Friday, January 9, 2015

                                                                   By nature

A new computer algorithm can play one of the most popular variants of poker essentially perfectly. Its creators say that it is virtually “incapable of losing against any opponent in a fair game”.

This is a step beyond a computer program that can beat top human players, as IBM's chess-playing computer Deep Blue famously did in 1997 against Garry Kasparov, at the time the game's world champion. The poker program devised by computer scientist Michael Bowling and his colleagues at the University of Alberta in Edmonton, Canada, along with Finnish software developer Oskari Tammelin, plays perfectly, to all intents and purposes.

That means that this particular variant of poker, called heads-up limit hold’em (HULHE), can be considered solved. The algorithm is described in a paper inScience.

The strategy the authors have computed is so close to perfect “as to render pointless further work on this game”, says Eric Jackson, a computer-poker researcher based in Menlo Park, California.

“I think that it will come as a surprise to experts that a game this big has been solved this soon,” Jackson adds.

A few other popular games have been solved before. In particular, in 2007 a team from the same computer-science department at Alberta — including Neil Burch, a co-author of the latest study — cracked draughts, also known as checkers.

But poker is harder to solve than draughts. Chess and draughts are examples of perfect-information games, in which players have complete knowledge of all past events and of the present situation in a game. In poker, in contrast, there are some things a player does not know: most crucially, which cards the other player has been dealt. The class of games with imperfect information is especially interesting to economists and game theorists, because it includes practical problems such as finding optimal strategies for auctions and negotiations.

With regret

In poker, the main challenge is dealing with the immense number of possible ways that a game can be played. Bowling and colleagues have looked at one of the most popular forms, called Texas hold’em. With just two players, the game becomes heads-up, and it is a 'limit' game when it has fixed bet sizes and a fixed number of raises. There are 3.16 × 1017 states that HULHE can reach, and 3.19 × 1014 possible points at which a player must make a decision.

Bowling and colleagues designed their algorithm so that it would learn from experience, getting to its champion-level skills required playing more than 1,500 games. At the beginning, it made its decisions randomly, but then it updated itself by attaching a 'regret' value to each decision, depending on how poorly it fared.

This procedure, known as counterfactual regret minimization, has been widely adopted in the Annual Computer Poker Competition, which has run since 2006. But Bowling and colleagues have improved it by allowing the algorithm to re-evaluate decisions considered to be poor in earlier training rounds.

The other crucial innovation was the handling of the vast amounts of information that need to be stored to develop and use the strategy, which is of the order of 262 terabytes. This volume of data demands disk storage, which is slow to access. The researchers figured out a data-compression method that reduces the volume to a more manageable 11 terabytes and which adds only 5% to the computation time from the use of disk storage.

“I think the counterfactual regret algorithm is the major advance,” says computer scientist Jonathan Shapiro at the University of Manchester, UK. “But they have done several other very clever things to make this problem computationally feasible.”

Bluffing game

As part of its developing strategy, the computer learned to inject a certain dose of bluffing into its plays. Although bluffing seems like a very human, psychological element of the game, it is in fact part of game theory — and, typically, of computer poker. “Bluffing falls out of the mathematics of the game,” says Bowling, and you can calculate how often you should bluff to obtain best results.

Of course, no poker algorithm can be mathematically guaranteed to win every game, because the game involves a large element of chance based on the hand you’re dealt. But Bowling and his colleagues have demonstrated that their algorithm always wins in the long run.

The problem is only what the researchers call 'essentially solved', meaning that there is an extremely small margin by which, in theory, the computer might be beaten by skill rather than chance. But this margin is negligible in practice.

Bowling says that the approach might be useful in real-life situations when one has to make decisions with incomplete information — for example, for managing a portfolio of investments. The team is now focusing on applying their approach to medical decision-making, in collaboration with diabetes specialists.

Game theorists crack poker

Yesterday we showed you what was reported to be the first ever leaked screenshot showing an in-development build of Spartan, Microsoft’s upcoming Web browser for Windows 10 which was first rumored late last year. Today though there are a couple of new leaked images doing the rounds, and these two show us a very different design for Spartan.

That may be a good thing, given how cartoonish its interface looked in yesterday’s shot. The downside is that today’s leak is comprised of two extremely small and extremely blurry screenshots.

The actual leaked images are the first two below. Underneath you can see a mockup based on them, which is supposedly a near 1:1 replica of the browser’s UI.

An early view of Microsoft Spartan Browser For Windows 10

If you ask “certain” people, they’ll tell you that Android is inherently laggy (then again, if you don’t ask them, they’ll eventually volunteer that opinion anyway). In the past, generally speaking, Android hasn’t been “laggy” per se, the operating system just handles processes and priorities differently than others may. Put simply, as soon as you touch the screen of an iPhone or iPad all processing stops while the OS devotes its full attention to your interaction – at the expense of stopping everything else. This gives the impression of fluidity and speed, but in reality, processes take longer than they do using Android’s approach.

Android handles screen touches as just another event. All the processes currently running continue to run. If your device is underpowered or running a lot of “stuff” in the background, the perception might be interpreted as “laggy”, even though it’s finishing tasks faster than the competition does.

Be that as it may, this perceived “lag” seems to be more visible in Android 5.0 Lollipop than in previous versions of Android. While some blamed the new Material Design with all its new-fangled animations, others pointed to the encryption that defaults to “on” for the devices shipping with Lollipop. Others, however, started looking deeper, and submitted bug tickets to the Android Open Source Project Issue Tracker.

Finally a trend started to emerge. After around 40 hours of “on time”, lag started to crop up. “Weird” things started happening. Apps started to hang – and eventually crash. The good news? Everything was “fixed” with a simple reboot. Ah ha! The clue!

When things work for a while, and get progressively worse, and are resolved by a reboot, that’s typically an indicator of a memory leak. What’s a “memory leak”, you ask? Imagine that RAM is tea, and apps are tea cups. Every school girl will tell you that a proper tea set has several cups (what’s a tea party without a bunch of friends, right?).

this scenario, you fill the cups (which represent loading apps from storage into RAM), then wait. Instead of the cups being emptied by the guests, they miraculously keep filling with tea. Your guests look on in wondered amazement!

Eventually the cups get so full that the tea spills over the edge of the cups. You, being the gracious host that you are, spring into action, grab a towel, and mop up the spilled tea. Then another cup overflows, and another. Eventually the tablecloth is soaked. Your guests’ amusement at the self-filling teacups has turned to frustration and ruined clothing (they’ll be sending you a bill for that!). Your party is a mess – literally as well as figuratively.

In our scenario, the apps keep filling up more and more RAM. This forces other apps to hang and eventually close, until running even one app at a time becomes frustrating. Finally, something triggers a reboot and just like that, the tablecloth is replaced, a fresh pot of tea has been made, and your guests are eager to catch up on the daily news – until it starts happening again.

This appears to be the case with Android Lollipop. Luckily, the issue has been reported and it’s even been closed as “resolved!” Sure, it took six weeks for Google to identify and fix the problem, but that’s not too terribly bad – I guess.

What is bad is that the fix will deployed in a “FutureRelease”. Whether that means Android 5.0.3 or 5.1, or 6.x, who knows. Hopefully it will roll out quickly in 5.0.3 – whenever that arrives.

Might I interest you in a cup of tea while we wait?

Here’s why Android Lollipop is laggy

In mid-2014, Samsung and Marvel announced a global brand partnership that would allow the South Korean electronics manufacturer to showcase exclusive Marvel content, but also create cool concept tech for films, such as Avengers: Age of Ultron. As you all know, the new Avengers is going to be the movie to see in 2015, so Samsung is making sure we all know that they are a part of the action. 

During a press event last night at CES, Samsung showed off new exclusive Avengers: Age of Ultron content that brought out the happy nerds in all of us. They also had life-size statues of Hulk, Iron Man, and Thor that some of us may or may not have posed for pictures with. But outside of the content, we got a behind-glass-case look at some of the specially designed tech that the Avengers team and Tony Stark will use during the film.

Samsung designed a new smartwatch, Bluetooth ear pieces, and even a concept hologram phone with fingerprint scanner for use in the movie. We took some pictures and have included them below for you to drool over. Obviously, we couldn’t touch the devices or play with them (they aren’t real anyway, so it’s not like they would turn on).

Is it just me or are these some of the sleekest products Samsung has ever designed? Can they hire this design team to make the Galaxy S6?


Here is the Cool Samsung Concept Tech Tony Stark Will Use in Avengers: Age of Ultron

 Nexus line has always represented the very best of Google software for mobile devices, whether it’s on smartphones or tablets. Early in 2014, analysts questioned whether or not Google would discontinue the line in favor of a new, budget line of products that got stock Android into even more hands. Fortunately, we still got at least two more iterations of the Nexus line: the Nexus 6 smartphone and the Nexus 9 tablet.

The Nexus 9 is something of a hybrid of 2013’s Nexus 7 and 2012’s Nexus 10. It runs the newest version of Android and will no doubt influence the future of the platform, but is it a tablet that you should seriously consider next to products like the premium iPad Air 2 or budget-friendly Nvidia Shield Tablet?


When I found out that HTC was going to be partnering with Google to produce the Nexus 9, I was legitimately excited for the possibilities. I imagined a thin, full aluminum body with stereo, front-facing speakers that resembled a blown up HTC One M8.

What we got with the Nexus 9 is far more in line with previous iterations of the tablet line and less a HTC-inspired reinvention of itself. It’s a fairly standard black slab that’s modern, but not exactly attention-grabbing. The back of the tablet has the same soft touch plastic that was used on the Nexus 7, except this time we’ve got a black metal frame that runs along the sides of the device. All in all, the design isn’t bad, it’s just a bit forgettable.

In fact, I wouldn’t have a problem with the rather drab look of the device if it the Nexus 9 was a bit more sleek. Instead, however, the Nexus 9 feels strangely thick and heavy in the hand, despite the fact that it weighs in at only 0.94 lbs. It’s lighter overall than both the iPad Air 2 or even the Samsung Tablet S, but it’s also a couple inches smaller, giving it a chunkier feel in the hand. It’s also notably thicker than both those tablets, and also tablets like the Sony Xperia Z2 Tablet and even last year’s iPad Air (by just a tiny bit).

But again, thickness and weight isn’t all that matters. If the Nexus 9 would have had stellar build quality that while it feel like a sturdy tablet that could go with you anywhere, the average feel in the hand wouldn’t have been a problem at all. Instead, the Nexus 9 just doesn’t always the premium build quality that it should. Some users have noted problems with light bleeding in the top right part of display, while others still have complained about defects in the backplate.

While I didn’t have these problems, I did find myself aggravated over the power button and volume rocker, which have so little travel that they barely stick out of the side of the device at all. It’s a big shame, especially considering that there is no other way to wake up the screen other than that one squishy power button. I want to be careful not to exaggerate—the Nexus 9 is still a well-built tablet. It doesn’t creak or feel like a bunch of low-cost pieces put together. However, these small things can become big problems when you’re talking about shelling out $499 for a tablet.

As for what the Nexus 9 does right, there’s plenty. First is the display, which is a beautiful 8.9-inch IPS panel with really nice color reproduction and a decent 281 ppi (pixels per inch) pixel density. The top and bottom bezels are a bit larger all around that I would have preferred, but overall it’s a very nice thing to look at with the display on.

The battery life here is similarly above average. It won’t last as long as the iPad Air 2, but it’ll get you through a full day of heavy use, and probably a few days for the average person.

But most importantly, the Nexus 9 features some great front-facing speakers that once again prove that every smartphone and tablet should have them. They are loud and clear—the one spot where the Nexus 9 easily trumps the iPad Air 2. The Nexus 9’s speakers still aren’t as bright and audible as the HTC One M8’s amazing speakers from the same manufacturer, but they are still the best tablet speakers out there.


While not everything hardware-wise impresses, it couldn’t be a more different situation on the software end of things. The Nexus 9 is the first product to ship with the new Android 5.0 Lollipop installed on it—and it has surpassed all of my expectations. The new version of Android is the biggest change to the look of the operating system at least since Holo, and in my mind, outdoes iOS 8 in many ways.

First off is the notification bar and lock screen, which have both been cleaned up a lot in Lollipop. The notifications are presented as cards that can swiped away or double-tapped to open or act on. My favorite part of the notification bar is the new way you have access your controls such as screen brightness and WiFi. Rather than having to click a tiny button in the top right part of the screen, you can now get to it by just effortlessly pulling down again on the notifications. It’s a tiny little example of the ways that the designers at Google have re-thought the entire experience around fluid gestures intuitive visual cues.

A lot has been said about the new visual flair of Lollipop, but I still find myself loving how the system feels when you interact with it. I love the new app drawer, as well as the new app switcher, which finally feels useful. What Google has done with Material Design is just what Android needed, a perfect balance between intuitivity and ingenuity—the thing the original iOS first accomplished when it was released to the world. It’s a refreshing change from the stark, text-heavy look of iOS 8 or even the cold, rigid feel of Windows 8. It’s colorful, playful, and fun to use without ever feeling cheap or gimmicky, which is quite an accomplishment.

All that being said, Lollipop still doesn’t feel like it’s been properly optimized for tablets. Even the notification bar that I praised earlier still feels a bit weird coming down so narrowly. It’s nothing that holds back the software experience with the Nexus 9, but it does still feel like a missed opportunity without any real multitasking or tablet-only features.

Also, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the fact that performance on the Nexus 9 was good, but not perfect. All the animations and proprietary actions feel quick and snappy, but opening apps was still a little slower that I would have liked, and I noticed the system stutter occasionally with heavier apps like Hearthstone.


The Nexus 9 feels like a solid update to the Nexus 7. It runs stock Android Lollipop, which has remade itself into the best-designed mobile operating system in the world. The real problem with the Nexus 9 is that it’s priced somewhere between the iPad mini 3 and iPad Air 2—two devices that have an incredibly premium look and feel. The fact that I’d still be much more willing to recommend the $299 iPad mini 2 to most people over this device is telling enough.

The good news for the Nexus 9 is that even if doesn’t quite have the design pedigree or build quality to compete at the $399 price point, neither do many other 9 or 10-inch Android tablets on the market. The 8-inch Nvidia Shield Tablet is our highest recommended Android tablet from 2014, which comes in at a fantastic $299 price point. If you can handle not having Lollipop for awhile, it’s a really good alternative to the Nexus 9.

If Google or HTC could figure out how to put together a killer product that felt as good on the outside as the software experience feels, I’d happily leave my iPad behind for Lollipop alone. But as of now, the Nexus 9 is bound to be a good tablet, but one made only for a small contingency of Android lovers.

Nexus 9 Review: Google Takes on the iPad

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