Neil deGrasse Tyson is Creating a New Space Exploration Video Game with the Help of George R.R. Martin & Neil Gaiman

Although Neil deGrasse Tyson is somewhat hesitant to go in on plans to terraform and colonize Mars, that doesn’t mean he doesn’t like a good ol’--yet science-based--video game. Several outlets announced recently that the videogame Space Odyssey, spearheaded by deGrasse Tyson--one of America’s main defenders of logic and Enlightenment--has surpassed its Kickstarter funding goal. The game promises to send players on “real science-based missions to explore space, colonize planets, create and mod in real time."

In the game, according to deGrasse Tyson, “you control the formation of planets, of comets, of life, civilization. You could maybe tweak the force of gravity and see what effect that might have.” It will be, he says, “an exploration into the laws of physics and how they shape the world in which we live.”

The game has been forming for several years now, and most importantly to our readers, has called in several sci-fi and fantasy writers to help create the various worlds in the game, as they have aptly demonstrated their skills in doing so on the printed page. That includes George R.R. Martin, currently ignoring whatever HBO is doing to his creation Game of Thrones; Neil Gaiman, who creates a new universe every time he drops a new novel; and Len Wein, who has had a hand in creating both DC’s Swamp Thing and Marvel’s Wolverine. Also on board: deGrasse Tyson’s buddy Bill Nye, former NASA astronaut Mike Massimino, and astrophysicist Charles Liu.

The idea of world/galaxy-building is not new in video games, especially recently. No Man’s Sky (2015) features “eighteen quintillion full-featured planets” and Minecraft seems limitless. But Space Odyssey (still a temporary title!) is the first to have deGrasse Tyson and friends working the controls in the background. And a game is as good as the visionaries behind it.

 

According to the Kickstarter page, the raised funds will go into “the ability to have this community play the game and engage with it while the final build is underway. As the Kickstarter gaming community begins to beta test game-play and provide feedback, we can begin to use the funds raised via Kickstarter to incorporate your modding, mapping and building suggestions, together building the awesome gaming experience you helped to create.”

DeGrasse Tyson will be in the game himself, urging players onward. There’s no indication whether Mr. Martin will be popping up, though.

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Ted Mills is a freelance writer on the arts who currently hosts the artist interview-based FunkZone Podcast and is the producer of KCRW's Curious Coast. You can also follow him on Twitter at @tedmills, read his other arts writing at tedmills.com and/or watch his films here.

How to Win at Texas Hold ‘Em: A Free MIT Course

In 2015, we featured a short MIT course called Poker Theory and Analytics, which introduced students to poker strategy, psychology, and decision-making in eleven lectures. Now comes a new course, this one more squarely focused on Texas Hold 'Em. Taught by MIT grad student Will Ma, the course "covers the poker concepts, math concepts, and general concepts needed to play the game of Texas Hold'em on a professional level." Here's a quick overview of the topics the course delves into in the 7 lectures above (or find them here on YouTube).

  • Poker Concepts: preflop ranges, 3-betting, continuation betting, check-raising, floating, bet sizing, implied odds, polarization, ICM theory, data mining in poker
  • Math Concepts: probability and expectation, variance and the Law of Large Numbers, Nash Equilibrium
  • General Concepts: decisions vs. results, exploitative play vs. balanced play, risk management

You can find the syllabus, lecture slides and assignments on this MIT website.  How to Win at Texas Hold 'Em will be added to our collection, 1,300 Free Online Courses from Top Universities.

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Garry Kasparov Will Teach an Online Course on Chess

Quick FYI: Garry Kasparov will be teaching an online course on chess this fall, apparently his first online course ever. A grandmaster and six-time World Chess Champion, Kasparov held the highest chess rating (until being surpassed by Magnus Carlsen in 2013) and also the record for consecutive tournament victories (15 in a row). In his upcoming course, featuring 20 video lessons, Kasparov will give students "detailed lessons," covering "his favorite openings and advanced tactics," all of which will help students "develop the instincts and philosophy to become a stronger player." Students who pre-enroll now will get early access to the course.

The $90 course is being offered by MasterClass, the same venture developing classes with these other luminaries--Herbie Hancock on JazzJane Goodall on the EnvironmentDavid Mamet on Dramatic WritingSteve Martin on ComedyAaron Sorkin on ScreenwritingGordon Ramsay on CookingChristina Aguilera on Singing, and Werner Herzog on Filmmaking.

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The Story of Habitat, the Very First Large-Scale Online Role-Playing Game (1986)

Long before World of Warcraft, before Everquest and Second Life, and even before Ultima Online, computer-gamers of the 1980s looking for an online world to explore with others of their kind could fire up their Commodore 64s, switch on their dial-up modems, and log into Habitat. Brought out for the Commodore online service Quantum Link by Lucasfilm Games (later known as the developer of such classic point-and-click adventure games as Maniac Mansion and The Secret of Monkey Island, now known as Lucasarts), Habitat debuted as the very first large-scale graphical virtual community, blazing a trail for all the massively multiplayer online role-playing games (or MMORPGs) so many of us spend so much of our time playing today.

Designed, in the words of creators Chip Morningstar and F. Randall Farmer, to "support a population of thousands of users in a single shared cyberspace," Habitat presented "a real-time animated view into an online simulated world in which users can communicate, play games, go on adventures, fall in love, get married, get divorced, start businesses, found religions, wage wars, protest against them, and experiment with self-government." All that happened and more within the service's virtual reality during its pilot run from 1986 to 1988. The features both cautiously and recklessly implemented by Habitat's developers, and the feedback they received from its users, laid down the template for all the more advanced graphical online worlds to come.




At the top of the post, you can watch Lucasfilm's original Habitat promotional video promise a "strange new world where names can change as quickly as events, surprises lurk at every turn, and the keynotes of existence are fantasy and fun," one where "thousands of avatars, each controlled by a different human, can converge to shape an imaginary society." (All performed, the narrator notes, "with the cooperation of a huge mainframe computer in Virginia.") The form this society eventually took impressed Habitat's creators as much as anyone, as Farmer writes in his "Habitat Anecdotes" from 1988, an examination of the most memorable happenings and phenomena among its users.

Farmer found he could group those users into five now-familiar categories: the Passives (who "want to 'be entertained' with no effort, like watching TV"), the Active (whose "biggest problem is overspending"), the Motivators (the most valuable users, for they "understand that Habitat is what they make of it"), the Caretakers (employees who "help the new users, control personal conflicts, record bugs" and so on), and the Geek Gods (the virtual world's all-powerful administrators). Sometimes everyone got along smoothly, and sometimes — inevitably, given that everyone had to define the properties of this brand new medium even as they experienced it — they didn't.

"At first, during early testing, we found out that people were taking stuff out of others' hands and shooting people in their own homes," Farmer writes. Later, a Greek Orthodox Minister opened Habitat's first church, but "I had to eventually put a lock on the Church's front door because every time he decorated (with flowers), someone would steal and pawn them while he was not logged in!" This citizen-governed virtual society eventually elected a sheriff from among its users, though the designers could never quite decide what powers to grant him. Other surprisingly "real world" institutions developed, including a newspaper whose user-publisher "tirelessly spent 20-40 hours a week composing a 20, 30, 40 or even 50 page tabloid containing the latest news, events, rumors, and even fictional articles."

Though developing this then-advanced software for "the ludicrous Commodore 64" posed a serious technical challenge, write Farmer and Morningstar in their 1990 paper "The Lessons of Lucasfilm's Habitat," the real work began when the users logged on. All the avatars needed houses, "organized into towns and cities with associated traffic arteries and shopping and recreational areas" with "wilderness areas between the towns so that everyone would not be jammed together into the same place." Most of all, they needed interesting places to visit, "and since they can't all be in the same place at the same time, they needed a lot of interesting places to visit. [ ... ] Each of those houses, towns, roads, shops, forests, theaters, arenas, and other places is a distinct entity that someone needs to design and create. Attempting to play the role of omniscient central planners, we were swamped."

All this, the creators discovered, required them to stop thinking like the engineers and game designers they were, giving up all hope of rigorous central planning and world-building in favor of figuring out the tricker problem of how, "like the cruise director on an ocean voyage," to make Habitat fun for everyone. Farmer faces that question again today, having launched the open-source NeoHabitat project earlier this year with the aim of reviving the Habitat world for the 21st century. As much progress as graphical multiplayer online games have made in the past thirty years, the conclusion Farmer and Morningstar reached after their experience creating the first one holds as true as ever: "Cyberspace may indeed change humanity, but only if it begins with humanity as it really is."

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. He’s at work on a book about Los Angeles, A Los Angeles Primer, the video series The City in Cinema, the crowdfunded journalism project Where Is the City of the Future?, and the Los Angeles Review of Books’ Korea Blog. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

A Free 700-Page Chess Manual Explains 1,000 Chess Tactics in Plain English

Image by Michael Maggs, via Wikimedia Commons

FYI: In 2011, Ward Farnsworth published a two-volume collection called Predator at The Chessboard: A Field Guide To Chess Tactics (Volume 1 - Volume 2where he explains countless chess tactics in plain English. In this 700-page collection, "there are 20 chapters, about 200 topics within them, and over 1,000 [chess] positions discussed." Now for the even better part: Farnsworth also made these volumes available free online. Just visit chesstactics.org and you can start making yourself a better chess player whenever you have the urge.

Naturally, Predator At The Chessboard will be added to our collection, 800 Free eBooks for iPad, Kindle & Other Devices.

Follow Open Culture on Facebook and Twitter and share intelligent media with your friends. Or better yet, sign up for our daily email and get a daily dose of Open Culture in your inbox. 

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Stream 72 Hours of Ambient Sounds from Blade Runner: Relax, Go to Sleep in a Dystopian Future

As reflexively as we may now describe the 2019 Los Angeles of Blade Runner as "dystopian" — and indeed, as vivid a modern dystopia as cinema has yet produced — who among us wouldn't want to spend at least a few hours there? Much of the surface appeal is, of course, visual: the rainy neon-lined streets, the industrial fearsomeness, those tower-side video geisha. But no film truly succeeds, at creating a world or anything else, without the right sound. We may not consciously realize it when we watch the movie, no matter how many times we've seen it before, but the sonic elements, all carefully crafted, do more than their fair share to make Blade Runner feel like Blade Runner.

And so the best way to put yourself into Blade Runner's world may be to surround yourself with its sounds, a task made much easier by "ambient geek" Crysknife007, whose Youtube channel offers a playlist of ambient noise from Blade Runner places. These include Deckard's apartment, the Tyrell Building, the Bradbury Hotel, and others, each of which loops for a continuous twelve hours. (The complete playlist above runs for 72 hours.) Some of the locations even die-hard fans of the movie might not recognize, because they come from another extension of Blade Runner's reality: the 1997 PC adventure game that has a new cast of characters play out a different story in the proto-cyberpunk urban setting with the same necessity for just the right sound to create just the right atmosphere

Crysknife007, who as an ambient musician goes under the name "Cheesy Nervosa," seems to have a side line in this sort of thing: last month we featured other sci-fi-inspired selections from the same Youtube channel like the sounds of the ship's engine from Star Trek: the Next Generation and the TARDIS from Doctor Who. But it's Blade Runner, as Thom Andersen says in his documentary Los Angeles Plays Itself, that "continues to fascinate. Perhaps it expresses a nostalgia for a dystopian vision of the future that has become outdated. This vision offered some consolation because it was at least sublime. Now the future looks brighter, hotter, and blander." But even as the real 2019 draws near, whatever the future actually ends up looking like, we at least know we can keep it sounding interesting.

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. He’s at work on a book about Los Angeles, A Los Angeles Primer, the video series The City in Cinema, the crowdfunded journalism project Where Is the City of the Future?, and the Los Angeles Review of Books’ Korea Blog. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

The M.C. Escher Mirror Puzzle: Test Your Imagination & Concentration with an Artistic Brain Teaser

The art of M.C. Escher apparently makes for some good puzzles. Head over to Amazon and you'll find a number of ornate Escher works of art turned into traditional 1,000-piece puzzles. They'll keep you busy for hours on end. But will they challenge you as much as the M.C. Escher Mirror Puzzle featured above? This puzzle takes things to another level. The directions read like this: "Use the slanted mirror inside each cube to reflect the image on the side of an adjacent cube. Once you place all nine cubes in the right pattern, a complete Escher image will appear." Finish the first puzzle, and then start on the next one. There are five puzzles in this set.

Follow Open Culture on Facebook and Twitter and share intelligent media with your friends. Or better yet, sign up for our daily email and get a daily dose of Open Culture in your inbox. 

If you'd like to support Open Culture and our mission, please consider making a donation to our site. It's hard to rely 100% on ads, and your contributions will help us provide the best free cultural and educational materials.

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