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[Comments] (1) : I'm back in New York! Check out this awesome painting I saw in the National Gallery. I'm not sure why that painting isn't in the Tower of London next to the crown jewels, but I sure am glad it's not because then I'd never have seen it.

PS: Forgot this hilarious joke. "I just flew back from London, and boy are my arms tired! Because I FELL ON THEM AND BRUISED THEM QUITE BADLY."

[Comments] (6) Leonard Gets Out The Vote: Vote, dammit.

Caution: gallery contains Mega Man 9 spoilers.

The Hard Sell: Yesterday two guys dressed like hipper Mormon missionaries somehow got into my apartment building (not that it's terribly difficult). They worked for Direct Energy and were wandering door-to-door pulling a low-grade social engineering scam where they let you think they worked for the electric company and they wanted to "adjust" your electric rate by signing you up with Direct Energy. Dealing with them was an unpleasant experience but it did make me realize that advertising in general is a kind of social engineering.

The day before Sumana got a telemarketing call. On her cell phone that's on the Do Not Call list. It was a Choose Your Own Adventure pitch from the Internet company (a preexisting business relationship trumps cell phones and DNC list) wanting to sell us a phone line. As in a phone you can't take out of your house. I believe to sweeten the deal they offered an original iMac and some commemorative Pogs. When Sumana said she wasn't interested, the Choose Your Own Adventure (which was being read by some poor human) became incredulous that we could live full lives if there wasn't a land line in our place of residence. After assuring the CYOA that our lives were fairly full, Sumana eventually reached one of those unsatisfying endings where she lived in a state of uncertainty as to what might have been, and hung up.

In both cases this was not the first time we'd been pitched but an escalation in tactics. We got a very weird spam-card from Direct Energy a while back, which was why I remembered the name on missionary #1's badge. And the Internet company sends us a paper bill every month mostly so they can bundle in pitches for a phone line (I pay the bill online, through the very Internet I pay for).

I wonder if this increased aggressiveness is an effect of the economic crunch, or, as I believe they used to say, "recession". Did this happen last time? Since coming back from London I've also noticed a little of a more common form of creeping advertising: advertising on surfaces that previously had none.

[Comments] (1) : Kevan gave me a book of Groucho Marx-related letters, called appropriately enough The Groucho Letters. I'd flipped through the book at Jake Berendes's house but now I'm reading it through, and I was intrigued by his 1957 description of a Mystery Science Theater-esque show he was writing and co-starring in:

The format is a simple one. Jane and I sit in front of a television set at home watching a television show. The show we watch is usually a sports reel, a travelogue, or a whatnot, and we make up funny jokes to say while looking at it...

It will be a new kind of writing for me. We have to write jokes to fit the footage of the film shots. Like I need a forty-foot joke to describe what the man is doing when he examines the sheep's wool in Australia, so I say to Jane: "See, they examine the wool to determine if it's ready for shearing." And she takes the rest of the 40 feet to tell the joke. Which in this case turns out to be: "Oh yeh--they want to make sure it's a hundred percent wool."

Hilarious, isn't it? And after writing 40-foot jokes, 75-foot jokes, and even 108-foot jokes, we have a nine and a half inch [Nielsen] rating, and all is well.

IMDB doesn't know about this television program and it's not clear who "Jane" is, though picking up context throughout the book indicates that it's Jane Ace, Goodman Ace's wife.

[Comments] (6) The Battle Hymn of the Republic of Letters:

[Comments] (2) Mother 3: Oh yeah. The fan translation came out when I was in London. This weekend I loaded it onto my DS and played it. Except playing it on my DS didn't work too well, despite me having bought a doohickey specifically so I could play the Mother 3 translation on the DS. So I'm playing it through Mednafen. (Note: Mednafen may cause drowsiness. Use only as directed.) I'd say I'm halfway done; below my spoilerish thoughts.

There are many reasons why there will never be an official translation of this game, but upon playing it the main one that jumps out is that it's pretty offensive by Western standards. In Earthbound, the Japanese technique of jumbling together random stereotypes about America resulted in the charming Colbertian nation-state of Eagleland. In Mother 3 it results in a "generic minority" character who embodies different racial stereotypes simultaneously. There's also a central-casting "greedy Arab" character. And the, uh, fairies, who make Tingle look like Cary Grant. I appreciate that Japan is a different country where the mere fact that homosexuals exist is considered hilarious, but the past is also another country, and that doesn't excuse the past. So: grow up, Japan.

If you can get past that, there's a great game here. It's basically a text adventure with sprite graphics: a linear plot with lots of places to explore and people to talk to. The writing and game design is as good as Earthbound. There's less all-out wackiness but the places fit together better and there are lots of great changes to the environment over time, and variations on themes. Example: your game is saved by talking to frogs, which is a) awesome, and b) implemented by scattering thematically appropriate frogs throughout the game: ghost frogs, frogs in tiny cars, old frogs in wheelchairs, floating frogs dangling from balloons, etc. It's cute and funny.

The plot is interesting--this is the only Mother game to actually be about someone's mother. As with the game design, the plot fits together a lot better than Earthbound's plot. But there's something wrong. It's not that an RPG with cute sprites can't tell a dark story--that's bathos, and it's delicious. It's that the Mother 3 story mixes different kinds of darkness.

There's the darkness of the death of a loved one and of being compelled to work on an evil project and of having your home town invaded by aliens. And there's this goofy rock-video darkness where people are being enslaved by their television sets and corrupted not by the love of money but the existence of money. They don't fit together. You could tell one story or the other with cute RPG sprites but it's asking a little bit much for cute RPG sprites to glue them together. (And for good measure there's also the pro forma high-fantasy darkness of Prophecy Fulfilled and Are You Pure Of Heart which is just an excuse for Collect A Bunch Of Similar Things, which I find very tiresome but Earthbound had the same thing.) The old text adventure "The Legend Lives!" has a lot of these same problems, but its television scene does a better job, I think.

So, Mother 3 makes visible in retrospect some problems with Earthbound. Earthbound's huge sprawling map alienated you from what was going on in the game world. Mother 3 takes you through a series of persistent changes to the world, which forces you to invest emotionally in what's happening. Except for the thing at the very end, which loses its punch if described rather than played, Earthbound has the emotional depth of a sitcom episode. Mother 3 starts off by breaking your heart, and manages to break your heart two or three more times before it gets really goofy and rock-video-ey.

The best thing about Earthbound was the feeling of subjunctive nostalgia you got wandering around Eagleland, a replica of an American/Japanese culture that never existed. Mother 3 yields this poignancy, which I also find in the Miyazaki films with European-looking settings. I almost said Mother 3 "nails" this poignancy, but there's all that offensive stuff that won't play in real America, so I deny Mother 3 the prestigious verb "to nail".

If my opinion about any of this changes by the time I finish the game I'll post a follow-up. All in all, a great game made available through an amazing translation effort.

Update: see follow-up entry.

: This link has now passed my "just link to it and close the tab rather than thinking about something long to write about it" threshold. Netflix released a web service that actually serves hypermedia documents! Wooooooo!

Clean and Sober: No painkillers today, for the first time since my injury.

[Comments] (2) One Bad Mother: I've completed Mother 3 (see previous entry). On the "offensive" note, I forgot to mention that fairly early in the game you get covered in soot from a fire, and everyone talks about how wacky it is that you look all black. I don't want to be the blackface police, but I guess I kind of am.

In non-offensive news, there's an dream sequence that's not as weird as the Magicant sequence in Earthbound, but is creepy and horrifying and would probably scar you emotionally if you were a kid playing it. Except what kid would play it? You'd have to have played Earthbound to get an interest, which at this point means you'd be into retro gaming, an odd hobby for a kid and one that probably indicates you could handle a super creepy dream sequence. The sequence does go over the top into ridiculousness in one place, which if you've played it you know exactly what I'm talking about. But all in all, well done with the creepiness.

Around the point I wrote the previous entry in this series of weblog entries, the game stopped being focused around changes to one place and became much more Earthbound-like, shuttling you off from locale to locale like a Bond movie. That was a bit disappointing. The secret of the game, revealed about two hours before the end in a huge infodump, is decent and exactly the kind of poignancy I was hoping for, though if your multi-part infodump involves a special recording device that lets the player refer to the infodump later, your infodump is too big.

There are some connections to Earthbound and although I'm a huge EB fan I think the connections made Mother 3 a lesser game. I'm thinking especially of the main villain. If you've played Earthbound the villain's identity will not be a secret for long, and if you have a functioning brainstem the identity of the villain's henchling will never be a secret at all. I'm going to just accept this in the name of dramatic closure and move on.

There's a tendentious video-game logic that says that bad things are caused by people who are evil, and that the evil people do the bidding of a boss, and that if you kill the boss you've solved the problem. This causes big problems when applied to real life, but it's hard for me to get worked up about it in a video game. And yet, if there's one video game that could take a more realistic approach, it would be a Mother game. Especially Mother 3, whose plot, for all its ridiculous rock video television-enslavement, teaches the realistic lesson that bad things happen because people sacrifice their long-term interests for short-term satisfaction. But no, the boss is behind everything, and you defeat the boss. And then something else happens that is difficult to describe and that I'm still thinking about. Suffice to say it's cool but not as cool as the end of Earthbound, which I'm still thinking about after a longer time.

In conclusion, huge thanks to the translation team, without which I'd never have been able to appreciate the game. Because as much as I'd love to, the odds of me learning Japanese from scratch now that I'm pushing thirty are pretty slim. And, seriously, thanks for not hiding or (I assume) toning down the offensive bits, because it's better to have this kind of thing out in the open where it can be called out.

PS: Check out this stop-motion Mega Man video, which is certainly better than this weblog entry.

: Man, I gotta finish this talk.

[Comments] (3) Hey, England: I don't generally go to other countries and tell them how to run things, but you might want to look into tape dispensers. They make it easy to shear off the edge of the tape, and they hold the tape in place for next time so you don't have to pick at it. Admittedly there's a small amount of waste in selling a little piece of plastic and metal with every roll of tape, since in theory they can be reused, but now that you've become hardasses about reusing grocery bags, go ahead and treat yourselves.

[Comments] (1) Bento: I'm done with my QCon talk, though it's almost certainly too long. I decided to put a picture of a bento box on the first slide and did my usual Flickr-search. I found two pictures that are cooler than the one I used, but too complex to go on a slide that will only be seen for a few seconds. I thought I'd share them with you.

First is the pictured Star Wars-themed bento, which uses the dark side of the rice to great effect. I couldn't use this because it takes a few moments to recognizable it as food. Second is the meta-bento, which contains a smaller bento box made of food, with utensils made of food. That one was just too complicated to use: if you only see it for a little bit it looks like a normal bento box with normal utensils.

Lanyard Disappointment: I thought this branded lanyard said "TRIFORCE". It says "TRIFORK".

[Comments] (5) : I think that went pretty well. When I finished everyone had kind of a stunned look on their faces, but they recovered. There will be video eventually, which will surely be embarassing and show that it actually went poorly.

[Comments] (1) Night Of The Waffle Coasters: Put up some boring pictures from QCon. I'll get some better pictures once I get out and start doing things. I couldn't get my usual webpage export to work on the laptop so I just stuck the photos on Flickr.

[Comments] (2) Cannelini Bean Spread: This is a delicious garlicky recipe I reverse-engineered from Supper, an awesome Italian restaurant in the East Village.

Mash it all together. Spread on bread. That's it. It's excellent. I never really cooked with cannelini beans before but I think they're a better all-purpose bean than kidney beans.

Melt The Oranges: Awesome random recipe generator, via Kevan. I wish I'd thought of that, but my random recipe generators were too well-structured and not dadaist enough, and that made them impossible to implement. Even looking at these recipes I think "well, you really need to stir-fry something in some liquid, which means we need to know which ingredients are liquid..." and it stops being fun.

[Comments] (7) : There must be thousands of people with suggestive names, walking around Gotham City, who never quite became Batman villains.

[Comments] (2) : Yesterday we went to the Computer History Museum. Clearly a lot of money has gone into this museum, but it's fundamentally a county museum where everyone cleaned out their garages and they put it all on display. It's just that since the county is in Silicon Valley the people are very rich and their garages are full of awesome old computers.

So there's a bunch more photos on Flickr, with more to come. New photos start here.

The big draw was the difference engine, which is unfortunate because in a few months Nathan Myhrvold will arrive Mephistophelian at the stroke of midnight and whisk the difference engine away to his living room. And then the Computer History Museum will have a rotating exhibit (currently about chess), an "Innovation in the Valley" exhibit that seems provincial despite having amazing artifacts like Engelbart's mouse and the Apple I, and the big room full of computers. You think it's ridiculous that I'm complaining about free admission to a big room full of computers, but if you've seen the outside of this building it looks like the office-park equivalent of the Guggenheim. You expect more.

Anyway, the difference engine was great, and now I understand how it works. I originally thought the point of it was to find the roots of polynomials and I couldn't imagine how it represented complex roots. But no, it just cranks out the values of polynomials for ever-increasing values of x.

More pictures from the room full of old computers coming eventually. I just wanted to put up enough that I'd get to the Chadwick Magic-Brain Calculator for Susanna and John.

: I've uploaded the rest of my Computer History Museum photos, starting here. Don't miss the Honeywell Kitchen Computer! Contains no more pictures of Kevin flipping the computers off.

PS: I'm gonna go out on a limb and allege that the Kitchen Computer is a sham. It was never intended to sell, it was just a cross-promotional thing to get attention for Honeywell. Someone realized what a catastrophe it was to design a computer with the form factor of a desk in 1969. People in 1969 don't sit at desks and twiddle binary switches on the computer panel, they sit at teletypes and type and don't worry about where the computer is physically. So the paper-shuffling part of the desk was hastily renamed a "cutting board" and you had the Kitchen Computer.

There was probably no recipe software or digitized recipes. If they were serious about selling a Kitchen Computer they'd sell you a teletype as well. If you tried to use the "cutting board" to cut vegetables you'd scratch up an irreplacable part of the computer and probably cause a short circuit. You'd have to be stupid to design a Kitchen Computer that way. But you wouldn't have to be stupid to pass off a failed form factor as a Kitchen Computer for publicity's sake. Look at the ad: "If she can only cook as well as Honeywell can compute." Not "this computer", "Honeywell". It's a high-concept ad for Honeywell.

: No video yet, but Jim Webber put up real-time notes from my QCon talk. Jim was especially taken with my maturity heuristic for web services, where you look at how many of the Web technologies the designers understand/think are important. He proposed making sheets of stickers for the different maturity levels and slapping them on people, presumably as a shortcut around engaging their ideas.

Things Nobody Cares About: Kitchen Fiction: A better-organized bill of particulars in case anyone wants to do more research.

It's not in dispute that the Honeywell H316 "Kitchen Computer" is a really stupid idea. But I do think that the pedestal version of the H316 was not designed or seriously intended to be used in a kitchen. I propose that the pedestal H316 was originally designed as a desk, something you'd sit at, using the "cutting board"/"counter" as a workspace, and that the kitchen usage was dreamed up for the Niemen Marcus catalogue as a way to sell other things--or, less likely, was a desperate gamble to sell a computer in a form factor that didn't make sense. It's possible that some pillar H316s were sold, even if no "Kitchen Computers" were.

The first microcomputer, the Altair, was programmed with switches and had no user interface other than its lights. To us it seems barely plausible that in the appliance-crazed 60s, Honeywell would stupidly try to sell that kind of interface to the home. But in a minicomputer those switches and lights are just the control panel. They're used to load in the operating system, so you can use a teletype or tape reader for your real work. A teletype next to the actual computer was a common sight in contemporaneous advertising.

The H316 worked that way. No one would do all their work through the switches, which is why building the H316 into a desk was a bad idea. But putting a teletype next to the H316 in the Nieman Marcus photo shoot--a setup that might actually have worked--would have spoiled the 2001-esque aesthetic Honeywell and Nieman Marcus were projecting. Today you could build a real computer with that form factor and no teletype, so we look at the ad and think they were trying to use the control panel as the user interface.

So: not only did the Kitchen Computer sell no units, it had no existence outside the Nieman-Marcus catalogue. The point of the catalogue entry was to make executives puff on their stereotypical pipes thoughtfully and then buy an H316 for the office. Everyone else would shudder at the cost of the computer and just buy that dorky flower apron.

Here's some questions I don't know the answer to that could confirm or disprove my hypothesis. First, I suspect that the "counter" of the pillar H316 is much lower than a kitchen counter would be; more in line with something you could scoot an office chair under. This is born out by the N-M photo, Val Henson's hilarious photos, and my subjective remembered experience, but I don't know for sure. Here's a picture of a chair beneath the computer. My point is that no matter how stupid an idea a Kitchen Computer is, if you were designing the casing for one and you decided to give it a "counter", you'd put the counter at the height of a kitchen counter, not the height of an office desk.

Second, I don't know what's in the back of the pillar H316. In the continuing saga of me not looking closely enough at things that I later realize are problematic, I didn't look at the back. Is there a place to connect a teletype and other peripherals?

Third: what did the H316 cost through regular channels? I've seen it described as "the first under-$10,000 16-bit machine". Does the $10,600 cost in the Niemen-Marcus catalogue include a cheap teletype to go with the two-week programming course?

Fourth, are there any manuals for the pillar H316? Any idea of how all those alleged recipes were stored? Paper tape? They sure wouldn't fit in the H316's core memory.

Bonus clearing-up: it has been alleged that the Kitchen Computer had a compiler for a language called BACK. There is no such programming language. Which itself is suspicious, because most short words have been used as the name of a programming language. At some point someone made a joke about FORTH (the first FORTH implementation happened on the H316) and the factoid was passed along by someone who didn't get the joke.

An interesting coda: the H316 was also used to build the Interface Message Processor, first machines on the ARPAnet. Check out the lower IMP control panel: it's got the same controls as the Kitchen Computer.

[Comments] (1) The Welceme Mat: Saw a wooden-sign tchotchke that said "WELCEME". I hope whoever buys that appreciates it.

[Comments] (1) Things I Taught Maggie:

I was unable to teach her how to break; she just tried to add the cue ball to the triangle.

[Comments] (2) By Piepular Demand: Recipes for the Thanksgiving desserts I made, some of which will make an encore appearance at Backup Thanksgiving: sweet tart crust, chocolate pecan tart, apple tart where you boil the peels and cores to make a syrup. All of this is pretty generic except for the peels-and-cores stuff; I've made these same tarts before from different recipes.

: I've got the airplane disease, so I'm lying in bed watching MST3K episodes. I discovered that the first skit from "The Brute Man", which aired in 1996, presaged the housing bubble. "It's called the no-cash method!"

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