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computcomplexit July 25 2014, 00:14

Need some book reviewed- faster than usual


I have been the SIGACT NEWS book review editor since 1997. I have tried to get about 10 books reviewed per column. I have succeeded- perhaps too well! I have gotten so many reviews out that I only have six reviews left.

I DO have many books that could be reviewed, and that is where YOU come in!

List of books available for review: Here

Advice for reviewers: Here

LaTeX  Template for reviews: Here

ALL of my prior columns: Here

IF you want to review a book DO NOT leave a comment- just email me
a set of books you want to review. I will pick out one for you--- it may be based
on what I've already got requests for.

Since it is summer  you are not as busy as the regular hear (hmmm- I am running an REU program AND teaching an intense High School Class, AND going to a security conference, and mentoring three high school students hoping for some more free lunches, so I am actually MORE busy) so summer is a GOOD time to review a book.

Deadline to ASK for a book: Request that you make your request BEFORE July 28 so that when I email in my column with the list-of-books-I-need-reviewed, it is accurate.

Deadline for Review: About two months after you get it, though this can be flexible.
bradideas July 23 2014, 23:43

The two cultures of robocars


I have many more comments pending on my observations from the recent AUVSI/TRB Automated Vehicles Symposium, but for today I would like to put forward an observation I made about two broad schools of thought on the path of the technology and the timeline for adoption. I will call these the aggressive and conservative schools. The aggressive school is represented by Google, Induct (and its successors) and many academic teams, the conservative school involves car companies, most urban planners and various others.

The conservative view sees this technology as a set of wheels that has a computer.

The aggressive school sees this as a computer that has a set of wheels.

The conservative view sees this as an automotive technology, and most of them are very used to thinking about automotive technology. For the aggressive school, where I belong, this is a computer technology, and will be developed — and change the world — at the much faster pace that computer technologies do.

Neither school is probably entirely right, of course. It won’t go as gung-ho as a smartphone, suddenly in every pocket within a few years of release, being discarded when just 2 years old even though it still performs exactly as designed. Nor will it advance at the speed of automotive technology, where electric cars are finally getting some traction a century after being introduced.

The conservative school embraces the 4 NHTSA Levels or 5 SAE levels of technology, and expects these levels to be a path of progress. Car companies are starting to sell “level 2” and working on “level 3” and declaring level 4 or 5 to be far in the future. Google is going directly to SAE level 4.

The two cultures do agree that the curve of deployment is not nearly-instant like a smartphone. It will take some time until robocars are a significant fraction of the cars on the road. What they disagree on is how quickly that has a big effect on society. In sessions I attended, the feeling that the early 2020s would see only a modest fraction of cars being self-driving meant to the conservatives that they would not have that much effect on the world.

In one session, it was asked how many people had cars with automatic cruise control (ACC.) Very few hands went up, and this is no surprise — the uptake of ACC is quite low, and almost all of it is part of a “technology package” on the cars that offer it. This led people to believe that if ACC, now over a decade old, could barely get deployed, we should not expect rapid deployment of more complete self-driving. And this may indeed be a warning for those selling super-cruise style products which combine ACC and lanekeeping under driver supervision, which is the level 2 most car companies are working on.

To counter this, I asked a room how many had ridden in Uber or its competitors. Almost every hand went up this time — again no surprise. In spite of the fact that Uber’s cars represent an insignificant fraction of the deployed car fleet. In the aggressive view, robocars are more a service than a product, and as we can see, a robocar-like service can start affecting everybody with very low deployment and only a limited service area.

This dichotomy is somewhat reflected in the difference between SAE’s Level 4 and NHTSA’s. SAE Level 4 means full driving (including unmanned) but in a limited service area or under other limited parameters. This is what Google has said they will make, this is what you see planned for services in campuses and retirement communities. This is where it begins, and grows one region at a time. NHTSA’s levels falsely convey the idea that you slowly move to fully automated mode and immediately do it over a wide service area. Real cars will vary as to what level of supervision they need (the levels) over different times, streets and speeds, existing at all the levels at different times.

Follow the conservative model and you can say that society will not see much change until 2030 — some even talk about 2040. I believe that is an error.

The two approaches will also clash when it comes to deciding how to measure the safety of the products and how they should be regulated, which will be a much larger battle. More on that later.

collisiondetect July 23 2014, 04:14

A game created "as if games were the only medium on Earth"


I recently picked up 1001 Video Games You Must Play Before You Die. I couldn't resist the title, which so neatly refracts the gibbering cultural anxieties of lists like "1000 novels everyone must read". You see this sort of highbrow listicle often in the realms of literary fiction, movies, possibly poetry. It's classic canon panic, and I say that with a degree of charity and warmth; I actually think arguing heatedly and even snobbishly about what works of art are important and mindbending can be a lot of fun, and occasionally useful to the parties involved.

But there's something hilarious and unsettling about claiming there are 1,001 video games we must play. On the obvious level, it's a cheeky way of mocking the way literary fiction -- or perhaps movies -- are the only arts that self-aggrandizingly proclaim themselves highbrow enough to be considered absolutely compulsory for all non-knuckle-dragging hominids. On a subtler level, it throws a challenge even to gamers themselves. It suggests that no matter how many titles they've played and enjoyed (or hated), there is a much, much larger sea out there. Indeed, the idea that there is a subset of games that are mandatory, and that this number is as large as 1,001, points to the fact that the pool of nonmandatory games (the bad ones, the forgettable ones, the aesthetically and game-mechanically uninspired ones) is probably several orders of magnitude bigger -- tens of thousands, maybe hundreds of thousands of games. Maybe more?

I mean, how many video games have been made, anyway? I've never seen a good estimate of this. When you throw in disposable app-store games -- the phyloplankton of the game world, some so forgettable you'd swear they'd just been procedurally generated (and come to think of that, that would make a crazy project! A robotic game studio that craps out algorithmically-generated games, much like the programmers who bulk-spray thousands of algorithmically-generated books onto Amazon) -- the number becomes Carl-Sagan huge.

Could anyone actually play 1,001 games? Let's do the math! Since modern games promise, in general, "40 hours of play", we're talking about 40,000 hours of play. Actually, let's shrink that down to 30,000 hours, because many early arcade games discussed in this book could be "played through" in a few minutes or an hour or so. But even at 30,000 hours, that's 14 solid years of playing, if you took it on as a full-time job, played for 40 hours a week, and tried to get to the end of every game.

The upshot is, the whole sly point of a book like 1001 Video Games You Must Play Before You Die is that you're really never going to be able to play them all. The fun is in reading about them -- in touring through the encyclopedic entries.

In this regard, I gotta say, the book does not disappoint. The writeups are all barely a villanelle's-worth in length -- a single short page, or even half a page -- yet the writers (about two dozen game journalists) manage to fit in a number of really delightful observations.

Which brings me to the whole reason I'm writing this post! In the writeup for Half-Life 2, Duncan Harris makes a fascinating argument about the title. I'll quote nearly the whole writeup:

Released in 2004 after five years in development, it continues the story of an alpha geek, scientist Gordon Freeman, as he deals with the aftermath of an experiment gone wrong. Placed back on Earth by the mysterious G-Man, he finds himself entering City 17, the cold and forbidding capital of the world now enslaved by aliens. The Combine, who snuck into our dimension, thanks to the events of Half-Life, have broken humanity's spirit and turned it cities into ghettos. Citizens wear rags and huddle next to tenement windows, waiting for the Civil Protection squads to abduct them to who-knows-where. There are no children.

Had the game been so vulgar as to mimic any movies, there'd have been a Hollywood version years ago. But the secret of it success is that, while full of historical parallels, it tells its story as if games were the only medium on Earth. There are no cut scenes, no paragraphs of exposition to read, and the closest you'll get to pop-culture references are Orwell and H.G. Wells. In their place, Valve's artists, technicians, storytellers, and sound engineers create a unique milieu: a distinctly Soviet metropolis being literally consumed by alien architecture.

It tells its story as if games were the only medium on Earth. That is a really great observation, even if it's not true, and I'm not sure it is. (Among other things, the story, characters and dialogue are pretty straightforwardly modeled on the tropes of action flicks.) But the gist of the point -- that what makes a game interesting is its desire to be gamelike, to take its reference points from other games, to regard gameness as central -- is nicely put.

This is one of the reasons I've always dug third-person video games. Their camera aesthetics are totally weird and utterly game-like. When you play, you're almost always constantly staring at the back of your character, as you guide it around the world, as per last year's Tomb Raider, an early pioneer in the third-person perspective back in the 90s:

This is a camera technique born of pure functionality: As a player, you need to be seeing the world in front of your character, so the camera-view must always be floating just behind the character, as if you were a spirit anxiously accompanying your creation. And of course when your character is in tight quarters, like a hallway, the "floating behind" camera view gets all screwed up, with the camera often getting stuck behind objects or appearing to float inside walls.

The thing is, the third-person game camera-angle is truly and totally foreign to Hollywood. I can't imagine any director saying "guys, guys! I've got a great idea! Let's shoot our entire movie from about five feet behind behind the protagonist, carefully tracking behind her, so that we almost never see her face!" That third-person angle is a piece of artistry that is utterly gamelike -- a bit of aesthetics crafted as if games were, indeed, the only medium on Earth.

computcomplexit July 22 2014, 16:30

The Burden of Large Enrollments


This week I'm at the CRA Snowbird conference, the biennial meeting of CS chairs and other leaders in the field. In 2012 many of the discussion focused on MOOCS. This year the challenge facing most CS chairs are booming enrollments in CS courses. A nice problem to have, but a problem nevertheless.

Last night we had a broad discussion about the burgeoning number of students. Ed Lazowska showed his NCWIT slides giving anecdotal evidence. It's too early to get a complete survey of CS departments but hardly anyone in the audience felt that enrollments were not going up by double (or triple) digit percentages. Not only an increase in majors, but a number of non-majors, minors or others, who take upper level courses.
At Georgia Tech it seems every engineering student wants to minor in CS.

We all have to deal with the increase in the short term. Depending on the institution, we have more classes, larger classes, enrollment caps, increases in instructors, PhD lecturers, teaching postdocs, automated grading, undergrad and MS TAs and having other departments take up some of the load. All of this could hurt the undergrad experience but with careful planning we can mitigate those effects.

What's driving the increase? Some suggested a change in the ubiquitous view of computing and the more positive opinion of geeks in society. More likely though, the driver is jobs, the great need for computer scientists and not just from computing companies, and the limited jobs for those graduating with non-technical majors.

Is the big shifts in enrollment a permanent change or just another part of the boom and bust cycle in CS? More than a theoretical questions, a permanent change makes for a better argument with deans and provosts to increase faculty sizes in computer science. There are some signs of "this time is different," such as the increase in non-majors in upper level courses, but it's an argument that will have a hard sell unless the increase is sustained for several years. One good argument: If you draw a linear line through enrollments since the 70's you get a consistent 10% yearly increase averaged over booms and busts.
scott_aaronson July 22 2014, 14:24

“How Might Quantum Information Transform Our Future?”


So, the Templeton Foundation invited me to write a 1500-word essay on the above question.  It’s like a blog post, except they pay me to do it!  My essay is now live, here.  I hope you enjoy my attempt at techno-futurist prose.  You can comment on the essay either here or over at Templeton’s site.  Thanks very much to Ansley Roan for commissioning the piece.

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