Posts Tagged ‘games’
Random numbers are central to more than we may realize. They have applications in gambling, statistical sampling, computer simulation and Monte Carlo modeling, cryptography (as applied in both communications and transactions), completely randomized design, even sooth-saying– in any area where producing an unpredictable result is desirable. So how they’re produced– the certainty that they are, in fact, random– matters enormously.
It’s no surprise, then, that random number generation has a long and fascinating history. Happily, Carl Tashian is here to explain.
“As an instrument for selecting at random, I have found nothing superior to dice,” wrote statistician Francis Galton in an 1890 issue of Nature. “When they are shaken and tossed in a basket, they hurtle so variously against one another and against the ribs of the basket-work that they tumble wildly about, and their positions at the outset afford no perceptible clue to what they will be even after a single good shake and toss.”…
From I Ching sticks and dice to the cryptographically-secure PRNG, “A Brief History of Random Numbers.”
[TotH to the eminently-numerate Reuben Steiger]
As we roll the bones, we might spare a thought for Samuel “Sam” Loyd; he died on this date in 1911. A chess player, chess composer, puzzle author, and recreational mathematician. A member of the Chess Hall of Fame (for both his play and for his exercises, or “problems”), he gained posthumous fame when his son published a collection of his mathematical and logic puzzles, Cyclopedia of 5000 Puzzles after his father’s death. As readers can see here and here, his puzzles still delight.
Loyd’s most famous puzzle was the 14-15 Puzzle, which he produced in 1878. His original authorship is debated; but in any case, his version created a craze that swept America to such an extent that employers put up notices prohibiting playing the puzzle during office hours.
Q1: What is, traditionally, the principal unit of measurement for measuring floorspace in Taiwan? Taipei 101’s floorspace of 379,296 square meters converts to about 114,737 of the unit in question.
Q2: If you’re playing Magic: The Gathering, what slangy verb (synonymous with poke, zap, and Tim) might you use to signify dealing one hit point of damage to a target?
Q3: Analogies: Rosalind is to Ganymede as Éowyn is to Dernhelm as Fa Mulan is to whom?
Q4: What fictional wanderer, introduced in a 1933 book often read by Captain Kangaroo, lives with “his mother and his father and two sisters and three brothers and eleven aunts and seven uncles and forty-two cousins”?
Q5: What networking utility, first written for 4.2a BSD UNIX in 1983, sends echo request packets and reports on echo replies?
* Samuel Beckett, “Ping.”
As we sign up for the next pub quiz, we might spare a thought for John Baskerville, English printer and typefounder; he died on this date in 1775. Among Baskerville’s publications in the British Museum’s collection are Aesop’s Fables (1761), the Bible (1763), and the works of Horace (1770). And as for his fonts, Baskerville’s creations (including the famous “Baskerville”) were so successful that his competitors resorted to claims that they damaged the eyes.
Readers will recall the hysterical efforts of “Dr.” Frederic Wertham to protect children from the dangers of comic books; pinball machines faced a similar challenge…
During the decadent reign of Louis XIV, restless courtiers at Versailles became enchanted with a game they called ‘bagatelle’ which means a ‘trifle’ in French. This game was played on a slanted felt board. A wooden cue was used to hit balls into numbered depressions in the board – usually guarded by metal pins. The game arrived in America in the 19th century, and by the turn of the 20th century attempts were being made to commercialize the game. According to Edward Trapunski, author of the invaluable pinball history Special When Lit (1979), the first successful coin operated bagatelle game, Baffle Ball, was produced by the D Gottlieb Company at the end of 1931.
Soon the metal plunger took the place of the wooden cue stick, and lights, bumpers and elaborate artwork appeared on the machines. The game had arrived at the right time – the Depression had just hit America hard, and the one-nickel amusement helped entertain many struggling citizens. It also kept many small businesses afloat, since the operator and location owner usually split the profits 50/50. The game was particularly popular with youngsters in claustrophobic cities like New York, which boasted an estimated 20,000 machines by 1941. That year, one local judge who was confronted with a pinball machine during a case voiced the complaint of many older citizens when he whined: ‘Will you please take this thing away tonight. I can’t get away from these infernal things. They have them wherever I go.’
Although pinball was quickly vilified in many parts of America, the poster child for the vilification was none other than ‘the little flower’ himself: the pugnacious, all-powerful Fiorello H La Guardia, mayor of New York City from 1934 to 1945. La Guardia argued that pinball was a ‘racket dominated by interests heavily tainted with criminality’, which took money from the ‘pockets of school children’…
The whole sad story at: “A menace to society: the war on pinball in America.” (And more on the history of pinball machines here and here.)
* Haruki Murakami,
As we limber up our flipper fingers, we might spare a thought for a man who’d surely have approved of neither the comics nor pinball, Increase Mather; he died on this date in 1723. A major figure in the early history of the Massachusetts Bay Colony and the Province of Massachusetts Bay (now the Commonwealth of Massachusetts), Mather was a Puritan minister involved with the government of the colony, the administration of Harvard College, and most notoriously, the prosecution of the Salem witch trials. His piety ran in the family: he was the son of Richard Mather, and the father of Cotton Mather, both influential Puritan ministers.
The CEO of Enron – now in prison – happily applied ‘selfish gene’ logic to his human capital, thus creating a self-fulfilling prophecy. Assuming that the human species is driven purely by greed and fear, Jeffrey Skilling produced employees driven by the same motives. Enron imploded under the mean-spirited weight of his policies, offering a preview of what was in store for the world economy as a whole…
As we concentrate on cooperation, we might spare a thought for Martin Gardner; he died on this date in 2010. Though not an academic, nor ever a formal student of math or science, he wrote widely and prolifically on both subjects in such popular books as The Ambidextrous Universe and The Relativity Explosion and as the “Mathematical Games” columnist for Scientific American. Indeed, his elegant– and understandable– puzzles delighted professional and amateur readers alike, and helped inspire a generation of young mathematicians.
Gardner’s interests were wide; in addition to the math and science that were his power alley, he studied and wrote on topics that included magic, philosophy, religion, and literature (c.f., especially his work on Lewis Carroll– including the delightful Annotated Alice— and on G.K. Chesterton). And he was a fierce debunker of pseudoscience: a founding member of CSICOP, and contributor of a monthly column (“Notes of a Fringe Watcher,” from 1983 to 2002) in Skeptical Inquirer, that organization’s monthly magazine.
“Taxonomy is described sometimes as a science and sometimes as an art, but really it’s a battleground”*…
Taxonomy, the art and science of classifying life, really should be a civilized pursuit. It encourages solitude, concentration, care. It rewards a meticulous attention to detail. And while it might occasionally receive some good-natured ribbing from the popular culture—think of all those butterfly collectors stumbling around in Far Side cartoons—it continues to play a vital role at the foundations of modern biology.
It can come as a bit of a surprise, then, when that veneer of civilization cracks, and the field reveals itself to be one of the more contentious arenas in science, a place where arguments over names and classifications rage through the literature for decades. This is both a strength, as challenges to current classification keep the field dynamic and relevant, and an expression of its hardwired vulnerabilities…
* Bill Bryson,
As we contemplate classification, we might send carefully-spelled birthday greetings to Alfred Mosher Butts; he was born on this date in 1899. An architect, artist, photographer, and inventor, Butts found himself at loose ends in the early 1930s, and set out to design a board game, settling on one that utilized both chance and skill by combining elements of anagrams and crossword puzzles. He carefully analyzed how often each letter is used (thus determining how many of each letter to include and how many points each one would earn), then drew a board and glued letters on some balsa tiles. He first called his creation “Lexiko”, but later changed the name to “Criss Cross Words.” In 1948, he sold his game to James Brunot, who made a few minor adjustments to the design and renamed the game “Scrabble.” Today it is sold in 121 countries and is available in 29 languages; approximately 150 million sets have been sold worldwide. Roughly one-third of American and half of British homes have a Scrabble set, and there are over 4,000 Scrabble clubs worldwide.
A few times each decade, the number of acceptable Scrabble words grows. Some sixty-five hundred new words—“lolz,” “shizzle,” and “blech” among them—will officially enter one of the two major competitive Scrabble lexicons on September 1st of this year. The grumbling that results when a word list lengthens is not so much about the inclusion of obscene or offensive words—though a cleaned-up list was controversially published in 1996, after someone protested the inclusion of “jew” as a verb. Instead, it is more about the growing divide between two Scrabble communities: North America and everywhere else…
The history of everyone’s favorite word game– and an explanation of the controversy roiling it today– at “The battle over Scrabble’s dictionaries.”
* Steve Martin
As we reach for a triple-letter double-word combo, we might recall that, while February 23rd, 1455 is the traditionally-given date of the publication of the Gutenberg Bible, the first Western book printed from movable type, the first evidence-based date is this date in 1456: the copy in the Bibliothèque nationale de France contains a note from the binder establishing the time of its publication.
(The Jikji— the world’s oldest known extant movable metal type printed book– was published in Korea in 1377. Bi Sheng created the first known moveable type– out of wood– in China in 1040.)