Fri Feb 01 2008 20:50:
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.
Sat Feb 02 2008 02:30:
I just got home; you can stop doing whatever you were doing while waiting for me to arrive. Like sleeping, for instance.
(4) Sun Feb 03 2008 17:21 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
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
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.)
- Space Shuttle program (estimated lifetime cost $174 billion)
- The ISS (estimated lifetime NASA contribution $53 billion)
- Hubble Space Telescope (estimated lifetime cost $6 billion)
- Cassini-Huygens (total cost $3.26 billion)
- Mars Science Laboratory (estimated cost $1.7 billion)
- Galileo (total cost $1.35 billion)
- Voyager I and II (total cost $865 million)
- New Horizons (estimated lifetime cost $650 million)
- Kepler (estimated cost $467 million)
- Dawn (estimated cost $446 million)
- Mars Pathfinder (total cost $265 million)
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
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."
(3) Sun Feb 03 2008 18:32 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.
Mon Feb 04 2008 08:04:
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.
(3) Mon Feb 04 2008 22:57 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.
(1) Tue Feb 05 2008 19:14:
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.
(3) Wed Feb 06 2008 17:59:
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. 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.
 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.
Thu Feb 07 2008 23:08:
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.
(1) Fri Feb 08 2008 15:46 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.
Fri Feb 08 2008 17:30 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:
- 11 quarters from 1985 or before
- 37 post-1985 quarters
- 1 dime
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.
Fri Feb 08 2008 22:42 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!
Mon Feb 11 2008 18:01:
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.
(2) Tue Feb 12 2008 17:35:
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.
Wed Feb 13 2008 22:37:
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.
Wed Feb 13 2008 23:05:
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"?
(6) Thu Feb 14 2008 16:52 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- Give it time. Long tail. Yesterday I got a request for a book that'd been in my inventory for about 8 months.
- 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.
Fri Feb 15 2008 19:43 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!
Sat Feb 16 2008 21:31 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.
(33) Sun Feb 17 2008 21:32 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.
- Charles Simonyi. Then, Microsoft programmer. Now: super-rich guy, space tourist, endowing Oxford chairs and whatnot. Works at Intentional Software.
- Butler Lampson. Then, PARC dude. Now: a Microsoft Fellow.
- John Warnock. Then: co-founder of Adobe. Now: retired, serves on boards of directors, apparently runs a bed and breakfast.
- Gary Kildall: Then: author of CP/M. Died in 1994. The project he was working on in Programmers at Work became the first encyclopedia distributed on CD-ROM. He also hosted Computer Chronicles for a while.
- Bill Gates. Then: founder of Microsoft, popularizer of the word "super". Now: richest guy in the world. After a stint in the 90s as pure evil, semi-retired to focus on philanthropic work.
- John Page. Then: co-founder of the Software Publishing Company, makers of PFS:FILE, an early database program. Now: I'm not really sure. Here's a video of him from 2006, so he's probably still alive, but he's not on the web. SPC was acquired in 1996. Through some odd corporate synergy the public face of the business now appears to be Harvard Graphics.
- C. Wayne Ratliff. Then: author of dBase. Now: retired.
- Dan Bricklin. Then: co-author of VisiCalc. Now: Has a weblog and lots of accessible historical information about his projects. Still runs Software Garden. Still looks almost exactly like his illustration in PaW, leading some to speculate on a "Spreadsheet of Dorian Gray" type effect. I secretly hope he will see this in referer logs and invite me to hang out with him.
- Bob Frankston. Then: the other half of VisiCalc. Now: worked for Microsoft for a few years, now retired, has a weblog.
- Jonathan Sachs. Then: co-author of Lotus 1-2-3. Now: semi-retired. Gives away Pocket PC software from his home page, and sells photography software as Digital Light & Color. More details in this 2004 oral history.
- Ray Ozzie. Then: Lotus Symphony dude, left Lotus to write what would eventually be sold as Lotus Notes. Now: Chief Software Architect at Microsoft, after working for IBM and starting Groove Networks. Has a weblog, but hasn't posted for about a year.
- Peter Roizen. Then: author of T/Maker, a spreadsheet program. Now: programmer consultant. Inventor of a Scrabble variant that uses shell glob syntax.
- Bob Carr. Then: PARC Alum, Chief Scientist at Ashton-Tate, author of Framework integrated suite. Now: founder of Keep and Share. In between: co-founded Go, worked for Autodesk. Doesn't seem to have a web presence.
- Jef Raskin. Then: Macintosh project creator, founder of Information Appliance. Died in 2005. His excellent web site is still up. Author of well-respected book The Humane Interface. The project he's working on in PaW, the SwyftCard, was a minor success.
- Andy Hertzfeld. Then: Macintosh OS developer. Now: works at
the OSAF Google and hosts a bunch of websites, including folklore.org and Susan Kare's site. (Incidentally, Susan Kare now works for Chumby.) In between: worked at General Magic and Eazel, which probably only people who read this weblog remember.
Most of the people profiled in PaW provide some sample of their programming or thought process. Hertzfeld has the best one: an assembler program that makes Susan Kare's Macintosh icons bounce around a window.
- Toru Iwatani. Then: designer of Pac-Man. Now: retired from Namco in 2007. Visiting professor at a Japanese university (the University of Arts in Osaka or Tokyo Polytechnic, depending on which source you believe). In PaW very proud of a game called Libble Rabble, which I'd never heard of. I believe PaW interview was for a while the only English-language information available about Iwatani.
Significantly, in a recent interview Iwatani refused to comment on Ms. Pac-Man's relationship to Pac-Man. Possibly because Ms. Pac-Man is actually Pac-Man's transgendered clone, and Namco doesn't want word getting out.
- Scott Kim. The only person mentioned in PaW I've met. Then: basically a puzzle designer. Now: still a puzzle designer. His website. Also has an interest in math education.
- Jaron Lanier. Then: working on a visual programming/simulation language. Blows Susan Lammers's mind with a description of virtual reality (see also "Virtual World" in Future Stuff). Now: scholar in residence at Berkeley, occasional columnist for Discover. Lots of stuff on his website. Here's video of a game he wrote.
- Michael Hawley. Then: working at LucasFilm on Sound Droid, what we would recognize as audio editing software. Now: at the MIT Media Lab. In between: jumped to NeXT shortly after PaW was published.
(3) Mon Feb 18 2008 20:05 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.
Mon Feb 18 2008 21:32 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...
Tue Feb 19 2008 20:37:
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.
(5) Tue Feb 19 2008 22:16:
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.
(5) Wed Feb 20 2008 19:51:
Well, this is a new low. I just cut myself on a piece of bread.
Thu Feb 21 2008 08:59:
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.
Sat Feb 23 2008 10:09:
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.
(1) Sat Feb 23 2008 15:57 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.
Sun Feb 24 2008 19:45:
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.
(2) Sun Feb 24 2008 20:38:
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!
Tue Feb 26 2008 08:40:
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.
Wed Feb 27 2008 04:15:
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.
Wed Feb 27 2008 11:39 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.
(2) Thu Feb 28 2008 07:56:
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.
(1) Thu Feb 28 2008 17:27:
We won the pub quiz!
(4) Fri Feb 29 2008 12:26:
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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