactly how a bat, or indeed any kind of animal, can tell distinguish signals to an accuracy of nanoseconds (those are billionths of a second) is beyond me; simple neurons can only transmit with millisecond accuracy. Just when you start getting blase about biology and how eyes can detect single photons, another amazing thing pops up.

A few good ways

Yesterday, I went to an interesting talk by Simon Conway Morris (Professor of Evolutionary Paleobiology at Cambridge) – it was one of those great lectures that starts off from a simple premise, in this case convergent evolution, and then takes that idea on a wonderful journey that touches upon the inevitability of intelligence, culture, social systems and the Fermi Paradox.

What he was saying wasn’t completely new to me – that there’s a phase space of ‘possibilities’, whether they be biological, social or cultural, and that some points within that space are more stable than others – has been said before. However, Morris was much more convinced about the idea that if we were to ‘rerun evolution’, things would not necessarily turn out to be as different from what we have today as you might expect. In other words, chance events (e.g. the first hominid falling off a tree and breaking its neck, or the K/T impactor) are vanishingly small influences on evolution when compared to the relative sparseness of stable configurations of molecules/individuals/bone structures, etc.

One interesting example which I intend to look into when I have more time (i.e. probably never) is the assertion that the structure of DNA is so good that it is not simply ‘a bit better than everything else’ – it is that all the alternatives are so crashingly rubbish that DNA is one of the only ways in which to create a decent molecule capable of carrying large amounts of genetic information reliably, given the starting materials of amino acids and suchlike.

So, it’s not that Morris believes that there is some kind of directionality to evolution, but he does believe that there are only a few good ways to do certain things. Another good example is the social organisation of beehives.

As far as we can tell, the whole ‘hive’ structure has evolved independantly a few times, indicating that it is a pretty good structure. However, apparently the fossil records indicates that in the past, bees and insects used a whole panoply of social organisations completely different from hives, but of course none are around any more, so hives are not just slightly better than the rest, they are much better. Morris then mused about how this might be due to the aggressive pursuit of resources and their efficient distribution, and what this implies about other ‘successful’ societies…

So it turns out that Matt Webb is talking about the same thing today; he is taking issue with New Scientist’s treatment of essentially what I’ve mentioned above – that there may be some constraints (this is a bit of a strong word, but anyway), biochemical or otherwise, that could ‘guide’ evolution (guide is not the best word either). Now, I’m the first person to get irritated with New Scientist’s sensationalisation of science, and I too am a bit bothered about how the scientists seem to be tracing out an inevitable path of evolution (selective quoting may be the culprit here). I suspect that they only said that to try and make things easier for the the public. In any case, the central thesis remains the same.

Matt is not happy with the idea that evolution is somehow deciding where to go next – but I don’t think anyone is claiming this. What’s being claimed is that there are only a few good ways to do certain things (like see, or move), and yes, you’ll end up trying all of them through random mutations, yes, and you’ll choose the good ones through natural selection. But important thing is that if you were to repeat the process again, because there are only a few good ways to do a certain thing, you’ll end up with organisms taking those very same routes again. That’s the new idea. And I don’t think that Matt’s ubiquitous ‘push’ and ‘pull’ dichotomy does not sufficiently describe this subtlety well enough.


Yet again, people are being confused by Kevin ‘Captain Cyborg’ Warwick’s work. Wired has just published an article about Tech Predictions for the Decade, and here’s a quote:

Other futuristic technology poised for human consumption is the implanted sensor. Gantz pointed out that University of Reading professor Kevin Warwick, who has a sensor implanted in his left arm, has undergone experiments in which scientists have been able to cause a tingling sensation in his left index finger by sending information to his nervous system. This is good news for paraplegics who may someday regain feeling in their legs by having a similar chip implanted in their bodies.

Where’s the media been for the last few decades? We’ve been able to do this for ages, and there are far better ways of going about it then putting a microship in your arm. You’d think that Wired would know about transcortical magnetic stimulation (TMS), which basically fires a magnetic pulse at the brain and can get people to move their limbs. Plus, the electrical stimulation of motor neurones is not exactly rocket science. If they want to know about this stuff, they should pay more attention to neuroscientists, not ‘cybernetics’ experts. Citing Kevin Warwick as the man to watch is doing the biology and neuroscience commuity a real disservice.


Something tells me that Uplink would make a marvellous massively multiplayer immersive fiction game, or at least a decent component of one.

SimCity 4

I’m seriously considering buying SimCity 4 at the moment; all the reviews I’ve read have been fairly positive and it seems that with a bug patch the game should be very playable. Plus, I’ve always been a big fan of SimCity. The most interesting thing that I’ve read so far is that the best way to generate money is to build several different, interconnected cities that trade with each other (this is a new thing in SimCity 4). According to one Usenet post, the economy picked up like a mofo there after using this strategy.

Considering I can’t even remember what the last game I bought was, I think it’d be fun to get back into the modern world of games. But then there’s still Civilization 3 and its Play The World multiplayer pack to be bought (I shamefully got a pirated version of Civ3; I didn’t feel very impressed with myself when Civ3’s AI programmer bought a Mars map off me either). And there’s also the DVD sets for Futurama and Babylon 5 to be bought… bleh.

Rewarding Behaviour

While browsing through hot-shot Cambridge lecturer and security expert Markus Kuhn’s homepage, I came across these two articles about the detrimental effects rewards can have on performance: For Best Results, Forget the Bonus and Studies Find Reward Often No Motivator.

While some may view these articles as part of the backlash against behaviourism, I do think they raise interesting points, especially in the context of massively multiplayer online games.

For example: ‘rewards rupture relations’. When a multiplayer game offers only a few high value prizes, there is little reason for players to co-operate with one another. This can prevent communities from forming, which in themselves can provide a great deal of entertainment and value to players.

‘Creativity and intrinsic interest diminish if task is done for gain’. If you are taking part in an entertaining game that is offering a prize of (say) a million dollars, it will be difficult not to view the game as a means to an end rather than an end in itself.

Studies have shown that creativity, risk taking and enjoyment decrease when a reward is offered for a task, even if the task was originally interesting. Perhaps this is because when a reward is introduced, people focus narrowly on it and try and achieve it quickly and safely. After all, there’s no point taking chances if there’s a million dollars at stake, is there? And if you want to be sure to have a real shot at winning, you might feel you have to ignore the ‘frivolous’ aspects of your task and make sure you are completing the task as proscribed. The game becomes a job to accomplish.

I don’t believe that high value prizes on massively multiplayer online games have any use other than briefly attracting someone’s interest. Offering such prizes belies an ignorance of their delayed effects. All the successful MMORPGs – Everquest, Lineage, Ultima Online, and now The Sims – do not offer players any kind of significant prize, and they appear none the worse for it.

Not all rewards are detrimental, of course. It really does depend on what you want to accomplish. If you want to attract attention to your new product – if all you want is publicity – then it’s perfectly fine to stage a competition with a big prize to promote it. But if you want people to subscribe to your game and play it for an extended period of time, it may not be such a good idea.

Still, sometimes it may be useful to reward players in a massively multiplayer online game, simply to give them recognition. However, it is clearly vital to ensure that players do not perceive the rewards as the ‘point’ of playing the game – or else you start to head down a path that could see them leaving as they find they aren’t enjoying themselves any more.

TerraQuest Axed

TerraQuest game axed. I talked about TerraQuest earlier in I can’t say I’m particularly surprised about this development; not only were they offering a $250,000 grand prize, but also six prizes of $25,000. The total prizes alone are $400,000, and that doesn’t even take into account the production costs. Sure, they said they had ‘external funding’ and that the game wouldn’t be dependant on registration fees from players, but if only a few hundred people signed up, there’s no sense in continuing.

I suspect that they needed at least several thousand players to sign up to make the game viable – preferably well over 10,000 players. Frankly, I think that goal was unrealistic. Why?

Poor marketing and publicity; the only place I read about it was a short blurb on Gamespot. A quick Google reveals that they barely had anyone talking about the game on the Internet. For a game in such a young genre from a young company, word of mouth and media coverage is absolutely essential, and TerraQuest had none.

The entire game was single player, and since you were competing for money, it didn’t benefit you to talk to other players. So while the prize money may attract players, it also severely stunts the growth of a player community, which is one of the most powerful methods of generating word of mouth. Plus, I’m not sure if they had a free play period either, which is a really bad idea.

I don’t know much about the game itself; it was episodic, like Majestic, and the plot was prescripted – like Majestic. Consequently, that it came to the same fate as Majestic – cancelled due to lack of player numbers – should be no surprise. All the commercial game offerings in this immersive fiction genre following AI have lacked a few key elements; a strong, fanatical player community – a strong plot – a flowing, dynamic and realtime storyline – sprawling web content – and innovation.

Back to the drawing board then, I suppose.

Undercover marketing

Is this Lord of the Rings Winamp Skin really by New Line Cinema? It certainly looks like it, and if so, it’s quite a clever piece of work. It’s had almost half a million downloads so far, and for the price of however long it took an artist to design it, it’s generated an incredible return.