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: I've now got Internet access in my room, just in time for the big uninterrupted stretch of time when I have to finish my writing assignments.

[Comments] (5) Leafy Leonard: Quick toy. I was talking to Cory Doctorow in the parking lot and we started coming up with silly Ubuntu release names (note: unlike every other time I've mentioned Cory Doctorow on my weblog, this actually happened). To spread the fun to a larger audience, I wrote a cheap CGI script that will name an Ubuntu release after you or the animal of your choice.

Yes, I did my writing assignments. One of my stories is 2500 words instead of 5000, but it's a good story and it's as long as it needs to be.

"I never believed the letters to Penthouse were true until I marched with King Richard's army.": We just completed an innuendo-filled performance of Richard III. It was great.

[Comments] (1) : Sumana claims that people want to know that I'm back. I am! I'm trying to synthesize the wisdom of the week in a way that's not in-jokey or based entirely on quoting Elizabeth Bear's excellent cusses.

[Comments] (3) Pseudonyms: This is a pretty easy one to start with. Patrick Nielsen Hayden said at one point that writers need to be brands, and for this entry I'm going to take that very literally. A writer's name is a brand, the same way a publishing imprint is a brand. There are many reasons for putting a name on your writing that's not the one on your birth certificate, but they all have to do with branding.

Your name might be uneuphonic, difficult to spell or pronounce, or very long. The same reason a lot of performance artists use stage names.

You might use different names when writing in different genres. Genre readers are pretty picky, and if you put the same name on all your books, bookstores may not stock as many of your titles. Publishing imprints work on this principle.

If you get caught in the midlist death spiral (which is definitely caused by an algorithm, though I'm still going back and forth on whether it's a bad algorithm even by the shortsighted standards of big business), changing your pseudonymn can be an effective way to fool the algorithm and reboot your career. Publishing imprints also contain elements of fooling bookstores' algorithms.

Finally, you might want to avoid prejudice. Still common is the girl cooties theory of literature which holds that certain genres are intrinsically less macho than others, and has as a subtext the idea that hard SF written by women can never achieve the synthetic-diamond hardness of hard SF written by men. So a lot of women use their initials or gender-neutral or male pseudonyms. (Attempting to defeat the GCToL can also lead to overcompensating within the story.)

Through the workshop I got wildly varying assessments of my story's position on the Mohr scale of science fiction, and I'm pretty sure this had to do, not with the GCToL directly, but different readers' perception of the mass market's perception of the GCToL.

Despite the not-terribly-surprising fact that the vast majority of people who write SF under their initials are women (there was a survey on this topic but I can't find a link), readers tend to assume that unless the writer's unambiguously feminine name is spelled out for them, the writer is male (different survey, ditto on link). I guess even thinking about it requires confronting the prejudice.

It's still a little early for me to be picking out my science fiction pseudonym, but I'm considering writing under my initials 1) out of solidarity with female SF writers, and 2) to avoid confusion with the two nonfiction books already published under my full name. However, it's difficult for me to pass up an opportunity to sow confusion.

OAuth: In RESTful Web Services I wrote over five pages (notably 253-258) of pretty dense prose discussing a problem with web service authentication: the user doesn't trust the client. We generally trust our web browsers to send our passwords to the site we're logging in to, and not also to seedy Russian IRC channels. But we can't extend that same level of trust to a web service client, especially when the client is running on a server we don't control. So how is the web service client supposed to make web service calls on our behalf?

That part of the book is now outdated because I went on to describe a set of equivalent ad hoc solutions to this problem, each created by a different web service provider for their services, with the implication that someone who's not me should get off their butt and come up with an open standard. This has now happened, and the result is OAuth. The people working on the standard are posting introductory guides to drum up interest. The standard is good, I've been pushing it on the companies I consult with, and the time is right to use the NYCB bully pulpit to spread it further. If I were Kenneth Turan I would rave, "The most significant HTTP authentication mechanism since Basic!"

Incidentally, today's the first day of my job, but I don't actually start until tomorrow because it's a holiday.

:

"You got peanut butter on the sheet!"
"You got sheet on my peanut butter!"
"No! That's not how it happened!"

:

"You wanna go dance in the rain?"
"Sure."
...
"I think we just reenacted an xkcd cartoon."
"I'm fine with that."
"I think we just reenacted another one."

[Comments] (2) : In my non-expert opinion a good story has two parts: a thought experiment, and the psychology of people who live the thought experiment. I have all kinds of meta-thought-experiments on this topic that I'll spare you, such as what makes a New Yorker story boring and how your standards would change if a story you thought was real turned out to be made up. Further I hold that science fiction and fantasy are popular genres and that they're gradually bleeding into mainstream fiction because they're the genres where you can do really amazing counterfactuals.

The short form is the natural experimental form for science fiction, and I think it's the one where you can really advance the state of the art. But one of the less controversial things you can say in this troubled world is that the market for short-form science fiction is pretty bad. Subscription numbers to the big three print fiction magazines are in decline. So are the pay rates: a story published in 1930 might have netted you the 1930 equivalent of $1000; today the same story might fetch you $300. Etc. etc. etc.

I'm going to talk generally about money in a bit but tonight I want to focus on what's the deal with short stories. You can't blame piracy because nobody even bothers to make unauthorized copies of short stories. The audience is just gone.

At VP I heard things to the effect of: the short story is the farm team, the garage music of science fiction. It's a mechanism for editors, writers, and fans to keep abreast of developments in the field. There's your problem: that's a really small audience! I've been an SF/F fan since before I could read on my own, and I like the short form, but I only started reading the magazines when I became serious about getting my own stuff published; ie. took the field itself as an object of study. For these purposes the market is drastically oversupplied.

The short form is ideal for evaluating new writers: you have to concisely demonstrate the quality of your counterfactuals and psychological treatment. But the market is based on the outdated premise that their core audience wants a certain thrill every month and that a print magazine is the best way to deliver it.

I've said before that the vectors of change are online magazines like Strange Horizons, but after VP I see why. It's not just generic "online is awesome", though that's part of it: the people who want the thrill that SF provides (inc. me) are starting to want it online. The other part is that online magazines are making it possible to regard modern short SF/F as an indexed body of work, the fictional equivalent of a field of science: the study of thought experiments. (Remember that the web was originally designed, if I may quote myself, "to schlep project notes around a physics lab.") As a bonus, for those interested in short SF/F solely as entertainment, it's easy and permanent access to the entertainment.

This is why I keep linking to the old science fiction that shows up in Project Gutenberg: it fills in the enormous gaps in the indexed body of work. This is why it's so bad that the Sci Fi Channel claims they've taken down their archive of new and classic stories (it looks like they haven't actually done it yet): it brings into the online world a taste of the impermanence that is completely standard in the print world.

Lying in wait like an unwelcome subtext to this discussion is the topic of my own humble contributions to the field. Post-VP I've been editing my stories for submission to the big-name print magazines; but really, why am I doing this? Well, there is the blood oath I took on Friday. But what do I want out of it? At any time I could short-circuit the whole boring process by publishing my stories online. The money's really bad either way, and my online readership over time would approach the basically-one-time print readership.

Really what I want out of it is recognition from my would-be peers. Right now that comes by voluntarily going through an established gatekeeper instead of self-publishing. This is important because the traditional career trajectory for a science fiction writer (insofar as such a thing can be considered a career, which as I'll claim later is not very far at all) starts out with you building a name for yourself in this increasingly misaligned short story market. I don't particularly want a trajectory right now, but I would like to have something of a name in the field, so I press onward.

When I asked Patrick Nielsen Hayden what new career trajectories he saw taking shape, he said "If I knew that, I'd be rich." Well, nothing's going to make you rich in this field, but if he knew this it'd be a lot easier for him to find people he should sign for novels. I'm coming up with alternate schemes for advancing the state of the art, schemes based more around peer review, but they tend to reduce to starting my own online magazine.

In semi-related news, someone at VP wrote a constrained story based on the premise that teleology was a real science. I didn't read this story but I'd really like to.

: "I go there and see... the same stories that are on Slashdot and Ars Technica and boring old ZDnet too."

"If you want best-sellers you can check the best-seller list."

[Comments] (3) Roguelike Roundup: Quick takes on a bunch of roguelike games I've played recently.

One ludeme shared by most of these games is non-regenerating HP. I find this ups the difficulty greatly in a roguelike, where you can't rely on dexterity to evade enemies, so I tend to go for magicians or other characters who can self-heal, like the allegedly reformed vampire in CastlevaniaRL.

Dear Penthouse Forum #2: I was just able to deliver the snappy comeback suggested in the opening to MST3K "Laserblast". "If I were you, I'd wait 'til somebody slams a thunderdome."

[Comments] (1) : Going to Montreal for a week on the proverbial business.

: "Schroeder's fanaticism is ludicrous, and Lucy's love is wasted." (q.v.) Caution: It's the Wall Street Journal. On the other hand, it's Bill Watterson.

Lost in Non-Translation: The Americans solicited advice on where to eat dinner. We were intrigued by the "smoked meat" restaurant. A whole cuisine devoted to smoked meat? Like barbecue? Yes, but not so sauce-heavy. We were intrigued! We went to the restaurant. It was a deli.

However, the waiter did offer us the ability to poutine-ize our fries.

:

"You know the joke about how all the superheroes are Jewish? Cause their names are Batman, Superman, Spiderman..."
"Well, you know who's not Jewish. Robin the Goy Wonder."

[Comments] (2) Notes on Notes Towards a Roguelike: Zack wanted me to comment on his Notes Towards a Roguelike, where he talks about his problems with Nethack. Nethack does have serious problems, but some of them are coupled with the things that make Nethack fun, so they can't just be ripped out.

Anonymous commenter on Zack's Livejournal says to take a look at Dwarf Fortress. I definitely think everyone should take a look at Dwarf Fortress, but the roguelike part of DF is pretty lame. Instead I would suggest Zack take a look at ADOM, which has most of Nethack's fun features, few of the aggravations, and not many of the second-order aggravations that come from fixing the first-order aggravations.

Zack's complaints about Nethack:

More later as I need to go to sleep.

Update: The promised "more".

[Comments] (7) More Roguelike Notes: The meta-adventure continues as I consider more of Zack's complaints about Nethack.

[Comments] (1) : Jeff Soesbe has an excellent day-by-day writeup of Viable Paradise XI, and does a good job of explaining the tiresome-to-everyone-else Richard III in-jokes.

Restaurant #2: Mexican restaurant described guacamole as "a purée of avocado."

[Comments] (1) : Best thing about Quebec: bilingual fortune cookies!

Making a Living: Part III or something of my synthesis of knowledge from Viable Paradise. I'm trying to go beyond a simple chronology, which others have provided ably. Tonight: a bit on what I heard about SF writing as a career.

Realistically it's not going to happen, if by "career" you mean "source of enough money to live on" and not "thing you're primarily known for doing". In fact, if I may speak from experience, writing in general isn't going to do it. John Scalzi (he of the unorthodox career trajectory, of which more anon) made $67k last year as an SF writer. That's really good for an SF writer, but it's about entry-level for, say, a computer programmer.

The telling detail for me came during the discussion of conventions. Many fans who are heavily involved in the SF community are perfectly capable of writing professional-quality SF. They don't do it because they're happy making 10 times the money as theoretical physicists or sysadmins. In other words, they're rational.

But of course lots of people, including most of the VP instructors, devote big chunks of their lives to and are best known for writing science fiction. How do they do it? Here are the tactics I discerned.

One thing that doesn't work is selling movie rights to your book. Steven Gould's Jumper has been turned into a big-budget Hollywood movie (I hear tell it takes place in a world) and he certainly got a chunk of money from that, but it's not life-changing money. It's money for paying off a big one-time expense like a kid's college education. Selling one set of movie rights is not fundamentally different from selling one novel. If you want Hollywood money you should go into Hollywood proper.

Bake A Cake, You Know I'm Coming: I haven't played and probably won't play the game, but I saw a couple videos for Portal, and listened to the Jonathan Coulton closing-credits song, and enjoyed them a lot. I was thinking about why that game (or at least the video I saw) is funny. Obviously it's because of the character of the AI NPC, but you could reskin Portal so that the AI was replaced by (say) a powerful space alien who took the same attitudes, and it wouldn't be as funny.

I've always enjoyed AI and robot characters in all kinds of fiction, but the AI NPC is powerful in a way that's unique to video games. This is partly because a video game is itself a primitive AI, and partly because there's a closer affinity between the player and an AI NPC than between the player and their own PC.

An alien is not human. Game aliens are either humans with foreheads, or they're cannon fodder and you're not supposed to identify with them. The latter works out great because aliens are alien to the extent that you can't identify with them. Outside of games, the space-alien concept is powerful because it forces you to confront the difference between an enemy, who you can identify with but you're not supposed to, and someone who might be friendly but whom you can't identify with. Games usually pull a cheap equivocation: you can't identify with the aliens because there's nothing there.

An AI is a broken human. A well-conceived alien, as John Campbell said, "thinks as well as a man... but not like a man." An AI is the alien we get when we try to make something that thinks like a man but we fail. Usually we fail because an AI doesn't have a human body. It's traditionally embodied in an immobile computer and it sees the world through cameras. It can't identify with other in-fiction people, so its behavior tends to be at odds with what its designers intended.

We get a game when we try to replicate some aspect of real life and fail. A game just isn't real life. Not only will the graphics and physics never be perfectly accurate, but the ludic lessons we learn in games never apply directly to real situations. Except for Math Blaster. Man, I can't even tell you how many times that saved my bacon.

Now let's get heavy. When we play a video game we embody ourselves in an immobile screen, looking through a camera at the game world. We send electronic commands into an interface box to change the game world. The AI NPC and the player have the same relationship to the game world. In a sense we can identify with an AI NPC better than we can identify with our own PC! We share the feeling of being right up against the edge of the world but not really part of it, the frustration of not being able to do something because of the coarseness of our controls.

The AI in Portal was designed to be helpful but has "ridiculously base assumptions about human intellect and motivation." It's broken in the same way HAL is broken: it has human desires but it can't interpret them in terms of the real world, only in terms of its hard-coded mission goals. It can't even empathize with itself. So it treats the satisfaction of its desires as an optimization problem. Similarly, we often have trouble empathizing with the PC's desires, even though according to the fiction of game-playing we are the PC. We optimize the PC's behavior for our own convenience or other goals, even if that's certainly not what the PC would want.

So I think the trick of Portal is that the AI NPC is really the player. The NPC addresses the PC in the same patronizing tone I address characters I control when they suffer ten consecutive bad die rolls or slide off the platform I tried to land them on. The player identifies with their antagonist over "themselves". That's what makes it funny.

All part of my ongoing plan to out-Adam P. Adam P. More on how a corporation, another kind of artificial human, has the same empathy problems as an AI, and how this ties into the atmosphere of Portal, will not be forthcoming.

PS/Update: Sumana suggests I explain the title of this entry, my beautiful obscure reference which violates all audience-retainership rules about the title serving as a summary. Here you go.

PPS: The best thing about the Coulton song is that now, all other songs that use vocoder sound like they're sung by the AI.

: Is the Mudville Nine the actual name of the baseball team?

[Comments] (4) Manuscript Formatting: The unofficial document format for SF/F manuscripts seems to be RTF. Printed manuscripts are supposed to be formatted in a very simple style that looks like you typewrote it, but the style is far enough from plain text that I can't edit it in Emacs, because it includes relatively complex things like numbered pages. RTF again.

What to do? There's the de rigeur Emacs RTF plugin, but all it can do right now is read some RTF documents. I've found the process of manuscript conversion is pretty automatic as long as you distinguish poetry from prose. That means I should be able to write a script using Ruby RTF to do the conversion. (It's missing some features but I can just hard-code the corresponding markup.)

I'm mainly posting this to find out if anyone else is in this same, admittedly only slightly leaky, boat.

[Comments] (1) : In one of my less pride-engendering milestones, I put up liner notes for all the really horrible spoken-word bits from Nowhere Standard Time, which now means I've got notes up for all my released albums. The NST spoken-word notes are probably only of passing interest, but they do explain a previously unexplained NKI, and they're more fun than listening to the spoken-word bits themselves.

Lonely Weblog: Hi. Apparently having a job takes up most of your day. Here are some random links from browser tabs. These links look cool but I haven't actually done much with them.

: Speaking of Dwarf Fortress, perhaps you'd like to smith your own sword from hematite ore.

[Comments] (4) Bread Salad: This was a big hit and is useful for getting rid of leftover farmer's market vegetables. Here's stuff for one big serving:

Toast the bread and dice it. Put it in a bowl. Pour olive oil and vinegar on top. Dice the tomato and put it on top. Meanwhile, cook the green beans. Put them on top of the tomato. By this time the tomato juice should have soaked into the bread. Or help it out by tossing everything together with tongs.

Another recipe coming immediately because my sister-in-law just requested it. Immediate update: No need, Sumana already posted the Indian-style popcorn recipe.

Yo Ho Ho: and a Seth David Schoen.

How Many Levels?: I was playing the 2D fan version of Portal and basically figured it had 40 levels. I was right. Then I wondered why I'd thought that. Probably something to do with the pacing as new game mechanics were introduced. But when I was a kid, puzzle games had 30 levels and then you had to register for two more sets of 30 because it was shareware. How many levels are in a typical video game that has a discrete number of levels?

I decided to do a semi-scientific test where I measured this by searching for game "X levels" and comparing the numbers of results. I did a few Google searches until I remembered that Google doesn't want my business for this. I switched to Yahoo!, which has a handy web search service.

I graphed the number of search results against the number of levels for every X in 1 to 100:

Graph for games with 1-100 levels.

According to that, most games have 10, 50, or 100 levels. 4 levels is also extremely common (though I think there's a lot of pollution there from things that have 4 levels, like malls). A number divisible by 10 or 5 is the most common, but you can plug in any small number of levels and find some oddball game (random example).

Then I graphed X=1 to X=1000, with a skip of 10 between 100 and 1000. I had to use a log scale because 90% of the total matches are for X=1 to X=100.

The left side of the graph is a "long tail" type graph, but there are very popular data points near round numbers. I also graphed X=1 to X=2000, again with a skip of 10. As we can see the adventure continues. Between 1900 and 2000 there's significant pollution from years ("returning to 1990 levels of greenhouse gas emissions").

I collected data up to X=5000, but 2000 levels is really the limit of how many levels one entity can create for a specific "game", unless that entity be a computer generating them randomly. I don't think I've ever even seen a Rocks 'N' Diamonds level set that had more than 2000 levels. So I won't show you another graph. But if you want the raw data I put up a Gnumeric spreadsheet with my original graphs. Around 3500 there's a lot of financial crap from India for some reason ("support at 3575 levels from the past three trading sessions").

Random tidbit: judging from hits, the least popular number of levels 1-100 is 79. However, 46 stands out from its neighbors as being especially unpopular. Also mysterious: why is 80 more popular than 70?

[Comments] (1) : I was thinking of tracking science fiction in NYCB as it's stuck into Project Gutenberg, but then I remembered Free Speculative Fiction Online, which has the Gutenberg stuff and more, plus a syndication feed.

Spent the afternoon writing up Future Stuff entries, building up the backlog for yet another business trip next week. I hope y'all appreciate this, as this is very real time I could be spending playing roguelike games. We are approaching the two-thirds mark of Future Stuff, but still have many bizarre items left to go, like "Holograph Bifocal Contact Lenses", "The Vilest Taste", and "Edible Pet Spoon".

: New 3D interface for Dwarf Fortress: difficult to figure out. Relax instead and watch some silly Claymation Star Trek parodies.

Molagraphic: Mike Popovic sent me the November 2002 National Geographic, which includes a big article on the mola mola. Also about Tierney Thys, who gave the talk about molas I probably made you watch. Thanks, Mola Mike! Or Mike, if you prefer.

Leonard Region Traveller: Here I am in scenic Boston, home of the wicked pissah.

[Comments] (1) Secret Origin--Revealed!: Pete Peterson II makes a shocking discovery about Jake Berendes.

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