Trek is Dead, Long Live Trek

A lot of Trekky things have happened in the past year… Enterprise was cancelled (woot!), Braga left Trek (WOOT!), and Beer Trek celebrated it’s 10th anniversary on the web (whoa).

Last year Jack and I had planned to turn over management of Beer Trek to a team of like-minded Scots. We knew that it had gotten pretty lame since we had not added new rules since about the second season of Voyager, and hoped some younger blood would give it a much-needed kick in the ass. Unfortunately it seems like this is not going to work out (although I do hope to post their most excellent Beer Trek boardgame at some point).

We call Beer Trek the Greatest Star Trek Drinking Game in the Universe, and once it was true. Hopefully it will be so again. Beer Trek cannot die. My new plan is to put the power in the hands of The People. I am going to make Beer Trek a dynamic, data-driven site, so the submission and approval of rules just involves filling in some forms and checking boxes instead of sifting through tons of emails and editing HTML I wrote 10 years ago. Hopefully this will keep the site fresh with minimal effort. This will also allow for searching and querying the rules, so you can see all the TNG rules, or all the Spock rules, etc.

I’m off to a good start – I’ve completed the table structure and loaded all the existing rules into a MySQL database. Next steps are to create the forms for submission and approval and hook them up to the database. Last is a redesign of the Beer Trek itself (done back when I thought yellow text on a black background looked really cool).

I had toyed with the idea of releasing the engine as sort of an open-source “run your own data-driven drinking game site” package but I don’t think I’m doing anything someone else couldn’t do better or faster.

Go SuitSat Go!

On February 4th, a spacesuit stuffed with ham radio equipment was shoved out of the International Space Station. The idea was for it to orbit the Earth, broadcasting on 145.990 MHz FM for a few weeks before burning up in the atmosphere. There are also awards given to classes who receive and decode the messages being broadcast.

At first there seemed to be a problem with SuitSat, and it was prematurely declared dead. But it was still going as of yesterday, although the transmissions are apparently very weak.

An excellent hi-res color image of the SuitSat is here at NASA.

February 15, 2006 | Posted in: Astronomy, Tech | Comments Closed

New Lego Mindstorms Announced

Woo, this looks exciting! Lego has announced a new version of Lego Mindstorms.

For those unfamiliar with Lego Mindstorms, it brings together Lego, programming, and robotics, allowing you to create both independently-operating or remotely controlled robots.

The original MindStorms was pretty clunky, and it was a real labor of love to get anything interesting going with it. Enthusiasts managed to squeeze a lot of good stuff out of it. The promise was there, though, and the potential was great.

Well, the next generation has arrived! It’s got a 32bit processor now, bluetooth, lots more sensors, pant pant pant!

There’s a pretty extensive Wired story with more details.

I need to start a piggybank for the MindStorms fund pronto! LegoBattlebots anyone?

Simulations in Spaaaaace

A recent conversation with a co-worker got me thinking about space exploration sims. I found a few good ones. All of the programs mentioned below are freeware. If only there was a way to combine them all…

OrbiterOrbiter is a space flight simulator. If you want to actually learn to fly an Apollo rocket or the space shuttle, this is the one for you. It is obviously quite technical (JPL’s Basics of Space Flight is recommended reading) but there are some good tutorials out there to get you going. It has quite an active mod community so new missions and craft are always available.

CelestiaCelestia is a planetarium type sim that lets you fly around the galaxy, and has by far the best graphics of the programs I’ve found. Celestia has a mod community also, with add-ons for both real and fictional objects. When you get bored of orbiting Mars and watching the sunrise over Venus, after a few downloads you can visit the Star Trek universe, Star Wars universe, and so on.

NoctisNoctis IV is an incredibly detailed space exploration sim, and the closest to what I wanted when I started searching. It has a (fictional) universe of thousands of stars that you can fly to, and you can land on every planet of every star. You can take photographs of the planet’s surfaces as you explore, and maybe even discover life. There is also a huge community aspect – every player shares the same database, and if you fly to a system that hasn’t been named yet you can name it and record items of interest.

Sadly, the problem with Noctis is that the graphics are absolutely awful. Even with the Noctis IV CE mod it only runs at 320 x 200 resolution. I want to love this game, I really do, because the feature set is just outstanding – but I’m having a real hard time getting past the graphics. Noctis V is supposedly in development, but since the developer is apparently writing his own language for the game, I’m not holding my breath. The FAQ is being updated though, so there is still hope.

If anyone out there has found more space exploration sims, I’d love to hear about it in the comments.

Live Plasma

Map of Black SabbathMy current favorite web toy is LivePlasma. It’s been around a while, but if you haven’t seen it yet, it’s like a Flash version of those Rock Family Trees they used to have in Rolling Stone. It works with both music and movies. The fun part is that you can click around and keep exploring the connections to the connections of the connections.

For example, check out the map of Black Sabbath. You can follow the connections to Ozzy, Rainbow, Deep Purple, and so on and so on.

I wish the connections were a little clearer – right now it only shows you that there IS a connection, but not what or who the connection is. Hopefully they will improve on this. Other than that, it’s a great way to pass some time and play Six Degrees of Ozzy Osbourne.

Homebuilt Robotic Sentry Gun

You’ve seen them in Aliens (well, the Director’s Cut anyhow), in Half-Life 2, and in Team Fortress – but this guy built his own robotic sentry gun at home.

Using an airsoft P90 replica, a webcam & PC, and some servos, he built a very impressive, functional turret:

Most of the testing involved me directing my little brother in front of the turret, him getting shot, and then running away. Polo shirts, not surprisingly, offer very little protection from BB’s that are prone to leaving little welts. When I originally wrote the software, I added code so it would use the Microsoft speech API to say “Freeze” and offer various instructions to a target that it had acquired. At the end of 5 seconds, if the target moved 20 pixels in either direction, it would fire.

The test video is well worth watching. It gives you an external view, a cam view, and a software view of the targeting and firing in action.

Turing Test 2005

A British AI chat program named George has won this year’s Loebner Prize.

In 1990 Hugh Loebner agreed with The Cambridge Center for Behavioral Studies to underwrite a contest designed to implement the Turing Test. Dr. Loebner pledged a Grand Prize of $100,000 and a Gold Medal (pictured above) for the first computer whose responses were indistinguishable from a human’s. Each year an annual prize of $2000 and a bronze medal is awarded to the most human computer. The winner of the annual contest is the best entry relative to other entries that year, irrespective of how good it is in an absolute sense.

Note that the gold medal has never been awarded (yet). While the programs are not too convincing (sample transcript from 2004 competition), it’s an interesting goal for AI researchers to work toward.