A Simple Introduction to Algorithms

I've created a simple introduction to the concept of an algorithm that doesn't require any knowledge of programming to understand and enjoy. If you're curious about what an algorithm is, you'll find out, using the task of ordering playing cards as an example. Check it out!

This is the first in a new series of videos about algorithms. In the next video I'll talk about some clever methods that allow us to put items in order with minimal work.

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In Search Of: Five-Player Co-Op

I love co-operative online gaming. I've been playing co-op games since the late 1990s, when my friends and I discovered games like Baldur's Gate, in which up to six players joined together in an epic role-playing adventure based on the rules of the tabletop RPG, Dungeons & Dragons. My friends and I spent the better part of a year playing that game, meeting online one night per week, beginning a ritual which continues to this day. Over the years, co-op gaming has allowed us to continue playing games together, even as we've moved far apart and rarely get together in person.

But our weekly ritual is getting more difficult to pull off all the time. Why? The problem is that there are five people in our gaming group. As I said, Baldur's Gate allowed up to six players at once, and golden-age MMOs like World of Warcraft and Lord of the Rings Online had five as the standard party size. These days, though, most co-op games limit you to four players maximum. I don't know how four became the industry standard for group size. I put much of the blame on Left 4 Dead, the four-players-versus-zombies game, simply because it was so successful that it spawned a host of imitators like the Payday series and the ridiculously over-titled Warhammer: The End Times - Vermintide.

Nothing's worse than when a great co-op game comes out and, because it's only four player, we either have to skip it, or work in sessions around someone's absences. The latest culprit is Divinity: Original Sin 2, a wonderfully updated take on the classic Baldur's Gate formula that we fell in love with all those years ago. Hey, look, here's the loading screen. Doesn't this look like a five-player co-op game to you?

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But it's not. It's four player. Those five characters are all in the game, but only four of them will ever be together.

I know I'm not the only person who is bothered by the player limit, because someone has made a mod that allows five players, but it's buggy and may lead to game-halting issues. What we need is a little support from the game makers. Please, developers, make games that scale up and down to allow a little variation in party size. If you're going to all the effort to make a great co-op game, make a little extra effort and make a game that all my friends can enjoy together.

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Bottom-Up Programming

I put together a new video on bottom-up programming solutions. This video is, in a way, a sequel my earlier video on recursive dynamic programming, but also demonstrates how the bottom-up concept can lead to solutions outside of recursion and outside of dynamic programming. Check it out!

If you'd like to try any of these programs yourself or just read through them at your leisure, here they are:

 

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Aiming in World of Warships: A Success Story

I don't play as many computer/video games as I did in my youth, but I still play. While I am a competent gamer, achieving a high skill level in some games simply requires more practice than I am willing to invest. For example, I thought I would never find much success in the team-based naval combat game World of Warships--even though I'm pretty good at its older sibling, World of Tanks. My main problem was landing shots on mid to long-range targets without taking too much time. I almost gave up, but I decided to treat this as a puzzle to be solved. I spent a little time gathering test footage and data, and I cracked the code. I may never be an especially fearsome captain, but I can aim now. Here's a video I made explaining the aiming method I developed, which I call Ghost Ship Targeting:

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Is Technology Fragmenting Society?

When I was young, there were four channels I could view on the television--the three local network affiliates and our PBS station. Our family was an early adopter of cable television, for which I was immensely grateful. The brief period after I acquired access to MTV and before the rest of the world did marked the only time that I was more plugged-in to popular culture than my peers. But as the channels have proliferated on cable and the number of radio stations has increased and been augmented by endless numbers of satellite radio stations, and with the advent of streaming media, we've started to lost the shared experiences that bind us together as people.

Back in 1980, for example, a character named J. R. Ewing was unexpectedly shot, and possibly killed, as a season-ending cliffhanger on the CBS show, Dallas. Now, it wasn't as though everyone in America was watching Dallas, but the number of viewers was high enough that everyone in America knew about it. The fictional shooting was a shared cultural event.

And because there were fewer media outlets, those outlets tended to cast wider nets. That probably accounts for the blandness of much of the television from that era. Producers tried to make shows that appealed to everyone, and they often made shows that lots of people kinda liked but no one really loved. But the wide net also meant you could get exposed to things you weren't specifically looking for.

For example, consider The Midnight Special, which came on Fridays on NBC, after Johnny Carson. This show featured live music (or nearly live--there's the occassional cheating), and the variety of acts was amazing. One week you might see The Cars, just on the cusp of fame:

Another week you might see The Sylvers--if you've forgotten or never seen this act, imagine the Jackson Five, but with the other brothers and sisters cramming the stage. Or just watch:

Another week, the show would head into another direction entirely, with The New York Dolls:

Rock, soul, country, pop, you could find it all on the Midnight Special. Now, if you want music, you can bring up an app that will play you just the music that you already know and like, which is cool, but it means we're all starting to live in the cultural equivalent of a walled garden. I can't imagine a show like the Midnight Special happening now, or a television character so well-known that everyone in America would ponder his fate. Will we ever see variety programs like The Carol Burnett Show again? Probably not.

Communication technology, from the telegraph to the Internet, has always held out the promise of bringing people together, but if we're not careful, it can do the opposite. Our technology can segment and divide us, so that while we develop close ties to the people and things we already know and like, we may miss the chance to interact with what's new and different. 

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