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: I'm trapped in the Orlando airport; my flight was delayed many, many hours. On the plus side, I'm kicking back in the plush Delta Crown Suite Lounge Whatever. On the minus side, they're about to kick me out.

I've never been in one of these fancy waiting rooms before. This is a really strange room; it's got a totally different (ie. non-tawdry) aesthetic from the rest of the airport. It's designed like a hotel lobby, but it's much larger than any hotel lobby would ever be. Certain design elements and furniture arrangements are copied and pasted over and over again.

In general, I have decided that Florida is Las Vegas trying to do California.

: I just got home; you can stop doing whatever you were doing while waiting for me to arrive. Like sleeping, for instance.

[Comments] (4) You Will Go To The Moon (But You Probably Shouldn't): I mentioned earlier that reading Oliver Morton's entry on changing his mind about manned space exploration had a strong effect on my own opinions. But Morton's entry is pretty sparse and assumes a lot of knowledge, so I wrote this longer entry about my own journey to a similar opinion.

A talk about priorities is usually a talk about money, so here's a baseline number. NASA's 2008 budget is $17.3 billion. This is not a trivial sum, but since the government always seems able to allocate much larger sums for pointless wars, weapons systems that don't work and/or are strategically useless, etc., I've never bought into the argument that this $17.3 billion is taking off the table money that could be used to solve pressing social problems. (In fact there's a pressing social problem that NASA is in a good position to help with, except that part got taken out of NASA's mission statement.) I prefer to think of NASA's budget as a Strategic Awesomeness Reserve. And over time I've come to the conclusion that manned space exploration is not awesome-effective.

My realization has been a while in coming and I can identify four big steps towards it: hearing the State of the Union Address in 2004, learning about the cancellation of the Europa mission in 2006, reading The Right Stuff in late 2007, and reading Morton's entry a couple weeks ago.

Until I started writing this paragraph, my recollection was that in his 2004 State of the Union Address, George W. Bush kind of casually announced an extremely expensive set of manned missions to the Moon and Mars, and then never mentioned them again; taking what in the hands of a competent president might have been inspiring, and making it seem tawdry and shameful. I'm not the only person who had this memory.

But what actually happened was even stranger. The week before the SOTU, Bush gave a totally separate speech outlining his Vision For Space Exploration(tm). A week later he had already forgotten about the moon base and manned mission to Mars he'd sent NASA scampering to develop. Or at least he didn't consider it worthy of mention in the SOTU, certainly not nearly as important as lecturing the country on the horrors of same-sex marriage. It gave me the strange feeling of being part of some space-nut block whose votes are vitally important to George W. Bush, a block worthy of billions in largesse, but a block whose hot-button issues must never be mentioned in speeches that people pay attention to. Unfortunately, unlike most of us, the people at NASA don't have the luxury of ignoring an incompetent president's offhand suggestions; they're still dilligently working on making a permanent moon base operational twelve years from now.

Item two: the Europa mission. Now that I'm researching this, it's a lot more complicated than I thought. The "Europa mission" was just one part of an enormous meta-mission called the Jupiter Icy Moons Orbiter (new from 7-11). The cost of the meta-mission would have been a huge $10 billion, a lot more than I'd guessed for Europa alone. Nonetheless, right now I think a Europa probe is the single most awesome space mission. (Runners-up: next year's Kepler mission and Mars Science Laboratory.)

$6.7 billion—a plurality of NASA's 2008 budget—is spent on "space operations": the ISS and the Space Shuttle. This is sunk awesomeness. It is cool to have a space station; it might even be $2 billion a year cool. But is the Space Shuttle twice as cool per year? We've been doing three shuttle launches a year. What do we do on those launches? We build the ISS. Why are we building the ISS? Because people living in space is awesome. Is it so awesome the whole package is worth $6.7 billion a year? Is there a more awesome way of spending that money?

Here are what I consider the top eleven most awesome American space projects of my lifetime, presented in descending order of cost. (Numbers are a little fuzzy, mostly due to inflation since the time total cost was reported.)

There's a huge discontinuity. The bottom seven items on my list cost less in total than continuing the top two items through 2008. Even if you think it's really really awesome to send H. sapiens into Earth orbit, is the Space Shuttle program thirty times more awesome than the Hubble program? (I realize that over its lifetime the Hubble has had to be serviced by astronauts from the Shuttle, but it would have been significantly cheaper to send up a new space telescope every five years!) I pinpoint the Space Shuttle, the ISS, and Cassini-Huygens as not being awesome-effective, and the MSL had better be pretty damn awesome. (Not sure why C-H was so expensive, except that it started out as a JIMO-like meta-mission and had to be pared down.)

More generally, just about any unmanned space mission you could imagine is better awesomeness for money than any manned mission, unless you think that sending a human body is so awesome as to outweigh all other considerations. Some examples off the top of my head that I'm pretty sure no one is doing: go to Europa. Go to the other moons of Jupiter. Send more robots to the moon. Send recovery missions to Mars and the asteroids. Set up a radio observatory on the far side of the moon. Build enough telescopes that astronomers don't have to fight for observation time on the Hubble.

Okay, that's pie-in-the sky stuff. But now comes the Vision For Space Exploration(tm) with its $100B lunar base. The manned missions are expanding, and they're squeezing out the unmanned missions--that's what happened to the Europa mission. The permanent moon base will cost about twice of NASA's contribution to the ISS, and (I don't have a number for this, but it's pretty likely) the twice-yearly round-trip flights to the moon for crew rotation will cost more than the thrice-yearly shuttle flights we do now.

Unlike with the Shuttle and the ISS, we haven't spent most of that money yet, or (thanks to W's buried speech) gotten psychologically invested in the mission. We still have an opportunity to step back and say "Maybe we should buy an incredible amount of awesomeness with this money instead of a moderate amount of awesomeness." Or maybe for you $100 billion gets into the range where it could be better spent on something other than astonomical awesomeness.

I used to buy into the Apollo-era idea that on a visceral level it doesn't count as "exploration" unless a human body does it. This lasted in some form until I read The Right Stuff. There I saw the origin of my emotions towards manned space travel, and it was kind of creepy. The Mercury astronauts were pioneers but they didn't explore anything. From an exploration standpoint it made no sense to include them in the capsules--they had to fight to get a tiny bit of control over their trajectory. They were sent up because we were locked in a competition to prove who was the most awesome, cost be damned. The moon shot came out of Kennedy's desire "to announce a program that the U.S. had a strong chance at achieving before the Soviet Union." Tying exploration into this is equivocation. Exploration demonstrates how awesome the universe is, not how awesome you are.

My preconception has a corollary that space exploration has been moribund since Apollo--that is, I've never lived during a time of active exploration. But if you look back without the preconception, space exploration has been steadily progressing for sixty years. The first golden age was the post-Apollo 1970s, when the solar system opened up to us. The other golden age is the one we're living in now, the one with all the stuff on my top-eleven list, where the Hubble has expanded the visible universe by orders of magnitude. The golden age doesn't need to stop or even slow down, but it probably will if NASA goes ahead and builds a moon base so that... people will live on the moon and it will be awesome.

Even in the unlikely event that the US government stopped doing manned space flight altogether, manned flight and research into it will continue. There is now a lot of private-sector interest in sending people into orbit, because people will pay for it. People will also pay to visit (probably not live on) the moon or a space station. I, too, think sending a human body to the moon would be unbelievably awesome, provided that the human body is mine. There is not a lot of private-sector interest in radio astronomy or sending a probe to Europa.

Don't settle for the moon. To quote Morton, "A world with a spartan $100 billion moonbase but no ability to measure spectra and lightcurves from earthlike planets around distant stars is not the world for me."

[Comments] (3) You Will Go To The Moon (It Will Be Cool): While writing the previous entry I was thinking of how to give the experience of being on the moon to the most people for the lowest cost. The moon is close enough that telepresence is practical, so my initial thought was of a playground of a few square miles where you could pay to run around as a telepresence robot. But user-controlled mobile robots on the moon are easy to break and hard to replace. So how about dropping a few hundred solid-state, solar-powered panoramic cameras in different lunar locations. Each has a linkup to a communications satellite that transmits a high-quality image back to Earth.

Now you can put on a VR helmet and get a view from any of the cameras. Since the cameras are panoramic, any number of people can use the data feed simultaneously to look in any direction. You're on the moon!

I don't think this is a practical business idea, but it's a lot more practical than actually sending people to the moon. Plus, it works the same everywhere. You can look around a time-shifted panorama of Mars in realtime, rather than telling the camera to move and waiting eight minutes for the shot to change.

: Fun essay with code: Can a Bayesian spam filter play chess?

: Recently I discovered another robotfindskittenlike game: Space Kitteh. It's like a 2D Flash version of Super Mario Galaxy. Also this GameMaker remake, which isn't on the list.

[Comments] (3) One Guy Who Publishes Anything: I've managed to go over ten years on this weblog without slipping up and mentioning my obsession with the old LucasArts graphic adventure Maniac Mansion (there are a couple MM links in my del.icio.us account, but only one casual NYCB reference from 2007). No longer! I am a Mansion Maniac. Catching up on my syndication feeds I saw a link to a long, dirt-dishing appreciation of the game, complete with description of an ending I'd never discovered and modern-audio-format encodings of the excellent NES soundtrack I've had stuck in my head for almost twenty years--including a live surf-band version of the useless surfer dude's song, and a Castlevania-esque song that's in the ROM but not used in the game. Bravo! All I can add is an anecdote about the intersection of MM with my childhood.

I never owned MM but I rented the NES version more than once, and more than once played it into the night at CJ Cullins's house. It was probably the first nonlinear game I'd played, and we spent a lot of time trying to get all the endings or trying random mail-order stunts, which if you've played MM you know means a lot of waiting. To pass the time we heaped scorn on Dave, the main character of Maniac Mansion.

Man, we hated Dave. Dave had it all: fancy pixilated clothes, a girlfriend (a cheerleader girlfriend!), a purpose in life (to rescue said girlfriend), and friends from across the B-movie teenager spectrum. Everyone from the school nerd to the punk chick wanted to help Dave out.

And why? In retrospect, they probably wanted to help Sandy. But why team up with Dave, a man with no marketable skills whatsoever? It's true. Every character except Dave had some special ability that would help you achieve one of the endings. Even useless surfer dude Jeff could fix the telephone in the library. Dave had nothing except an awesome soundtrack (credit where due!), yet you had to include him in your party. He was the "Human" on the D&D species table of Maniac Mansion, the bland standard by which more interesting deviations are measured.

Winning a game of Maniac Mansion then was always a bittersweet experience, because it meant reuniting Sandy with her lackluster boyfriend. There was always the knowledge that as soon as they escaped the Nintendo of America-policed confines of the text, Dave and Sandy were going to go off and make out. Despite this, it never occured to us to kill Dave off before the end of the game, which I think reflects well on us. (It's just as well, since looking at online walkthroughs I see that a dead Dave gets resurrected at the end of the game!) Instead we let him languish in the dungeon, positioned by the loose brick, ready at a moment's notice to help someone else get out of the dungeon. We called him Dave the Dungeon-Dwelling Dunlop.

Now's a good time to explain that "Dunlop" was our own designated derogatory term. There were a number of company names we'd adopted as insults because they sounded like insults: the other big one was "Bechtel". We also really liked "dolt" (which I got from Pogo) because it sounded adult. A rarely-used corporate insult was "Obex" (I think this was a sportswear company?) and that's all; we didn't have like twenty of these brand-name insults, but I think the practice deserves to be brought into the modern age.

Anyway, so there we are in 1991 or whenever, having a great time exploring this game while hating on the Designated Hero with our made-up insults. In my tellings of the fiction the real romance was always the one between Bernard and Razor. Not realistic within the 80s B-movie universe of Maniac Mansion, but as it turns out not an uncommon pairing in real life.

[Comments] (1) : The Internet Archive recently acquired a lot of "Pocket Guide" books that instruct the WWII infantryman on the customs of whatever weird foreigner-ridden place he's been sent, as well as nearly-indistinguishable "Short Guides" to Iraq and Syria. It's all written in that cheerful WWII field manual style where you're never quite sure the writer isn't having a joke at your expense: for instance, Iraq's history is said to go back "a tidy 5,000 years". They also toy with your affections, telling GIs bound for China and North Africa alike that "No American troops anywhere have a more important assignment." Also, apparently the Chinese love Irish jokes, "the Chinese equivalent for the Irish being people from Hunan province."

One of the guides to France says: "Anyway, so far as your military duties permit, see as much as you can. You've got a chance to do now, major expenses paid, what would cost you a lot of your own money after the war. Take advantage of it." From what I know of post-WWII American culture, a lot of people did.

[Comments] (3) : I have been paying only fragmented attention to the ongoing saga of Peter Hirschberg's awesome retro arcade as it garners more and more coverage. I don't have much interest in retro arcades for the same reason I'm not really interested in emulating the ZX Spectrum: there weren't any where I was growing up.[0] There was Galaga and Rush 'N' Attack at the Safeway, and later on Smash TV at the convenience store near the middle school, and... nothing else! In my day we made our own fun. Using cartridge-based home consoles.

Nonetheless, I really admire Hirschberg's attention to period detail, and so this part of a recent interview caught my eye:

I insist that people use the quarters I provide. The change machines are set to dispense quarters for free. My rules are "don't use your own money" and "don't take my money home with you."

Obviously there are many reasons why you might make those rules. But you'd really want to make those rules if you had gone through a Scrooge McDuck-like bin full of quarters looking for the ones minted before 1985, so that your restored arcade games would feast only on period coins. Then those rules would be the only thing protecting your machines from cross-contamination with quarters from the future, where arcade games are played with "drum kits and full-scale Army tanks" and you pay for them with a magstripe card.

Would this be the most awesome real-life Easter egg ever? My sources say yes. Ordinarily I would have been content to just post this idea as speculation. But Andy Baio's recent forays into investigative journalism have held me to a higher standard. Was it really that hard to just email the dude and ask? As it turns out, no. He does use a spam whitelist, and my client obediently treated the whitelist challenge message as spam, but that's nothing I haven't dealt with before. I was a journalist! Advantage: blogosphere!

Well, it turns out he doesn't use period quarters:

You're partially right. I use quarters instead of tokens because tokens didn't come along until the mid-eighties. But no, I don't use vintage quarters. That would be over the top. Even for me. :-)

I'm not one to say people should do things they think are over the top for them, but... let's look at this in terms of ritual. The original arcades were magic circles: places circumscribed from everyday life where you could perform a sacrifice and achieve the experience of another world. Hirschberg's arcade is a nested magic circle: a place circumscribed from everyday life where the otherworldly experience is you get to visit the sort of magic circle they don't have anymore.

Inside this nested magic circle, the ritual invocation comes without cost: this is why people in comments sections often compare Hirschberg's arcade to heaven. But it's still a real invocation, and since the object of the sacrifice (a quarter) is reusable and durable, the most powerful invocation would come from an object that had been used in similar invocations back when there were real magic circles dotting the landscape. Similar to the logic that sends people after the Holy Grail even when wine transubstantiates just fine in a Dixie Cup. The odds are good that any given pre-1985 quarter has been through an arcade machine at least once, so for maximum ritual impact, period quarters are actually one of the more important details. Advantage: making-stuff-up-sphere!

In case you're wondering, the real reasons behind the quarter rules are about what you'd expect:

The reason I don't have people use their own quarters is because I have to be careful that I do not make money with my gameroom, lest it be labeled a 'commercial' venture, and not covered under my homeowner's policy. Not to mention I want people to be able to play without paying.

Similarly, I don't want people taking my quarters home with them because it's real money.

[0] Last time I was in CA I asked Danny O'Brien how were the games on the Spectrum, and he thought a second and said, "a bit crap really." Yes! Best Commonwealth English phrase ever! I almost wish more things sucked so that Brits would say "a bit crap really" more! But then I remember the lessons of Jet Set Willy.

: This question has been bothering me for a while. Would you say that "Crystal Blue Persuasion" is something one engages in, or something one is a part of?

We just got back from seeing The Farnsworth Invention, which was good and Sorkiny. It turns out that Philo Farnsworth is buried in the same cemetery as my parents (Provo City, block 10, lot 18). My parents are in block 14, lot 78, as long as I'm looking stuff up.

[Comments] (1) Connection:

Lady Velkor, wearing a green peasant blouse and green hotpants, looked around the geodesic Kool-Aid dome. A man in a green turtleneck sweater and green slacks caught her eye, and she walked over to him, asking, "Are you a turtle?"

"You bet your sweet ass I am," he answered eagerly and so she had failed to make contact—and owed this oaf a free drink also."

The Illuminatus! Trilogy, p601-602

In comments on BoogaBooga it's pointed out that the Turtles also show up in The Right Stuff. I remember that now; I was going to write it down and post this entry several months ago, but I was on a plane with nothing to write with.

No Quarter: If future historians wonder why Jason Scott's ARCADE documentary wasn't finished until 2028, it's probaby because I turned him to sorting quarters. Similar to Duchamp taking up chess.

I went through my milk bottle of laundry quarters to gauge the quixotitude of this quest. I found:

So it's not as hard as I thought to find these old quarters. The oldest one in my impromptu collection is from 1970 and it looks great.

Space Probe Watch: MESSENGER made its first flyby of Mercury recently, acquiring never-before-seen footage and high-resolution pictures of cliffs. We get two move flybys and then a year in orbit around Mercury. Cost of the mission for those keeping track: $427 million, about the cost of a Space Shuttle flight.

As I get more into this research I'm wondering where the raw data for all these probes is. I always had a vague feeling it was "online" somewhere but had never tried to tie it down to a specific URL. It looks like it's just all over the place. For instance here's a bunch of stuff from the 70s and from the NEAR Eros mission. This looks like a job for... Carl Malamud!

: Just when you thought all hope was lost (and not too long before the rights would have reverted to me), Futurismic announces they're resuming fiction publication! I have it on good authority that "Mallory" will be published sometime "between March and June". My dissatisfaction with the Futurismic situation has waxed and waned. It's aggravating, sure, but they're a small business, not a big publisher, and unlike in many of these "they bought but didn't publish my story" stories you hear, they did pay me and they haven't gone under. Plus, in the intervening time I've had much bigger deal-not-going-through problems, as I hope to be able to talk about soon.

If that's not cool enough for you, maybe you'd like an interview with the guy who designed the Lego LEGO MONORAIL Monorail.

[Comments] (2) : Over the course of the afternoon I took pictures of snow accumulation in my "back yard". These photos are not that interesting, and what's more I'm sitting on photos that are much more interesting, like photos of cassette tapes from the 70s. In fact I'm sitting on photos of snow that are more interesting. But I had to empty out the digital camera and fire up the Gimp anyway, so I figured I'd put up the photos that were easy to deal with. I also took a picture of the excellent Future Stuff illustration of the GPS car navigation system. It's the most accurate picture of the future in that whole book.

: I've been on a writing tear after work this week, and I'm pleased to report that I have only 10 more Future Stuff entries to review and then I can just run out the clock. I'm a little worried that I've been using Future Stuff as an excuse to avoid doing real writing, but we'll see once I'm done.

: The Natural History of Chocolate. The sort of book you might see today (except it would be called Chocolate: The Natural History of an Obsession), but published in 1719. Might be the earliest book I've read that had footnotes, but I don't exactly read a lot of eighteenth-century books. Did you know that "The Fruit of the Cocao-Tree is the most oily that Nature has produced"?

[Comments] (6) Bookmooch optimization: Dude by the name of Ledbetter had a bad experience with Bookmooch and wrote an article for Fortune about it. At first I skipped over the article because I've seen this time and time again, someone writes an article about an online community and all the users of the community pile on. I don't want to get involved. But eventually I read the article and came up with a couple weblog entry ideas. I decided the world needs some tips born of experience on achieving good Bookmooch inventory turnover.

  1. Don't put out-of-date books on Bookmooch. I had a bunch of old O'Reilly books; I gave them to the thrift store. Sometimes people want old stuff (Rachel just asked me to mooch some 1989 Eastern Bloc travel guides for her), but those books are way down the long tail. If you put one of those books on Bookmooch you're buying a raffle ticket the size and shape of a book, and you don't know how long you'll have to hang on to it. It's not worth it.

    Ledbetter had a problem that he put a book on his list, not knowing there was a newer edition. Honest mistake. People were jerks about it. Lots of people are jerks. Sorry. (I've never encountered a jerk on Bookmooch, though.) As a practical suggestion, most of the book pages on BookMooch have cover photos, so you can usually avoid problems by matching up the photo with your cover.

    Contra Ledbetter, I don't think wanting the most recent revision of a book "smacks of a professional interest in reselling." Why wouldn't you be able to resell the old revision? Because people don't generally want the old revision. Ergo, they generally don't want it on Bookmooch. You're effectively reselling the book for a currency other than money, and the social mores of reselling apply.

  2. Don't put a book on Bookmooch if there are over 500 copies already on Bookmooch. In general, don't put classics or best-sellers on Bookmooch. No one will mooch the suckers. More precisely, no one will mooch your copy. Again, you're buying a raffle ticket.
  3. Don't put a book on Bookmooch if you should be selling it to the used bookstore or on eBay or whatever. Sumana bought an expensive multi-volume hardbound graphic novel (I name no names) and hated it. She sold it to Strand for like $15, which is much less than what she paid but significantly more than the estimated cash value of a Bookmooch point, especially given the cost of mailing that big boy out.
  4. If you've got a book in bad shape, say the cover is torn or a previous owner wrote "CARTER" on the edge, don't just say it in the condition notes. Ask the recipient to confirm that they read the condition notes. This avoids hassles later. I don't mind getting a book that's not keeper quality, and everyone I've asked did indeed see my condition notes and didn't mind either. It's a little extra lubrication of a transaction that lets you find homes for books that are perfectly useful, but that the used bookstore won't take.
  5. Give it time. Long tail. Yesterday I got a request for a book that'd been in my inventory for about 8 months.
  6. Have a big wishlist. Long tail. Ledbetter has four books on his wishlist. My steady state is about 250. At any given time, maybe 3% of the books on my wishlist have copies available. A lot of this is probably because of rule 3, actually; most of the books remaining on my wishlist are either rare, or still command a high price at the used bookstore, or are new enough that they haven't gotten into the used book ecosystem.

Ledbetter is suspicious of the point system because "booksellers would have no problem giving away hundreds of books they can't sell in order to acquire books they can." On the face of it this doesn't make sense: if you can give away a book you could have sold it, unless someone's mooching for Books by the Foot. But I think he might mean that booksellers can give away cheap books and use the points to get expensive books.

This is possible; I've gotten one book from Bookmooch that, if I was a used bookstore, I could sell for twenty bucks. I've given away books that a used bookstore could sell for eight because it was easier to mail them than to deal with the jerks at Strand and get three. But look at my first two tips. You can give away cheap books, and you can even give away books that are in unsellable shape, but you can't give away out-of-date books (no takers) or common books (too many givers). The only way to amass points is to give away books people want but that aren't overstocked; ie. to match supply to demand. You can try to arbitrage this, but it's a sucker's game--in fact, I suspect it's the same sucker's game as selling books for one cent on Amazon and trying to pay for your labor from the Amazon shipping charge. (Thank you, myriad suckers!)

The books I successfully give away tend to be those that are difficult to find used. Same with the books other people give to me. Sometimes I get lucky and get an expensive book. It works out the same either way; rarity becomes fungible with sale value.

But, Ledbetter's article got me thinking about my huge point surplus. I've got 79.6 Bookmooch points right now. If I mooched every available book on my wishlist I'd still have over seventy. People want my books a lot more than I want other peoples' books. The intuition is that this evens out, but Bookmooch isn't a zero-sum point system based on a gold standard of book swaps. The system includes inflation; you get extra points for mailing a book to another country, for completing a swap, and for listing books in your inventory. But the costs of the only two things you can buy don't go up as inflation is added to the system. So it's possible that everyone will eventually end up with a bunch of points they can't use.

This would certainly be a problem, but it has nothing to do with what people might do with your books after receiving them (like maybe selling them). I may do some screen-scraping and math and up-mashing to explore this possibility space in more detail.

Whose Basics?: A while back I scavenged a catalog for Back To Basics Toys which seemed to be going for an old-timey aesthetic. Some of the toys are cool (carom game board) and some are lame (Viewmaster) and some are not so much toys as excuses to browbeat some unlucky child with the past (books of nostalgia from "60, 50, and 40 years ago"). But I was unable to find any consistent "basics" that were being returned to. There are wood toys and plastic toys, toys that take batteries and electronic toys. There are copies of toys from throughout the twentieth century. There's laser tag and Lincoln Logs. There are board games and video games.

It's not like the catalog commissioned any of these toys. They're just aggregating stuff from many manufacturers and writing copy. But there did seem to be some vague strand connecting all these items. They're not 'nonviolent' toys: there's Laser Tag and Rock 'em Sock 'em Robots and a robot shark (robot shark!) that claims "Kids will jump in the 'Shark Tank'!" It's not some hippy brand-aversion thing; most of the toys are generic but there are lots of brand-name toys. Aha! But none of the brands are new. The latest probably date from the 1960s.

Mystery solved. The goal of the catalog is not to get your grandkids to play with the same toys you played with when you were a kid (as I thought before looking at it), it's to stop them from forming traitorous allegiances with unfamiliar brands. Sneaky!

Future Stiffed: I just finished writing up the last Future Stuff entry ("Freezing Humans"). Freedom! The whole review is fifty-five thousand words; as long as a NaNoWriMo novel, though of course many of the words aren't mine. Contrary to popular opinion I will not be tackling More Future Stuff anytime soon.

I'm going to hold on to the book for maybe six months, in case I need to make corrections or additions. Then I'm not sure what to do with it. I feel like I should be auctioning my copy off for charity, but I'm pretty sure I'm the only one who feels that way.

[Comments] (33) Where Are They Now?: I can't stop! Today I read Programmers at Work, a 1986 book of interviews by Susan Lammers (I got the version that doesn't have Bill Gates's head taking up half the cover.) For some reason I was compelled to write this weblog entry detailing what all of the people mentioned in the book did since the book was published. Some interesting links and history below.

[Comments] (3) Non-Terror of Fox Terrier: Today was a holiday but I worked in the morning because Sumana was at class. We met up in the afternoon and revisited the American Museum of Natural History. Sumana's interest was reactivated by a recent Colbert Report where Neil deGrasse Tyson showed Steven Colbert around the awesome exhibit of how big things are compared to other things. So we went and I took some pictures. In particular I took special pictures for Kris, the Northrups, and Rachel.

But this is the picture I want to talk about. NYCB gets results! In May 2006 I pointed out that the Natural History Museum blindly copies the ever-less-meaningful comparison of Eohippus to a fox terrier. But now they've changed that ancient sign to remove the useless comparison (and started calling the animal Hyracotherium instead of Eohippus, which is an apatosaurus/brontosaurus kind of thing).

It's all part of a wave of scientific hard-assedness that has swept the museum. Now, its ass was of remarkable hardness the last time I visited; the fourth floor is organized as a cladistic tree of the vertebrates, and just about every mini-exhibit has a cladistic diagram of the turtles or lungfish or whatever, and in those diagrams evolutionary branch points are labeled with the advanced features that marked the split! (I realize now I should have photographed some of those diagrams, but this should give the flavor.) It's amazing. But now they've kicked it up a notch by adding ominous warnings about falsifiability and updating the display placards.

Anyway, congrats to the AMNH for stopping telling kids that something they've never seen before is the same size as something they've never heard of, giving them facts without imparting knowledge.

Where's The Source?: Read some leftover documents from yesterday: a 2005 interview with Andy Hertzfeld and a transcript of a staff meeting at Software Arts the day the IBM PC was announced.

Hertzfeld says that he got Apple to agree to donate the MacPaint source code to the Computer History Museum. (It's a long and entertaining story; Don Knuth is involved.) But apparently donating the source code to a museum and allowing the museum to show people the source code are two different things, and the museum can't show it to anyone. (scroll to the bottom, here's an older but more official statement of the problem) But Knuth has a pirated copy...

: The "Mallory" protagonists' interests collide with RailBricks, a magazine for LEGO RAILROAD railroad enthusiasts. Includes an interview with Justin Carminien, who comes up with late-90s-looking Western-themed sets, complete with imitation box covers. I don't see a bordello, but it's early days yet.

I'm trying to "convince" the idea of the set to the viewer...a head at LEGO could say, "Yes, I could see that as a marketable product."

Or maybe it's not early days. I've never been good at determining the lateness of days.

[Comments] (5) : I have an important announcement to make! I'll be giving a talk about RESTful web service design at the Irish Web Technologies Conference next week. I see that Bill de hÓra will be there too. Now I just need to write my talk. And do the critiques for my SF writing group.

[Comments] (5) : Well, this is a new low. I just cut myself on a piece of bread.

: A coda to the recent minuet of computer history: the 1981 New York Times article on the announcement of the IBM PC. Written by Andrew Pollack, who's still a science writer for the NYT. We're told about this strange world of "desk-top" computers, a market dominated by Apple and Tandy. Shockingly, "Others May Write Programs," which IBM will "evaluate" and pay "a royalty on sales of the program." IBM was trying to be the Association of Shareware Professionals or something.

: You probably missed it because the Programmers at Work entry got on Slashdot and is now pushing 30 comments, but there's also a good discussion on the "Bookmooch optimization" entry, with the founder of Bookmooch and the author of the Fortune article.

[Comments] (1) Some Bookmooch Stats: I cast Number Crunching I on the raw BookMooch data (caution: the full data set is about a gigabyte, and you don't need it to duplicate these numbers). I present some interesting numbers below.

Total number of copies on wishlists: 981,103

Total number of copies in inventory: 414,146

Of those 981,103 desired copies, 27,141 are available. If everyone requested all available texts on their wishlist, there would be 387,005 copies left in inventory and 953,962 on wishlists.

420,938 distinct texts are on wishlists but not in inventory.

3,591 texts are in contention: they're in inventory, but not in quantities big enough to satisfy everybody who wants them. The undisputed champion here is Kafka on the Shore, which is on 175 wishlists but the only copy is owned by a guy in the Czech Republic who will only mail elsewhere in the Czech Republic. Most of the runners-up are owned by people whose accounts seem defunct. If you go down the list a bit you can see books that many people want, but that nobody wants very much.

: I've let these horns go untooted for too long. A couple of projects I worked on as a consultant have been released. First, the web service for Satisfaction, a technical support forum that lets you interact directly with clueful companies and route around the clueless. The service is a mix of Atom for stuff that has a publishing-type workflow (like support topics), and XHTML+microformats for the rest.

Second, the Passively Multiplayer Online Game is in beta. I actually can't get the PMOG client to register my visits to sites anymore, not sure what's up with that, but it's a fun game that doesn't require a lot of ongoing investment the way, say, Kingdom of Loathing does. It'll be even more fun if they implement my crazy ideas.

[Comments] (2) : Ah, check out this great company, Slooh. It's a perfect science-fictional business: use the Internet to sell time on robotic telescopes. The pictures you take can end up on a community website. See, for instance, this pretty decent Ganymede transit of Jupiter. I'd design their web service!

: Apparently I was the last straw: Susan Lammers has started up a project to repost the Programmers at Work interviews and explore the ever-present possibility of expanding upon the previous work.

: I'm safe in Dublin thanks to the kindness of Sean O'Donnell. They were actually training new passport officers in the passport line. I'm on this WebTV system that barely works, but I'm here. I need to get some more sleep and then off to the conference.

The Great Smell of Alberta Beef: Overheard in the airport: "No, lifestyle fragrance. For the Canadians."

Overheard on the plane: "[Buy stuff from] our award-winning duty-free." What kind of backscratching organization gives out awards for duty-free product collections? The Global Travel Retail Awards, that's who.

[Comments] (2) : My talk went well. Plus, no jet lag since I crashed right after my flight.

Mike Popovic has launched a new weblog, Grok Robots (I talked him down from the less mellifluent "Grokking Robots".) The topic: ROBOTS. I know there's not a lot of robot discussion on NYCB, but that's mostly because my robot-related interests diverge from most peoples'. I don't really care about the analogy between robots and people, but I do like robots that are very different from people. Spacecraft, or robots designed for special purposes like finding kittens. I can only hope that Mike will not neglect this field of robotology.

Which reminds me that I wish I could tell you about Andrew's golem story from last week's SF writing group. Best golem design ever! And I know of many golems.

[Comments] (1) : We won the pub quiz!

[Comments] (4) : Just checking in. I'm safe in London w/Rachel. I had the crazy idea that we could go to Paris on Sunday, but tickets for the Chunnel cost 159 pounds one-way. There goes that idea. I thought it was like the Metro North of Europe.

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