Reading the xkcd forum has turned me on to the awesomesauce that is Manufactoria.



The concept is simple at the start. Your job is to build a machine to test robots to ensure that their "program" (expressed as a string of red and blue dots) meets certain characteristics. For instance, the layout above tests to see if a robot's program ends with two blue dots. The conveyor belts pushes robots (that start in the circle at the top) into a neighboring square in the direction indicated, and the branches eat the first character in the string and push the robot in the indicated direction (or in the direction of the gray arrow if the string is empty). In this case, you can see that if the input string ends with two blue dots, the robot will be pushed to the acceptance square in the bottom, otherwise it will fall on the floor and be destroyed.

So it starts off as a fun model for deterministic finite automata, and that's cool enough. But over the course of the 31 levels, the ability to print dots at the end of the input string and a greater range of colors is added, and then you've got an entire range of formal grammar problems available for challenges. And once you've solved a problem, you can go back and tinker with it to make it smaller or faster as you wish. Or you can keep going through some pretty dense challenges that get hard to fit on the factory floor, much less read. That above example was maybe level 10 or 11 of the set, and let's call this level 29:



Still have two more challenges to figure out myself, but it's a great time if this is the sort of thing that you're into.
I don't recall it being just a tot, but I am told that I watched the premier episode of Sesame Street 40 years ago today. I absolutely remember watching very many of the subsequent episodes. It was smart and dear, and it taught me about cooperation and imagination and appreciating diversity and how to count to twenty in Spanish. It spawned the greatest childrens book ever.

There have been dark moments over the years. I really wasn't a fan of the 1985 decision to positively declare that Mr. Snuffleupagus existed. (Yes, yes, if you don't do that then kids will be too afraid to tell grownups about their sexual abuse. But it de-legitimizes my childhood imaginary friends who haven't been seen by grownups.) I was a very very confused child when they recast Gordon TWICE without announcement, as if I wouldn't notice that Susan was now married to a different guy than before. (That didn't happen in my white, middle-class world, you understand, so I assumed that such switches were not unusual elsewhere.) And I think that Elmo has settled into an adorable sharp-witted monster and I have a secret crush on Kevin Clash, but he sure started out as an over-commercialized hot mess.

But, you know, watch this and tell me that any of that matters. That's quality. What are Joey and John-John up to these days?
In lieu of having anything insightful to say about the scandal that might take down British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, I will point out that it would be a shame if this earnest anthem became history instead of current events. Granted, it isn't "Kenya" or "Mango", but I love me some Weebl songs.
I'm probably not the first person to say this, but I haven't heard it said yet: Wolfram|Alpha rocks in stereo.

My first exposure to it was this evening, when my brother told me that he wants to program an object to move around "in a figure 8 pattern (well, a figure 8 on it's side)" but doesn't know the math behind it. My copy of Schaum's Mathematical Handbook seems to have wandered off, so I turned to Google, which offered no response to "lemenscate". No huge surprise, since I pulled that word out of the back corner of my mind and for all I know I made it up. So I eventually hit on a search for "infinity symbol" and Wiki tells me that the correct word is actually "lemniscate". A properly-spelled Google search works out, but this time a short Wiki trail from the top result fails me and I actually need MathWorld's site (and paging two screens down) to get the parametric equation I was looking for. Total time elapsed to get the answer I wanted: maybe five minutes. Bad Google-Fu, no biscuit!

With WA, http://www44.wolframalpha.com/input/?i=lemenscate. Not only does it instantly strike gold with the misspelled word, but it turns that gold into ... um ... some sort of valuable gold thing. I suppose it's no surprise that Wolfram is going to have math subjects covered well, but it's still quite impressive. Once their engines start being able to parse searches related to the softer sciences, it's sure to be quite a tool.

(And, just in case some wouldn't know how Google-Fu would lead me to the subject line, please for you to clap hands and cheering for The Ministry of Unknown Science.)

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Matthew Daly

December 2012

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