[Comments] (1) : What the?

[Comments] (5) : Wow, this is a busy vacation. Not only do/did I have the anthology, story revision, new story, and Beautiful Soup work, but I've embarked on a new project comparible in scope to The Future: A Retrospective, except cooler and higher-profile. I hope to have more details about that soon.

Alas, the day job returns on Monday, and the frenzy of writing will slow, but 2009 is looking a lot better for my fiction career than it seemed just a few days ago.

Unrelatedly, this entry prompted me and Sumana to Bookmooch about 15 books we're not gonna read/don't really need to keep, and I've put ten more in the equivalent of the proposed box.

Another way to stop the cycle of reading the books you suspect you won't enjoy enough to keep, is to choose your next book at random. But I've tried this in the past and it wasn't very satisfying. I did enjoy the brief experiment where you told me what books to read, and I'd actually like to re-open that experiment, so let me know which of these books I should read next. With the caveat that I need to finish The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind and then I'm going to take advantage of my new bookshelf space and finally read Rules of Play, so it'll be a while before I get to your demands.

Manhattan Takes The Muppets: At one point in November I had the idea to watch every stupid Christmas special ever created and write reviews. Yeah, you may have noticed a pattern to my terrible ideas. Fortunately this didn't happen, but I did go as far as recording a bunch of those specials on the PVR.

For me the only Christmas special is A Charlie Brown Christmas, with its existential crisis resolved by a Kierkegaardian leap to faith. Also because it was the only Christmas special I'd ever seen until a few months ago, when I saw some Rankin-Bass specials while playing with Maggie. I liked the animation but the stories were a mess. But my point is that all these specials were lying around on the PVR, and yesterday for some reason we watched a Muppets special called "Letters to Santa".

Man, it was terrible. I've never seen anything so bad that involved Muppets. Kermit has been toned down into blandness, even though his negative traits were never really that negative. I don't even recognize Gonzo. On the plus side, its relentless demonization of the TSA provides valuable counterprogramming for today's youth. (Yet the USPS was lionized! I've never seen a television program play such favorites with government agencies.) A pleasant sense of vertigo arose from Jane Krakowski never revealing that she was actually her 30 Rock character doing a terrible Muppets/NBC holiday special while coked to the gills on Teamocil. And Sam the American Eagle is always good, but at this point the Muppets have a problem similar to the Simpsons, where there are so many bit players who have to come out and do their schtick that whatever you're trying to illustrate bogs down.

In this case, though, the main plot was so inane that the show was actually at its best when bogged down in schtick. But afterwards we re-watched the great Steve Martin scene from The Muppet Movie, to cleanse the palate. Now that's a celebrity cameo!

Little-Appreciated Mother 3 Fact: The relaxing hot spring song is just a slowed-down version of the Funky Monkey Dance.

[Comments] (16) The Origin Of Consciousness In The Breakdown Of This Really Long Title: I'm reading clusters of related books: Consciousness Explained, I Am A Strange Loop, now Origin of Consciousness Yada Yada. I knew about this book since it was name-checked in The Big U, and afterwards I think I gathered that the same concepts had been deployed in Snow Crash, both of which books I want to re-read now.

But my interest was seriously piqued when I read Richard Dawkins referring to Origin as (non-exact quote) "one of those books that is either complete brilliance or utter rubbish". There are many such books, but most of them have been classified by now, and usually as "utter rubbish." I was intrigued by this thirty-year-old book whose ideas never became mainstream but which could still stand up to someone like Dawkins. If there are any other such books lying around I would like to hear about them.

It's a fascinating book because even if it's totally wrong, it's an excellent work of science fiction. And reading these books in rapid succession it feels to me like the bicameral mind theory is compatible with, or even a special case of, Dennett's Multiple Drafts theory of consciousness. And what do you know, Dennett has written an essay about bicameral mind theory which ties it together with his own writing in about the way I expected.

Anyway, the cluster-reading continues, as I now need to read a bunch of books about game design for the upcoming big project. I've experimented in the past with choosing a next book that has some relationship to the book I just read, but it didn't work because I was trying to make a chain chain chain, chain of books. Clusters make more sense. For instance I was just going to read Rules of Play next, but also on my bookshelf are Dungeons & Desktops and Magister Ludi, both of which I think will be important to this project, so I've put the three books in a stack. A STACK, I tell you!

[Comments] (7) Sharealike Thoughtcrime: So I got an email which deals with a topic not explored on this weblog for some years: the minutiae of various Creative Commons licenses. Specifically, the chilling effect that my choice of a BY-NC-SA license for Thoughtcrime Experiments might have on authors who don't want their stories hacked into derivative works. I would like to hear the thoughts of random people who read this weblog entry.

I chose BY-NC-SA for Thoughtcrime Experiments for three reasons: 1. that's the license Cory Doctorow uses, and it works out pretty well for him; 2. translations and adaptations to different media are prohibited under BY-NC-ND, and I want those to happen; 3. if you say it fast it sounds like "By NCSA", which makes whatever you're doing sound high-tech.

I also have a philosophical problem with BY-NC-ND which is that it doesn't enrich the commons beyond decriminalizing the act of copying. Imagine if it were suddenly okay to copy all those orphan works from the 20th (and by now the 21st) century. That'd be great news because large organizations could legally digitize all that stuff and we wouldn't lose it to Stanislaw Lem's paper-eating bacterium. But you still couldn't really interact with it until the copyright expired; it'd feel like it was behind glass. That's what BY-NC-ND feels like.

(Actually I'm being a bit hypocritical here because I originally put "Mallory" under BY-NC-ND, but I think I've talked myself out of that now, so I'll change it unless someone talks me back into it soon.)

So that's why I chose BY-ND-SA for Thoughtcrime Experiments. I'm interested in hearing additional arguments pro or con. Also note that I'm okay with negotiating the license even on the level of individual stories, though BY-NC-ND really is the baseline (otherwise it gets really confusing).

Pragmatically, I think most of the hypothetical undesirable uses of your work take place in a copyright grey area anyway, and won't be deterred by your choice of ND instead of SA. But I understand that pragmatism is not the main driver of peoples' (including my) feelings about this.

Beautiful Soup It's out. All it does is fix a parser crash on boolean attributes like <td nowrap>. But that's a pretty bad crash, so you should probably upgrade.

[Comments] (4) Foodcrime Experiment: In another of my really stupid ideas, I decided to recreate one of my favorite Bachelor Chow meals from college: a Trader Joe's chicken sausage calzone and Mountain Dew. Needless to say it was terrible. Mountain Dew stopped tasting good to me around the time I graduated from college, which may or may not have been coincidence. Although I fell off the wagon in late 2000, I don't think I'd had MD for five years, and now it just tastes like a generic oversweet soda. Note to my younger self: consider tea as a caffeine vehicle. There's no social stigma and you won't get as fat.

The calzone was really bland. I don't know what I was thinking. I remember the calzone being kind of soggy when cooked in the microwave, so I decided to go all out for quality and cooked it in the oven. The whole time it cooked I was forming hypotheses about how I was very impatient in college and needed to cook my calzones immediately. Then I tasted the calzone and it was barely warm in the middle and I had to microwave it anyway. I left it unfinished.

So, lesson learned. You can't go home again, where "home" is a room in a former frat house on Gayley that you share with Dan Helfman.

[Comments] (1) : Man, these little pixel monsters are cute. And since they're BY-NC-SA, you could make another animation frame for them and put them in a game. (stupid example)

[Comments] (4) Science Fiction Set In The Past: Why isn't there more of it? I love it. The past is well understood, it can't change and make your story look stupid, you get to bring back obsolete technologies, and (for values of past before 2004) your characters don't defuse all your plot twists by having cell phones. Steampunk led the way, but nobody followed. Why?

I wrote an alien invasion story set in 1994, and sure, there's some sense in which it's "inaccurate", but also a sense in which it's more accurate than a similar story set in 2014. I know what 1994 was like, and we all know the aliens I made up are not really going to show.

Information It Was Tough To Find: The game where you enact one half of a Japanese comedy duo is called Nice Tsukkomi. According to Wired it's filled with material from real comedians, which makes sense in retrospect.

"Ask me the secret of manzai."

"Okay, what's the--"


Starslip Crises: It's tough to keep my big mouth shut, but now that Kris is name-checking me I guess I can say something. Over the course of the last week Kris and I have been hashing out the future of his comic strip Starslip, on which he just changed up his art style. Originally he wanted to reboot the strip to tell a new story, but like all comics nerds (which I guess I technically am) I love continuity, and we were able to figure out a way for him to tell the story he wants to tell within the existing metaverse. And a byproduct was some interesting plot twists and gags which you should see soon.

There's a very boring bit of continuity that I doubt Kris will want to discuss within the strip, but that should be interesting for continuity nerds. So if the story stays consistent with the thing I came up with, I may give a noncanonical explanation of "what happened".

PS: If you're a super Starslip nerd, see if you recognize anybody in the background of the third panel. There's a minor clue in there.

: Brandon Bird has started a weblog and dubbed himself the "Painter of Might".

Vague Thoughtcrime Experiments Update: It hasn't been two weeks since our first submission and we haven't sent out any responses yet, but it's not too early for me to be amazed. We've been sent a lot of good stuff. And honestly, not nearly as much bad stuff as I'd been expecting. I'm also learning a lot about writing, especially from the elusive "good stuff I don't want to buy" pile. I totally understand all my rejection letters now.

Speaking of which, while reading slush I got a rejection email from an anthology I'd submitted to. So... yeah.

[Comments] (3) : Adam Parrish and I had a long talk about game design recently and got over our hatred of Candyland. Not that we want to play it or anything, but it's useful as a null game. Candyland teaches kids about the ritual of playing a game, with a minimum of real game content that might confuse them. While reading this history of Pong I'm getting the impression that Pong is the same kind of thing for electronic games.

[Comments] (1) Yay! Oh no!: Seen on junk-mail envelope: "Free gift!" "Your family could be at risk!"

Is the free gift a mogwai?

[Comments] (2) Becoming an Editor #1: Cover Letters: Oh yeah. I learned this lesson very quickly. Editors don't care about your cover letters. (nb. I speak only for editors who are me.)

Seriously. I never agonize over my cover letters when I send out stories, I keep 'em nice and generic, but I always mention my sale(s, hopefully) and my VP attendance, thinking they'll count for something. Now I feel like all that is vanity.

On the guidelines page I say that if you want, you can mention stuff like publication credits and your name. Some people are taking this way too far! I'm getting multi-page cover letters. I don't need this information. I'm buying a story, which you've thoughtfully attached to the message. I'm not hiring you to run Accounts Payable.

But you could shrink the cover letter down and down to the length of my typical cover letter ("Hi, here's a story; one time I sold a different story; well, gotta go!") and it would still have more information than I need. Because stuff in the cover letter is stuff that's external to the story. (Hopefully.) There will be plenty of time for that kind of thing after I buy your story.

One thing I've found I do like in a cover letter is when you show that you've read the submission guidelines. I mean, most of us are used to sending form cover letters in with our stories and getting form rejection letters back. It's nice to be reminded that there are real people on both ends of the process. But on the whole it seems a semi-archaic practice, like calling cards. Maybe I'd feel differently if I ran a regular magazine and had a chance to build up long-term relationships with authors.

[Comments] (2) : Here's another way to get science fiction set in the past: write science fiction set in the present, and then don't get it published for a long time.

Don't knock it, it works.

[Comments] (2) QCon Talk -- Revealed!: I've given up on the QCon people ever putting up the sweaty video of my talk, Justice Will Take Us Millions Of Intricate Moves. And I had this printout of the text of the talk that I'd made all these corrections to in pen, which I wanted to get rid of. So I made the changes to the electronic version, wrote a script that synced my slides to the text--effectively mashing my talk up with itself--and put the sucker online. Enjoy it. Act One is suitable for semitechnical readers; it's the latest incarnation of my "short history of the Internet" that Danny likes to rave about. And the conclusion sums up a lot of my general philosophy. In between is a bunch of technical detail! WOOOO!

[Comments] (5) Harrowscopes: Yeah, I'm cleaning out papers. Here are the funnier of some lame fake horoscopes I wrote for one of Jake Berendes's's abandoned zine projects. Man, I don't know how The Onion does it, week after week. Or why, for that matter.

Oh yeah, I also found a note my mother left me, with the name and phone number of the company she wanted to manage her estate sale. Now that's preparedness.

[Comments] (4) Crisis On Infinite Universes: Gather round, fanboys and -girls, and I'll tell you the noncanonical story of how the new universe in Starslip diverged from the universe in which the past several years of the comic took place. It looks like what Kris is writing is consistent with this model, but obviously if he contradicts it, what he writes takes precedence. I'm talking about this because, as I said earlier, this is too nerdy and boring to actually cover in the strip. But on my boring weblog, anything goes!

Two and a half years ago, in the universe that was destroyed recently (universe 1), Cutter, Holiday, and Mr. Jinx worked out the problems with starslip drive, realized that the conspiracy went all the way to the top and that they had to stay away from Earth. Of course, Vanderbeam chose that moment to send the Fuseli to Earth, where our heroes were confronted by military forces and blackmailed into silence. With a kind of penny-ante blackmail that doesn't hold up very well through later character development, but that's a different issue. Suffice to say they're stymied.

Note that the timing is very tight. A couple minutes delay and Cutter/Holiday/Jinx could have convinced Vanderbeam to stay away from Earth. One decision could change everything. In the model I presented to Kris, the point of divergence between universe 1 and the new Starslip universe (universe 2) is in the third panel of this strip.

In universe 2, Cutter didn't think of calling Jinx down to engineering to help them figure out what was going on. This bought them time in two ways. First, Vanderbeam actually dresses more slowly when Mr. Jinx helps him, because he's fussier when he's got someone to push around. Second, Holiday didn't have to explain to Jinx the problem with starslip just then. The downside is that Jinx wasn't around to put the final piece of the puzzle together. It took a little longer for Cutter and Holiday to decide to stay away from Earth. But there was still a net time savings, and Holiday had time to lock the starslip drive before Vanderbeam could give the fatal command.

In other words, universe 2 turned out differently because you weren't reading the comic in that universe, so there was no need for Kris to do a bunch of exposition. (Similarly, the art style is different in universe 2 because in that universe Kris let his drawing style change naturally instead of holding it back for consistency's sake.)

As you know, Bob, the fundamental problem with starslip was revealed when the Fuseli made what turned out to be a discontinuous starslip from universe 0 (where the strip began) to universe 1. (If you must nitpick, "universe x" is a label I give to an infinite number of very very similar universes.) Universe 1 was a worse place than universe 0 for a variety of reasons. For instance, in universe 1, Jovia, the woman who is not Vanderbeam's girlfriend, is dead.

She's dead, but the Fuseli has records of Jovia after her supposed death, back when she and they lived in universe 0. In universe 1, Vanderbeam just moped about Jovia, prevented by blackmail from going up against the powerful Directorate. But in universe 2, he was able to go public with these records and stop the investigation into her death from being covered up. This lead to the events described here. And now the Fuseli from universe 1 has made another discontinuous starslip into universe 2, and become aware of all this. So NOW YOU KNOW. Noncanonically.

This is actually one of the less complicated things we came up with for the semi-reboot.

[Comments] (2) : I'm going OK, just been quietly writing for still-secret upcoming project. I'm not sure why I had to re-learn this, but writing fiction is hard. Sumana is in San Francisco, so I live in temporary bachelordom, leaving the house only for food, fresh air, and social activities. Seen to the right is a typical meal for me.

As often happens when I'm writing, I don't really have any words left for you. I will say that the Yorick speech from Hamlet is really good if you can manage to read or listen to it with fresh ears. And congrats to Sam for being an Information Week Innovator/Influencor, and congrats to me I guess, since I'm mentioned in passing.

[Comments] (5) : Well, that's finally over.

[Comments] (3) : I kind of got hooked on Little Miss Gamer and The New Adventures of Captain S ever since realizing they're both filmed in my neighborhood. (The same reason I freebase Sesame Street, actually.) As in, I think I walked past the apartment building on Saturday while attempting to get brunch.

Kris and I were talking recently and sharing our admiration for Internet filmmakers of this sort. It would be cool to make our own shorts about whatever ordinary dramas strike our fancy, and it's a big inspiration to see random apartment-dwellers in Astoria doing it, but we don't have the passion for the medium that's necessary to make good films.

Here's what I mean. Cameras and lights are relatively cheap, and with today's software you can make good enough special effects to get your fantastical point across, but with any creative endeavor there's a certain amount of drudgery and skill involved in just completing a piece that's good. And the certain amount is "a lot". That's why the passion is important. Kris has the passion for drawing comics, I have it for writing prose. We don't have it for making films. It's just something it feels like we ought to be able to do because the equipment's cheap. It's always kind of sad to discover this kind of thing about yourself.

: I gave another talk on the Launchpad web service at the most recent Ubuntu Developer Week. This time I found a news hook, which is "stop screen scraping!" I know, I sell to both sides.

Apart from the questions at the end it's pretty much the same as my old talk, but I thought I'd mention it for completists.

[Comments] (1) Per Se Mania: After a long delay I wrote captions for all the pictures I took at Per Se and put the gallery online. I don't think I want to go again because it was so damn expensive, but it was a good experience. And they really stuff you: after the dinner there was sorbet, then a dessert, then a supplementary dessert, then chocolates, then nougat and caramel candies and hard candies and truffles and hazelnuts.

S: This is a good, down to earth hazelnut.
L: It's the kind of nut you'd like to have with a beer.

And they gave us bags of cookies to take home as well.

Not pictured: the various breads they brought around in a basket (my fave: the pretzel bread), and a few of the drinks they poured/made for us as non-wine pairings.

While going through the menu, I made a list of all the foods and cooking terms I hadn't heard of before, with links that probably won't last long, but oh well:

[Comments] (3) External Sunshine of the Spotless Mind: Since I built the PVR about six months ago I've been using more storage space. Not only is there a lot of recorded TV, but I embarked on a recently-completed quest to rip all my DVDs[0], currently amounting to about a terabyte, and after a narrowly averted disaster I decided to get serious about keeping backups. This meant buying huge hard drives, which is always fun, but it also meant buying a bunch of "enclosures": ugly metal shells with SATA controllers (?) and USB interfaces. One enclosure per drive, costing a significant fraction of the cost of the drive.

But! Recently I discovered the BlacX non-enclosure, which accepts hard drives like huge Atari 2600 cartridges into its top-loading maw. To me it's the idea of the external hard drive taken to its logical conclusion: there's a hard drive, and it's not inside anything. Recommended.

[0] I had this naive idea that I would encode all the tracks on all my DVDs to AVI files to save space, but it turns out that takes forever, so it was more cost-effective to just shell out for a bigger drive and rip the whole DVDs. Not that any part of this project could be considered "cost-effective".

[Comments] (3) Britcomania: Sumana and I watched The IT Crowd and then re-started The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin, which we've never seen all the way through. Those shows could actually take place at the same company.

Thoughtcrime Experiments Deadline Has Changed: From a nebulous March 31st-or-when-filled to a solid, definite February 15th. I'll put up some more specific stats when we close, but the abstract is that we have a lot of high-quality stories to choose from, to the point where it would be cruel to keep those authors waiting another two months. But in our relentless, Javert-esque pursuit of excellence, we want to have to make even more difficult decisions about which stories to publish.

So we're giving you some time to get a rejection letter for your most recent story from a publication that doesn't know what it's missing, and then pirouette around and send the story in to us. Besides which, a definite date feels right, in a way that "sorry, we're closed, didn't you hear?" doesn't. Once again, here are the guidelines.

[Comments] (6) Yes Sale: My infernokrusher short story "Let Us Now Praise Awesome Dinosaurs" has been purchased by Strange Horizons! This is my first pro sale. It'll be published around the middle of the year. I'll give more details after it's published, but for now I'll say... well, I won't say anything. I'll just bask.

Update, much later: Here it is.

Tactital Toe: Continuing the theme of talking about games nobody wants to play: tic-tac-toe. I've long been fascinated by the mental process of mastering a game, and tic-tac-toe is interesting to me because I remember the process of mastering it.

Initially my opponents and I played tic-tac-toe according to rules of thumb. The first player always played the center square because it was the best-connected square and it was part of the most winning combinations. Then, I discovered forks. With this tactic, you capture two edge spaces while your opponent takes the center. If you're lucky, you can block their third move with a move that sets you up to win two different ways. This is the most satisfaction possible out of a game of tic-tac-toe.

But soon enough, certainly by fourth grade, everyone had figured out how to block forks, and games of tic-tac-toe always ended in draws. But even then there was a certain meta-game that was fun for a while, playing five-second games of tic-tac-toe in quick succession, reveling in our newly acquired powers of always being able to tie, playing until one of us would slip up and lose.

[Comments] (9) How Game Titles Work, Part 1: Skip to: part 2, part 3, part 4, part 5, part 6.

My secret project stalled recently, and today I figured out why. I don't really understand how the names of video games work. For "Mallory" I made up a bunch of fake arcade game names, and they're pretty OK, but it took a long time to come up with them, and some of them (mainly "Mutant's Revenge") don't quite ring true to me.

Looking on the Internet, repository of all video game related-knowledge, I discovered that no one has really looked in-depth at the names of games. There are lists of best and worst[0] game names, but no one has tried to figure out a set of genres and rules for game names. Which is odd because when I started thinking about it I came up with a lot of patterns and even a rule of historical development. Which I now present in part 1 of an epic series.

A couple bits of logistics, as they say in college. First, when I mention a game, eg. Pong, I'm generally talking about the name of the game and not the actual game. Second, these are not ironclad rules because we're talking about the fruits of creativity here. I'm trying to ferret out the underlying rules of game names so that I can tweak them and apply them to my own purposes. Also, I'm not really clear on where to draw the line between synecdoche and metonymy.

Electronic games started out as representations of real-world activities, and they started out being named after those activities: Noughts and Crosses, Tennis for Two, Football, Pong, Tank, Gunfight, Watergate Caper. The most abstract names from this era are Gran Trak 10 (a racing game) and Simon, where the name has only a metaphorical relationship to the game. (Simon is a rare case of a game's name referencing a different game!)

The big exception is Spacewar!, which was way ahead of its time both in terms of gameplay and naming. Even if you consider Spacewar! a representation of a real-world activity that's not possible yet, that exclamation mark makes it clear the designers considered the name of a game to be the same kind of thing as the name of a movie or book. There are some more games for computer nerds in this category, like Hunt the Wumpus and Adventure. (Later I'll talk about "Computer Space", an attempt to market Spacewar! to non-nerds.)

Why this pattern? I can think of a couple reasons. People had to become acclimated to the idea that you could inhabit the virtual space of an electronic device and play a game there. It made sense to create games that simulated or could be tied to real-world activities. Also, because graphics were so primitive, the name of the game had to do a lot of the heavy lifting. All the 2600 sports games are basically Pong. If Spacewar! had had 2600-quality graphics, it would have been Combat.

Over time the graphics got better, and two things happened. First, you started seeing games that were not based on familiar everyday activities. Sometimes they had generic names anyway: Asteroids. Sometimes the names were more abstract: Space Invaders, Battlezone, Breakout, Defender, Pac-Man.

Second, games that were based on familiar everyday activities started using synecdoche. You can't have more than one game called "Sprint" so you got "Night Driver", which was a little more abstract, and then "Speed Freaks", "Turbo", and "Pole Position." A single aspect of racing is used as shorthand to inform you that this is a racing game.

At this point technological progress acts as a reset switch for the synecdoche. On a home system, the graphics suck compared to the arcade. Home systems go right back to games that are named directly after the real-world activities they replicate.

Here are some titles for the Magnavox Odyssey: Baseball, Basketball, Dogfight, Football, Handball, Hockey, Roulette, Shooting Gallery, Shootout, Ski, Soccer, Tennis, Volleyball. But there are some more abstract titles: Analogic, Cat and Mouse, Interplanetary Voyage, Percepts, Prehistoric Safari, Win (?). And even some synecdoche, with "Wipeout".

Here are some Channel F titles: Tennis/Hockey, Baseball, Slot Machine, Bowling, Backgammon. Some more abstract titles: Casino Royale (an early media tie-in?), Alien Invasion, Pac-Man, Cat and Mouse, Dodge'It, Pinball Challenge, Space War. A little synecdoche here too, with "Drag Strip" and "Torpedo Alley".

One more. Here are some Atari 2600 titles from the year the system launched: Air-Sea Battle, Basic Math, Blackjack, Combat, Flag Capture, Race. Some more abstract names from the same year: Canyon Bomber, Brain Games, Maze Craze: A Game of Cops and Robbers. Now there's significant synecdoche and metonomy with "Home Run", "Outer Space". "Indy 500", and "Video Olympics".

Here are some games from Nintendo's sports series for the NES: Golf, Ice Hockey, Tennis, Baseball, Volleyball, Pro Wrestling, Slalom, Soccer. Other notable early NES titles reproducing real-world activities: Pinball, Duck Hunt. But by this time, people are comfortable enough with video games that you can call a game based on a real-world activity Excitebike (alliteration, nonsense compound word), 10 Yard Fight (synecdoche), Mach Rider, Urban Champion, or Mike Tyson's Punch-Out!! (synecdoche, celebrity tie-in, gratuitous exclamation marks). Even if there wasn't previously a game called "Football" or "Boxing" on the system.

History progresses from this point and we start seeing franchises. We get RBI Baseball 1, 2, and 3 (synecdoche), Tecmo Bowl and Tecmo Super Bowl (synecdoche, corporate self-insertion, sequel naming by word association), up to today's tie-in-laden Madden, NBA Live, FIFA Soccer, MLB 2K, Tiger Woods PGA Tour, etc. etc. These are "canonical" game series based closely on the comings and goings of the real-world sports franchises.

Today these franchises have pretty much taken over the market for sports games. Their names are very predictable. On the other hand, games that don't simulate real-world activities have had their names get more and more unpredictable since the days of Breakout and Battlezone.

But when a new technology or console is introduced you get some generic-sounding names. A generic name or franchise name gets the name of the new technology stuck onto it: Sonic CD. Super Mario 64 or Advance. Virtual League Baseball. Wii Sports. There was a published game called "Golf" as late as the Virtual Boy.

Sometimes you get a game name that sounds like a tech demo: Super Glove Ball. Virtua Fighter. Computer Space is kind of in this category; the technology being pitched is the very act of playing a game on a computer.

It looks like the same pattern occured earlier, in the world of electromechanical games. Games based on sports were the first to show up in arcades in the 1930s. The first baseball-style pinball games (in 1932) were called "All-Star Baseball" and "All-American Baseball Game". Then you got the synecdotal "World Series 1934", "All Stars", "Box Score", and so on. Sega put out a submarine game called "Periscope" (synecdoche) in 1968, and then Midway ripped them off with the even more abstract Sea Raider, Sea Devil, and Sea Wolf.

I find it even more interesting that this did not happen for pinball in general. Pinball games have always had abstract names: the first four names I could find are "Bagatelle Table", "Baffle Ball", "Whiffle Board", and "Ballyhoo". Pinball games are usually skinned to remind the player of some non-pinball field of endeavor, but when that happens the games tend to have abstract or synecdochal names. 1972, the year Pong was released, also saw the release of pinball games with names like "Fireball", "Sky Kings", "Magic Carpet" and "Grand Slam". (In 1973, Williams released a Skylab-themed pinball game!) You could think of pinball as being less like a video game and more like a sport: the kind of real-world activity being simulated by video games up to the present day.

[0] Of course such lists are highly subjective. One of my favorite game names of all time is "No One Can Stop Mr. Domino!", which makes #11 in that "worst names" list.

[Comments] (3) How Game Titles Work, Part 2: Trademarkability: I'm not gonna keep posting these huge entries one after another, but here's another big entry. First, a summary of the previous entry.

  1. It took a while for non-nerds to grasp the concept of electronic games. Naming games after real-world activities (whether or not there was actually a resemblance) created a bridge between the real world and the electronic world.
  2. If a game is based on a real-world activity, it's a good bet its name will be based on synecdoche or metonomy, assuming it's not just flat-out named after the activity. Random examples: Pong, Pole Position, Double Dribble, Pro Wrestling.
  3. All else being equal, a game that demonstrates some new technology--hardware, software, game mechanic--will have a more generic name than a game that doesn't. It's likely the game will just mention the new technology in its name. Hardware examples: Computer Space, Super Glove Ball, Sonic CD, Yoshi Touch and Go, Wii Sports. Software examples: Wolfenstein 3D, Virtua Fighter. Game mechanic examples: Portal, World of Goo.

Now I'll carve off another chunk of the space of possible game names. Game names can be constructed with techniques used to come up with other trademarkable words and phrases. Misspelling doesn't happen as much in game titles as in, say, cleaning supplies, but it's pretty common, especially the fake abbreviation. (Petz, Cruis'n, Mortal Kombat, Rush'n Attack, Toobin'). Alliteration and assonance happen pretty often. (Excitebike, Final Fight, Bubble Bobble). I'd like to give special notice to "Elevator Action", which really seems like there's alliteration there but it's actually just very easy to say.

Nonsense compound portmanteau words happen very often, possibly because this construction is common in Japanese (Excitebike again, Gradius, Gyruss, Pengo). But it happens even in non-Japanese games (Tetris, Myst, Skulljagger (see future entry), BioShock, Starcraft, Carmageddon, Populous[0], Gravitar, Q*Bert). Combine with metonymy and you can come up with many plausible-sounding game titles for a given game.

Metonymy, you say? Yes! Even games not based on a real-world activity usually have some connection to reality, and the title can use metonymy on those parts. Just as an example, consider (the game) Bubble Bobble. It's a pretty nonsensical game but there are two points of contact with reality: dinosaurs and bubbles. The main game mechanics are blowing bubbles, popping them, and jumping.

Metonymy on "dinosaur" yields lizard, reptile, dino-, -saurus. Metonymy on "bubble" yields blow, pop, and float. Bubble Bobble could be called "Float Fight", "Dino Pop", "Pop 'n Drop", or (with less cutesy graphics) "Reptile Rage". That's just names that are the same kind of name as "Bubble Bobble." They're not as good as "Bubble Bobble," though "Reptile Rage" has an interesting baby-Godzilla thing going on, but I bet similar names were considered during development. And this is a common pattern. "Dig Dug" is the same name as "Bubble Bobble", just for a different game.

[0]"Populous" happens to be a real word, but I think whoever named the game liked the Greek-myth-sounding "ous" suffix better than the dictionary meaning of the word.

[Comments] (3) Exemplary Cover Letter:

Dear Money Guy,

Sorry, I've had it out the arse with boring, yet professional, cover letters. And since the worst thing you can say is no, I figured what the hell. I hope you enjoy my 3500 word submission. But, if not, I look forward to hearing no from you soon. And feel free to be as brazen as you like. It's refreshing, I promise.

(I didn't buy the story, but I did publish the cover letter.)

[Comments] (1) How Game Titles Work, Part 3: Misc. Metonymy and Synecdoche: One thing I didn't mention earlier (because I didn't realize it earlier) is that war-themed games, like sports games, make heavier use of metonymy and synecdoche (America's Army, Counter-Strike, Medal of Honor, Delta Force, 1942) because they're based on real-world activities and even specific historical periods. This is reinforced by the fact that you don't want to give a war game a cutesy name. (Unless it's Rush'n Attack, which is a frightening game when you're a kid playing it in 1987.)

Kris commented on an earlier entry saying basically, why is this a mystery? When you name your game you pick a name that has something to do with the gameplay and that hasn't been chosen before. But even this high-level overview of game names is different from the way other things are named. You wouldn't name a book or movie or album or any other cultural artifact using the techniques normally associated with cleaning products. Books and movies are often named with synecdoche (name the book after something in the book), but full-blown metonymy (name the book after something thematically related) is less common and can seem pretentious, where it usually doesn't for games.

I haven't found any rules for metonymy, because there probably aren't any, but there are some interesting patterns. Fantasy games have epic names, as you might expect--specifically, they have names that sound like bad fantasy novels. This connection is strong enough that fantasy RPGs often have literary imagery in their names. ("Adventures of", "Legend of", "Tales of", "Book", "Scroll", "Odyssey")

Naturalistic imagery is also common. In fantasy RPGs the imagery is familiar ("Mountain", "Ocean", "Wind", "Rain", "Tree"). In science-fictional games of all kinds it's alienating ("Space", "Planet", "Galaxy", "Asteroid"). "Star" and "Moon", astronomical phenomena you can see from Earth, can be either comforting or alienating. Compare "Harvest Moon" to "Moon Patrol".

One unexpected thing I found was a vein of aspirational language in the names of fighting games. (Karate Champ, King of Fighters, Urban Champion)

Like I say, any rule about metonymy is shaky. But there are some pretty well-defined kinds of synecdoche that cover a lot of game-naming ground.

What's left in this series? There are two more interesting title patterns I'll cover next time, as well as rules for constructing sequel names. Then I'd like to analyze some of my favorite game names in detail. I tend to like game names for their complexity and literary value, attributes not traditionally associated with trademarky or synecdochal names. Finally, I need to figure out which of these patterns happened because of the nature of video games, and which are artifacts of the economic context in which most games were developed.

[Comments] (6) How Game Titles Work, Part 4: The Voyage Home: I thought I had come up with a hard-and-fast rule about games that mention celebrities' names: that they're limited to the category of sports games and other games based on real-world activities. My reasoning is that celebrities (as opposed to any characters they play) engage in real-world activities, so that's what the games would be about. Then I remembered "Shaq-Fu" and "Michael Jackson's Moonwalker". In defense of the rule, Shaq and Michael Jackson are kinda crazy, albeit in different ways.

I have three other naming techniques to talk about. Combined with the previous rules I think I've classified most of the interesting and a lot of the not-so-interesting English game names ever created. Of course this is mostly because "metonymy" is such a vague term.

All three of these naming techniques seem to take a cue from some other kind of media. It would be interesting to explore how these work in more detail, but not right now. Also I haven't come up with a lot of examples.

Sometimes the title gets in your face with some attitude. (You Don't Know Jack, No More Heroes, The World Ends With You, Devil May Cry, Doom) Most of these could also be the names of rock albums. These names have only a tenative connection to the game's subject matter; they're more oriented towards describing the mood or atmosphere of the game.

Some games have names based on cliches. Either you adopt the cliche wholesale or you modify it to make a pun. (A Boy and His Blob, Grand Theft Auto, Deus Ex, Devil May Cry again). Episodes of TV shows are also frequently named this way. I don't know why episodes of TV shows have these stupid punny titles, but if I ever figure that out I bet the reason will be similar for games. These tend to be games from Western developers, though presumably there are similar names in Japanese that don't translate. A lot of licensed and franchise games have subtitles based on cliches.

Some games are named the way you would name a book or short story. Well, lots of these rules also apply to story titles. I've mentioned before stories named after characters or settings. But here's what I think I mean in this instance.

When game titles have a tense or a person, it tends to be present tense and second person. All those job-title names have an implicit "You are the" prepended to them. "Hunt the Wumpus" is one game that makes this more explicit. Titles of stories are more commonly third person and past tense, so pretty much any game title you come up with that fits those criteria will have a literary, un-gamelike feel. This is why those seen-from-outside titles like "Leisure Suit Larry" are so interesting: they're implicitly third person.

A lot of Infocom's games fit this pattern. Sometimes they used the "job" type of synecdoche, which almost never appears in book titles, but the "jobs" were things like "Witness", "Suspect", and "Infidel": descriptions with a third-person, seen-from-outside quality rarely seen in video games. It's hard to say whether "Suspended" is second or third person, which is also true of the gameplay. "Leather Goddesses of Phobos" achieves a literary sensibility (albeit a lowbrow one) with a neat third-person trick. The singular, "Leather Goddess of Phobos" could conceivably be second person, but you can't use the second person plural in a single-player game. ("Mario Bros." is second person plural, as I'll mention later.)

Now let's move on to sequel rules. The obvious way to name a sequel is to tack a number onto the name of the original. This is surprisingly rare. I thought it was more common than it was because a lot of NES games had one or two numbered sequels, as did some computer games when I was growing up. All those Sierra adventure series used this technique, and the Mega Man, Final Fantasy, and Metal Slug series still do. (I like to imagine the Metal Slug series sticks to numbered sequels so it can be the video game equivalent of the Rambo series.)

The march of technology makes long-term sequel numbering (ie. more than two sequels) untenable. Those NES games were all on the same system. Someone who bought Zelda II wasn't left wondering where the original Zelda was. But I still don't know where Mega Man 8 is. The Playstation or something. When a series spans consoles, you need to name your games such that people don't feel like they're missing out.

So how are sequels named? Sometimes they get totally different names and you're just supposed to know it's a sequel. The problem with this is illustrated by the Riven box, where it says "THE SEQUEL TO MYST" in big letters. More often, subtitles are deployed.

A subtitle is just another game name stuck onto the name of the franchise. When people talk about the game they use the subtitle as shorthand. Applicable are a subset of the rules for naming games. The trademarkability rules don't really apply because you've already trademarked the francise name, and because "Sensible Phrase: Nonsenseword" looks stupid and "Nonsenseword: Anothernonsenseword" looks stupider. But the name-it-after-a-cliche rule is in full force. Maybe for the same reasons it works for episodes of TV shows but not so well for the TV shows themselves.

Metonymy and synecdoche also work well (the Castlevania series uses this). Even franchises that use a numbering system (Mega Man, Final Fantasy, Grand Theft Auto) need to also use subtitles when the family tree passes a complexity threshold.

Sometimes instead of a subtitle the original title gets mutated using one of the rules mentioned earlier. This is how you get tech-demo titles like "Super Mario 64". This avoids the Riven problem while keeping the game name down to a reasonable size. There are also a couple sequel-specific mutation rules that I don't want to discuss in detail. (Super [whatever], Ms. Pac-Man, N+)

Although movie sequels often have subtitles, the rules for movie subtitles are different from the rules for game subtitles. I don't have a good grasp of how they differ, but try this thought experiment. Take the most famous set of movie subtitles, for the Star Trek series, and apply them to The Legend of Zelda, the most famous video game series.

Though they're in different genres, both Zelda and Trek are fundamentally about exploration. There's no thematic reason why you couldn't have a Zelda game called "The Wrath Of Ganon" or "The Search For Link" or "The Voyage Home" or "The Undiscovered Country". They just don't feel like game subtitles (except for the single-word subtitles, "Insurrection" and "Nemesis", which might be a clue).

Next time: close readings of my favorite game names.

[Comments] (6) How Game Titles Work, Part 5: Selected Titles: Overall, I think game titles have gotten better over time. Not because we've gotten better at naming games, but because all the obvious names were taken in the 1970s and early 1980s. And then in the 1980s and 1990s, the trademarkable-word technique and basic metonymy were used to gobble up big chunks of the namespace. So if you're making a game in 2009, you have to be creative. It's like domain names. Everything that's not a little bit out there has already been taken.

Today I'm going to look in-depth at some titles I like. These titles don't break the rules I laid out earlier, but rather exploit the rules to create a sense of action. A game title is usually a single word or a short phrase: if something that short can do some character development or advance a conflict, it's probably a good title. So I don't like trademarky titles or most synecdoche. I also don't like the attitude-laden titles, but I think that's just personal taste.

Anyway, here are some of my favorite titles (never mind how I feel about the games), with explanations of how I think they work.

I've mentioned "Spacewar!" before, but that exclamation mark is great. It takes what's objectively a horrible concept and treats it with Dr. Strangelove-like comic fatalism. Given that "Spacewar!" was developed at a time when computers mainly did the bidding of the military and big business, this is also a title with attitude.

"Hunt the Wumpus" is not the best title, but it's probably the first one to exploit the second-person nature of games. For reference, it came out around the same time as "Pong".

"Grand Theft Auto" uses synecdoche to describe the lifestyle of the protagonist (a criminal) in the vocabulary of the antagonist (the police). It's also got a bit of attitude, in that this is also the vocabulary of those purple-lipped censors who blame violent video games such as GTA for society's ills.

"Leisure Suit Larry" is a great title for a similar reason: the protagonist is being described the way the player sees him, not according to his own self-image.

"Gauntlet" is a pun, describing both the gameplay and the fantasy setting. Again, not the best title, but a cut above most 80s arcade titles.

"Mario Bros." says "this game has two-player simultaneous play" in a subtle way.

"Harvest Moon" combines the mundane with the fantastic effectively. It's a bit of metonymy that implies a job, a setting, an activity, a time of year, and a mood, all in two words. Great title.

"Grim Fandango" uses metonymy to describe the mood, the subject matter, and the setting.

"Altered Beast" smashes the antiseptic, ass-covering passive voice of corporate mad science ("Altered") into the feral immediacy and Victorian judgementalism of "Beast". It's a case of a game that doesn't live up to its title.

"Startropics": Remember how I said that "Star" could be either familiar or alienating imagery? This title uses it both ways at once. At first the title gives the impression of being on a tropical island looking at the stars, away from the light pollution. This is the imagery used on the box cover and title screen. But why are the words jumbled together? How can "star" modify "tropics"? "Star Ocean" is clearly a metaphor, but "star tropics"?. Suddenly "star" in the title looks like an intruder. And indeed, that's what happens in the game. The stars have come down to the tropics for nefarious purposes. This is a one-word title with a plot.

"Barkley, Shut Up And Jam: Gaiden" is a great satirical title, taking another game's terrible title and appending a pretentious-sounding (at least in English) suffix. On the other hand, "I Wanna Be The Guy: The Movie: The Game" would be a stronger title if it lost the suffixes and became just "I Wanna Be The Guy". Its strength comes from its unusual use of the first person. Relatedly, BSUaJ is a terrible title because it's unclear whether it's supposed to be first, second, or third person.

"Mighty Jill Off" is not really satirical, per se, but it's another example of an effective title that parodies an earlier title.

I tenatively like game titles that adopt a person other than the second. "I Wanna Be The Guy" is great, as mentioned earlier, and "No One Can Stop Mr. Domino!" does a good job breaking the rule that a game named after the protagonist is implicitly in second person. But the more recent "I Fell In Love With The Majesty Of Colors" doesn't work for me. Possibly because it also uses the past tense, which doesn't exactly scream "gameplay".

"Nobunaga's Ambition" is a strong third-person title that does a lot of character development in two words, one of which is a person's name. Oda Nobunaga was so ambitious they made a game about it!

A lot of game titles are just boring (most media tie-in games fall into his category) so I haven't covered them. I would like to highlight another title I don't like, even though it's an interesting title from a good game: "Q*Bert". I always felt Q*Bert was trying too hard, the Bonk the Caveman to Pac-Man's Sonic. It's a short step from the trademarkable misspelling and random punctuation to nonsensical Japanese-style names on the one hand, and "extreme" comic-book-style names on the other. I wrote a little rant about Q*Bert here, but I think I'll save it and maybe use it for the secret project.

"Dactyl Nightmare" is so-bad-it's-good. Unlike "Nightmare on Elm Street", which is third-person and merely promises to recount someone else's nightmare, "Dactyl Nightmare" pledges that you will live the nightmare. But "Nightmare" takes the stage after "Dactyl", which although technically an English word, is a word that refers to poetic meter. Sure, it's an abbreviation for "Pterodactyl", but that kind of chatty informality isn't really appropriate for a nightmare. And even "Pterodactyl Nightmare" is kind of silly. So the two bits of incompatible imagery create a humorous instead of a terrifying effect.

I think it would be fun to go over other peoples' favorite game names with these newly-developed tools, so leave a comment.

[Comments] (2) How Game Titles Work, Part 6: Search For Meaning: It's been a long series, so long that it's even scared people away, but I now have a good idea of what where game titles come from and at least some guesses as to what makes them good or bad. For those who demanded an easy way to link to this series as a whole, here you go. It's still in reverse chronological order, though.

One technique I haven't covered is to combine words without regard for their meaning. ("Melty Blood", "Radiant Silvergun") A technique favored in Japan and one I don't know whether or not I like, but one I found I'd been using in the absence of information about how game titles worked. Relatedly, and more common in America, the technique of making up totally new words with high-scoring Scrabble letters. (Zaxxon, Qix, Sqoon, Zzyzzyxx) Which I'd also used, but intentionally, to create a game name that wasn't very good.

And really, that's it. I wrote down a bunch more interesting game names that I wanted to look at, but they were all classifiable under these millions of rules without much further complication.

So, why these rules and not some other rules? The big reason, I think, is that games are experienced in the second person and the present tense. This is most obvious in text adventures, but every game ever made tells you what is happening to "you", and then you complete the feedback loop with the controls. The title of a game is a promise of what that experience will be like.

This models the early no-frills game titles like "Soccer", and all synecdochal games, but especially the ones named after the protagonist or the protagonist's job. Such titles explain what role you adopt when you complete the feedback loop. Games named after the antagonist, the goal, or a weapon or tool, make a promise of what the overall gameplay experience will be like for you, as do a lot of metonymal game names.

The societal context is also relevant. Nearly all the games I've talked about are commercial products developed in capitalist societies and sold separately in individual boxes. They were made as works for hire and the copyrights are owned by corporations rather than individuals. They run on hardware that's soon to be obsolete, so they'll either make people happy (or not) and sink into obscurity, or they'll be brought back again and again in different guises. It's a lot like the context for film.

What effects does this have on naming? Well, games get named like cleaning products. It used to happen for all kinds of games. Now it mostly happens for casual and child-friendly games (Bejeweled, Peggle, Boom Blox, Petz). Steven Spielberg wouldn't name a film like a cleaning product, but he presumably had some say in the naming of "Boom Blox" and it seemed okay to him, because a game gets used. It's picked up in the hands (via the controller) and manipulated and eventually used up.

One alternative is the world glimpsed briefly in the time before video games were a commercial concern. In that 10-year period you got, yes, "Baseball" and "Star Trek", but also "Hunt the Wumpus" and "Spacewar!", which--look at it!--is named like a musical. And maybe I'm sentimental but I think the amateur spirit is the surest route to a good game name.

90s shareware was full of unmemorable names that tried to copy the big-name names. The only two that come to mind right now are "Mission: Mainframe", which I should have analyzed yesterday[0], and "Reaping Jupiter", which isn't that good a name but I just love that game. But today the big buzz is around the indie games and, whatever you think of the games, they've got great titles, whether or not they're commercial endeavors. (In addition to the titles I mentioned earlier: Everyday Shooter, Meat Boy, Everybody Dies, Crayon Physics, Karoshi Suicide Salaryman, Cave Story) They've even brought new life to the cheap name-design tricks I denigrate in this series (Spelunky, Dwarf Fortress, Castle Crashers, Desktop Tower Defense--spot the cheap tricks!)

The secret to better titles is not to name games like films, as happens with today's big-name titles. They're not films--films are third person. Just to pick another divergence, you never see a flashback in a game outside a cut scene (ie. movie).[1] But if you really understand the gameplay and you put the same respect into naming your game as you would your movie, you'll get a title that says something. Indie game titles are much better than big-name titles, which is interesting because I don't think the same is true for movies.

As I write this I'm discovering I could go on and on, but think about "Citizen Kane". Not the movie, the title. Kind of a sarcastic title. In fact, it works much the same way as "Leisure Suit Larry." It wouldn't make a good game title, and "Leisure Suit Larry" wouldn't make a very good movie title. But there's some subtle work in fixing on that one of all possible titles for the movie--a title with some sarcasm and some sympathy--and that's the same kind of work you need to do to come up with a good game title.

[0] Lightning round. Alliteration, cliche-kitbashing (would make a great TV episode), comic register shift achieved by using an everyday concrete noun as the predicate of "Mission:". Whew!

[1] Actually, just after I wrote this, I saw what looked like a playable flashback in The Spoony Experiment's video review of Final Fantasy VIII. But it's very rare, right?

[Comments] (6) Don't Love Actually: It's February, a little late for New Years resolutions, but I've decided on one: to stop using the word "actually" so much. I will try very hard to use it only when disentangling a falsehood or counterfactual from the truth. Which actually happens pretty often on this weblog, but I'll try to use substitutes like "in sooth", the nicotine patch of "actually". Not that one! Use-mention distinction!

[Comments] (2) Restaurant Heuristic: If you order orange juice and it's served over ice, that orange juice came out of a metal can.

[Comments] (5) Here At Euphemism Farms: We're working hard to come up with new euphemisms for vomiting. The latest is "declaring food bankruptcy."

[Comments] (2) Game Roundup: Windoze Edition: Yes, it's been so long since I used Windows that I still think that 3.1-vintage nickname is funny. (Remember "WinDOS"? How about "Window$"? Well, I'm pretty sure someone said "Window$" at one point.) Anyway, a bunch of cool-looking Windows games have been accumulating over the past year that I haven't been playing. But I remembered them all while doing the game name entries, and a couple days ago Sumana asked me to set up the Windows computer so she could do some Miro testing. Yeah, we have a Windows computer, obtained for Miro testing, and it's just been gathering dust. So why not? I downloaded a couple games I'd been wanting to play and tried them out.

More later, I gotta work on secret project. Do let me know what Windows games I should look at. Note that any future GR:WE editions will be similar to this one in only reviewing games I hear about from other people.

PS: Even though I'm now mellow about it, Windows is still slow and aggravating. Take that!

Retro Game Master: That's me. That is to say, someone who just beat"Retro Game Challenge." This was the first commercially-sold game I've played right after the release date, such that there was no online help when I got stuck. Definitely worth the money, especially since the sequel is supposed to be even better, and no one will translate it unless the first translation makes money.

I was bewildered by the fictional game title "Haggle Man", which sounds like the most boring Mega Man villain ever, until random commenter asserted that the Japanese name of the game is "Haguruman", "haguruma" being Japanese for "cog-wheel". So it's a deliberately bad translation.

Which brings me to a kind of gutsy game design decision made by "Retro Game Challenge": to reproduce the aggravating aspects of 8-bit games along with the pleasurable aspects. Today's 8-bit-style games try to improve on the classics. RGC does this, both in terms of adding depth of story and great new game mechanics, and in terms of not doing stupid things like restricting when you can save in an RPG.

But a big chunk of your time is doing things that are basically unpleasant: level grinding, playing a lame racing game[0], playing a rebranded version of the same racing game, etc. It's the other half of the gaming-as-sadomasochism argument started by "Mighty Jill Off". And this, more than anything to do with the archaic game technologies or the cultural differences, is what probably makes the game not speak to people who weren't gamers in the 80s.

All in all, it's a great piece of verisimilitude, with enough improvements over the thing being verisimiluated that it's not an empty exercise in form. Guadia Quest is more fun than Dragon Warrior, and Cosmic Gate is more fun than Galaga, although the latter mostly takes the form of me realizing that Galaga's not as fun as I remember. The Mega Man-like power-up system in Haggle Man 3 deserves especial praise.

Deserving of antipraise is the voice acting, most glaring of the game's anachronisms, which kept me from getting immersed in the retrosity. In an interview, one of the localizers says "we’re confident that we made the right choice" in re the voice acting. I'm not privy to the inputs into that decision, but hopefully they involve child actors being impossible to work with, because the frat-boy-sounding voice actor they got for Arino does not work. It's true that kids are hitting puberty earlier and earlier, and Arino in the game is trapped between childhood and adulthood, but at this point you're just making excuses.

[0] Although unlike racing games from the 80s, "Rally King" has Mario Kart-style drift boosts, which is cool.

[Comments] (4) Thoughtcrime Experiments Lab Report #1: OK, Thoughtcrime Experiments is closed to submissions, and it's time to buy some stories. As an appendix to the anthology I'm going to publish an essay about the process. This has been a really good and interesting experience for Sumana and me. And although it's been extremely time-consuming, so far it's not been difficult.

When you're a writer, even a writer in a writing group, you only have a small picture of the market. Editing this anthology is giving me a much wider view, and it's also making me a better writer. So basically, if you have the time, I think you should liberate some stories and put out your own anthology.

On the TE website I say that TE is an experiment "to see how difficult it is to find five stories I like enough to buy." This is true enough, but it's only part of the story. As in any experiment involving human beings, the subjects (you) were not told the full purpose of the experiment. The goal of Thoughtcrime Experiments is to test the truth of certain things I've been told about the market for short science fiction. I don't yet have the data to talk about this in more detail, but I do have some raw numbers and some initial impressions, which I'll share with you.

This graph shows submissions per day.

We got our first submission on December 30th, 2008. Between then and the end of yesterday ("the end of yesterday" interpreted rather liberally), we got 240 submissions from 202 authors. The mean number of submissions per day was 5.0 in January and 6.7 in February. 24 people submitted two stories, five people submitted three, and one person submitted four. (Persistence paid off: story #4 is under strong consideration.)

There were three peaks in submissions. The first happened just after we were listed in ralan.com on January 1st. The second happened just after I posted to the specficmarkets community on Livejournal. Our busiest day was, as you'd expect, the last day we were open, when we got 16 submissions. This isn't Strange Horizons territory; they get over 500 submissions in a month. But it's more than I expected.

Was it enough? Enough to get five really good stories? We don't have all the data on subjectively determined story quality--we still have to evaluate 25 stories starting from the 14th--so I can't put up a graph right now, but the answer is yes. About twenty of the 215 submissions we've evaluated are stories Sumana and I have a positive desire to publish--not "someone else might like this", not "could be great with some work", not "could go in if we don't get anything better." Damn good stories that need some minor edits or a thousand words cut, if anything.

In one sense, that's a very small number--about ten percent. But it's much higher than what editors' horror stories had led me to believe. I was expecting a deluge of random crap from crazy people written in HTML crayon, hilariously bad Eye of Argon type stories, stories that had been sitting in the author's desk drawer for twenty years. In actual fact we got one crazy person, one Argon-class story, and near as I can tell one desk-drawer story (and it was pretty good!).

In maybe a week, once we've got all the stories evaluated, I'll put up more objective data on our impressions of the stories (which are of course, subjective; I mean "objective" in the sense that there will be graphs).

Oh, another thing I didn't tell you. The anthology will have art! We went to some of our favorite artists and told them, basically, "draw something awesome." It's still in flux so I don't know how many pieces there will be, but we're hoping for at least five, and we've already bought finished pieces from Internet faves Patrick Farley and Erin Ptah. Unfortunately a number of my other Internet faves were too busy or didn't respond. (Josh Lesnick, if you read this, there's still time!) But the stuff we've commissioned already will BLOW YOU AWAY. Or, more accurately, will DEPICT YOU BEING BLOWN AWAY.

PS: Props to the friend of ours who sent us a story in LaTeX format.


[Comments] (1) Wandernonlust: Every few months I go for a long walk around the neighborhood looking for cool new things. There wasn't much new, but I did notice some bizarre things:

: There are certain weblogs I subscribe to that I don't expect many of my readers to be interested in. One of them is Earthbound Central, a weblog which deals pretty much entirely with one old Super NES game that I find very interesting. In a "most photographed barn" type twist, one of the most interesting things about it is the depths of seemingly normal peoples' interest in it. For instance, today I learned that there was a Japanese baseball chant that filked one of the songs from the game.

[Comments] (4) Thoughtcrime Experiments Lab Report #2: What The Slush Pile Looks Like: There are three rails, you say? Let's take a look at this one!

As a writer, I used to feel like I didn't have a good picture of the short genre fiction market as a whole. You send stories in, they come back. You can get together with other writers in a writing group and commiserate, but there's no way that's a representative sample. One reason I started this anthology was to take a good look at a real slush pile and get some sense of what it really takes to have a story worth publishing.

This is a taboo subject, judging from how little editors talk about it. I've been told superficially encouraging things like (not a direct quote) "If you can write grammatical English and tell a story, you're above average." Okay, but that's just saying that baseline competence is relatively rare. How big is "above average" and what does it look like? Magazines don't publish above-average stories, they publish the best. How many people are the best?

It's a truism that the slush pile is huge, that there's a vast oversupply of terrible science fiction. I started Thoughtcrime Experiments partly to test the hypothesis that this oversupply masks a similar oversupply of high-quality science fiction, endlessly circulating from editor to author to editor like some action-packed Sargasso. With no prior fiction-editing experience, can I take a core sample of the slush pile and grab a bunch of good stories that no one else wanted to publish? All for rates that, while decent by industry standards, are penurous compared to the effort it takes to write a story? Is the problem with the slush pile that too much of it is bad, or that too much of it is good?

There were 241 total submissions to Thoughtcrime Experiments. A couple more might come in, from people of whom we asked another story, but they won't affect this general analysis. There were so many stories we've forgotten about most of them by this point, but we have recorded information about our opinions at the time, which I put into a database. My goal for this entry is to try to draw some conclusions about stories in the aggregate.

Here's our review process. A story comes in. Sumana reads it and sticks it into one of five tiers, A through E. A story goes into one tier or another based on how well it satisfies the following fitness function: Would we regret passing up the opportunity to publish this story? From A to E the tiers are "absolutely not", "no", "eh", "yes", and "yes!" In retrospect, we probably only needed three tiers ("no", "yes", "yes!"), but having five does make the graphs you're about to see more interesting. And at the beginning we didn't know we would get any "yes!" stories. We thought we might have to publish "yes" stories with some "eh" for filler.

In terms of the world-famous Context of Rejection, I'd say tier A corresponds to 1 through 5, tier B is 6 through 8, tier C is 9 through 11, tier D is 12 and 13, tier E is 14. There's some overlap and it's not a perfect match, since the CoR is for novels, but you get the picture. The inflection point is between 11 and 12, the difference between "I could see someone publishing this" and "We should publish this".

Getting back to the process: Sumana flags certain stories in tier C for my attention, and I also read all D and E stories. Sumana and I have many differences of opinion but we've never differed by more than one tier. We talk about the stories. The fruits of our discussion get turned into feedback for the authors. Sumana makes occasional passes over the pending stories and sends out rejection letters.

Currently we've sent out rejection notices for tiers A through C, and for most of D. We've bought one story and we're left with about 25 that we really want to publish. Now is a good time to mention that we're going to publish more stories than the originally-planned five, but not too many more. Certainly not 25. So we need to cull that herd. We're trying to decide on a good mix of stories, which might mean sacrificing an E story for a D--and we're not going to be able to publish all the E stories anyway, as you'll see if you look at the graph below.

The fitness function works well for focusing quickly on the relatively small number of stories that really stand out to us. But it's not so good for scientific purposes because it conflates a lot of variables: technical skill, inventiveness of plot, vividness of character, adjacence to our personal tastes in spec-fic, etc.

For instance, all the terribly-written stories ended up in tier A, but so did most of the horror stories we got, regardless of quality. I said in the submission guidelines that I was open to horror if it was clever, but it turns out I wouldn't know clever horror if it rose from the grave and bit me in the ass with decaying teeth held together only by metal-amalgam fillings. Some especially well-written horror got into tier B, and one really funny zombie story clawed its way into tier C. Long story short, there'll be no horror (the genre, not the emotion) in TE. It turns out that's not what we want to publish.

Another example: we got an extraordinarily well-written story that had no fantastic element in it at all. It went into tier D, not because we wanted to publish it, but because it seemed like a wasted opportunity not to publish something by this person. We made inquiries and got a less mainstream flash story from this person, which we're considering offering to buy for half price. So really, that should have been a tier A story, but we used tier D as a shorthand for "do something about this."

So here it is, the graph you've all been waiting for. How many stories went into each tier? What does the slush pile look like?

This is going to get really unscientific, because what we start out with is our subjective opinions of the stories. But I think there's some interesting stuff in this graph.

This has more than a passing resemblance to a normal curve. Of course, if it were a normal curve, there's a missing tier to the left. It would look more like a normal curve if we split tier A into two tiers, one for terribly-written stories and one for stories that were just extraordinarily incongruent with our tastes. I'm glad we didn't do this, because the correct response in both cases is prompt rejection, but it's an interesting observation.

It's a category error to try to do statistics on the tiers, but what the hell. Let's assign a tier A story 0 points and a tier E story 4 points. Then the mean tier is about 1.54, halfway between tier B ("at least it's grammatical...") and tier C ("might be publishable, but not by us"). So, yes, indeed, if you write a story that is grammatical and tells a coherent story, your story is above average.

What's the interpretation of this graph? Is the "slush pile" really an endless flood of terrible stories? Well, that's a writer's way of phrasing the question. Writers try to write "good" stories and think that "good" stories should be published. But the editor's fitness function is a lot more complex than "good". A lot of stories published in big-name mags in the 70s and 80s couldn't get published today.[0] Did they become "bad" over time, or did the fitness function change? I think a lot of boring stuff gets published, but clearly the relevant slush readers and editors found those same stories "good".

But however you slice it, most of the 241 stories we were sent did very poorly on our fitness function. Only 39 made us think "it would be cool to publish this" for any extended period. So I would say that going through the slush pile is indeed a chore, just as editors say. For Sumana it was a demanding full-time job. But it's not an unrewarding chore. It's not some post-apocalyptic wasteland where you scrounge for a precious tin of canned meat. There's a lot of really good stuff in the slush pile.

Let's take a look at the good stuff. Here's a graph of the 39 stories in D and E, after our first round of culling. After this point, the boundaries between D and E grow fuzzy. Objectively speaking, we have a resistance to rejecting any more of these stories, because we've been dithering over it for a while now.

This is saying nothing more than "we've rejected about half of the tier D stories", but it's nice to have a visual. Sumana and I really liked all these stories, but a lot of them haven't even made it this far, and the vast majority of the remainder will ultimately be collecting another rejection note. By the principle of reversion to the mean, the next editor they're sent to probably won't like them as much as we did. It's possible that some of these stories will never be published. So I think my hypothesis is confirmed: not only is there too much science fiction, there's too much good science fiction.

Maybe we're softies. Maybe these stories aren't really that good. Well, we can do cross-checks. The Context of Rejection says 60-75% of the submissions will be in CoR levels 1-7. We're not an established print market like Tor, we're not in those big "writer's guide" books, so we didn't get as many crazies as Tor does. Maybe that's why only 50% of our stories are in tiers A and B. But maybe we were too lenient and a lot of tier C stories correspond to CoR 6 and 7.

CoR says 95-99% of the submissions are at 10 or below. Well, only 84% of our submissions were in tier C or below, so again, maybe we were too lenient. Maybe we should only be considering the stories in tier E. That's the top 5% of the stories. So maybe we're softies, maybe the rules are different for stories vs. novels, maybe the incredible technical sophistication required to use the Internet filtered out all but the most forward-looking writers. In any event, we're not off by orders of magnitude. We're about 10 percentage points off from the guidelines given in the Context of Rejection. And since we started having difficulties after rejecting 90% of the stories, we're in compliance with Sturgeon's Law.

5% of 241 stories is 11 stories. That's twice as many as we originally planned to publish, and more than we're going to publish even now that we've expanded the anthology. There are way too many stories we don't want to publish, but also too many stories that we do want to publish. Or to look at it another way, there are not enough well-paying markets, and not enough editors with different tastes.

This is why I specifically asked for stories that had been rejected multiple times. I wanted to see whether there were stories that I would really like, but that get consistently overlooked. This is also (one reason) why I ignored people who said my choice of Creative Commons license, or some other aspect of the way I was doing things, would scare away all the talented writers. Honestly, I think the Creative Commons thing scared off more untalented writers than talented ones.

I can see how editors might not want to go this deep into the analysis with aspiring writers. I don't want to do anything that would discourage people from submitting stories. But it seems quite possible to write a great story, send it to twenty editors who all love it, and get twenty rejections, because there's too much good stuff. A great story will get nicer rejections than if you'd sent in a scrap of paper on which you'd written in pencil "MAN HAVE SPACEGUN. explode!! NOW IS SAVE"[1] But from a monetary and publication-credit standpoint, it's the same.

Next time: what to do about this. Assuming I can figure out what to do about this. Anyway, back to work. Editors with more experience can tell me if I'm out of line.

PS: I will not tell you which tier we put your story in. Seriously. It can only cause pain for everyone to act like two peoples' sorting mechanism is some reductive measure of your story's worth. If we have specific critiques, we offer them when we reject the story. Use the feedback or ignore it, and try to sell the story to someone else with different opinions. Tier data is only interesting in the aggregate, as a measure of how we responded to the slush pile as a whole.

Example of how subjective this is: someone sent us a tier A story. I don't remember what story or what we didn't like about it. Rejected. They sent us another story. Again, I don't remember anything about the story--I just saw this pattern when running random queries on the submission database. Tier B. Better than the first, but still not what we want. Rejected. Then they sent another story. Man, how long is this person going to torment us with stories we don't want? Tier E. It's an awesome story and we're very likely to buy it. So what right do we have to imply that their first story was "bad"? Because I can put in all the caveats I want, but that's the message that will come through. More pragmatically, would we have gotten the third story if we had implied that?

[0] Sumana would frequently say of a story, "This would be a great story for Asimov's in 1981." That is, someone else (in another time) might publish it, but not us. Tier C.

[1] I figured I might as well publish this online, since Analog wouldn't take it.

: Quick TE update. We've winnowed down the list a bit, and have by now sent out offer letters for three stories (funny light fantasy, dark fantasy, space opera). We're pretty close to accepting two more (mundane SF, funny dark fantasy). Interestingly enough, it's easier for us to choose fantasy stories than SF, so those offer letters are going out earlier. I guess that's the flip side of the fact that fewer fantasy stories really stood out for us.

Update: Oh yeah, something I forgot to mention earlier. I have not done a statistical analysis of the prior publication credits of the people who submitted stories to us, because that would be insane. But in general it looks like there is no correlation. We liked and antiliked stories by people who've sold to any given pro or semi-pro market, and by people with no previous sales. But! I did notice two positive correlations. I was more likely than average to enjoy a story by someone who'd previously sold a story to Futurismic or to Adbusters (?!). So there's my taste in science fiction right there.

[Comments] (3) Ultimate Generic Joke:

"Why did the light bulb cross the road?"
"Who's there?"

But Thou Must!: This entry contains spoilers for Mother 3. If you're not Kirk, this might annoy you.

A lot of time in the middle of Mother 3 is spent going around pulling big needles out of the ground. After a while you discover that pulling out all the needles will destroy the world, remaking it into an unknown form. At the end of the game, you're faced with the final needle. Only a Chosen One (tm) can pull the needles, and the only other Chosen One is dead. Do you pull out the last needle?

> Yes

Often in these games I choose the "wrong" (non-plot-advancing) answer to these fake questions just to see how I'll get railroaded back into the plot. This time, though, I selected "No" sincerely. Call me old-fashioned, but destroying the world seems like a bad idea. Supposedly the new world will be superior to the old, but nobody knows for sure, and dialogue like "Let's make the Dark Dragon sealed underground our new friend" doesn't inspire confidence. So why take the chance?

Big spoiler: despite selecting "No", I ended up pulling the needle anyway.

: Sent out a few more rejections and one acceptance letter (SF mystery). At this point I think we're just going to send out the acceptance letters and reject whoever's left. It's too painful otherwise.

Check out this context-free grammar for generating maps, which I think I got from Adam P.

A Survey Of James Rolfe's Non-Nerd Films: The past few days have brought little to report. We bought another story for Thoughtcrime Experiments, bringing the total up to five. We're going to buy four more. We should have all the acceptance and rejection letters out by the end of Saturday.

I thought I'd do something different tonight so as not to bore you with talk of anthologies and secret projects and other stuff that takes up my time that you can't see yet. I've mentioned a couple times in the past that I'm a fan of James Rolfe's Angry Video Game Nerd show. To my mind it's a perfect example of post-television entertainment, and one that predates Dr. Horrible or anything else that came out of the Hollywood writers' strike.

Lately Rolfe has been putting up reedited versions of the films he made before the Nerd character took over his life. Some of his fans are unhappy about this, and demand more Nerd instead. But if I may generalize grossly, that's an attitude generally seen among people who don't create a lot of cultural artifacts themselves. (Here it is again.) Instead of bitching, I've taken the opportunity to go through Rolfe's online filmography and check out his other films. In this entry, I point out the ones I enjoyed.

[Comments] (5) Scrabble Rule: I was thinking about the point at which Scrabble stops being fun for me: the point at which I reach the edges of my vocabulary and start gambling on things I think are words, because I can't play anything else. Why don't I trade in some tiles? Because that costs a turn, which is BORING.

So here's an idea for an additional rule that should keep Scrabble play in the realm of actual words. On your turn, you can trade in n tiles and then play up to 7-n tiles. If you play, your play has to incorporate at least one of the new tiles. (That's so you can't trade in tiles and then play the small word you were going to play anyway.) It's worth a test run.

: Last week, a group of people who do such things gathered together online to play "Guess the Verb!", my 2000 work of interactive fiction. In retrospect I'm not really happy with the game, but it's not bad. I don't think I ever did the post-mortem I promised I'd do, so I'll talk a bit about it.

The main problem with GTV! is the wheel mechanic, which does a good job of randomizing the scenarios, but also prevents you from seeing at least one scenario per game, and might prevent you from seeing any scenarios at all. Instead of having you literally guess the verb, the carnival game should have just been a wheel you spin to get a scenario. Or you should have gotten the scenario on the wheel, regardless of your guess.

The other thing that sucks is you have to grab an item in each scenario to give to Lalrry for the next scenario, or you're screwed. That's just bad design, and I wouldn't blame people who run into it for quitting the game before seeing all the cool stuff.

The puzzle in the main scenario is fun, and I have no complaints about it. The Colossal Cave (FASTEN) and Enchanter (UNDO) parody scenarios are excellent. The mad scientist scenario (SCRUTINIZE) isn't a parody of any other game in particular, but a parody of ham-fisted video game copy protection techniques. And the writing is excellent. I'm pretty sure that's the first scenario I wrote.

The college scenario (RECONFIGURE) is, as far as I know, the only extant description of the UCLA CSUA in that time period. So it's historically interesting if nothing else. It was largely a parody of "Save Princeton", which I loved playing when I was in high school because you were in college!

DISEMBARK, the Planetfall parody (which unlike the others doesn't wear the thing it's parodying on its sleeve) was, I believe, panned as phoned in or tacked on. It's not a terribly big scenario but I never intended it to be longer. I should have made it more detailed, though.

I feel like I wrote some of this before, but there you go. My eight-years-in-the-making opinion of "Guess The Verb!"

[Comments] (2) : I've been digitizing Sumana's collection of old videotapes, a somewhat tedious process that has required me to remaster obsolete technologies such as VCRs and Microsoft Windows. There's some really good stuff in here:

But mostly, it's the commercials. Yes, time has worked its mysterious alchemy on these tapes, and the commercials are now more difficult to find, and often more interesting, than the programs they sell. That's what I tell myself when I set a tape full of first-season Star Trek: The Next Generation to record, anyway. Some observations:

Enough lists. I gotta go to Montreal tomorrow for work, a sprint in preparation for the open sourcing of Launchpad. I suffered severe poutine disappointment last time but maybe this time will be better. Or, it seems, I can just get poutine in Manhattan.

: For a while now I've thought it would be cool if there was a remake of "Jeeves and Wooster" in which Steven Fry played Wooster and Hugh Laurie played Jeeves.

[Comments] (4) Thoughtcrime Experiments Lineup: Behold! After painful winnowing of the 25 stories we really wanted to publish, we've sent out acceptance notices to the authors of nine:

Barring unforseen catastrophe, that's the lineup. (A couple of the titles are working titles and might change, but I wanted to announce this ASAP.) These are the stories we couldn't say no to. They've all got great originality and execution. I'd put this anthology against an issue of a pro mag any day.

I'm surprised by the variety in the stories. I was expecting to publish maybe two fantasy stories; we're publishing four. Four of the stories are really funny, but none of them are "funny stories".[0] We're publishing a freaking cat story. A cat story that will kick your ass!

Sumana deserves enormous credit, not just for reading the slush pile and sending out over 200 mostly-personal rejections, but for working with me all the way to the final selections. She pulled one way, I pulled another, and the result was a balanced selection.

In addition to the stories, we've also commissioned pieces by five artists. Our instructions, such as they were, were "draw something awesome." The artists delivered. Here's what we've got:

Go to the Thoughtcrime Experiments homepage for a teaser that includes a low-res version of "Gaia's Strange Seedlike Brood". David Kelmer also put a low-res version of "Times Square" up on his weblog.

[0] I originally wrote that I don't think "funny stories" are funny, but then I thought of some really funny stories we rejected in the final rounds, and realized I was being snobbish. A story can be incredibly funny and still suffer the "funny story" stigma, if there's not a strong plot. That's why Wodehouse's books blend in one's mind into a homogenous mush of hilarity.

: A lot of people are having problems parsing bad HTML in the latest version of Beautiful Soup. It's a complex situation and I got tired of talking about it in email, so I made a webpage about it.

: You know how I love interviews with opinionated video game pioneers. So here's one such interview, with Jerry Lawson, creator of the first cartridge-based game system.

[Comments] (2) :

"I hate it with the passion of 1,004 suns."
"Why four?"
"Because I like to have more passion."
"Why not, say, 2,000 suns?"
"That's too many suns."

[Comments] (10) : When I was in Boston a while back I went with Kirk to a shop of strange and wonderful things. I bought some presents for various readers of this weblog, which I will dispense when the time is right. I also bought a little flexible plastic doll of Gumby's pony pal Pokey.

This doll is pretty much identical to one I had as a kid, except this one has a URL printed on it.[0] In fact, although the doll is cool on its own (Pokey's four identical skinny legs make him much more posable than the Gumby doll's larger, unevenly sized limbs), nostalgia is the main reason I bought it. I don't buy a whole lot of things because they remind me of my childhood, but I do have several small items that I've kept for over twenty years. Things I wouldn't stop to save during a fire but that I would put low on my list of things to throw away if I had to throw away a bunch of things, even though they're not useful and have no monetary value.

I bring this up because the Pokey purchase made me interested in what things you, my readers, have bought recently for nostalgic reasons. Or, alternatively, what things you hold on to for nostalgic reasons.

I'll do one of each. I still have a rabbit puppet (copyright date on tag 1976) which was not my first stuffed animal, but which was my first non-lame stuffed animal. I had an earlier stuffed rabbit, but it was this ugly orange cartoony thing that I'm sure I loved dearly at the time but not anymore. It's either long gone by now, or else my niece has it. The rabbit puppet resembles a real rabbit, still looks good after 30 years, and in general puppet stuffed animals are better than non-puppets.

[0] It's a strange URL to put on a toy, because the website is aimed at resellers, not the people who buy the toys. What's the use case here? "The store down the street is crushing me with these Pokey dolls! I've got to find out where they come from! Hopefully, they'll have a low minimum order!"

[Comments] (1) : The thing that jumped out at me from this review of early roguelikes XRogue and Advanced Rogue is that XRogue could be the first and only roguelike in which you get to fight trilobites.

[Comments] (1) : What is the Prime Directive, really, but a very strict anti-spoiler policy?

[Comments] (3) A Boy And His Buildings: There's a remake in the works of A Boy and His Blob, the game that should be one of my all-time favorites. Its awesome mechanic takes the kind of operations you get by typing or clicking in a text or graphical adventure, and makes them digetic. But it was ruined by terrible game design. Exactly the scenario where a remake makes sense.

As is well-known the original game takes place in Hoboken, New Jersey. The remake starts off with the same lovely view of a skyline across the water, but it's been Standards-and-Practiced and it's not the New York skyline anymore. In fact I don't think it looks like a real city skyline at all; the city would have to have two or three downtowns. Way to ruin the realism, game about a shapeshifting blob!

(If there is a real city with a skyline like that, I'd consider that a more interesting fact than you'd think, so let me know. I guess I could see the New York skyline looking like that if you rotated Central Park 90 degrees.)

[Comments] (2) Leonard's Hypothetically Useful Advice: If someone says "All part of the act, folks!", it's probably not all part of the act.

Battle of the Internet Special Interest Groups: Who can most effectively stuff the ballot box for naming part of the International Space Station? You can't buy this one, Golden Palace Casino! This is democracy!

Dada Ripoff #2: Sumana went to an exhibition at Columbia that was really bad. Unlike most websites, News You Can Bruise is neither a finger-pointing catalog nor an ironic celebration of things that are really bad. So ordinarily I wouldn't mention it. But the exhibition, "Lorem Ipsum Dolor Sit Amet" is bad in a way that indicates it might be a Alan Sokal-type joke.

Sumana said the art was really phoned in, but works of art no longer have any signaling function in our society, so who can tell. Let's turn to the metadata. The exhibition was accompanied by a flyer (also available online), and the flyer was generated with SCIgen. Then there's the name of the exhibition, which pretty much says "Let's phone this one in." At least they didn't rip off the Eater of Meaning.

: I've put the Beautiful Soup source code onto Launchpad, so it's now easy instead of just technically possible for you to hack on the code and publish your changes.

[Comments] (1) : My biggest current project is a large work of fiction that you should be able to see in a couple of months. I've been writing down notes for months, scribbled in notebooks and put in disorganized files on my hard drive. I've also been collecting ideas from friends in email. Now that I need to exploit those notes, the limitations of this system become apparent.

I'm here to tell you that TiddlyWiki is the solution. I spent most of today organizing my notes, and the story is correspondingly clearer in my head. Tiny ideas have a place to live, and I've got a workshop for developing them into fleshed-out ideas.

Tiddlywiki lowers the barriers to capturing a fleeting idea better than any other software I've used. Since it's a Javascript app that runs in the web browser, rather than a client-server thing, Tiddlywiki is fast. Since it displays your entire edit trail on one page, the snippets don't feel isolated from each other. I can split out a section that's getting too long without losing it.

I've known about Tiddlywiki for a long time, and it's not that I resisted trying it until now; rather, I never really needed it until now. It delivers.

[Comments] (4) : My recent burst of game-related reading has come to a close as I finished Matt Barton's Dungeons and Desktops, a history of computer role-playing games. This is a really straightforward book that mostly describes games in chronological order without doing a bunch of theory or rehashing a lot of things I already knew. Very recommended. I especially enjoyed the chapters describing the late 80s to the late 90s, roughly the times when I wasn't paying attention and that aren't covered by other books. Minor downsides: the prose doesn't glisten, and screenshots were not previewed in black-and-white before printing, so the fact that they're practically unreadable in the book was not caught.

: A couple quick links.

[Comments] (1) Hearing!: I've long been fascinated by the highly ritualized nature of Congressional hearings. I think my interest started back in 2002 when Elmo the Muppet, a fictional character, testified before Congress, and no one said "Come out from under that Muppet and face our scrutiny!" or "Holy shit, Muppets are real!"

Anyway, the most recent round of Congressional hearings made me realize that the format makes a perfect framework for a role-playing game, a la The Extraordinary Adventures of Baron Munchausen. Each player takes their turn in the spotlight and is asked to justify some despicable behavior or advocate for some bizarre appropriation. In fact, it could just be a theme hack of TEAoBM, but you'd want to have a balance of really hostile Congresspeople and those who just threw softballs. I guess the TEAoBM "story complication" mechanism could handle both.

[Comments] (2) The Devil You Say: One of the strange things about getting older is that you'll have a friend who you think you know, and then in the course of conversation it'll turn out she wrote a series of well-regarded supernatural Wodehouse pastiches in the 1990s. In this case it was Sumana's friend Elisa DeCarlo, author of The Devil You Say and its prequel Strong Spirits. I went on a stepstool through Elisa's closet to find copies of the books, and was injured by a falling box of 5 1/4" floppy disks that contain the original manuscripts.

Anyway, I've now read both books and I can heartily recommend at least The Devil You Say. It's not Wodehouse, but what is? (The answer: Wodehouse.) It's funny and clever, and has an excellent tagline: "Satan has risen... and just in time for tea." Strong Spirits has a better conceit, but the production schedule was severely rushed so it was written in not much time, and it's got huge plot holes and not as many jokes.

Both books are really short, like the length of two round-trip subway trips. Elisa has the rights, and the books have a decent fan base, so we told her she should put the books up on Lulu. She was working on a third book in the series when it was canceled in an editorial shakeup, and the manuscript is with the others on one of those deteriorating floppies.

: Recently the Triborough bridge near my house was renamed the RFK Bridge. I thought that was kind of an extreme way to honor robotfindskitten, but I wasn't consulted. I would have settled for giving robot the key to the city (which it would have ignored).

But the most appropriate way to honor robotfindskitten is to make robotfindskittenlike games. Such as the rather gruesome The Favored.

[Comments] (6) Get Me Rewrite: Like nearly everyone who cares, I was disappointed by the Battlestar Galactica finale. I had my own idea for how it should turn out, and although my prediction technically came true, it was in a really unsatisfying and sloppily-executed way.

But as Joel Hodgson once said, you don't have to take the ending they give you. You know I haven't been boring you by posting about BSG every week, and I wouldn't post about the finale if all I had to say was "I'm disappointed". But ever since the DS9 days I've considered Ron Moore a role model for SF storytelling with long dramatic arcs, and I need to write this alternate ending so I don't remember the BSG arc as fundamentally flawed.

Obviously this discussion is full of spoilers, so if you're Nandini or someone else who's waiting for the finale to show up on Hulu, don't read this yet.

It looks like the finale was as sloppy as it was because Ron Moore had a few major obsessions that drove the story to a place nobody but Ron Moore wanted it to go. A place the story itself didn't want to go, such that an entire pantheon of B-movie dei ex machina had to be deployed to push it there. I'm gonna take one of the obsessions as revealed in the final episode, and ditch the rest.

For me the wheels came off the story right after Galen killed Tory. That made sense by itself, but not much afterward made sense. I'm gonna back up the story to just before that, get rid of the memory-sharing tech that gave Galen his motive, and start from there.

The five uber-Cylons put their minds together and decrypt the secret to resurrection technology. An uneasy truce is formed between the humans and all models of Cylon. Galactica docks at the Cylon colony and the Five begin work on a new resurrection hub.

What I'm about to write doesn't really have any conflict in it, which is usually a problem, but it has more conflict (read: shouting) than the final hour of the actual finale. There wasn't any conflict in the second hour of "What You Leave Behind", and that was fine. And if you want more conflict you can just add back in Galen finding out about what Tory did.

During their work on the hub the Five make a discovery: there's no reason why resurrection technology can't work on humans. It may have been a human invention in the first place. The inability of Cylons to reproduce sexually is some kind of DRM that can be broken if you understand resurrection tech. There is no longer any fundamental difference between humans and Cylons.[0] The cycle is broken. The human race and the Cylon race merge. Laura Roslin's death is especially poignant because she'll be one of the last people ever to die.

The show ends with a flash-forward to twenty years in the future. Some people we knew as humans now exist in multiple copies. There are some new hybrid characters.

The occasion is the commissioning of a new ship, a colony ship the size of a base star, built with human and Cylon technology. The people who were born human have been living in space for far too long. They've built this ship and are leaving to continue their search for a habitable planet. Of course they call this new ship Galactica and there's bookending and all that good stuff.

That's my basic storyline. There are many possible variations: if you want the cycle to restart in the end, I think you can see a couple ways of doing that. There are problems you'd have to finesse but by and large the real show finessed the same problems. Watch this video of Edward James Olmos at the UN and tell me this ending isn't more in the spirit of BSG.

One last thing. Let's talk about Starbuck. Pretty much the only thing I liked about the final hour of BSG was the revelation of what Head Six, Head Baltar, and Starbuck were. I'd like to keep that, but Starbuck's arc needs some changing now that there's no "real" Earth for the humans to find.

So. Sometime in the final hour Starbuck disappears from human sight, as per the actual episode. But instead of Lee's "that's strange, the woman I love suddenly disappeared, oh well" shot, we go to her POV. She sees Head Six and Head Baltar. They tell her that she is a construct created by God for the fulfilment of the plot prophecy. Prophecy is a very tricky thing and when the instrument of prophecy dies at an inconvenient time, extreme measures must be taken. She was brought back to lead the fleet to Earth. Earth sucked so much that the humans became desperate enough to make an alliance with the Cylons, a move that has now led the human race to its end. Now the plot prophecy is over and it's time for Starbuck to come with them.

Needless to say Starbuck does not take kindly to this revelation. Here you get your shouting. You can resolve this in a number of different ways, most of which are more interesting than what happened in canon.

[0] That was my prediction that came true in a really unsatisfying way, ie. by killing off the humans and the Cylons and making us all descendants of the hybrid.

[Comments] (1) : Editing Thoughtcrime Experiments. I've got line edits out for all but two of the stories. Now that Sumana's back from her job interview she's going to send out crits for rejected submissions for which she promised crits, and then (I hope) figure out how to lay out the book so we can put hard copies on Lulu.

I was hoping we could make TE an April 1st project, but it looks like it'll be at least a few days beyond that. Hopefully we can get it out in April, though, because I want to launch my secret writing project in May.

[Comments] (1) : Believe me, if anything interesting was happening, I'd be writing about it.

: OK, something interesting happened, so I'll write about it. Last night Sumana and I went to a Jonathan Coulton concert, with opening act Paul and Storm. We saw Andrew of writing group and "Daisy" fame, and a bunch of people from tor.com were also there. And pretty much anyone there was someone we could have known if our lives had gone slightly differently.

I gotta say that, unlike Sumana, I've never been a huge Coulton fan. When it comes to nerd music I prefer the Front. I like about half of Coulton's songs but none with the intensity the fans last night showed. Plus, I hate going to concerts (I'm pretty sure the last concert concert I went to was this one.) And it didn't help that most of Coulton's songs are about the emotional state where you don't like going to concerts, so really what are you doing here?

But it was pretty fun, and Coulton's showmanship was excellent. ("This is my 'last' 'song!'" before engaging in the encore farce.) And afterwards we hung out with Andrew. And now it's the weekend, which I'll probably squander on useless stuff instead of laying out the anthology or anything productive.

[Comments] (2) : I got some sore-throat bug from the concert so I didn't do anything today. Sumana and I did finally finish watching The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin, the show that treats sitcom catchphrases like a fine musical instrument, and started on Cosmos.

Philip Pearson says I need one of these. I dunno. It's designed like an ironic hipster T-shirt, but there's nothing ironic about it.

Sumana got me a copy of Sainsbury's Magazine on her trip to the UK, because the first time I was in the UK, in 2002, I picked up a copy and enjoyed its concentrated Britishness. I gotta say I prefer the 2002 edition. The writing's better, the layout and graphic design are more distinctive, the recipes are better, the big ads are more interesting and there are more weird little ads in the back. Also the 2009 version is trying to be a lifestyle magazine instead of a magazine put out by a supermarket chain about the food they sell at the supermarket.

But, there was one section that made it all worthwhile, under "Health":


We British are obsessed with our bowels but monitoring how often you go to loo isn't the most reliable way to check they are working at peak efficiency. Intestinal transit time - how long it takes for food to travel the length of your bowel - is a better measure than how regular you are. Eat a generous helping of sweetcorn and set the clock. If you're eating a good diet and your bowels are working normally, you should spot it 12-36 hours later. Any longer suggests your bowels are on the sluggish side and could probably benefit from more fibre.

At the beginning of that paragraph I was thinking "Surely that's an exaggeration", but no, you'd have to be fairly obsessed to consider this a helpful tip.

[Comments] (9) Request Weblog's Musical Return: I'm not going to do this right away because there's lots of things I need to be doing instead, but once I finish some of them this would be a nice combination of my "doing something" projects and my "having fun" projects. Going to the Coulton concert made me realize that it's been a long time since I listened to new music in an exploratory way. There are a number of reasons for this that I won't dwell on because many of them involve me getting old. But it doesn't have to be that way. I'm interested in your music recommendations.

My vague idea is that I'll buy one album a week on your recommendations and write a review. For whatever reason I've always preferred music recommendations from friends to recommendations through reviews or (this is real weird) audio samples such as you'd hear on music podcasts.

In general I'd prefer music I can buy from CD Baby, because that's the only online store I've seen that offers a decent full-album download for Linux (known in the trade as a "download over HTTP"; somehow other stores keep screwing this up). Also I did some consulting work for CD Baby once, though it doesn't seem to have borne fruit yet. But suggest whatever and I'll try to get a hold of it if I think it sounds cool.

[Comments] (4) Slush Pile Tips: Okay, all the Thoughtcrime Experiments line edits are out and everyone has been paid. There's one story that still needs some rewrite but we're ready to start laying this sucker out.

I thought I'd take the opportunity to publish some of our hard-won Slush Pile Tips(tm), amazing rules that, if followed slavishly, will launch your fiction into some metaphorical orbit. Rules marked with an asterisk are ones that we still consider to be good advice even though we're publishing a story that violates them.

A lot of the things we've noticed are small things, but just fixing them won't necessarily fix the story. These are more like code smells: signs that something is wrong at a deeper level.

[Comments] (1) Abandon Ship: I've written before about the New York Times's interest in the stupid problems of the wealthy. So has Sumana. But now the wealthy aren't so wealthy anymore, and their problems have changed. It used to be your biggest hassle was finding low-salt cocktail olives for your yacht to compensate for the saltiness of the sea air. Now you're more likely to be scouting for the best way to wreck that yacht and collect the insurance money.

The owners cannot sell them, because the secondhand market is overwhelmed. They cannot afford to spend hundreds of dollars a month mooring and maintaining them. And they do not have the thousands of dollars required to properly dispose of them.

So they're being sunk or just abandoned, like underwater mortgages. A few months back when we were walking along the Hudson, Evan expressed admiration for the boat-having lifestyle. There's never been a better time to buy, Evan!

A Fine Distinction:

"Pretty lame."
"I love your snap judgements of how lame I am, Sumana."
"Not you! Your work!"

[Comments] (3) : What would happen if Don Bluth met Don Knuth?

[Comments] (1) More Slush Pile Tips: A few left over from a draft I wrote while we were going through slush and forgot about.

[Comments] (2) Panning For April Fool's Gold: Last year I proposed, perhaps naively, that April first could become a day where you announce crazy things that you've truly created or that you truly intend to do going forward. Instead of the cheesy Internet pranks and fake news that I've never liked and that make me feel like T-Rex.

2008 was a pretty good year for such things, as you'll see if you click the link above. How did it go this year? I'm not seeing a whole lot. Jake Berendes abruptly shut down his junk shop, presumably so he can move on to different awesome things. And according to a reliable source, on Wikipedia "the true-but-sounds-like-an-obvious-hoax philosophy seems to taken root as the de-facto policy for the day."

Anything else? Tell me this is an idea that's catching on and not one that's dying out.

: The ultimate gadget for today's rough economic climate: torch and pitchfork in one!

[Comments] (1) New Pawnshop: Near the Astoria Boulevard stop there's a brand new pawn shop. It's got those triangle-shaped flags you see on car lots and a gaudy new sign and everything. Now, I've pawned the family silver many a time, so I'm no stranger to these dens of despair. But what would a new pawn shop sell?

Well, it turns out you can buy standardized display boxes of jewelry, and new pawn shops sell that. There were also some sports trophies, which seems strange. Despite my boast in the previous paragraph I know nothing about pawn shops, but who would buy someone else's sports trophies? Were they just to make it look pawn shop-y? Is it Phil Hartman's sentimental pawn shop?

Update: Maybe it was pro sports memorabilia that just looked like a trophy. Another thing you could pre-buy to stock your shop.

[Comments] (1) Public Service Announcement: RAMPS

Also new to the Greenmarket is another dairy! Milk Thistle Farms is now competing with Ronnybrook for New Yorkers' milk-buying dollar. I bought some of the milk to taste it and it's definitely sweeter than Ronnybrook's. I wouldn't say it's better for all applications, and it's significantly more expensive, but it's definitely a better dessert milk. According to the famous Greenmarket Report they've been to the Union Square market before, but I'd never seen them. Now, back to working on my hit NES game, "Ramps and Milk".

[Comments] (3) Jacob Berendes Interview, Part 1: Jacob Berendes. The very name strikes confusion into the hearts of readers of News You Can Bruise. Ever since his appearance in the first-ever NYCB entry, my readers have considered him a mythical figure. Not surprising, since his friends feel the same way about me. Now, in an exclusive interview, all will be revealed (on certain topics only).

In 2006, Jacob rented a storefront in his native Worcester, MA and started a junk shop/art installation called Happy Birthday Mike Leslie. I worked the store shortly after it opened to get a feel for this joining of art and commerce.

Other artists have started stores as art projects, but most of them sold lame crap or nothing at all. Happy Birthday Mike Leslie sold awesome clothes, records, and other secondhand goods, along with works by local artists and grade school kids, and Jacob's own homemade stuffed animals and chimeric action figures.

HBML's other advantage over other stores-as-art-statements is longetivity. Inferior art stores close once they've made their "point", but Jacob ran HBML for almost three years, longer than the lifespans of many businesses not intended as works of art. But on March 31st, Jake announced that HBML would be closing the following day. I was able to acquire an exclusive post-mortem interview with Jake, which I present here with capital letters restored. We talked about his plans for the future and about the business side of HBML. This is the first of a two-part interview that will be concluded whenever he emails me back with his answers to my nosy questions.

LDR: What are you going to do now that the junk shop is done?

JPB: Roughly, summer I'll be living in Providence, fall I'll be traveling around, winter I hope to be "somewhere warm". The traveling around will be in the guise of a slow snake oil tour, landing in a town with some handmade product and relevant artworks, and having a show at some sort of art space- a gallery or a weird store or something. I've been constructing a small network of these places, or at least keeping tabs on them. This is gearing up to a big one-man (or group) show i'm trying (fingers crossed) to put together in Philadelphia a year from now.

My project for the rest of the week is to clean out the store as much as I can, and try and sell the squid to raise money for a round trip ticket to Miami, where i'll hang out and do an art show with my friend Mike T.

Summer is setting up the tour and working on some new websites to try and make ad money so I don't have to all the way worry most of the time.

LDR: OK, it looks like you went on vacation and then shut the store down.

JPB: Yes, that is also true.

LDR: Did you plan this from the beginning or did you discover that you were having a really good time on vacation?

JPB: No, I was actually pretty bummed out on vacation, but for once I wasn't in crisis mode, so I could sort of step back and look at what I was doing and what I wanted to be doing.

LDR: From here it looks like you became something of a local institution in Worcester. How true is that and did it make you feel constrained or any other leading question?

JPB: "Local institution" has a bit of truth to it, but I didn't feel constrained at all, except that I had to put more time and energy into it over other projects.

LDR: I'm curious about the future of your storefront, and maybe the best way to find out is to see what happened to the other space in the building. I remember it was an abandoned hair salon or something. Did anyone else rent it? Did you scare anyone away?

JPB: That other side was rented out even when you were there, but the guy that rents it only uses it as an office space-- he comes in a few times a week and just makes phone calls, almost never when I'm there. pretty weird. He's still there.

LDR: How likely is it he's up to some kind of con or scam?

JPB: No, he's a coffee roaster and he has another space that he roasts at but it's too chaotic, and he can't work out of his house or he'll never get anything done.

LDR: How much was your rent?

JPB: Rent was $300 for a while, then in the past year it went to 350 and then 400.

LDR: Did you get people coming in from out of town who'd heard about HBML?

JPB: Yeah, all the time. Lots of folks from Providence, because I'd cross-post to the big Providence weirdos email list. but also Boston, western Mass. People came from farther (further?) away but not just for the store.

LDR: It's not unheard of for artists to open stores. A long time ago I mentioned to you that Marinetti opened and ran a Futurist restaurant. Damien Hirst also started a restaurant I believe. Actually I'm seeing a lot of restaurants in this list. Banksy put up an exhibit in a New York storefront but it wasn't a real store, you couldn't buy stuff. Do you know of any others?

JPB: The big "artist store project" was Claes Oldenberg's store, which I think was just called "The Store". It was a big inspiration, although he only ran with it two months I think. Sun Ra and his Arkestra ran a convenience store in Philadelphia in the 70s (I think). [According to Wikipedia, one of the band just happened to run a convenience store. -LR] There are a few musicians who opened up curated record stores, but that's different.


: Allllmost finalized the text of all the stories for TE. Now I have to write the appendix.

: A while back I mentioned some problems with the most recent version of Beautiful Soup, outlined how I planned to fix those problems, and explained that I didn't plan to work on those fixes anytime soon because my job at Canonical leaves me burnt-out w/r/t writing software in my spare time.

But as part of Launchpad Performance Week, everyone's working on improving Launchpad's performance. As it happens, Launchpad uses Beautiful Soup behind the scenes in the test suite, and I was offered the chance to fix the problem on company time. (Fixing the problem will allow us to plug in lxml as the parser, making the tests run faster.)

It's going pretty well. I don't know if I'll be done with the whole thing by Friday, but it's definite progress on something I'd pretty much written off for the near future.

: Check out the trunk of Beautiful Soup and you'll see the future. I've created a simple interface that lets any parser build a Beautiful Soup tree. There are large built-in builders that encapsulate the old HTMLParser logic with their lists of nestable tags, and there's now a very small builder that delegates everything to lxml. In a simple performance test the lxml builder was about twice as fast as the HTMLParser builder.

Hopefully this will be useful to the maintainers of libraries like lxml and html5lib who currently jump through hoops to make their parsers generate a Beautiful Soup parse tree. Now you should be able to just maintain a TreeBuilder implementation. The tree builder has a very simple interface, so take a look and make sure it does what you need. I'll be writing an html5lib tree builder and packaging it and the lxml builder in Beautiful Soup for a while, but I think long-term the TreeBuilders should live with their parent projects.

Tomorrow I'll be figuring out how to package this and trying to come up with a compatibility suite that will ensure your tree builder reacts sanely to different trees and different Beautiful Soup setups like SoupStrainers.

: Quick question related to the previous entry: how important is it to you that Beautiful Soup be in one file? I think we're at the point where it would be really useful to split it into multiple files. For instance, this would make it easier to use Unicode Dammit by itself. And the different tree builder classes with their varied dependencies really ought to be in separate files. But a lot of people (including Canonical, it turns out) just stick BeautifulSoup.py in a directory with the rest of their code, and I don't know how easy it'd be in general to use a real package.

: I was able to get the Beautiful Soup refactoring done and a simple compatibility suite working on Friday. Here are details. More work on this will probably wait for the next Launchpad Performance Week.

: Ubunchu! (via clickolinko)

: Writing project has hit a wall, so I'm going to get the anthology out the door and come back to it.

I was talking to Brendan about this yesterday and he gave me a good analogy. When people read a long work of fiction they're willing to fuel up on worldbuilding at the beginning of the story, but then they expect to coast on that fuel to the climax of the first act. Only after there's a big payoff are they willing to start refueling again. What I'm writing is very heavy on the worldbuilding, and people I've shown it to enjoy the worldbuilding but they're starting to get antsy.

I thought I could write a bunch of self-contained worldbuilding essays with a plot arc in the background, but everyone's focusing on the plot arc. So I need to integrate the worldbuilding essays more closely into the timeline of people doing things, advancing the character development if not the main plot arc.

[Comments] (5) Leonard's Ultimate New York Food Business Ideas:

[Comments] (2) : Got the contract and check from Strange Horizons for "Let Us Now Praise Awesome Dinosaurs". I've now made a whopping $395 writing fiction--about 20% of what I've spent buying fiction to publish. Speaking of which, this is not a promise, but I think we might be able to release Thoughtcrime Experiments next week.

[Comments] (5) Song Opposites: While we were having dinner, "Don't Stand So Close to Me" came on the restaurant radio. Sumana and I decided that "Stacy's Mom" is the opposite of that song. Then we started thinking of what songs are the opposite of what other songs. But it turned out this wasn't a game I really enjoyed playing, though it sounded fun in the abstract. So I give this game to you, in hopes that you'll have more fun with it.

: Before jug bands, there were puzzle jug bands.

[Comments] (2) : Desktop publishing is a ripoff.

: Wow, Bradley Denton has put online his excellent (and seriously out of print) novel Buddy Holly is Alive and Well on Ganymede. With a great title like that there's always a chance the story will be a disappointment, like how the sharks in Internet-Linked Sharks don't really have Internet capabilities, and how A Moon for the Misbegotten isn't about society's rejects taking over the moon. But Ganymede delivers.

Thoughtcrime Experiments: Four months since its inception, Sumana and I have released Thoughtcrime Experiments into the commons. We've selected nine mind-squibbling SF and fantasy stories from the slush pile, commissioned five works of art, and packaged the whole thing as a high-quality anthology that you're free to copy and remix. We also wrote an essay describing the process, which you can read if you're interested in how we did it or what the SF/fantasy market looks like from the editor's perspective. Or you can jump right in with a random story.

Thanks to our great authors and artists, and all the other people who helped us out. I'm going to sleep now.

[Comments] (5) Thoughtcrime Update: Day One: I've put up a zipfile containing high-resolution versions of all the TE artwork, suitable for making desktop wallpaper or whatever. I kept this in reserve because I was afraid that my server wouldn't be able to handle the anticipated traffic, and putting up a huge image dump would make things worse. But they make servers a lot tougher now than they did in 2004, which was the last time I personally had to worry about a server handling a lot of traffic, and we're fine. It helps to be serving static files.

Matthew McClintock of manybooks.net has made it possible to get TE in the weird-ass ebook format of your choice. Thanks, Matthew!

The process of creating a POD book is extremely slow by Internet standards, but if all goes well you should be able to buy a print copy by the end of the week. We'll be selling the print copies at cost.

Now, a bunch of boring numbers. TE got a huge amount of traffic today, almost all of which came from three big-name weblogs and one I'd never heard of. Boing Boing posted first and has sent us about 900 hits, John Scalzi posted later and so far we've got a huge 3600 hits from him [Update: this number is totally inaccurate because Scalzi included our image inline. The real number of hits is more like 200], and tor.com posted even later in the day and has sent us about 100 hits. We got 60 hits from Grasping for the Wind, a weblog I'd never heard of but which sent us more hits than higher-profile sites like Twitter.

Also of note are 1200 hits of unknown origin through Google Reader, and 900 from Livejournal friends pages. Add in other sources and the total number of hits is about 69003500.

Why did Scalzi send us so much traffic despite not having the first-mover advantage? Probably because his audience has a higher concentration of print SF fans than BB. [Update: this speculation is moot; see above.] BB readers are more likely to use feed aggregators, which hides their allegiance. Scalzi also simply posts less, so we'll stay on his front page longer. And I bet most of the people reading tor.com had already read BB or Scalzi by the time they saw the link on tor.com. Needless to say we appreciate all links and publicity and appreciation, those being our only payment. I'm not trying to min-max you guys.

How do hits translate into readers? As of this writing the PDF has been downloaded about 1150 times, the master OpenOffice document has been downloaded 120 times, and the zip archive of the website 90 times. By the crudest metric imaginable, about 1/6 1/3 of the people who visited were interested enough to download the anthology.

People seem to prefer downloading the whole anthology for later, but a significant minority are reading the stories online. Stories nearer the top of the TOC get more hits. The first story has 350 hits and the last story only has 50.

The art pages are much more popular than the story pages, which I was expecting. The most popular artwork (with the attention-grabbing title of "Pirate vs. Alien") has 450 hits. "Bio Break" (my personal favorite) has only 200 hits, but that's more hits than most of the stories.

The "random story" feature has only been used 75 times, which I find a little disappointing.

Comparison: usually the most popular thing on my website is Beautiful Soup. During the same period, the most recent version of BS was downloaded about 300 times, and version 3.0.7a (the non-lame-parsing version) was downloaded about 750 times. The documentation was retrieved 500 times. I find this hard to believe, but I never paid attention to BS downloads before, so I gotta go with the data. I think most of these are automatic downloads done while installing some other piece of software with a BS dependency.

: Sumana has complained that my NYCB entries often turn into cranky complaining. Ironical that she should complain about this. No? Okay, false alarm.

Anyway, here's an entry with no complaining, just greatness. I do have complaints, but they're minor and for once I'll keep them to myself.

I first read about Jack Vance's "Dying Earth" stories as a teenager, in prefaces to AD&D manuals which listed the game's literary precursors. I took no interest in Vance at the time for a number of reasons, the least complaint-like of which is that when it came to old fantasy books that I couldn't find, "Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser" sounded a lot cooler.

But recently I become interested in those literary precursors as precursors, and sought them out. About a week ago I started reading "The Compleat Dying Earth" and it blew me away. It's inventive and rich, refreshingly cynical, and delivers sense-of-wonder in a way I've almost exclusively associated with SF. (Technically it is SF, but it's at its best when the SF element is in the background, which is nearly all the time.)

I was especially interested in the specific influences of Vance on the mechanics of D&D. Turns out Gary Gygax wrote an essay about this, but I'd like to mention a few other things I noticed.

I knew that D&D's magic system came from Vance, but it always seemed gamelike to me and I'm amazed at how well it works in the stories. And it has the same effect as in the game: to keep magic-users from being so powerful they ruin the plot.

Ioun stones first showed up in Vance as IOUN stones, the all-caps name making them sound like a piece of advanced technology. It turns out they're not technology, but it was a nice Richard Brautigan-esque touch. It's great to see how the effects of the stones in the books were turned into game mechanics.

"Vecna" is an anagram of "Vance". I'm pretty sure I noticed this once and then forgot.

One could argue that the notion of reversible spells comes from Vance. Spells in "Dying Earth" are like computer programs, and swapping two instructions can cause a reversed effect.

Update: Oh yeah, Vance invented grues (though Infocom really fleshed out what they are).

[Comments] (2) : We've taken the code that powers the Launchpad web service and moved it into standalone server and client libraries. This is still what I'm working on, so it'll get more useful soon.

In other news, I've started using the word "blog". Argh.

Update: Strange that it took me a day to realize this, but it means that for the first time in about seven years my job is to work on open source software.

[Comments] (1) If comic books made money the way webcomics do: I just proposed a T-shirt saying "What part of HULK SMASH! don't you understand?"

: We got a draft of the Thoughtcrime Experiments book but the outer margins were slightly too small, so I had to spend a bunch of time fixing it and now we're going to go through the whole review process again.

[Comments] (1) : OK, let's do some damn writing.

[Comments] (2) Nothing But Fun: My mother still shows up in my dreams. About a month ago I had one which had a recording of her instead of her being alive, which I guess is progress. (Over time, something similar happened with my father in dreams.) I wanted to tell you about it on the anniversary of her death.

The recording was from my mother's perspective. She was at a fair with Susanna. They were sitting in a Ferris wheel, dangling their feet in the air. The fair was noisy. My mother held some fair food in her left hand. I'm going to guess it was deep-fried cheesecake, because she liked cheesecake, and because of what she said to Susanna a few seconds after the recording started: "Nothing but rides, nothing but cheesecake, nothing but fun."

A couple seconds later she repeated it, and turned to look at Susanna. That's when the recording stopped.

Part of it is the fake realness that rubs off from a dream, but that seems like a right thing for my mother to say. If I were one who interprets dreams I'd say that that line constituted some kind of advice from my mother. But it was just the part of her that I remember coming out when the rest of me was asleep. And I can already feel that part start to fade.

[Comments] (6) : The margins are wider and Thoughtcrime Experiments is now available as a print-on-demand book from CreateSpace. It costs $5.09, which is the lowest price they'll sell it to you. We can order them for $3.05, and Sumana will be getting some of the cheap ones and selling them at WisCon for less, WisCon rules about the dealer's room and whatnot permitting. But $5 is the cost of an F&SF, so it's pretty cheap anyway.

[Comments] (1) : I don't know if I mentioned this or not, but when we went to Per Se late last year, some of the courses were paired with delicious grape juice. I remembered Jason Scott talking about ordering grape juice from Navarro Vineyards, the same place the Per Se juice came from. About a week ago, after we determined we wouldn't be moving for at least a few months, I ordered a case of grape juice. It arrived yesterday and it's as good as I remember it. But it costs $11 a bottle, so gotta make it last.

Sumana says of the white, "Astoundingly flavorful." and "Tastes more like a grape than any grape juice I've ever had." The red is less sweet and goes better with food. They're both amazing. I really dislike wine, and it's a shame that there's no Two-Buck Chuck of grape juice, a cheap grape juice that tastes like real grapes. (You can get decent grape juice at the Greenmarket but it's adulterated with apple juice, that universal donor of juices.)

I also ordered a bottle of the acidic green "Verjus", which is supposed to be good for cooking. I'll post about it once I use it.

[Comments] (5) Star Trek: Sumana and I went to see it this afternoon. I'm still letting it sit in my consciousness but this definitely sorts with the "good" Trek movies and I might end up thinking it was about as good as First Contact. I'm cautiously optimistic. It had serious problems but almost all of them were problems with Star Trek in general. Every time I try to formulate a complaint I come up with something from preexisting canon that's ten times worse. All in all, it was a fun time, and I'm anxious for the sequels to resolve the plot threads, and hopefully not hit the reset button you just know they're gonna hit.

I am gonna mention two problems that I think are summer movie problems not Star Trek problems, so if you don't like spoilers or complaining, turn back.

Problem #1 has to do with the relationship between Scotty and his alien co-worker on Hoth. Scotty's always yelling at him, shoving him around, generally treating him like Igor. I don't terribly mind that Scotty was made the comic relief (it's Simon Pegg, after all), but this seemed cruel and even kind of racist of Scotty. There's only room for one racist on the Enterprise, and that's McCoy!

After the film I had writing group, and I told Andrew about this. He mentioned an interview he'd read in which Simon Pegg said Scotty and his co-worker had gone stir crazy being assigned to Hoth for so long. Sure, but stir crazy is a double-edged phaser. The alien should have shoved back.

Problem #2 is reliance on ungodly coincidences. I'm sure I'm overlooking something but I can't think of another Trek movie where major plot points just happened by coincidence. This shows up at its worst on Hoth. Kirk gets marooned there, he wanders around for a while and finds Future-Spock. Then the two of them wander a bit more and run into Scotty! If Kirk had found a guy (Scotty) who went on to play an major role in his life, that would be contigency, not coincidence. But Kirk meeting Future-Spock and then Future-Spock meeting Scotty was too much to bear, somehow.

PS: John Cho is terribly miscast as Sulu, but if someone says "We want you to play Sulu in a Star Trek movie" how can you turn them down?

[Comments] (1) Schooljailhouse Rock:

Number forty-seven said to number three
"Hey, we're both prime!"

[Comments] (2) Felt Food: A while back Susanna made some awesome felt food for Maggie and her friend to play with. There are lots of parts you can mix and match: cheese, vegetables, bread, etc. It's great to play with and something I wish I'd had when I was a kid.

I took some photos, but Susanna imposed a press embargo so that I wouldn't spoil the present surprise. Well, now the surprise has happened and I've got nothing to post tonight, so check it out. Susanna's entry on the topic has sewing instructions for all the food.

[Comments] (1) : Birds: nature's car alarm.

[Comments] (5) The Remake Of Khan: Sumana and I watched The Wrath of Khan as part of my plan to get her to watch pre-TNG Star Trek movies. In the context of having just watched the 11th Trek movie, it was very enlightening. The new movie is pretty close to being a remake of The Wrath of Khan. Which explains why it's good but also why it's not that good. Almost all the callbacks to older Trek movies were callbacks to Khan, including callbacks I didn't notice, like Kirk eating an apple during the Kobayashi Maru. And then I realized that a lot of the bad Star Trek movies are bad because they're trying to remake The Wrath of Khan.

Here's what I mean. By normal standards, Khan is a really bad Star Trek villain. Star Trek villains generally have some self-justifying line of BS that makes them the hero. The Borg want to unify all life forms and cultures, the Cardassians are imperialists spreading civilization, the Xindi think they're acting in self-defense. Admiral Leyton is trying to stop the Federation from becoming soft. Harry Mudd is a Willy Loman type who's just trying to shift product. Etc. Their actions make sense given their worldview. Even TOS-era Khan assumes what he does is right by virtue of his innate superiority.

But Khan in Khan is Captain Ahab, a character defined by his obsession and his need for revenge. He no longer cares whether he's doing the right thing. With Khan it made sense, because he's the superman who's been humiliated by Kirk, a normal person. But the people who make Star Trek movies keep making the villain into Captain Ahab as if that'll make the movie good.

Check out the lousy Trek movie villians. Soran: obsessed with the Nexus. Ru'afo: wants revenge on the Son'a. (Yeah, I had to look those names up.) Shinzon: wants revenge on Picard, which doesn't even make sense. Nero: wants revenge on Spock (also makes no sense). Obsession. Revenge. They're all trying to be Khan.

Some of the Trek films don't have villains at all, which I always enjoy, but look at the good villains. General Chang: afraid of change. Borg Queen: is a freaking Borg. Even Sybok (religious fanatic) is a decent villain. I don't think you can get a big-budget SF movie made these days with no villain, but maybe if Khan hadn't been such a good movie the other Trek movies would have been better.

PS: Anyone complaining about red matter, rewatch Khan and try to explain how Genesis works.

[Comments] (4) : I'm in the Zurich airport. At last, I understand the true meaning of Kraftwerk.

[Comments] (1) Infernokrusher!: Sumana reports that she was talking at WisCon to Jed Hartman about the story I sold to Strange Horizons (to be published in just a couple months). At one point Jed said "Ah! It's infernokrusher!" I thought this would be obvious from the title alone, but when I went searching for other infernokrusher stories online, I couldn't find any. Only jokes about hypothetical works. So you might reasonably not recognize a submitted infernokrusher story as such.

Is mine the first infernokrusher story to be sold? That can't be right. Prove me wrong. Examples predating the invention of infernokrusher grudgingly accepted. By browsing LibraryThing tags I've determined that John Varley's "Steel Beach" may be genuine infernokrusher, but most other things given that tag look like regular slipstream. Hey, if I don't have the expertise to slice music into sub-subgenres, I'll settle for fiction.

PS: I know infernokrusher is just a joke. Jokes are meant to be told.

[Comments] (2) Radio Download: I didn't post last week because I was at a Canonical all-hands meeting. We listened to a lot of talks and then they gave us Chumbies. While I was there I learned something really cool I wanted to share with you. I know you'll be interested because I already talked about East German computers at length and you're still reading this weblog.

I met a guy, I'm pretty sure it was Mirco Müller, who grew up in East Germany. He'd never heard of the PolyPlay (which I'd forgotten the name of at the time), but he was conversant with the home computers of the time, and he mentioned that radio stations would broadcast programs for kids to record. They'd count down and then send a game or some other program over the air. You'd record it on a cassette tape and then use it in your computer's tape reader.

This is such an awesome idea and I'd never thought of it because it's so damn socialist. At the point on the technology curve where computer cassette drives make sense, you need to have private ownership of computers, but government ownership of radio stations and a government policy encouraging kids to mess around with computers (see previous entry for contrasting policies).

Otherwise the people who run the radio station won't want to make a timeslot to broadcast data, and the people who wrote the software will want to sell it instead of broadcasting it. You could have this scenario in a world with very primitive but very cheap computers, where such a show could be popular, but that brings us into the realm of science fiction--where I intend to milk this idea for all it's worth.

[Comments] (6) Dada Chess: It's no secret that I admire Marcel Duchamp. The mad genius who cackled "I'll destroy them all!" from his bell tower, and then went ahead and destroyed them all. But only today did I create the ultimate tribute to Duchamp: Dada Chess! The latest addition to the crummy.com family of dada toys is an infinite series of chess games in which both players play at random.

I thought this project would take me days to realize, but thanks to Will McGugan's great Python chess library it only took a few hours. I did find a few bugs w/r/t what the chess library considers to be "check" and "checkmate", but I fixed them and sent in a patch.

While I was at it I fixed Dada Maps and Spurious, whose bits had rotted.

[Comments] (1) One Town's Very Like Another When Your Head's Down Over Your Keyboard, Brother: Version 2 of Dada Chess features textual representations of the games for those with chessless browsers, highlighting of the piece that just moved, and improved stalemate rules so the game ends instead of the kings chasing each other all over the board.

I also heard back from the original ChessPy author, who for complex reasons invited me to make my bug fixes public by forking the project. So here you go. It's also got unit tests for the stuff I changed. It's really easy to use, and recommended if you have some Dada Chess-like project that needs to run simulated chess games that don't require an AI.

Roll Out The Barrel (Of Rolls): K. Tempest Bradford and I came up with a restaurant that only serves food in spring roll form. So if you ordered a chicken dinner you'd get a chicken spring roll, a mashed potato spring roll, and a green bean spring roll, with gravy to dip it in. Of course the possibilities are limitless, especially for dessert spring rolls.

Brendan had a similar restaurant called "We'll Fry It!"

: I'm reading Volume II of David Eugene Smith's History of Mathematics. It was published in the early 20th century so 1) volume I is a Project Gutenberg book[0] and there's no reason why some version of volume II shouldn't also be a PG book someday, and 2) it predates the Incompleteness Theorem and the theory of computation. I thought you might enjoy 1925's perspective on the difference engine, from a section on "modern calculating machines".

It was not, however, until the 19th century that any great advance [in modern calculating machines] was made. In 1820 Charles Babbage began the construction of a machine for calculating mathematical tables, and in 1823 the Royal Society secured aid from the British government to enable him to continue his work. Babbage's progress not being satisfactory, this aid was soon withdrawn, but the work continued until 1856, when it was abandoned. From the time when Babbage began to the present, however, the modern calculating machine has been constantly improved, first by Thomas de Colmar (1820), and various types are now in extensive use.

[0] But that book is only 75 pages long, which makes me think that the history was greatly expanded, possibly in the post-public domain era. That would explain why no one ever scanned Volume II.

[Comments] (1) Abridged Search History: I haven't cleaned out my browser search history in years, and every once in a while something bizarre turns up in the autocomplete. I went looking to see where the search data was so I could go through it properly. It turns out the browser search history for Firefox is kept along with other form autocomplete data, in [your profile directory]/formhistory.sqlite. I wrote a script (below) to dump the search history and went through it looking for fun. I found a lot of interesting stuff I'd forgotten about and stuff that's funny out of context, doing my part to add to other peoples' stock of Disturbing Search Requests. I thought I'd present some highlights, in the traditional Internet meme presentation of "one for every letter of the alphabet". Plus one number and one non-alphanumeric character.

Update: in case you were wondering, there were 4834 distinct search strings in my history.

Dada Chess Statistics: At Kevan's suggestion I changed Dada Chess to keep track of how the games ended. I was tired of how slowly the numbers were ticking up, so over the weekend I ran several thousand games of chess on my PVR. Here are the statistics as of this writing. This is how chess games turn out when both players play randomly.

To avoid arbitrarily long games, Dada Chess forces resignation semi-randomly when the number of moves exceeds 500. Pretty much all of those games are destined to be draws. So 4459 draws (77.1%) total. About 16% of games have a winner, and there's no advantage to moving first.

[Comments] (3) Reality 2, Dreams 0:

S: My dream was wrong! I dreamed that people left two comments on my most recent weblog entry, and it didn't happen!
L: My dream was also wrong! I dreamed that Neil Gaiman came into my room while I was asleep and scratched an autograph into my nightstand with an Exacto knife!

: If I can't dance, I don't want to be part of this nutritious breakfast.

: The Center for Visual Music put together a $30 DVD of ten Oskar Fischinger films, which I bought even though it didn't have any of the films I specifically wanted. It's the only legit way to get copies of any of Fischinger's films, and all his stuff is great. The CVM sent this notice along with the DVD:


Public Performance rights are not included; the DVD may not be exhibited publicly, commercially or theatrically. The DVD may not be exhibited in museum or gallery exhibitions without obtaining additional licenses. The DVD or any of its contents may not be broadcast, cablecast or webcast in any manner. The DVD may not be duplicated, distributed or reproduced in whole or in part. The DVD may not be licensed to any institution or individual. The DVD may not be altered or excerpted in any way.

Here's the Oskar Fischinger quote from the DVD cover:

These films have no limitations on when they can be shown. Like a great work of music or a great painting, they will become more valuable with age. Because of its complete originality, this type of film knows no boundaries of time or fashion.

Causal Games: I don't generally enjoy negative reviews of my stuff, but I'll make an exception for Steve Pomeroy's port of robotfindskitten to Android. Steve's predicted review: "omg grafx r soo laaaaame... why isnt this cool liek quake 4 i dont get it u suks ★☆☆☆☆" And there were a number of fun reviews like that ('Quite possibly thee worst "game" ever'), but they were taken down, so clearly I posted this entry too late.

I do prefer an honest negative review to an ironical review like "Close to ps1 graphics. 5 stars."

: Hey hey! We bumped into Kris at the MoCCA faire and this evening I hung out with him and two other people whose names I immediately forgot! It was good times. Also seen at MoCCA: Ryan North and KATE BEATON. I went to writing group today and four of the six people came in with a story about going to MoCCA and meeting KATE BEATON. I heard a rumor that her name should be capitalized normally, but that's a little hard to swallow.

[Comments] (2) : I'm working on two major projects that aren't ready for unveiling yet, which is why I haven't written much here. One of these projects consists of a large number of small cleanup jobs that take 2-3 minutes to do. I wrote a script called gimme that picks one of the jobs at random and opens up all of its files in the relevant editors. I do the cleanup and the cleaned-up files are moved into a jobs-that-are-done directory. It's an addictive experience and I've been performing these little jobs at the expense of the other project, which is more interesting but for which progress is much less measurable.

Fun Fact: Did you know that in 1982, Ross Perot's son flew around the world in a helicopter?

[Comments] (2) : So far, Star Trek IV is the only original cast Trek movie that Sumana has wanted to watch in one sitting and stayed awake for the whole thing. Now on to Star Trek V! Just kidding. (Though I'm thinking of rewatching it to see if my previous musings on Sybok hold up.)

[Comments] (2) More Star Trek IV Stuff: Sumana was falling asleep:

L: What was your favorite part of the movie?
S: When Star Trek was swimming with the whales.
L: Star Trek?
S: Spock. I meant Spock.

(That's also my favorite part of the movie.) Sumana also pointed out that the reconstituted Spock in ST:IV is pretty much the same as Data at the beginning of ST:TNG, before they rounded out his character.

One of the more understated bits of humor in that movie is that while most of the Enterprise crew can't function in the 20th century, Sulu does fine. He's from San Francisco and he knows about old machines, so he just does his job with no problems.

This movie also puts into perspective one of the more unrealistic parts of the new Star Trek movie; Kirk getting a command assignment straight out of the Academy. There's still no excuse for that, but the first four Trek movies show that Kirk is very good at being a starship captain and very bad at any other job. So it's really the best use of his talents, though you wouldn't know that ahead of time.

[Comments] (3) Roy's Postcards: Still needs a little work, but I think it's ready to launch. Roy's Postcards is a new Crummy weblog that will feature a new scanned and transcribed postcard from the 1980s, every day for the next three years. Most of the postcards were written by my father, either as notes to himself or as letters to me and my sisters, sent while he was on one of his many business trips. Some of the postcards are quotidian, some are crazy or silly, some are emotionally charged. A lot of them have beautiful, interesting, or bizarre pictures on the front. I hope you'll give it a look.

This is the largest extant corpus of my father's writing and I've been trying to figure out the best way to present it since I discovered these postcards in 2006. I think the one-a-day format, in a weblog intended to be experienced through the RSS feed, is the best way to keep the presentation interesting. It'll give you a little visual break every day in your feed reader while letting me go into some detail on each postcard, point out funny things, and explain what needs to be explained.

Over the past week or so I've processed enough postcards to have a year's worth of backlog. I estimate my total time investment in this project at about 100 hours. Not bad for three years of daily entertainment.

[Comments] (8) : Added another 100 postcards to the pile. I'm going to keep going until I've done them all, rather than wait a year until the backlog runs out, because there are a few duplicate scans and I can eliminate them if I keep processing the postcards while they're fresh in my mind.

[Comments] (3) : I'm tired of frying tofu, so I just tossed it in oil and put it on a silicone sheet and baked it at 375 degrees. It worked fine. It's not 100% as good as fried tofu, but it's so much easier to make, and it cooks more evenly.

The other day, we saw a sign: "Area Rugs On Sale". "That's the worst Onion headline I've ever seen," I said.

[Comments] (1) : I enjoyed this picture that uses airplane imagery as the background for a video game. There was a brief vogue for this kind of thing in the year after Google Maps launched, but the games weren't terribly good (they were Javascript games integrated directly into GM) and I'd like to see something more sophisticated. Thanks to GM it's pretty easy to grab scrolling tiles of much of the earth at decent resolution--I did it for Dada Maps.

[Comments] (1) : If I'd been smart I would have started the Roy's Postcards today, it being Father's Day. But I've spent over half my life not celebrating Father's Day and somewhere along the line I forgot it even exists. I said hi to Sumana's father today, though.

I got a huge amount of writing done yesterday. Today not so much. I really hope I can show you this soon (ie. by the end of the year--it's a big project). Most of what you're seeing from me this year is sparks thrown off from this project or things I'm doing to procrastinate or recover from working on it.

Recently an article made the rounds of my syndication feeds, to the effect that you shouldn't even mention things you're working on until they're done, because your brain treats announcing a project as work on the project. If you look at my very early weblog entries they're full of promises I never followed up on. But after about 2000 I generally follow this rule, albeit sometimes to my detriment--I should have announced RESTful Web Services earlier to get more feedback. This time I'm happy to work on a big project in semi-silence because I'm still not convinced I can pull it off.

[Comments] (5) The Enormous Egg: Going through postcards I was reminded of a book from my childhood, The Enormous Egg, about a triceratops that hatches from a hen's egg and throws the nation into turmoil. I looked up the book online and saw people claiming it had a political subtext, so I decided to Bookmooch it and reread.

The book arrived today and I reread it. The political subtext is only sub-textual if you're a kid, but it did its job. Pretty much everything in the book is part of my adult philosophy, right down to the ham-handed satirical dialogue I write for government employees. Highly recommended assuming you want your kid to turn out like me.

The illustrations are also awesome. My main complaint (also mentioned in the postcard, which will show up sometime in the next 3 years) is that if a chicken gave birth to an evolutionary throwback it would be a theropod, not a saurichian like Triceratops.

When I mentioned this book to Sumana she immediately countered with Homer Price (the book with the story about the donut machine), which I remember being really good. I was also considering John Fitzgerald's Great Brain books for the "lesser-known but awesome childrens' books" list, but those books have a pretty good Amazon sales rank (they're outselling RESTful Web Services) so they're not as obscure as I thought.

[Comments] (1) : We bought copies of my three favorite Miyazaki movies and I noticed that the titles form a story: "Kiki's Delivery Service Spirited Away My Neighbor Totoro."

[Comments] (4) : I read Marc Levinson's book The Box, about the history of containerized shipping, and I had an epiphany. Creative epiphanies are rare for me and when they do happen they're usually not very interesting. I was on the plane coming back from Barcelona and I thought: "Dada Chess". I wrote down "Dada Chess" in my notebook, and when I got home I wrote Dada Chess. Not that interesting. (But now over 10k games played!)

But for the better part of the decade I've been trying to come up with some fiendish plot involving shipping containers. Wednesday I was reading on the subway, when I looked up and envisioned a shipping container with the logo of an organization from my current writing project. I thought: Why would they make shipping-- and then I knew why. One of this organization's plot points makes one of my old shipping container schemes usable. It took years to create, but it fits together.

The feeling you get when everything fits together is a drug that I'm addicted to. It's why I write and read and play games. Like all drugs it's probably not good for me on balance, but unlike other drugs it produces things of value as a side effect.

[Comments] (3) Dada Chess Addendum: The last time I did some Dada Chess statistics, White checkmated 7.8% of the time and Black checkmated 8.1% of the time. That was with 5787 games played and I thought it wasn't a significant difference. But now with 13308 games played, White checkmates 7.6% of the time and Black checkmates 8.4% of the time. The total percentage of checkmates is pretty much the same (15.86% then, 15.96% now).

The numbers are large and steady enough that I'm starting to wonder if there is some significant advantage in Dada Chess to not moving first. I can't think of what it could be.

[Comments] (1) You Will Go To See Moon: You should, anyway. It's a good movie. I'll see pretty much any movie set on the moon (offer not good for other celestial bodies) and this is one of the best. It's got beautiful visuals, the characterization is great, and the callbacks to precursors (2001 and Silent Running) are well-done and often extremely inventive. But I can't leave well enough alone, I have to pick at things.

There's artistic license stuff like sound in space and stars visible from the lunar surface during the daytime. That stuff doesn't really bother me, and Moon at least gave alternate POVs for most of the sound you heard while the camera was in vacuum. There's stuff that would just be too expensive to get right, like filming all the scenes in lunar gravity. Moon did get the exterior scenes right. And then there's... the whole premise of the movie. Which doesn't make any sense.

And the movie knows it. As in many movies, there's a scene where the characters nibble around the fact that the premise doesn't make any sense, and then defuse it with a joke and move on. I call this the "Gremlins 2" solution. I wasn't even happy about it in Gremlins 2, which played it for laughs. I'm sorry but I can't let it go.

It's a good enough movie that I keep thinking of ways to tell similar stories without doing anything nonsensical. While the movie was going on I coped with the situation by deciding I was watching a horror movie. Horror movies work on the logic of nightmares, where something like what happens in Moon can make sense. But it's not satisfying to me as science fiction.

The other thing I was worried about was that this movie would be so similar to a story I wrote that I'd never be able to sell the story, but despite some shared inspirations the stories are pretty different. Not that I'll ever sell that story!

[Comments] (2) : Edits for "Let Us Now Praise Awesome Dinosaurs" are done. Hopefully you'll be able to read it in July or August.

Another data point I'm not sure what to do with (see Dada Chess weirdness passim) is that both stories I've sold had their origin in weblog entries I posted to NYCB. "Mallory" was the end result of this bizarre entry, and "Awesome Dinosaurs" was the end result of this more-obviously-an-idea entry. I sold both stories to the first market I sent them to, though for both I had to do a revision and resubmit. If a story didn't start in this weblog, I haven't been able to sell it.

[Comments] (4) Lintsagna: Here's a story from when I was in Little Rock working on the Clark campaign. Every night after work I'd go home and have an hour, hour and a half to myself; enough time to do one thing. Like make and eat my own dinner, or read for a while, or do a load of laundry.

There was no laundry in my tiny apartment building, but I had a special "laundry key" which opened the front door of a totally different house. In the foyer of this house was a washer and dryer, and if you lived there you'd have a different key that opened up the house proper. It was an odd system.

The first time I hauled my laundry over to this house someone else was using the washer, so I had to come back the next night. The second time I made it. After drying my clothes, I tugged on the lint trap to clean it out. The trap practically exploded out of its receptacle as the hundreds of loads worth of lint it contained expanded to fill the space outside.

I peeled the lint off the lint trap. It was two inches thick, a lasagna of lint, striated in colors like the geologic column. There was no trash can in the laundry room, so no one had ever emptied the lint trap.

I didn't want the house to burn down, so I took the lintsagna with me and threw it in my building's dumpster. Sometimes I can still hear it calling me. It says, "I'm a pile of compressed lint and incapable of speech, but nonetheless youuuu are responsible for my deaaaaath!" I generally ignore it.

Their Love Was Validated By Householding Algorithms: We got a piece of political spam addressed to "The Harihareswara & Richardson Household".

[Comments] (1) Well Now I'm Pushing Thirty: The title is a line from a song I wrote when I was seventeen, and now it's coming true. I've got less than a week of my twenties left. When I wrote that line of that song, I was worried about selling out (I learned the term, but not the concept, from a Reel Big Fish song). The lesson of my twenties is that the creative things a teenager thinks of selling, when he thinks of selling out, are not worth that much money. Nobody's buying. You might as well give it away.

What you can sell is your time. I get good money for my time, and for the money I worked at CollabNet two, three years after I'd stopped having fun. Ten years ago today I ported robotfindskitten to Linux. I very rarely write software for fun anymore. The time for that is no longer in stock. Sold out.

Apart from that, which I wouldn't have predicted as recently as five years ago, my twenties exceeded every goal I might have set. I got married, I wrote a piece of software that became very popular, I wrote two O'Reilly books, and I sold a science fiction story to a pro market. My current secret project is something I've wanted to do my whole life. There's a lot of sadness but not much to regret.

In reality I didn't set any goals. The day I turned twenty I didn't imagine myself today, about to turn thirty. But today, I can't conceive of myself as other than a transitional Leonard between the one who wrote that weblog entry and the one who will link to this weblog entry in 2019.

When I turn forty I know I'm going to be seriously worried about the time I have left. I'm worried now, but right now I have ten years more than I will then. I need to use it and not sell more than I need to.

: Andrew Appel posted about Thoughtcrime Experiments to the prestigious Freedom to Tinker weblog (alas, still not called Freedom To Tinkle). Andrew is one of the authors of "Using Memory Errors to Attack a Virtual Machine", the paper that partially inspired Ken Liu's Single-Bit Error. Andrew writes of the anthology:

It's not all honey and roses, of course. The authors got paid, but the editors didn't! The Appendix presents data on how many hours they spent "for free". In addition, if you look closely, you'll see that the way the authors got paid is that the editors spent their own money.

It certainly wasn't my intention to hide this fact! But more generally, this is my impression of how things work in the antilucrative world of SF/F short fiction publishing. When I sell a story to a magazine, I get a check signed by the editor. In almost all cases, that money is in some sense the editor's money. The only thing different with TE is that we're not trying to make our money back.

Here's what I mean. Unless you're Gordon Van Gelder or Sheila Williams or Stanley Schmidt, you don't draw a salary. A small-time editor/publisher spends their own money, in quantities that are obscene to them and laughably insufficient to the writers, and then tries to make that money back. There are different strategies for this. Strange Horizons solicits donations and runs public radio-style fundraising drives. Futurismic runs ads. Small print mags sell hard copies and/or subscriptions.

It's your money being spent because you're the publisher: if you make a profit, the profit is yours. The flip side of Stanley Schmidt drawing a salary is that if Analog should sell a million copies one month, he doesn't get to keep the money. It belongs to Dell Publications.

The thing is, you'll never make a profit. Even in the good old days the SF magazines scraped by, and these days are bad and new. Find an online magazine with Project Wonderful ads, look at their PW graphs versus their payment rates, and do the math.

Here's a ridiculously optimistic assumption: let's say ten percent of the people who downloaded our PDF would have paid us ten dollars for it, and that everyone who bought a five-dollar hard copy would have paid ten. We'd still have lost money, to the tune of a few hundred dollars. And that's just the loss on the money we paid out! I'm not even thinking about the money value of our time. The unprofitability of this whole realm of publishing is no secret; it's a running joke. Even people who try to make some money back aren't doing this for money, but because they like the non-monetary returns they get on their investment.

Sometime in the past decade I learned a valuable lesson from Jake Berendes: know when to say "screw it". Do the thing you've been waiting for someone else to do. Removing the commercial angle altogether will save you disappointment and headaches. Spending money to create something interesting for everybody feels much better than losing slightly less money in a commercial venture.

[Comments] (1) : If the opposite of a great truth is another great truth, is the opposite of a great falsehood another great falsehood?

[Comments] (6) Real Places: Today I heard a reference to Sherwood Forest and realized that I'd never thought of it as a real place, only as a setting for the story of Robin Hood. But it is a real place. Here it is. It's smaller than I imagined, but it's still a forest and not, say, a mall parking lot.

I can't think of any more places that I never thought of as real places. If you have a similar story to the one I just told, spill the beans or bean-shaped objects in comments.

[Comments] (7) Bananthropology: When I was a kid I opened bananas by pulling on the little stem that attaches the individual banana to the bunch. This was how you opened bananas in my culture. But, Kirk Cameron's demonstrations notwithstanding, it's not the best way to open a banana. It's much easier to kind of pinch the other end of the banana and peel from there.

When I found out about the pinching technique I thought it was an amazing new discovery. For about five seconds. Then I thought of all those old cartoons and comics depicting someone slipping on a banana peel. The banana peel is always drawn with the stem on top, having been opened from the other end. Is it just that it's easier to draw that way, or did we use to know the better way to peel bananas? If the latter, how did we lose that knowledge?

[Comments] (1) : From clickolinko I found that Murray Leinster's 1946 short story "A Logic Named Joe", of this-entry fame and predictive-hit fame in general, is online to read for free. And it's as great as everyone says. Thanks, Baen! One-fifth of your atrocious cover designs are forgiven.

[Comments] (7) : Well, that's my twenties. Thanks for your patronage these past 10 years. My Strange Horizons story should be published soon, and we'll see what happens in the 2009-2019 era.

[Comments] (6) : Instead of writing in this weblog or working on my secret project, I wrote a huge essay called "Nostalgiaudit". This project came out of the fact that my memories of 1987-1991 are really bad. Well, that was twenty years ago, of course they're bad, but as early as 1993 I could tell that big chunks of my memories were missing. Almost the only detailed memories I have from that period involve Nintendo games.

So I went through all those memories and cataloged them, putting them in chronological order and adding in other video-game-related memories where appropriate, in hopes that it would make that part of my life make more sense. And it kind of does. I was able to reconstruct a few chunks of my past out of memories of which games I played with whom, and what issues of Nintendo Power I remember reading.

The essay runs about seven thousand words and I'm a bit reluctant to post something so long, minutiae-obsessed, and self-indulgent, but on the other hand it's the sort of essay I'd enjoy if I read it about someone else. If you'd like to read it, email me or comment, and I'll either send it to you or put it up.

[Comments] (3) : I don't think I really want to play that funky music until I die.

[Comments] (4) : My latest-sold story, "Let Us Now Praise Awesome Dinosaurs", has been published in Strange Horizons. Enjoy! More later.

Wertham Comix: Issue 2 of "Comic Book Comics" tells this story: "One of comics' earliest critics was the consulting psychologist for Family Circle magazine, William Moulton Marston, world-renowned as an inventor of the lie detector." He mouthed off about comics' ill effects on youth until proto-DC editor Maxwell Gaines co-opted him by giving him a chance to write his own comics that pushed his crackpot views on the youth. The result was Wonder Woman, the tough, independent woman who's always getting tied up for no adequately explained reason.

A few years later, liberal psychiatrist Fredric Wertham published Seduction of the Innocent and started his better-known anti-comics crusade. CBC speculates that if Maxwell Gaines' son William had been less confrontational, he might have been able to co-opt Wertham the way his father co-opted Marston. I don't think that's terribly likely; once you publish a best-selling book taking a stance on an issue it's difficult to back away from it.

But What If? Gaines or some other editor had convinced Wertham that the answer to bad comics was more comics? What would Wertham have come up with? Since Wertham's big concern was juvenile delinquency, I think he'd have done comics about boys, for boys. I envision a team of teenagers with superpowers who fight prejudice in nonviolent ways. Maybe it would have been too preachy to survive to the modern day (Marston's kinks were much more interesting and comic-book-compatible), but I think it would have been the first serious comic book exploration of kids with superpowers. What do you think?

[Comments] (3) : Mike Popovic and daughter Zoe have been friends of the show since before Zoe was born. Now Zoe is eight and she and her father are collaborating on a web comic, Angry Octopus. Every aspect of life in the ocean just makes this octopus so angry. It's excellent.

On The Origin Of Awesome Dinosaurs: First, thanks to everyone for the appreciative comments on "Let Us Now Praise Awesome Dinosaurs". I wrote it to entertain you, and I'm glad you enjoyed it.

As usual, I've put up a clearinghouse page about the story on my web site. I'm also trying something new with this story and putting up a deleted scene. I toyed with the idea of doing this for "Mallory", but the deleted scene from "Mallory" was deleted because it was boring. This is a fun scene that I had to delete because it became non-canon.

I was really tempted to use the image described here on my clearinghouse page, but that would have been tragically misleading. No mere words could ever be that awesome.

The contract I signed gives the story exclusively to Strange Horizons for 60 days, but after that I plan to release the story under a CC license. I'm working out the details with the editors now to avoid any confusion later.

Now some behind-the-scenes. My friend Kate Lascoutx, student and tutor of classical literature, came up with many of the dinosaur names in the story, especially "alethinosaur" ("truthiness lizard") and "bradupeithid" ("slow-stepper"). She also came up with an incredible name that I couldn't use ("Diopteron" - "brilliant flyer"). I asked Kate for these names and came up with my own (Thymomenoraptor is mine, thanks to an online Greek dictionary) to avoid the impression that dinosaur evolution stopped dead when the story's dinosaurs left Earth. New names that are still obviously dinosaur names accomplished this to my satisfaction without making it a huge plot point.

The main trigger for "Awesome Dinosaurs" was a certain class of rejection letter that corresponds to about #11 on the Context of Rejection: "This story didn't quite grab me." Or its less positive sibling, "Nice story, but it didn't work for me." I get this rejection letter a lot, and at one point in a Jamsetji Tata-esque fit of pique I said, "I will write a story about dinosaurs who drive monster trucks! Maybe that will grab you!"

"Write what you know" is a common cliche, and writing what you know will get you a coherent story but not, I find, one that goes around grabbing editors. I find my stories do much better when I write what I love. I know a thing or two about politics and asteroid mining and secret societies, but my stories on those topics aren't selling, and I'm starting to think it's because I don't love those things as much as I love the Internet, or video games, or dinosaurs.

The other influence, as I've mentioned before, was my disappointment that de Camp's classic story "A Gun For Dinosaur" is not about a dinosaur who buys a gun. I'd pictured it as a children's story, like "A House For Hermit Crab". The first scene of "Awesome Dinosaurs" is what I was hoping for from that story.

Finally, big thanks to my writing group for workshopping the story back in October, and to Jed for his editing comments.

Calca 1: One of my favorite Amar Chitra Katha comics is the one about Jamsetji Tata, founder of Indian megacorp Tata. It repeats a story (the accuracy of this story has been disputed) about an "unsavoury incident" that spurred Tata to build the Taj Mahal Hotel in Mumbai around the turn of the 20th century (you may know this hotel as the one attacked in the 2008 Mumbai terrorist attacks). I'd give you a picture of the panel, but Sumana has the digital camera, so here's a transcript.

Random Guy: Can't you read? You are not allowed in this hotel!
Jamsetji Tata: I will build the best hotel in this country!

Two panels later he's buying land for the hotel, and still going:

Guy #1: This is a good piece of land.
Guy #2: Yes! Beautiful view, fresh air.
Jamsetji Tata: I will build the best hotel in Asia.

The great thing about this attitude is its applicability to a wide variety of situations, not just to foreigners building foreigner-only hotels in your country.

My favorite ACK of all time is the one about Suyya, aka Annapati Suyya, a civil engineer and early proponent of crowdsourcing. I'll write about him later, but that's definitely a comic book worth owning.

[Comments] (3) Level Playing Field: From back of chip bag: "IT'S THE ONLY SNACK BOLD ENOUGH TO CALL ITSELF DORITOS® BRAND."

I bet if "Doritos" wasn't a registered trademark, lots of snacks would be bold enough to call themselves that.

[Comments] (2) Nostalgiaudit, Part 1: OK, I started getting people I don't know asking me about "Nostalgiaudit", so I'm just gonna post the whole essay. This thing is longer than "Awesome Dinosaurs" and a lot less interesting, so feel free to skip it if you're not interested. I'll post it in two parts so that it's less to read in one chunk.

Premise: although video games feature in some of my most vivid memories of my childhood, the memories themselves are a disjointed, jumbled mess with no overarching narrative. I wrote this essay to put things in chronological order, to see how my interest in video games developed in childhood and temporarily flared out as I entered adolescence. And in the process, hopefully capture some more general information from the tattered remnant of my memory.

Names and dates are as best I can remember them, names in some cases backed up by old yearbooks. I've tried to omit any information my childhood friends might not want published on the Internet, and partially or wholly redacted some names. Although I'm pretty unsparing of my own childish attitudes (see esp. Ultima II, and my relationship with Sammy C.), I've tried to be more generous towards other people.

Earliest memories

My very first video gaming memory is of watching my cousin Brian play the Atari 2600 version of Pac-Man at my grandmother's house. It was probably sometime in 1982--maybe just after Brian's birthday or Christmas. You might not think of this as an auspicious memory, because the 2600's Pac-Man was a disaster, but I didn't know from Pac-Man. I was three years old. I saw a world on my grandmother's previously dull television, and my cousin manipulating that world from outside.

My second memory is of being in an arcade without any money. I was five, we were on vacation in Hawaii, and I was allowed to briefly wander through an arcade in the Royal Hawaiian Shopping Center as we walked to the Chinese restaurant we'd be eating at.

The year was 1985, and it was one of the old-school arcades that don't exist anymore. It was loud and dark and I was short. I watched someone play Donkey Kong. I watched the attract mode from Pengo. I had no quarter to spend and I only spent a couple minutes in the arcade, but I was hooked. Much to my parents' dismay, video games were now a part of my life.

Around the same time my mother acquired a Hewlett-Packard computer for some contract work she was doing (for HP itself?). I'm not sure what the work was but it involved a piece of software called FALCON. My great-aunt LeJeune, who worked at HP, also sent along two floppy disks of games. One of them had hangman and other somewhat pointless games, including one where you typed in how many tacos you think you could eat and the computer boasted that that's nothing, its brother could eat N+2 tacos. Not really a fair game. I played the hell out of these games through kindergarten, never even looking at the other disk.

Then one day my mother told me LeJeune wanted one of the game floppies back. Which one did I want to keep? In retrospect, I think my mother really wanted to stop me from spending so much time on the computer. But I chose to get rid of the disk I'd played so much, because I'd never tried the other one. For the first time I booted up the other disk. It contained the Colossal Cave text adventure. I happily played this game for a year and a half.

My father worked at a company that rented time on mainframe computers. He'd take me into the computer room, where it was cold and the floors were made of removable panels. Data was stored on big reel-to-reel tapes and I'd run through the tape library, looking for the right data to give to the operator. I also typed my name into punch cards, and played games on the teletype. The only one I remember playing is the old Star Trek game where you punch in commands to navigate the ship or repair the shields.

My father wrote about this in a journal entry from February 4, 1986:

Sunday afternoon, I went to work, as Ed Simon and I were testing MVS/SP. Leonard went with me and we were there for 8 hours. Leonard had quite a time playing battleship and tic-tac-toe and then later he mounted and dismounted tapes. We took food and ate periodically. At one point Leonard said, "This is the best time that a kid ever had that went to work with his dad." Which made me feel very warm.

My first console gaming memory comes from about 1987. My mother took me to a Circuit City in Los Angeles, where there was an NES demonstration system (the controller was mounted on a semi-flexible rod) and an older kid hogging the system. I was transfixed by Super Mario Bros. I waited patiently for the kid to give me a chance at the NES, whereupon I ran right into the first Goomba and died. The older kid took the controller back and my mother hurried me along.


In August 1987, just after I turned eight, we moved north from Los Angeles to Arvin, a tiny agricultural town south of Bakersfield. For a few months my father was still working for his Los Angeles-based company, and he brought home an IBM PC with a monochrome monitor so he could do work from home. One of his co-workers had loaded the PC up with a lot of pirated games. I played all of these games happily, but my favorite was the DOS version of Rogue. At a company picnic in LA I was excited to hear the kid of another employee talk about playing Rogue on a color monitor!

I soon discovered that my next-door neighbor, Sammy C., had an Atari 2600. I'd go over to his house occasionally and play games--I especially remember Moon Patrol on the black-and-white TV in Sammy's room. The only other specific game I remember is the terrible The Empire Strikes Back tie-in. Maybe the TV was a color TV and I thought it was black-and-white because those two games weren't exactly colorful.

I'm not sure what Sammy's father did, but his family was pretty well off, and for Christmas 1987 Sammy got a NES. My next console gaming memory is coming over to Sammy's house in the afternoon on Christmas day, and seeing Sammy and his father downstairs going through the first dungeon of "The Legend of Zelda".

After that I went to Sammy's house nearly every day after school. I remember two distinct phases here. In phase one, the NES was upstairs in Sammy's room, as the Atari had been. The games we played were early titles mostly published by Nintendo: Kung Fu, Pro Wrestling, Excitebike, Pinball, but also Top Gun.

In phase two, the NES was moved down to Sammy's living room, where I originally saw it. The games were more sophisticated: Contra, Goonies II, Castlevania II, and so on. When I started the NES cartridge audit (in part 2) I soon noticed a pretty clean partition between cartridges I'd only played in Sammy's room and games I'd only played in his living room.

There's a chance that I've got it wrong. Maybe Sammy got the NES before Christmas 1987, plus a few safe first-party choices. Then for Christmas that year he got a lot of more sophisticated games like Zelda, and the NES was moved downstairs. But it doesn't really matter.

Early arcades

There was no video arcade in Arvin, but the grocery store had a Galaga and a Rush 'N' Attack, and Bear Mountain Pizza had about six cabinets including my favorites, Gyruss and Golden Axe. (I'm collapsing the timeline here -- Golden Axe didn't come out until 1989, but the grocery store games were there when we moved to Arvin.)

And yet, my secret desire to run unaccompanied through full-blown arcades would be granted, thanks to Chuck E Friggin Cheese, Nolan Bushnell's pizza restaurant/animatronic nightmare/kid-friendly arcade. There was one in Bakersfield and we went there every few months. I went to at least one birthday party there, though it wasn't mine or my sisters'.

I don't think I recognized at the time that Chuck E Cheese was at the low end of arcade experiences, but it was all I had, and the games were magical. (I also liked the pizza at the time, and the orange soda--all you could drink!) Along with Skee-Ball, my favorites were Paperboy, Gauntlet, Super Sprint, and RoadBlasters. Now that I think about it, all of those were Atari games! Did Nolan Bushnell seed Chuck E Cheese with Atari games? I was generally given a dollar per Chuck E Cheese visit to spend on games.

Miscellaneous arcade cabinet memories: I remember seeing the mystical Nintendo PlayChoice 10 game once, probably in a Bakersfield pizza restaurant other than Chuck E Cheese. We went on vacation somewhere and the hotel laundromat had a Galaxian cocktail cabinet. (Not sure why we were staying in a hotel--my father never did that unless someone else was paying. Maybe that was in Hawaii too.) I remember being transfixed by a Ms. Pac-Man cocktail cabinet in a dimly lit restaurant.

Outside Arvin

In mid-1989 Sammy got a TurboGraphx-16, and got rid of his NES and all the games. He had put away childish 8-bit graphics and now he was a man! A man playing freaking "Keith Courage in Alpha Zones". I thought this was a dumb move at the time and history has vindicated me.

It's sad to realize that my relationship with Sammy was based entirely on the fact that he had an NES. I didn't come over to play his TurboGraphx, and he never came over to my house to play Rogue. (I did show Rogue to one of my school friends, and they didn't get why you'd want to play it.) Sometimes we'd play in the huge vacant lot behind our houses (still a vacant lot, according to Google Maps), but more often I was alone back there. Sammy's backyard had a swimming pool; I never swam in it.

Around the same time as Sammy's defection from Nintendo to NEC, my family moved out of Arvin, into the grape fields, and I no longer had a next door neighbor. After this, Sammy and I hardly ever saw each other. He was a year ahead of me in school, so we didn't interact as a matter of course.

I remember playing Tetris on Sammy's Game Boy, but the Game Boy didn't come out until July 1989, by which time we'd already moved. So who knows. When I went to the Bakersfield Target with my mother, I'd always rush to the electronics section and play Super Mario Land on their Game Boy. That's still as close as I've ever been to an original Game Boy.

During the year I spent playing games with Sammy I also acquired more software for the PC, probably as gifts. I remember playing a Jeopardy! game a lot, as well as Infocom's Planetfall.

The Nintendo Power years

Where did I first encounter Nintendo's journal of agitprop, Nintendo Power? Almost certainly not at Sammy's house. The first issue came out right around the time we moved out of Arvin.

I remember the friend's room where I first saw the cool clay SMB 2 sculpture on the first issue's cover, but I don't know which friend it was. By default I'm going to say it was CJ Cullins, my post-Sammy NES buddy, even though the room doesn't feel like his room as I remember it. Maybe his family moved.

Unlike with Sammy, I had a non-Nintendo friendship with CJ, a tall skinny kid with bronze hair and freckles. We'd met in third grade when we were both newcomers to Arvin, and though it cooled over the years as our school clique identities solidified into "nerd" and "skater", our friendship, held together by a mutual love of Nirvana, lasted in some form until I graduated from high school and moved back to LA.

(CJ doesn't show up in my junior high yearbooks, but he is in my high school yearbook. If I recall correctly, he moved away for a couple years and then moved back.)

CJ lived in Arvin proper, a few blocks from the school. My house was six miles away. So my middle school years of two-player gaming often took the form of Friday night sleepovers at CJ's house. Although the year I spent at Sammy's house was formative and looms larger in my mind, many of my favorite old gaming memories were formed at CJ's house: killing each other in North and South, winning Kid Icarus, and getting multiple endings to Maniac Mansion.

For Christmas 1988 I got my own NES. I don't think I got any other games at the time, but the Super Mario Bros./Duck Hunt pack-in was plenty of excitement for me. I remember my father helping me set up the A/V cables that Christmas, but my memory of playing SMB that day has blended in with all the memories of the dozens of other places I've played that game. The NES also came with a printed game catalog, which I loved to read. To this day I get a nostalgic thrill from the pixel art used on the covers of the NES launch titles.

From my earlier coveting I knew that the NES cost a hundred dollars at retail, a princely sum at my age. For several years afterwards I would envision large amounts of money in terms of how many Nintendos it would buy. I'm pretty sure the NES came from my grandparents. They were pretty generous, and $100 was about what they'd spend for a grandchild's big blowout Christmas present.

(I had a friend, not mentioned elsewhere in this essay, who very memorably did not get an NES that Christmas. But I've already written a fictionalized version of that occurance, so you'll have to wait until I sell the story to read it.)

In July of 1989 I got my first issue of Nintendo Power. I remember doing an insane amount of work to pull a big stump out of the back yard for $50 so I could pay for my subscription, though I may have done that in 1990 to renew my subscription.

It's hard to overestimate how much I loved Nintendo Power. I read it all the time and everywhere. It was full of detailed information about pieces of software! Its maps let you explore a game world mentally without ever buying the game!

It never occured to me that Nintendo Power was corporate propaganda designed to do just that--submerge you irretrievably in Nintendo's world. The unsavory aspects of Nintendo Power are clearly visible to my adult eyes: the "tips" that were workarounds for bugs in the games, the artfully worded blurbs for terrible cartridges, the back cover's constant shilling for the Nintendo Seal of Quality (which was a joke in your town and every other), and most of all the letters, which were carefully selected to give kids talking points when arguing with adults about the merits of video games.

(Looking at those old issues of Nintendo Power, the most interesting parts now are the crazy cartoon monsters at the bottom of the pages, delivering gossip about upcoming games and totally unconstrained by normal rules of corporate synergy.)

Parents, including mine, were concerned about their kids spending so much time on the Nintendo. My parents grudgingly accepted my obsession as another aspect of a) my interest in computers, b) the end of civilization. Looking back, I suspect their attitude towards my Nintendo usage was "as long as his grades hold up..." My mother must have seen Nintendo Power for what it was, but she never said anything to destroy my illusions.

(My standard punishment when grounded was confiscation of my NES controllers for a week. It was aggravating but not a terrible punishment because I could still use the PC. Also, I found where the controllers were hidden, so I could still play before my parents woke up.)

But even the propaganda aspects weren't all bad. A game might be terrible, but the Nintendo Power writeups were always entertaining. A two-page spread for a mediocre game would show all the cool power-ups, kind of like a trailer that gives away all the good parts of a movie and you don't have to see the movie. A tiny blurb for a terrible game would give you enough ideas to design a decent game or fantasy scenario in your head. As long as you didn't try to play the games, you were fine.

I drew my own Nintendo Power-style maps in sixth grade. I designed a Mega Man game that featured enemies like Ink Man (his minions could blind you with ink, turning the screen temporarily dark). I designed an exploration game that was a total ripoff of Goonies II.

Large as my Nintendo obsession looms in memory, the audit in part 2 shows that I didn't own that many cartridges. Almost all the ones I did own were Christmas or birthday presents. At this point in my life I almost never had enough money to my name to afford an NES cartridge. And so the games I remember best weren't necessarily ones I owned. They dated from time spent with Sammy C., or I only knew about them through Nintendo Power. Or, most commonly, I rented them.

Look in the NES audit in part 2 and you'll see a lot of rental games. Arvin had two video rental stores and by this time they'd branched out into renting NES games. Many's the Friday my mother would take me to one or the other of these stores and let me pick out a game for the weekend while she picked out a movie. CJ and I also rented games for our sleepovers, though I'm not sure how that worked because neither store was particularly near his house. (No, I remember now: CJ and I and Ivan Orozco walking to one of the stores from school and renting a game and walking to CJ's house. I remember because I was in the lead walking home, walking backwards to explain something to CJ and Ivan, and I ran into a signpost. Bonk.)

At some point during this 1989-1990 period I stayed over at the out-in-the-boonies house of yet another friend, whose name I won't mention. His house had an Atari 2600 with a huge selection of games. It also had bugs. Bugs that would run across the floor at night and bite you, making it impossible to sleep. We played those games all night. The games were not too hot compared to the NES, but they were totally new to me. I'd never heard of them or read previews of them in gaming magazines, and each one was a surprise. In particular I remember Adventure and a bizarre little shooter called Plaque Attack.

(Much later, near the end of high school, this person's mother would yell at me, believing me through a hilarious misunderstanding to be a bad influence, a product of negligent parenting, a long-haired freak who did nothing but drive a fast car and cause trouble. This was the coolest I ever felt in high school.)

Although most of the kids in Arvin were Hispanic, most of my NES memories are of playing with other white kids. The exceptions are Ivan, who would sometimes join me at CJ's house, and Ricky Garay, who's now a comedian in LA; but I don't think they had their own systems. If you look through the cartridge audit in part 2 there's a lot of one-off mentions of being at some other kid's house, and the other kid was always white. Although nobody in Arvin was really well off (except Sammy's family, apparently), immigrant families tended to be even less well off, and less likely to buy an expensive machine that their kids would play all afternoon instead of doing homework. This changed gradually: in 1997, Dario Espinoza, my best friend from high school, got an N64. Though I don't know whether his parents got it for him or if he bought it himself.

Next time: the end of the NES years.

[Comments] (1) Nostlagiaudit, Part II: Previously on Nostalgiaudit, I explained how I got hooked on electronic simulations of impossible scenarios, and how I was eventually given specialized hardware to feed that addiction. This time around, I take a look at the aftermath, and then give a detailed analysis of the years I lost to the NES.

Update: I've removed one of the stories about how I was a jerk when I was a kid, by way of apology to the person affected.

Later arcades

A corner store near the middle school had Smash TV. CJ and Ivan and I would stop occasionally and admire its hamhanded satire of consumerism. I never had the money to play it.

Throughout junior high one or another of my classes would take trips to a bowling alley in Bakersfield. Two trips a year, maybe. Instead of bowling I spent most of my time hanging out alone in the small arcade, playing Arkanoid and Ms. Pac-Man. Well, I probably didn't spend that much time in the arcade because that would have required more money than a couple dollars, but I remember the arcade better than the bowling.

I remember watching CJ and Ivan play the four-player Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles arcade brawler at a laundromat in Bakersfield, while we waited for CJ's mom to pick something up. Arvin was not so small that you had to drive twenty miles to get groceries, but you did have to drive twenty miles to get something dry cleaned. I didn't join in because I didn't like that kind of game.

End of the NES

Early in 1991--probably in April or May, maybe in June when school let out--I suddenly stopped playing my NES. Of the NES games released in 1991, I've played only three. I admired the Super NES during my Target visits, but I never wanted one or asked for one. Same with the Game Boy.

My last issue of Nintendo Power was probably the August 1991 issue, which makes sense if I had two one-year subscriptions. The March issue was the last to feature any games I've played. I read Nintendo Power on its own without asking for or renting any of the games, and then I let my subscription lapse.

I don't know why this happened. In an earlier draft I suggested my father's death might have been the trigger, but I got the dates mixed up--my father died in 1992. Maybe it was puberty, or maybe I was just bored with NES-style games. Cartridges weren't getting any cheaper, and by 1991 I had competition for my pocket money: the Prodigy dial-up service and an endless series of $20 AD&D rulebooks.

I'd still been buying PC games at retail. I remember playing Rampage a lot, and Marble Madness. They weren't as good as the corresponding NES games, but they were much cheaper.

I'd also been buying disks of shareware games from various places: a factory outlet store in Barstow, the Association of Shareware Professionals catalog, etc. Most of the games were crap, but I made three lucky discoveries. In 1990 I bought a disk of the Adventure Game Toolkit, and a disk that included an early version of Hack. In 1992 in Barstow I bought a disk with ZZT on it.

(I loved the idea of the ASP so much that in 1990 I wrote fifteen terrible GW-BASIC games and other programs, each ending with a nagging shareware registration message, and sent a disk off to the ASP so they'd distribute it and I could rake in the dough. I got a letter that said they'd given my program to someone to review, and then I got another letter politely declining my contribution to the shareware world. Among the reasons given: the fact that my disk contained the Microsoft-copyrighted GWBASIC.EXE, and most painful of all, "Programs appear to have no defining purpose." Thankfully, my GW-BASIC programs have by now ascended to software heaven and cannot be found on the material plane.)

In late 1992 I learned about BBSes. Within a month I was neglecting the Prodigy boards in favor of local BBSes. By the beginning of 1993 I was planning my own BBS. I launched it in 1993 and directed my game-collecting expertise towards stocking it with shareware. After this I bought some of SSI's AD&D games, a collection of Infocom games, and I registered some shareware games, but not until 2007 would I again buy video games on a regular basis.

I don't know what happened to my NES or the cartridges. I'm pretty sure they were still in the house somewhere when I left for college, but a couple years into college when I wanted them back they were gone, and my mother vague about what had happened to them. Hopefully everything was given to some younger kid who put it to good use. It's also possible I just took the NES apart--in high school I often took things apart to see what was inside, often destroying things I would have valued later.

From my mother's perspective, the NES and video games in general were something I'd grown out of. I'd lost interest only a year and a half after getting my own NES. My sister's obsession with The Nutcracker lasted about that long. And that's not a bad point of view. I was still interested in computer games, but my interest in specialized gaming computers wouldn't resurface until the Wii was released, fifteen years later.

After high school

I briefly rediscovered console games in college, in the form of emulated NES and SNES games, but I was busy with other entertainments--writing music, learning about Unix, and exploring the Internet. One of my freshman year roommates had an N64, and I played Bomberman with the guys a couple times, but I hardly ever played games, and when I did they were PC games like Nethack or Command and Conquer.

My sophomore year of college, my friend Andy Schile gave me an Atari 2600 and a bunch of games. I thought this was a cool gift, I played the games for a few days, and then I disconnected the 2600 and put it in storage at my mother's house. In 2005 I found it again and passed it on to another friend, Adam Kaplan.

Here's one theory about why I lost interest. After graduating from high school I went on a vacation to Washington D.C. and stayed with my uncle. My cousins also had an N64 and I played some Super Mario 64 and even a bit of Ocarina of Time, but it didn't stick with me. Why? Because these games had a first-person perspective, and I couldn't handle that. I grew up with two-dimensional side- or top-view games and I just wasn't dextrous enough to maneuver in 3D. As a PC gamer I was terrible at Wolfenstein and Doom, even though they didn't really require moving in three dimensions, just mastering a first-person perspective. In the 90s more and more games went to first-person, and I reacted by just not playing the games.

NES cartridge audit

This list was the original point of this essay: an attempt to classify my scattered memories of specific games. The essay part came out of my growing realization that there were a whole lot of auxillary memories and non-NES experiences that needed to be put into place.

I realized something while compiling this list: when I was a kid, I almost never had a bad experience playing an NES game. I played games now considered among the system's worst (Deadly Towers, Super Pitfall), games that today are fuel for snarky entertainment, but I generally had a good time playing them. I didn't know enough to hold the assumption, prevalent today, that a game should be beatable by a skilled player and that games existed to be beaten. I thought a game was a simulated world for playing in. When a game started to frustrate me, I just turned it off and played something else. My only bad experiences came from wasting a rental on a terrible game.

Games I owned

By and large these are the games that I had to own, because they were too complicated to rent and my friends didn't want to play them. You can build up a pretty good idea of the kind of kid I was from this list. For instance, I'm a science fiction guy now, but back then I really loved high fantasy.

[Comments] (1) : Writing's not going too well this weekend--all I have is a few fictional Twitter posts--so I'm going to post stuff that other people have written. First up, an email exchange about "Awesome Dinosaurs" that I was forwarded and given permission to post if I changed the names.

The story so far: Dave sends a link to "Awesome Dinosaurs" to his friends, and Bernard says he likes it, but Sid is confused:

Fuck! Would someone please give me the moral of the story? I read the final paragraph again and I can't quite put any specific type of person in the role of the dinosaurs or some movement or government or anything. Just fucking explain this stupid story.

I guess Sid mostly reads political cartoons. Bernard attempts to help him. (I've truncated his analysis and the quote from the story.)

Hmmm...well, I think if you're looking for a moral I'd look in the last section:
"We set her up," said Entippa, "when we came to Earth..."

But you don't have to read it as a parable or an allegory or in any way "making a statement." But I do think the fact that the dinos don't fit into the normal image of "dino" is significant. It ties into the idea that people USE history...to tell themselves stories that address and satisfy their own inner drives and desires...

And then Dave decides to just give Sid what he wants:

While Bernard's reading of the story was very closely aligned with my own, and the major themes that he addressed were very similar to those that I took away from it (but were laid-out and summarized much better than I probably could've done), I will cave-in to Sid's deep-seated love of Animal Farm and indulge his guilty-pleasure for unsubtle and overbearing direct allegory.

The dinosaurs represent (in actual personage as well as in the effects brought about by) the countryless, liberal intelligentsia displaced by the rise of major European Right- and Left-leaning autocracies that came to dominate the continent in the first half of the 20th century. Mars is the old-world--representing to the dinosaurs a people and culture they loved and, under ideal circumstances, would prefer to live in--that they were compelled to abandon because of coercive externalities.

Cass the T-Rex, is, of course, both the fearsome, existentially-devastating Atomic Bomb, and the foreign nationals who worked in its development; a body of people representing the full spectrum of dis/agreement with both the weaponization of this new technology, and with the ideological and political alignment of the United States itself.

Tark, the carnivorous protagonist, is Wernher von Braun; compelling and mercurial, hot-tempered and prone to fits of slightly-deluded and juvenile persecuted melancholia--also possessing a past history of actions that are regarded as culturally unacceptable, as well as a record of personal ethics that has to be accounted for before he could claim the limited amount of personal respectability that would make him superficially benign. Entippa, the even-tempered herbivore, is Albert Einstein (for obvious reasons), and in some cases acts as a stand-in for the entirety of the Jewish intelligentsia displaced by European fascism.

Misunderstood by their new audience (the human motocross fans/the American public) Tark/von Braun and Entippa/Einstein are forced to subdue their own personal research preferences (jumping the Grand Canyon/Space Exploration/Highbrow Quantum Physics) to parade themselves to Americans by participating in some vestigial/plausible exercise of same (motocross/ICBM development/castrated academia). They are disillusioned and sad because they are fully aware that they are being presented, not as artists or intellectuals, stunt-men or heroes, but as gleaming war trophies gathering dust on a shelf--being cheered by an audience superficially supportive, but entirely ignorant.

The violent end of the Destructoraptor represents the horrible events that were the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Tark/von Braun and Entippa/Einstein are each shaken by this in their own ways... electing to cope by constructing petulant and misdirected revenge-fantasy, and beleaguered resignation, respectively. This is made more poignant in the minds of these men because this horrible event and all of its terrifying implications are regarded as a blasé non-event by their new, erstwhile countrymen.

The exploitive television host is, naturally, the profit-minded and sociopathic American industrialist. He cares not for the individual humanity of the two dinosaurs, nor for the implications of their sentience or for their desires or personal genius. Ignoring the myriad uses to which these two unfathomably unique creatures could be applied, it is decided--reflexively and axiomatically--that the best thing to is to do what is most obvious and most apparent; a conclusion reached--tautologically, perhaps, but squarely in the most revered and dogmatic logic of capitalism--simply because the best thing is de facto the most obvious thing, and that when their preferences are allowed to sort-out and stabilize policy, (those people that we qualify as) individual agents (non-marginalized U.S. Citizens, in this case) acting in their own rational self-interest will trend towards bringing about a panglossian utopia. We will pit the varied cultures and traditions and ideologies of Europe against one-another because, in our disaffected cosmopolitanism, we suppose we're marginally interested in it enough to see it. Preferring to watch the Pole fight the Italian than to understand their maths or learn their dances. The expediency of using it to eliminate a perceived menace is just icing on the cake.

Now: Tark/von Braun killing and eating the television producer... that was 9/11 (I trust this is clear without further qualification), the two human children? They are Ralph Nader and tennis legend Boris Becker (think about it).

The ending (the spaceship ride back to Mars) is a one-to-one, direct analogy to that fateful day when the U.S. Government had "had enough" and forced von Braun and Einstein to board a ship to go back to Germany because they were involved in killing and eating a guy. The exchange between Tark and Entippa was lifted--word for word--from a transcript of a conversation between Einstein and von Braun that was recorded by a Life Magazine reporter during that trip.

The motorcycles are iPods.

[Comments] (1) Basilosaurus: I went to the Natural History Museum last week and was shocked to find that, despite the name, Basilosaurus was not a lizard. It was a cetacean! Curse you, misleading precedence rules for species names!

[Comments] (1) Moon Music: A few years ago I stopped being able to work while listening to music. The first sign of approaching old age, I guess. But a few days ago I discovered that it was pretty easy to work while listening to streaming audio of the Apollo 11 mission. If you read this soon after I post it, I recommend tuning in because they're going to land on the moon in a few hours.

I hope the mission audio is available somewhere as an eight-day-long MP3.

[Comments] (1) : While I polish off those fictional Twitter posts, my sister Susanna weighs in on the Nostalgiaudit:

Thanks for saving me from having to write a NYCB post today, Susanna!

[Comments] (2) : I'm reading Lest Darkness Fall, a fun de Camp novel that kicked off the "Competent Man goes back in time and makes history AWESOME" genre. Near the end of the book, the protagonist introduces modern American electioneering methods to the Gothic electors. Since the novel was written in 1939, his methods take a lot from early-20th-century big city machine politics; ie. he hosts a big blow-out barbecue for the electors.

"That's interesting," I said. "I bet if someone was writing this book today they wouldn't think to go back that far. They'd probably try something more modern, like having the protagonist set up a debate between the two candidates for king and playing it for laughs."

Sumana had read the book before and was now rereading it over my shoulder. "Read on!" she said. And I read on, to see the protagonist imply that his rival had fathered an illegitimate black child--just like George W. Bush did to John McCain in 2000! Wow.

: My obsessions collide with Thomas Thurman's Gopher implementation of robotfindskitten. There's also a cool "Awesome Dinosaurs" thing happening that I'll mention in a non-teaser way when it happens.

[Comments] (5) : We got a Wii Fit with our credit card points and I gotta say it was a good deal. I've always hated exercise and I still hate it, but Wii Fit taught me that exercise is just like grinding in an RPG. You do something boring and repetitive for long enough and a number will change a little bit. And so I'll do the thing I hate, obsessively, just to get that number to change. Currently my favorite activity is jogging in place, because I can watch Internet videos while I jog. I'm jogging over an hour a day now.

But the thing I wanted to tell you about was the Ben Sisko experiment. See, probably the worst thing about Wii Fit is the way the balance board is anthropomorphized as a super-passive-aggressive coach, the embodiment of the reason why I exercise in private, away from the judgemental glare of society. In fact there's an Internet video about this. Sumana and I both dislike the balance board with its chirpy voice and wanted to see if there was anything we could do that would make it angry or otherwise make it break character.

An experiment was carried out where we added one of our spare Miis to Wii Fit. We chose Ben Sisko (pictured) because he's the coolest. Then we weighed in as Ben on alternate days. I weigh about 100 pounds more than Sumana. So day-to-day, Ben's weight fluctuated by about 100 pounds. When Sumana went on a business trip I replaced her with a heavy box. How did the anthropomorphized balance board react?

Totally unflappable. "You've gained/lost 100 pounds since last time!" I was hoping for "Hey, you weigh the same as one of my other tormentees!" or at least "HOLY SHIT, DID YOU SAW OFF YOUR LEGS?" But no. It just congratulated us.

The best part is that Ben Sisko would be seriously underweight if he weighed the same as Sumana. So whenever Sumana weighed in, the ABB would invite him to set a goal where he gained some weight. Then the next day, when I weighed in, "That's incredible! You've... you've reached your goal ahead of schedule!" And so on with Sumana "losing" weight for Ben.

I could say that this trickery was the most fun part of the game, and it's certainly the most interesting, but honestly it was a pain to weigh in twice each day just to keep fooling the ABB. So I think the experiment is over now. Ben was also useful as a testbed for questions like "what is the worst Wii Fit age you can possibly get?" (75)


Maybe it's the clothes she wears
Or the way she combs her hair
That makes me want to tell her that I care

Yeah, it's probably one or the other.

[Comments] (3) Cooling Tea Quickly For Ice Tea: Pour it into the ice cream maker.

[Comments] (5) 99 Bottles Of Literature On The Wall: I have a lot of books I haven't read. It got so bad I had to buy a bookcase just to hold them. For the past few years the number has hovered around 150. At the end of last year, when I had 130, I got serious about getting that number down.

I put an embargo on buying new books. I gave up on about 15 books, Bookmooching them or giving them to charity. And so far this year I've read 42 books--once I finish the two I'm working on, I'll have read as many books as I read in all of 2008. People keep giving me and loaning me books, of course, but last night I reached a milestone: I have fewer than 100 unread books. They fit on a mere three shelves of the bookcase.

What's a good way to ease back into buying new books? I could just adopt a one-out one-in rule, but I don't want to stay at 100 forever: I'd like to keep trending downward. I could do two-out one-in, or adopt some more complicated rule, such as "If I have 10n books, I can buy 10-n books."

[Comments] (3) : I just finished Thomas Pynchon's Mason & Dixon. Could it be the best book I've ever read?

Update: I forgot to mention that if you read the Baroque Cycle, you should definitely read this book. (You'll also be able to read this book.)

[Comments] (1) : The most recent entry in Roy's Postcards is really funny, and I think the only time I make fun of my dad for a writing error.

[Comments] (5) Bread And Tuxes: Last week I heard about a nearby tuxedo rental place going out of business. They were offering a full tuxedo with shoes for $90. I've worn a tuxedo once in my life but that's cheap enough to hold in reserve in case an occasion of extreme fanciness presents itself.

The guy running the shop had been in business for thirty years and was shutting down because he got sick--I don't know if the problem was medical bills or if he just couldn't work anymore. I got the full tux as promised, and he also gave me an extra vest and two extra ties. I tried to pay him extra for this but he refused my filthy money. "The wholesalers come in and get it for nothing," he said. "I want to give it to the people."

The only downside is that my pants and jacket have little bar codes sewn into the inner lining, I guess for inventory tracking purposes back when they were rented out. Not the suavest of looks.

Roadside Picnic: I read Roadside Picnic, which unlike Mason & Dixon is definitely not the best book I've ever read, but which does have the all-time best title for a science fiction novel. There's this interesting assertion in the author biography that I couldn't find in English anywhere on the Web, so I'm putting it up:

The Soviet cosmonaut Georgy Grechko, while in orbit during the Soyuz-17 flight, relaxed by reading the Strugatskys, making theirs the first science-fiction novels to be read in space.


Reviews of Old Science Fiction Magazines: F&SF 1984/09: It's been a long time since I did one of these, because I was trying to cut down on the unread books and I wasn't counting magazines as unread books. But now I'm back to reading these old science fiction magazines I got last May. Since my last review of this kind I've had to go through a real slush pile, and I'm no longer in the mood to analyze why I found a forgettable story forgettable. So I'm just gonna tell you what in this magazine is worth reading. I know I said things like this before but this time I mean it.

You might like the cover if you're interested in old SF depictions of the World Trade Center. In fact you might also like Frederik Pohl's "The Blister", which dares to predict the changes to unionized labor in New York once they cover Manhattan with the big dome they're always threatening to cover Manhattan with in these stories.

Up-and-comer Bruce Sterling has a decent possibly-no-fantastic-element story with "Telliamed", and Nebula nominee Bob Leman has the creepy Portal-esque "Instructions" ("We will now tell you that we lied in Instruction 11. There was in fact danger in Area Two.") which I really liked until the disappointing fake-Lovecraft ending.

Harlan Ellison has a bunch of movie reviews. He loved Splash, and speaks about Ron Howard (director) and Tom Hanks as though they were newcomers with something to prove, so maybe that was the movie that made their names. His initial impression of Star Trek III is "seems less interesting than ST II", even though a year later he says he disliked Khan and seems to have developed a grudging respect for The Search For Spock. He really loves The Quest and Iceman, two movies I've never heard of and The Quest doesn't even show up in IMDB despite having been written by Ray Bradbury and co-directed by Saul Bass.

Oh, there's a cartoon by Joseph Farris that, amazingly, has a small SF/fantasy element and is pretty funny. Finally, there's a horror story "Redcap" by Lisa Tuttle that I intensely disliked the way I intensely dislike horror stories (Who could the killer be? Could it be the only other character in the story?!?!), but I mention it because at the end is a great pre-Web example of unfortunate content/ad juxtaposition.

: On August 5th I went to a performance at NYU; Adam Parrish's "Digital Writing With Python" class was showing off their final projects, and only going there in person would get me close enough to the Python-drenched events of that night. But then I didn't write it up for a long time and Adam wrote it up with pictures and video. But I have pictures taken from the other side of the room! Advantage: blogosphere!

I want to mention a few things that Adam didn't cover. First, he reprinted one of Brian Jones's pharmaceutical acrostic poems ("Lipitor"), but I wanted to reprint my personal favorite, "Viagra":

Here's Brian's script, which uses Beautiful Soup, and some other poems.

Also, check out Sie Heun Cho's haiku movie trailers created from Youtube comment threads. That one is for "Bruno"; there was a better one for "Casablanca" that I didn't get a picture of.

Finally, if you're the kind of person who reads NYCB, you need to see Sara Bremen's You're Not Wrong, Barton, You're Just an Asshole: A Coen Brothers Python Mashup. Adam has video but the sound is kind of quiet. You can see part of the script here, and here's a shot of Sara and fellow students performing.

Reviews of Old Science Fiction Magazines: Analog 1984/05: This was a quick one because the bulk of the issue is the first 25% of Vernor Vinge's The Peace War. It's a pretty good novel but I've already read it, and if you want to read it it's easier to just buy the novel.

What else is there of note? Two things: David Brin's speculative nonfiction "The Deadly Thing at 2.4 Kilo-Parsecs", which I remember reading online but can't find now, and Allison Tellure's story "Low Midnight", which has cool sea monsters. That's it, really. But! I love the ads in old Analog! They've got lots of ads for role-playing and computer games. I took pictures of my favorites and put them up for you. Highlights:

[Comments] (5) Video Game Soundtrack Medleys: Sumana was watching one of those videos where people play medleys of classic video game soundtracks on non-electronic instruments. I think this time it was a string quartet. Not to get all Viral Video Film School on you, but after watching a number of these videos I've discovered the two essential ingredients to a video game soundtrack medley:

Other than that, you can do whatever you want. I was trying to figure out the value proposition here--do people like these videos because the songs are great, or is it just nostalgia? A question with an obvious answer, and I'm not even gonna try to be contrarian: some of the songs are legitimately great, but it's nostalgia.

Argument one: some of the songs are in fact terrible. The Legend of Zelda overworld theme is in most of these medleys, and it's a bad song. It's a theme with no variations, an annoying ripoff of Ravel's famously annoying Bolero (I believe they wanted to use Bolero but couldn't get the rights.) No one enjoys that song except insofar as it makes them think of a fun game.

Second, these videos are videos, and they often have some prop-comedy component where people cosplay and/or act out scenes from the games. Nobody does that for other music performances. Maybe they should, but they don't. (I gotta make an exception for Frank Zappa, who often did strange things while conducting.)

But the reason I started seriously wondering about this is that none of these medleys have any songs from the original Metroid game. Why is that? It's a very well-known game from the same era and the same publisher as the first Zelda and Mario games. It's got one of the best and deepest soundtracks in video game history. So why not include it? Maybe because it's a little more hardcore than Mario and Zelda, so it won't give as many people the nostalgic thrill.

Similarly for the Mega Man series, which no one would deny had excellent music, albeit more poppy and less classical (but therefore more accessible) than Metroid. The password entry theme from MM3 came up on our media player today and we were transfixed. The password entry theme, folks. Anyway, a big-name game with great music, but a little too hardcore to push the average person's nostalgia buttons.

You don't watch these videos to be exposed to new music. I'm not expecting people to put songs from Earthbound in their video game soundtrack medleys (though they should). But I think if you put some Metroid in your medley you'd be pleasantly surprised by the audience reaction.

I did find one excellent live performance of Metroid music. It doesn't fit my theory because it's 1) not a medley, and 2) full of synths and electric guitars, but on the plus side it features composer Hip Tanaka himself--I think that's him on lead guitar. I guess that's pure upside, there.

PS: I declare the comments a place to link to or cite cool reinterpretations of video game music. I'll start with this well-known but awesome acoustic version of the Wind Waker title theme.

: The latest read was The World of null-A by A. E. Van Vogt. I did not enjoy this book but I must admit it was very inventive. I got this Ace paperback edition from the 1940s that has a strange introduction by Forrest Ackerman:

About the author:

The magic name of van Vogt conjures up a world of stimulating mental images to those familiar with his works, of which THE WORLD OF NULL-A, reprinted here, has been acclaimed a classic. For A.E. "slan" Vogt is the undisputed Idea Man of the futuristic field.

Canadian born, of Dutch descent, the author is now a transplanted Hollywoodite (although there are those among his legion of fans who secretly suspect his birthplace of being Mars, beyond the stars, or up ahead somewhere, say in the 25th Century).

Van Vogt always is years ahead with his concepts. Semantics, "totipotency", Batesystem vision restoratino, hypnotism, "similarization", dianetics, and "Nexialism", have all been grist for his mill.

Author of a dozen best-selling science-fiction books and dozens of short s-f stories, van Vogt has been repeatedly reprinted here and abroad, translated in French, German, and Italian, even recorded on Talking Records for the blind.

Van Vogt speaks fluently the universal languages of excitement and tension, action and invention.

Not terribly surprising that similarization and Nexialism were "grist for his mill", since those are just terms he made up to use in his novels!

[Comments] (1) Why Not The YES?: Recently I heard about a song-poem (this entry presumes your knowledge of song-poems!) called "Jimmy Carter Says YES". I bought the song (it's on a song-poem compilation album) and it's extremely funky. Here's the main theme:

Can our government be competent?
Jimmy Carter says YES. (2x)
Can our government be honest?
Jimmy Carter says YES. (2x)
Can our government be decent and open?
As the 39th president, he has spoken
YES. Jimmy Carter says YES.

This language seemed very familiar to me, because as it happens I just read Carter's 1975 campaign biography, Why Not the Best?. For the record I now present the Secret Origin Of "Jimmy Carter Says YES": it's cribbed from the book.

Here's the first few paragraphs of the first chapter, "Two Questions".

As we observe the two hundredth birthday of our nation, it is appropriate to ask ourselves two basic questions:

Can our government be honest, decent, open, fair, and compassionate?

Can our government be competent?

In the last chapter ("Those Two Questions Again"), Carter restates the first question and then says: "In my judgement, the answer to that question is a resounding YES[.]" Spoiler alert: the answer to the second question is also YES.

This explains a couple of the song's odd features, ie. the capitalization of "YES" and the fact that the rest of the lyrics don't measure up to the cribbed material ("statement of eruption"??).

Incidentally, Sumana and I also own an amazing album of presidential campaign songs, sung by Oscar Brand. One of the best songs on it is Carter's campaign song, also called "Why Not The Best?" It's a great slow country tune, and the last campaign song on that album to be an original song (ie. not a filk or reuse of an existing song).

[Comments] (3) Let Us Now Create Awesome Derivative Works: I'm happy to announce that "Let Us Now Praise Awesome Dinosaurs" is now available under BY-NC-SA, the only Creative Commons license that explodes on impact! If there's some element you thought the story was missing, such as chainsaws or Coelophysis, you can now add them.

Let me know what you do, and I'll put up links on the story page.

[Comments] (5) Reviews of Old Science Fiction Magazines: F&SF 1985/05: And we're back. This issue starts off with Nancy Kress's "Out Of All Them Bright Stars", which won the short story Nebula for 1985. So logically speaking, it's gotta be all downhill from there. And so it is. Felix C. Gotschalk ("Vestibular Man") and Gene O'Neill ("The Shadow of the Mountain") both had good scenes set in military boot camps, but the rest of O'Neill's story is dull, and the only reason to keep reading Gotschalk's is his New Wave style of writing the story as a set of physiological changes described in this clinical medical language that's alienated from the POV character's perspective.

I was despairing of any other good fiction in this issue, and then the last story was "Top Of The Charts" by Bradley Denton, who wouldn't publish Buddy Holly is Alive and Well on Ganymede for another six years but was already writing about pop music. "Top Of The Charts" is not the most inventive story but it's a lot of fun to read, and it has this great song lyric:

Your baby is a beauty.
She lives inside a shell.
She's one of several million
Interstellar Personnel.

In non-stories, Isaac Asimov talks about batteries, and Harlan Ellison complains about mindless summer movies. He kind of likes Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, though he never stops insulting it; he hates Cloak and Dagger and a film I've never heard of, Streets of Fire ("But as we say in the world of periodonture, Streets of Fire masticates the massive one.") He also hates Gremlins, though a lot of that seems to be hatred of the spin-off merchandising.

As usual I've photographed some interesting ads. There was a bizarre ad I forgot to photograph. It was an ad for the first Writers of the Future anthology that made the anthology look like the Bible with L. Ron Hubbard's name at the top. (Regrettably, correspondence on this topic is now closed.)

[Comments] (2) The Revenge: One of my go-to techniques for naming a sequel is to tack on "II: The Revenge" to the name of the original thing. But where did that come from? It seems like a generic sequel name, but it's really not used very often; the only thing I could find that had a sequel called "The Revenge" (as opposed to "The Revenge of [whatever]") is the game Double Dragon. Is that where I got it? Or does it seem like such a generic sequel name that nobody uses it for real?

Reviews of Old Science Fiction Magazines: Analog 1993/09: This was a really good issue. It starts off with a semi-famous Stan Schmidt essay, "Magic" (well, I'd read it before). There are two really good time-travel stories: W.R. Thompson's "The Plot to Save Hitler" and Duncan Lunan's "With Time Comes Concord", which name-checks Carl Sagan. (Update: Now that I think about it, it implies Carl Sagan would be alive in 1999, which would have been nice and was probably an act of optimism in 1993.)

There's also Bud Sparhawk's Jake's Gift, which is not the kind of story you imagine appearing in Analog, while simultaneously fulfilling your Analog-story stereotype to the highest degree: the story comes with a technical diagram, and once you see the diagram you say "oh, cool" and you don't need the story itself. Although Jerry Oltion's "Course Changes" isn't stupendous, I wouldn't kick it out of any metaphorical bed for eating metaphorical crackers. I was excited to see that Linda Nagata had a story in this issue ("Small Victories") but I didn't like the story very much.

No interesting ads, except for a color insert advertising a limited-edition Captain Picard collector's plate (by "Plate of the Year" artist Thomas Blackshear, who's still in business). The book review section has a positive review of Mostly Harmless, and mentions a probably-not-that-interesting story by Del Stone, Jr. with the very interesting title of "The Googleplex Comes and Goes." (Yes, "Google", not "Googol"; see contemporaneous complaint about the misspelling.)

[Comments] (4) Time For Some Links: There's been too much original writing on this weblog recently! Time for some lazy linking to other sites.

I mentioned in my Wii Fit entry that I'm jogging 60-90 minutes a day while watching Internet videos. That's a lot of videos, folks. I've gone through Chrontendo, twice. I've seen pretty much everything on TGWTG. Sixty Symbols lasted me about three days. I need videos, folks. Give me your favorites in comments. I don't have enough to fill the gaping foot-pounding void of exercise. Preferably videos that are at least ten minutes long, because I can't be using the keyboard all the time while jogging. Meanwhile, podcasts have been accumulating because if there's no visual component I'm not distracted enough to forget about the mind-crunching boredom of exercising.

One of my favorite CS papers is 1984's ROG-O-MATIC: A Belligerent Expert System, which describes a script that plays Rogue better than human players. You can get the source code, but good luck getting it to run. The Angband Borg works great--I remember leaving it running over an afternoon while in college--but because Angband is a game that rewards grinding, the Angband Borg loves to grind. It's incredibly dull--and the Borg isn't too exciting either! (I'm here all week!)

But now I've found out about TAEB::AI::Planar, an experimental AI player for Nethack. Compare that weblog post to the Rog-O-Matic paper and see how much the state of the art has changed since 1984. Don't miss the list of YASDs to which Planar is prone. You can even watch Planar in action (just not while you run, it's only 3 minutes).

Link Time: Weblog Edition: You may have noticed that Sumana's weblog has been down. For quite a while. That's because the Berkeley OCF has been down for quite a while. We plan to take action on this once Sumana is less stressed by other things, but in the meantime Sumana is one of the people posting at Geek Feminism.

Three other weblogs I subscribed to recently:

Uh, and a Wii Fit update: I've lost 6±1 pounds since I started my maniacal jogging a couple months ago. Not a whole lot, but it's the first time in my life my weight has gone down instead of up, and I haven't really made any other lifestyle changes.

[Comments] (2) Reviews of Old Science Fiction Magazines: F&SF 1999/05: Doesn't seem that long ago, but this sucker's over ten years old. Man. Interesting side note: one of the authors in this issue submitted a story to Thoughtcrime Experiments. (It's not Steven Baxter.) Also, this has the busiest magazine cover I've ever seen; the background painting is absolutely covered in text.

Almost every story in this issue was good! The kind of story that I'd mention after mentioning the really good story. But there was no really good story. I guess my favorites were K.D. Wentworth's "The Embians" and Baxter's "Huddle" (not the story pictured on the cover). Gregory Benford's nonfiction essay mentions Burning Man and the Long Now Foundation, but I don't think 1999 is terribly ahead of the curve for either of those phenomena, so maybe it's not worth mentioning the mentions.

Two of the three cartoons were jokes about science, which is a pretty good ratio. The "Curiosities" section on the last page mentions a prequel to H.G. Wells' Little Wars called Floor Games. I'd never heard of this book before, but it sounds interesting, and it begins with the scrupulously accurate statement: "The jolliest indoor games for boys and girls demand a floor[.]"

Summary: nothing to make the sprit soar, but the only boring stories were very very short. I even liked most of the supernatural stuff. You could do a lot worse.

: Susanna is transcribing a journal that my parents kept in the 1980s. My mother wrote in the journal fairly frequently, my father not very often. By now you know that he wrote postcards instead. On February 17th, 1985, he mentions the postcards in the journal:

Recognizing that my writings in this journal in recent years have been sparse, I must comment that my life has not been entirely undocumented. I have accumulated several hundred postcards — together with Frances, Leonard, Susanna, and Rachel — from our outings around town, our long-distance trips and my business trips. Many evenings in the hotel have found me writing postcards to my family and friends and also recording my own experiences on postcards. There are some I hope who will find them of some historical and biographical value — as well as lovely to look at.

Frances was not fond of the postcard idea at first, but has quit any opposition since she sees that I don’t leave them lying around — and on Wednesday night, when I put ready and put the children to bed, a regular activity is "looking at PC's" (post cards) when we pull a random handful from someone's collection, and reminisce about previous trips and outings.

Susanna and Leonard are very keen on this activity now and Rachel should soon be old enough to not bend the postcards. I think that my favorite is Susanna’s postcard of the Washington DC Dulles Airport. It was the first I sent her, and she slept with it and carried it around in her purse until I came home from Reston, Va. I now send each of the children a postcard when I send them, because they are all so special and they do appreciate them so.

This resurfaced a memory of Susanna carrying that postcard around everywhere. Susanna is going to start scanning her postcards and give them to me to put in the big pile, so maybe we'll see that incredibly worn postcard one day in the next few years.

I've quoted that first paragraph on the "Roy's Postcards" page. I'm glad to read confirmation that I'm doing something he would have liked. The tone here is extremely formal, even more formal than the postcards, which can get pretty darn formal. I don't know what's behind that voice. It's not the voice he used with his children.

[Comments] (1) : I just went looking for information on NASA mission patches for my writing project, and found this Wired Science article published today showcasing some very strange patches used over the years. Good timing! Here's the official list.

: Last night we moved Sumana's website from the OCF to the same server that hosts Crummy. (In fact, we're sharing a NewsBruiser installation, thus decreasing the number of remaining NewsBruiser installations by a staggering percentage.) Here it is.

[Comments] (2) Demix: As noted elsewhere on this server, Sumana and I watched the 1960s Casino Royale, a film that first entered my consciousness in 1997 when Need to Know reviewed Austin Powers as "good in parts, but ultimately suggests that Mike [Myers]'s never seen Casino Royale - or maybe seen it *far too many times*".

After seeing it I'm gonna go with "*far too many times*". Casino Royale is a tremendous mess, a Bond parody made by someone who'd rather be making a canonical Bond film. It needs to be remade by someone with the guts to make it a real parody, and it turns out Mike Myers was that person.

But what a crazy original. After being bombarded by this movie I was trying to make sense of it and I realized--all those directors, all those writers, all those different plotlines that never quite mesh, all those big-name actors who never interact with each other. It's as if someone took a bunch of beloved preexisting material and tried to remix it into a single movie. We need a demix to split the movie back into the originals that never were. My favorite would be the hour-long battle of the nerds--Peter Sellers versus Woody Allen!

The other great connection I'm glad I found is to the DS9 episode Our Man Bashir, which it turns out is not just riffing on the canon Bond movies--it's riffing on Casino Royale. Michael Dorn plays Duchamps just like Orson Welles' Le Chiffre, and of course there's the nefarious Dr. Noah in his Nehru jacket. (Note that the DS9 Noah's plot involves killing everyone under a certain height.)

Oh, one more thing Sumana pointed out to me. There's lots of stuff that mocks other James Bond movies, but at one point there's a scene that parodies a scene from the novel Casino Royale (the chair with no bottom). Sumana knew about it because the scene is played straight in the Daniel Craig adaptation. But at the time you'd have had to have read the novel. Do you know of other examples of this sort of thing? (A visual parody of something that had never been played straight in a visual medium.)

The Vish-Meister -- Revealed!: Almost a year ago I showed you some funny Internet videos made by the mysterious KleistGeistZeit. Yesterday Sumana discovered that KleistGeistZeit is our friend Toby Siegel! In fact, if you go to her webpage it's obvious.

We didn't meet Toby until a few months ago, but Toby does know Dara Weinberg, who I originally suspected of being behind the videos. In a comment on the original piece, Dara played it pretty coy. Sumana ultimately discovered the connection in conversation with Beth, another friend of Toby's who we met last night.

[Comments] (1) : What if Steven Jay Gould faced off against Jay Gould?

[Comments] (1) Kafka For The Easily Bored: I just read a bunch of Franz Kafka--everything of his except the novels. Let me tell you, there's a lot of boring stuff in that corpus. But there's not so much stuff, total, that you could put together a "just the good parts" anthology that could compete with the complete short works. Especially since the ideal length for a Kafka story is about one page. For me a good Kafka story is like a good Lovecraft story: it knocks you over and runs away.

So I thought I'd share my list of the Kafka stories that I thought were really good, so that you don't have to go through a bunch of stuff that just flails at you without knocking you over. I've added links to translations, when I could find them.


Longer stories:

Reviews of Old Science Fiction Magazines: Analog 1986/01: I have a lot to say about this issue, very little of it about the stories, none of which I recommend (though nothing is truly bad, except for Ian Stewart's pun-trocious "Missing Link"). I got this issue because I wanted to read Frederik Pohl's novel The Coming of the Quantum Cats and I thought this issue had an earlier novella version of the novel. Instead, it has the first 25% of the novel. Oh well. In the years after forming a desire to read TCotQC I read a lot of Frederik Pohl and kind of got tired of his work, so 25% is plenty. I did like Pohl's alternate universe Ronald Reagan as a limousine-liberal dilettante.

This is not a recommendation, but Harry Turtledove's "And So To Bed" has Samuel Pepys coming up with the theory of evolution by natural selection. It also has Harry Turtledove coming out from behind his former pen name of Eric G. Iverson. This is the only magazine I've seen with a Harry Turtledove story where his name isn't on the cover.

One odd thing about Analog is that the story blurbs are often extremely generic. Like they came out of fortune cookies, or the writing exercise "describe the story as if pitching it to someone who hates science fiction." I wish I'd mentioned this last time because the last Analog I read (now sent to Camille in Slovenia) was full of amazingly generic blurbs. But here are some a-little-less-generic blurbs from this issue:

Dana Lombardy's gaming column reviews some expansion modules for the Dune board game. Best quote in the whole magazine: "Play becomes more complicated when a Shai'Halud (giant sandworm) appears..."

Another interesting quote, from John G. Cramer's "The Alternate View" column: "There is even speculation that Iceland, which developed from sub-ocean volcanic activity starting about 65 million years ago, may have risen from the hole punched in the Earth's crust by the cretaceous meteor."

Best story title mentioned in the book review section: Dave Eggers George Alec Effinger's "The Aliens Who Knew, I Mean, Everything." Summarized here.

In the editorial, Stan Schmidt tries his hand at social engineering. In the letters section, Ben Bova unloads on an earlier letter-writer who wrote in defense of parapsychology:

I'm prepared to be generous, but after more than thirty years of watching and waiting (and ever participating in some of the experiments, as a referee) I have yet to see any successful demonstration of any parapsychological phenomenon. The experimenters always say, "Gee, it worked fine yesterday," or "The vibrations here are negative." How long would you accept such excuses from a physics student?

Bova goes on to defend the idea of strategic missile defense.

I think there's an inverse relationship between how much I like a magazine's stories and how much I like its ads. The ads in this issue are amazing. We've got space pterodactyls, post-apocalyptic role-playing games, L5 Society and National Space Institute ads, a Star Trek text adventure, The Man Who Melted Jack Dann, the fantasy novel so bad they put the supplemental map in the ad[0], and more!

The top of this ad doesn't make sense. I didn't even know Timothy Zahn was an alien, and what kind of name is "Spinneret By Hugo Winner"?

One ad not pictured claims that the "Mid-December 1984" issue of Analog was the "Special Spoof Issue". That would be an interesting read.

Oh, I forgot to mention the review of "Lovecraft's Book" by Richard A. Lupoff, a historical novel in which "German propagandist George Sylvester Viereck asked Howard P. Lovecraft to write an American Mein Kampf." The novel vaulted into obscurity but was recently published in full as "Marblehead" ("Lovecraft's Book" is apparently a bowlderized version). Here's the thing: I saw a copy of this book in England and, based on the fairly misleading book cover, thought it was nonfiction. I'm pretty sure I told Kris about it. So, sorry, H.P. Lovecraft. You were a pretty bad person, but you didn't go so far as to write a book of out-and-out fascist propaganda. And how appropriate that I would fall for a Lovecraft-related hoax about a nonexistent book.

[0] The Internet says it's not so bad, but who are you going to believe, some lousy Internet, or an ad for the book itself?

[Comments] (3) : For a brief time a couple years ago I would grab pictures of cute baby animals from the photo wires and put them on my weblog. It's hard to believe, but back then there were no weblogs devoted entirely to cute baby animals. Nowadays they abound, my favorite being Zooborns. The point of this entry is, cute baby elephant.

[Comments] (2) Think About It, Won't You?: In 1960 Kingsley Amis wrote a book about science fiction called New Maps of Hell. In 1982, his son Martin Amis wrote a book about arcade games with the much clunkier title Invasion of the Space Invaders.

I couldn't find much real information about this book, but the cover promises "An addict's guide to battle tactics, big scores, and the best machines," so it's probably not a groundbreaking work of criticism the way New Maps of Hell is.

: Hey, I'm in Cambridge. This is a short experiment to see if we want to move to England for a couple of years. If you live in Cambridge and are reading this and have not made yourself known to me, send me an email.

I could talk about what I've been doing but it's just been walking around and riding on trains and buses and boats.

[Comments] (1) : Rachel came up from London and we walked around town. We spent a lot of time in the Fitzwilliam Museum, especially at the Endless Forms exhibit that's part of the general Darwin-mania here due to the 200th anniversary of Darwin's birth. There were a number of cool pieces I wrote down to share with you, but tonight I post about Duria Antiquior, a painting I'd seen in a Steven Jay Gould book but never in color or the size of a wall.

Here's the original, a watercolor created soon after the discovery of ichthyosaurs, dimorphodons, and other cool creatures. The best part is that everything is eating something else, sometimes using hilarious I'm-crushing-your-head perspective tricks.

Here's the huge oil painting they had at the exhibit, a copy possibly used as an educational guide. It's got a lot more detail, but there is one thing missing. In the original, the plesiosaur in the middle is literally shitting itself in fear as the huge icthyosaur crushes its neck, forming what will eventually become coprolites. In the oil painting, this informative detail is omitted.

The original artist was Henry De la Beche, and his other drawings (1 2 3) may shed some light on exactly how funny Duria Antiquior was supposed to be.

[Comments] (3) : Sumana on the essential difference between the US and the UK: "They have maths, but we have sports."

Buffalo-horn harpoon: My uncle John plays the banjo and I distinctly remember him singing a couple unusual sea shanties many years ago. This came up a couple days ago in conversation with Paul Wright and after flailing to describe the shanties in question, I went online to find the lyrics. There's "Paddy West", the rollicking traditional song about padding your resume. And of more recent composition there's Yankee Clipper's alternate-history Mormon eco-shanty "Lament for the Landlocked Whale".

Not really relevant to anything in my larger life, but if you're not interested in an alternate-history Mormon eco-shanty, you might be reading the wrong weblog.

[Comments] (3) In The Supermarket:
Don't refrigerate: eggs
Do refrigerate: canned tomatoes

: Back from England. Highly recommended: the Whipple Museum of the History of Science in Cambridge. They've got all sorts of old scientific and pedagogical devices. Pictures coming eventually.

Reviews of Old Science Fiction Magazines: S&SF October 1988: It's the boffo 39th anniversary issue, and despite a lot of big names, there's not much that holds up twenty years later. Clive Barker's gross-out "How Spoilers Bleed" is disqualified for the sentence "Now those tribes were all but decimated." Frederik Pohl's "The Star War" has a cool setup but doesn't deliver beyond some stale snark.

On the plus side, Ray Bradbury's "Lafayette Farewell" is amazing, easily the best thing in the issue, and infuriating given that he probably wrote it in forty-five minutes based on a conversation he had with a friend. Wayne Wightman's "Rat Run" is worth reading if only because it totally slams the town of Coalinga. I didn't like Lucius Shepard's "A Wooden Tiger" as a story, but it was really well written.

No cover photo this time because I'm lazy and the art is nothing special. No good ads in this issue, either, thought there is a video club selling Star Trek episodes on a subscription model: $25 for each two-episode tape.

[Comments] (2) Darwinmania: I mentioned earlier that every museum in Cambridge had a Darwin exhibit for the bicentennial. Exhibits vary in impressiveness, of course. The Whipple Museum of the History of Science had "Darwin's Microscope", which was... a microscope. The Fitzwilliam Museum had the awesome exhibit I mentioned earlier, but photography was prohibited. The Zoology Museum had a few specimens collected by Darwin, including a jar of octopods and a beetle collection. Fun fact: on the Beagle voyage, Darwin was really excited because he thought he'd discovered the octopus's color-changing ability, and he was pissed off when he got a letter back from England saying that they knew about it already.

I haven't posted for a couple days because each of the things I was going to post required putting up a picture gallery from my Cambridge trip, and I didn't want to make a bunch of galleries. So I've just put up one gallery, and I'll mine it for a while, even though you can see all the pictures now.

But you don't need to go to Cambridge museums to enjoy Darwinmania. It's also occuring on the web. Here are some of the links on Darwin and/or evolution I've encountered in the past few days:

[Comments] (2) : Jake Berendes says: "i still give your name when people who don't need to know my name ask me for my name." I still reciprocate, but when I do it, it doesn't end up in the college newspaper.

: When we were walking around Cambridge Sumana mentioned a story she'd read in school as a kid, which (as she discovered tonight) turned out to be a kids' adaptation of this story: Turtle Eggs for Agassiz, published in 1910. The madcap adventure of a man trying to get some fresh turtle eggs to Louis Agassiz's house for dissection. Definitely worth reading.

Reviews Of Old Science Fiction Magazines Special: Looking at my bookshelf I see that I've read about half of the old science fiction magazines I got back in May 2008, even though I didn't review all of them. So here is a bonus middle-of-the-project review of a book my mother gave me for my birthday in 2001 but which I never read until today.

It's The Best from Fantasy and Science Fiction, Eighth Series, published in 1959 (not 1957, as I said earlier). It's a best-of anthology from F&SF, edited by founding editor Anthony Boucher, and it's full of big names. And sexism.

Both the big names and the sexism are front-loaded. Here are capsule reviews of all the big stories in the anthology. There are some tiny stories and poems as well, but they're generally only as short as they need to be to convey a horrible pun, so I'm not gonna review them.

In general, the best stories are by the non-big names.

Grant, Grant, Grant: Aha! I found the Grant story mentioned in the previous entry, by searching for "General Grant" on Project Gutenberg. It's from Donald Ogden Stewart's 1921 "A Parody Outline of History", featuring vignettes from American history "as they would be narrated by America's most characteristic contemporary authors."

"How Love Came to General Grant" parodies the self-bowlderizing style of Harold Bell Wright. This HBW website says that "readers quickly recognize which characters are intended to be models for good behavior, and which are symbols of evil," as you can tell from scrupulously accurate passages like this:

"Madam," said he, turning to Mrs. van der Griff, "Am I to understand that there is liquor in those glasses?"

"Why yes, General," said the hostess smiling uneasily. "It is just a little champagne wine."

"Madam," said the general, "It may be 'just champagne wine' to you, but 'just champagne wine' has ruined many a poor fellow and to me all alcoholic beverages are an abomination. I cannot consent, madam, to remain under your roof if they are to be served. I have never taken a drop--I have tried to stamp it out of the army, and I owe it to my soldiers to decline to be a guest at a house where wine and liquor are served."

Wright and half of the other parodied authors are completely forgotten today, but the parodies are still funny, because they parody types of writing that are recognizable and/or immortal. Here's the beginning of the first chapter. Who cares who it's parodying, it's hilarious:

On a memorable evening in the year 1904 I witnessed the opening performance of Maude Adams in "Peter Pan". Nothing in the world can describe the tremendous enthusiasm of that night! I shall never forget the moment when Peter came to the front of the stage and asked the audience if we believed in fairies. I am happy to say that I was actually the first to respond. Leaping at once out of my seat, I shouted "Yes--Yes!" To my intense pleasure the whole house almost instantly followed my example, with the exception of one man. This man was sitting directly in front of me. His lack of enthusiasm was to me incredible. I pounded him on the back and shouted, "Great God, man, are you alive! Wake up! Hurrah for the fairies! Hurrah!" Finally he uttered a rather feeble "Hurrah!" Childe Roland to the dark tower came.

That was my first meeting with that admirable statesman Woodrow Wilson, and I am happy to state that from that night we became firm friends...

The non-forgotten authors include F. Scott Fitzgerald and Eugene O'Neill. I still have no idea how I came to read the Grant vignette from this book in the first place.

[Comments] (1) Links of Fun:

[Comments] (1) : Fans of The Future: A Retrospective will remember that I was really taken by the idea of a model train set in a briefcase. The same organ was tickled by this mini LEGO castle inside a wooden chest.

In other news, the 2009 IF Competition games are released, including "Earl Grey", a crazy game co-written by Adam Parrish and beta-tested by yours truly.

: I woke up this morning wondering: lots of movies have been remade, but how many of those original movies were themselves sequels? That is, you make movie A, you make a sequel, A II, and then you remake A II, regardless of whether you'd remade A.

IMDB says there are four movies meeting this easy-to-state-but-difficult-to-state-precisely criteria: the "Dawn of the Dead" remake, "The Ring Two", "Shankardada Zindabad" (a Telugu film featuring a hallucinated Gandhi), and the forthcoming remake of "An American Werewolf in Paris". I know Rob Zombie made a sequel to his remake of "Halloween", but I don't know whether it can be considered a remake of the original "Halloween II".

[Comments] (2) : I have a nephew! (No pictures of the nephew yet.) Update: pictures!


me: oh, i forgot to tell you that michael bloomberg was at the farmer's market on saturday
Sumana: did you see him?
me: no, but i saw a big blob of campaign staff and new yorkers surrounding a slowly moving point

[Comments] (6) The Trouble With Scribbles: On Monday, Adam Parrish came over and we recorded a conversation about Scribblenauts, the video game that's sweeping the nation with a large cartoon broom. (For the uninitiated, this Penny Arcade should do the trick.) We focused on 1) topics in game design, 2) silliness. I cut the long, long conversation down to 45 minutes and the result is "The Trouble With Scribbles", the latest in the irregular series of crummy.com non-podcasts. Thrill! As we:

Plus: complaining, and pterodactyls with ropes attached to them. Includes spoilers for Scribblenauts and Nethack.

We also talked a little about Adam's entry in the IF competition, but I cut it out because competitors are still embargoed from talking about their games. I'll post it separately later.

Errata: 1. In vanilla Nethack you can't sharpen a weapon on a flint stone. There are also no creatures who can eat rock, so the code I mentioned never gets executed. 2. In Scribblenauts, you can get a generic fish-as-food by typing "fish"--but no human will eat it. 3. "Machinima" is pronounced with a soft "ch" and a long "e". 4. Nobelium's half-life depends on the isotope, but they're all pretty short. 5. There's a Scribblenauts level where the Penny Arcade trick is a winning strategy.

Treasures of the Met, Vol. I: I went with Sumana's co-worker Will to the Met yesterday. There's a rotating exhibit of artists' self-portraits at the Met, and a lot of them are self-indulgent, but two are really excellent. First, William Anastasi's hilarious 1967 fractal "Nine Polaroid Portaits of a Mirror". Second, the one I want to talk more about, D.J. Hall's hyperreal pencil drawing "Piece of Cake". The text on that Flickr page is taken directly from the Met's description of the work:

Hall, the Los Angeles-based artist seated at right, based this lifelike drawing and a related painting on a photograph she took in spring 1986, just before she suffered an emotional and physical breakdown.

The drawing's vivid colors, bright sun, and festive atmosphere belie the artist's troubles. Despite the sitters' cheerful camaraderie, Halls' companion at left was not a family member or friend but a local woman she hired to pose with her for her composition.

I was floored by "Piece of Cake" because the saturated colors and the fashions (but not the place settings) perfectly capture the Los Angeles I grew up in. I felt like I was looking at a photo of my mother's richer friends. And this wasn't a one-time theme: D.J. Hall is still painting Southern California women looking into imaginary cameras.

Here's some commentary; I don't really have anything to add, except that a timeline of Hall's paintings would make a really good history of women's sunglasses.

: My VP classmate Jeff Soesbe just got his near-future story "The Very Difficult Diwali of Sub-Inspector Gurushankar Rajaram" published in DayBreak magazine. "Diwali" was a story we almost bought for Thoughtcrime Experiments, and it's great to see it in print.

Treasures of the Met, Vol. II: I'm sure I've mentioned before that my favorite part of the Met is the Douglas Dillon Galleries for Chinese Painting. In addition to ancient office supplies (which turned out to be part of the permanent exhibit) they have a rotating gallery of painting/calligraphy that's always great. Currently showing is a travelling exhibit of the work of Luo Ping, an eighteenth-century painter with a surrealist sensibility.

Pictures of his stuff are really difficult to find, but here's one of the better ones. Luo Ping collaborated with a poet friend to create a folio of paintings of animals along with Aesop-like moral poems. He left lots of space for the poet to write his poem. And the poet wrote little tiny poems in tiny characters, creating a work with a disorienting amount of whitespace. The linked picture, in case you didn't click, is a picture of some ants, and a little poem about ants with the characters arranged so that they themselves look like a line of ants.

(That's not really a story about Lou Ping's craziness, but it shows the kind of person he hung out with.)

There were also two works that had been the subject of repeated commentary. One of them was a small collection of normal-sized paintings on an enormous scroll with about 170 commentaries tacked onto it. It looked like a Digg thread, and the placard said that Luo Ping took the scroll on his travels as a kind of resume. There was also a series of paintings of ghosts, which had been posted to Digg (as it were) twice: first as "What the government doesn't want you to know about ghosts" and then a hundred years later as "Amusing pictures of ghosts [pics]".

[Comments] (1) : Oh, also: every time I go to the Met I mean to look up the game being played by the little statue dudes. This time I did it: the game is Liubo, and it doesn't seem like a very interesting game, despite some very Pavel Chekov-esque claims that Liubo was exported to India and underwent radical changes to become the ancestor to chess.

(The photo currently on the Wikipedia page is of the board from the Met that I see every time I go.)

[Comments] (1) Doggy Bag: While in England we got a copy of the Waitrose magazine. One of the nice things about England is that the supermarkets have crazy house magazines, and although they don't aspire to Trader Joe's levels of lunacy, neither are they simply flyers telling you what's on sale. Anyway, this particular magazine had a shocking article "In praise of the doggy bag".

It turns out if you ask for a takeout container in England, they don't really know what to do, and improvise as best they can. We found this out firsthand when someone wrapped Sumana's leftover pasta in tinfoil (the article describes "a hastily assembled foil 'envelope') and all the oil leaked out into my bag.

Writer Katy Salter dares to suggest that people should not be ashamed to ask for a doggy bag. (The feedback prompt at the end: "Would you ask a restaurant to box up your food? Email food@...") She closes with this bombshell:

But the biggest secret? You don't have to ask for a doggy bag at all. Take a tip from the States and dress your request up in face-saving euphemisms - you want the food 'boxed' or 'to go'.

While you're at it, take a secondary tip from the States: those aren't euphemisms. They're accurate descriptions of what you want. "Doggy bag" is the face-saving euphemism! It's clearly intended to convey "Of course I wouldn't dream of taking food home from a restaurant, but my precious Alsatian simply adores endive salad." Don't blame the Americans if your euphemisms turn dysphemic!

Bonus tip from article: "Ask for a clean container rather than bring your own." You might want to bring your own anyway, just in case you get a foil envelope.

[Comments] (3) : How To Write Telegrams Properly.

Officials felt that the vital orders of the Government must be definite and clear cut, and they therefore used not only the word "stop," to indicate a period, but also adopted the practice of spelling out "comma," "colon," and "semi-colon." The word "query" often was used to indicate a question mark. Of all these, however, "stop" has come into most widespread use, and vaudeville artists and columnists have employed it with humorous effect, certain that the public would understand the allusion in connection with telegrams...

"Stop" is of course never necessary at the end of a message.

What's the standard science fiction term for densely packed computing matter, the stuff you use to build an upload civilization? I thought it was "computanium" but that only gets a handful of search results, and I know there's a standard term for it.

: I just realized that the Futurismic favicon.ico is a parody of the Guardian favicon.ico.

[Comments] (1) : Enough of this not-writing-for-NYCB business. Let's mine my Cambridge photo gallery for a while.

Are you ready to have your mind blown? Behold: A statue of a fossil!

Back when evolution had yet to decide on the best way to do teeth, there were edestids, sharklike creatures whose lower jaw just kept growing out and out in a spiral for the shark's entire lifetime. This was so ridiculous I thought it must be a hoax, but I also saw an edestid jaw fossil in the AMNH. I still think there's a good chance it's a hilarious Iguanadon-thumb-like misunderstanding. The Smithsonian is also skeptical, and presents a reconstruction where the spiral teeth go down the shark's throat.

When I was a kid I owned an awesome globe of Mars that my mother and I found at a yard sale in LA. When my mother died I mailed it to myself and, as long-time NYCB readers know, it was lost by the doubly-damned US Postal Service. But thanks to the Whipple museum I found the name of the globe manufacturer, so I can get one from eBay, though I'm not going to do that this instant.

I saw a cool vocal theremin. I think how it works is: you make a shape with your hands and it vocalizes the sound you'd make if you made that shape with your mouth. But I'm not sure and technical detail was sadly lacking because it was in an art exhibit. Good job, though, Michael Markert, 2007.

[Comments] (12) Skipping Grades: I went to DC to see Sumana's sister and parents, and at one point during the weekend we were talking about a similar experience Sumana and I had when we were kids: we both really wanted to skip ahead one or more grades so we could get out of school earlier, and our respective parents did not want this to happen.

I believe Sumana did end up skipping a grade, and I may have mentioned somewhere in this weblog's archives that I stuffed four years of classes into three years to get out of high school a year early. So we both got what we wanted, kind of. But I also remembered something I hadn't thought of for a long time.

I had second grade in LA with a teacher (Mrs. Rosenstiel) who was simultaneously teaching a second and a third grade class. I don't know how she did this, whether this was because of budget cuts or small class sizes or what, but I remember that the second graders sat on one side and the third graders on the other side. I sat with the third graders and did the third grade work. Although I didn't think of it in these terms, I effectively skipped the second grade. Then we moved to Arvin and I was put in a third-graders-only classroom, where I effectively repeated the third grade.

It's fortunate for my parents that I didn't detect this sleight-of-hand until a couple days ago, because realizing it at the time would have really made me mad. To younger-Leonard's way of thinking, the purpose of this whole schooling thing was to make sure you knew things. Period. If you learned things faster, you shouldn't have to do as much time in school.

This underlay my (and, presumably, Sumana's) constant nagging of our parents to let us skip a grade or two. What underlay our parents' constant refusals was the belief that schooling had two other purposes: keeping the kids out of your hair until they're old enough to leave home, and socialization.

My parents always told me that skipping grades would stunt my social development and leave me miserable. But here's the thing: I was stunted and miserable anyway. If school is supposed to be a big social club where you just have fun with your peer group, then sure, wake me up when I turn eighteen. But we all know it ain't that. I hated school the whole way through, and I was fairly popular and well-liked (though I wouldn't have thought so at the time). Sumana had it a lot worse.

For a long time I thought my parents were simply wrong about this. But I'm writing this where people can read it and comment on it because I'm starting to think they were not entirely wrong. What happens to a smart kid who's allowed to go through the public school system as fast as his/her talents can take him/her? Do you know any such kids? Are you one? Did such kids exist in the past and end up broken wrecks, cautionary tales to future generations of parents?

I'm not talking about the wunderkind who gets a Harvard scholarship at age 12; that kid is now Harvard's problem. I'm talking about a random lower- or middle-class kid from the 99th percentile. What are this person's parents supposed to do when he/she graduates at 14 or 15? Send him/her to college? College is full of kids from the 99th percentile who also have a 2-3 year age advantage. Put him/her to work for a couple years? Doing what? Set up some kind of independent study? With what time/money?

I'm imagining my parents thinking along those lines. Am I wrong? What is the deal? It seems unfair to withhold this seemingly universal parental secret from me, a grown man. I can see not wanting your kid to leave home at fourteen protected only by their ability to dissect fetal pigs and write essays about Jack London, but an additional two years of school won't provide much additional protection.

In Postcards: "Prometheus, the pagan patron saint of engineers."

"We're probably not going to win any prizes...": I endorse this project to try to make "Let Us Now Praise Awesome Dinosaurs" win all the 2009 science fiction awards.

The Plot, Such As It Is, Thickens: Last year I mentioned, on the evidence of a Myspace page, that someone had started a Georgia rap group called "robot finds kitten". A few days ago I searched again and saw that the band had a playlist of four songs. I listened to them and the songs were really good! However, they were not raps. (The band robot finds kitten is now listed as "Hip Hop/Folk/Alternative".)

I was really proud that someone had started a non-bad band named after a game I wrote, and was trying to figure out how to contact this band without creating a Myspace account, and then I did a search on the song lyrics and discovered that all four songs are really by Neil Cicierega of the Massachusets band Lemon Demon, and were put up as "robot finds kitten" songs under different names. Cicierega is also known for creating Flash cartoons like "The Ultimate Showdown of Ultimate Destiny" -- so well-known, in fact, that he's also notable.

So, it sucks that the "robot finds kitten" band is either a hoax or a plagiarism, but on the plus side it introduced me to some really great music. Those who like my music (I realize that this is a... select group) will also like Lemon Demon. And according to a message a few months ago to the rfk-dev mailing list, someone is starting a real band called "robotfindskitten".

[Comments] (1) First Line Of A Novel: Free for all to use.

"This is the phone company! We have you surrounded!"

There's a novel I want to write that could have that as the first line, but it's #3 on the list of novels I want to write, and will probably be novel #3 for the rest of my life and never get written. So just dump that into your NaNoWriMo novel whenever you next get stuck.

Public Service Announcement: Susanna didn't know this, so maybe you don't either. You can treat canker sores with grapes or raisins. Cut the grape/raisin in half and put its internal organs against the sore. Hold it in place with your tongue for a couple minutes. The grape/raisin chemically cauterizes or coats the canker sore (I don't really know how it works, and Susanna doesn't want to experiment) so that it doesn't hurt. Then, you can eat the grape/raisin. It's nature's candy!

[Comments] (1) : Hey, remember the new economy? That was hilarious.

Doesn't Quite Work: We terraformed this planet on rock and roll.

[Comments] (6) Taking The NYC Out Of NYCB: Yes, it's true. We are moving to England in a couple weeks and staying for about a year. If you want to see us before we leave, now would be an excellent time to leave a comment or email me! Unless you live in England, in which case you should just wait a bit.

[Comments] (1) : I dreamed a kitchen gadget called the "pretzel opener". Order now!

Reviews of Old Science Fiction Magazines: Analog 1985/12: Some good stuff in this issue, such as an awesome color ad for the Infocom Hitchhiker's Guide game (not pictured because Sumana has the camera) and a two-page spread for Telarium's game adaptations of SF classics.

I got sidetracked talking about the ads, but there are a couple good stories here as well. The best one is "The White Box" by Rom Chilson and Lynette Meserole, which, like Qubit Slip, posits a society dependent on a fictional technology, and then breaks the technology to see what happens. My favorite kind of Analog-compatible story, and highly recommended if you like that kind of puzzle solving.

Spider Robinson's "The Blacksmith's Tale" runs the gamut of overwrought emotions, veering from erotica to shaggy dog story to Silver Surfer fanfic. It was well written but it didn't make me want to run out and grab a bunch of Callahan's story compilations.

Thomas R. Dulksi's "The Case of the Gring's Mill Goblin" would be unremarkable except it's a Sherlock Holmes pastiche. Like "House", it takes place in the modern day but the protagonists are obviously Holmes and Watson. I can't deny that that's fun, but it's the only fun part of the story. The story left me with the impression that there's more to what happened than what Holmes and Watson believe happened, but I don't like the story enough to go back and check. Bonus fun: most Holmes pastiches forget about Mycroft Holmes, but not this one.

OK, back to ads. There's a hilarious one for Martin Caidin's Killer Station (Amazon reviewer: "One of the worst science fiction books ever written.") which has the seemed-like-a-good-idea-at-the-time tagline "KILLER STATION. IT'S GOING TO GET TO YOU..." I think Caidin may have written the copy for his own ad. Then again, I also suspected him of editing his own Wikipedia article and writing astoturf Amazon reviews of his own books, but that's impossible--he died in 1997.

(Bonus: Caidin earlier wrote The Six Million Dollar Man and the novel Marooned, which became "Marooned", the only film to have won an Oscar and then shown up on MST3K.)

There's also an ad for Heinlein's Job in paperback, which shows off faint-praise blurbs from Isaac Asimov ("Funny, exciting, and thought-provoking.") and Stephen King ("The greatest writer of such fiction in the world.") If someone blurbed one of my books by saying I was "the greatest writer of such fiction" I'd take a step back and say "Wait a minute, have I gone crazy and no one will tell me, like happened to Heinlein?" Such as, for example, if I decided to retell the story of Heinlein's Job as G.O.B.

From the book review column:

A few columns ago, I ingenuously asked whether Tom Robbins might not be the S. Morgenstern who wrote The Silent Gondoliers. Well, now I know the truth... the real man behind Gondoliers is William Goldman.

That's a weird truth not to know because William Goldman wrote a much better-known book ten years earlier--The Princess Bride--which is supposedly an abridgement of a work by S. Morgenstern. The movie wouldn't come out for another couple years, but it seems like something a science fiction magazine's book reviewer should have heard of.

Book review column also includes a sentence I thought I'd never read: "But seriously, with The Secret of Life, [Rudy] Rucker makes a bid to be the J.D. Salinger of the 1980s."

Another interesting tidbit. An earlier issue of Analog ran a G. Harry Stine article called "Astronomical Ghost Towns". I haven't read it but Stine proposed that light pollution and the then-forthcoming Hubble Space Telescope would drive ground-based telescopes out of business. Well, obviously Carl A. Posey, public information officer at the National Optical Astronomy Observatories, can't have any of that, and writes a sternly-worded letter:

It should be made clear to your readers, for example, that astronomers welcome (and none we know of "fear") the advent of the Space Telescope, which we expect to extend human vision significantly further into time and space. However, there will still be things--high-resolution spectroscopy, for example--that can be done better from large groundbased telescopes.

Stine responds, basically, "bite me". Groundbased telescopes are still around, but I'm gonna call this one for Stine, mainly because Posey spends most of his letter plugging the National New Technology Telescope, which near as I can tell never got funded. (They did eventually build other telescopes on the same site in Hawaii, and it's possible one of those telescopes has a paper trail that originated with the NNTT, but who knows.)

But I can definitely say, from my vantage point in the future, that the reason the astronomical ghost towns didn't happen is that one space telescope, or even ten, isn't gonna satisfy all the world's astronomers. They want as many telescopes as possible. The idea that astronomers are telescope technicians who "fear" that one space telescope will leave them unemployed is ridiculous. (Again, I haven't read the original article, so I don't know what exactly Stine said.)

Generic Analog blurb mania! #1: "Sometimes the line between 'improvising with available resources' and 'asking for help' isn't as clear-cut as you might think!" #2: "The size and shape of a problem depend on the background against which you view it." You could switch those two and no one would notice, even though one is from a Harry Turtledove story about dinosaurs (not as awesome as you'd think) and the other is the Spider Robinson.

Non-generic blurb: "The Box was exactly what medicine has been striving toward from the beginning--or was it? There's one human malady that, by definition, no cure-all can cure...."

In conflict-of-interest news, the classifieds have an ad for "Triveax", a game that's reviewed in the game review column. There's also a classified section called "BARGAINS" that should surely be called "SCAMS", since this is the only item:

FLY FREE WORLDWIDE on Major Airlines. Drive Luxurious cars. Complete details only $5.00 (WORTH THOUSANDS). Joseph McWade, 3D Serpentine Plaza, Clinton, New Jersey 08009

Also this bit of mystery in "MISCELLANEOUS":

If the number 247.032 is of special significance to you, please write to: R. Schuman, RR 2, Winthrop, Iowa 50682.

Probably just wants someone to talk to.

: Speaking of Sherlock Holmes pastiches, a while back Sumana and I watched The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes, the least impressive of the Billy Wilder movies we've watched. After an excellent opening vignette and the promising appearance of Mycroft Holmes, there's a big boring movie about Scotland and then the credits roll. Kind of similar to the big boring movie about Scotland found in the beginning of the original Casino Royale. I dunno what it is about movies from that time period, but they always seem like lavish Bollywood productions of a fever dream.

Reviews of Old Science Fiction Magazines: F&SF 10-11/2002: Another big anniversary issue. I tend not to like these anniversary issues, but this one was very good. First, "A Democracy of Trolls", in which RoOSFM favorite Charles Coleman Finlay dares to tell the true story of Reddit. Ursula K. Le Guin's "Social Dreaming of the Frin" is also excellent. Tanith Lee's "In the City of Dead Night" starts out really slowly and infodumply but picks itself up and becomes a fun Dying Earth-esque piece of fantasy/SF.

In the tier of stories that are not great but still worth your time: Lucius Shepard's "The Drive-in Puerto Rico" and Robert Reed's "The Sleeping Woman", which will stand as a testament that stories sometimes get published with that kind of stylized "POV character is obsessed with something" plot, even though it never works when I do it. Also Damon Knight's last story, "Watching Matthew", which has almost no fantastic element to it but has really admirable dialog.

So three great stories, three good stories, no interesting ads, you could do a lot worse. Trivia: In nonfiction, Gregory Benford gives explaining string theory his best shot. The book review column covers the beginning of the now-big Fables comic series. The end-matter column, "Curiosities", mentions the apocalyptic 1901 book The Purple Cloud, which wouldn't normally be worth mentioning except I'm pretty sure there's a story earlier in the magazine that mentions the same novel.

Slackers: I'm reading all these decade-in-review roundups and thinking "we really could have done all that in six years."

[Comments] (5) Connectionism: I haven't mentioned this explicitly on NYCB, but I'm writing a novel. I still wouldn't mention this explicitly, because I don't believe in announcing projects that aren't complete, but this entry needs that fact for context.

(If you're curious: the novel is about halfway done, I hope to finish in the next 6 months or so, and once I've got a complete draft I hope to start serializing it on a website that you've probably heard of if you read this weblog. The only thing I will say about the subject matter is that if you liked "Mallory" you will like this thing. But know that I'm breaking my own rule in even mentioning this project, and it could still end up incomplete like a lot of my projects you've never heard of, so don't hold your breath.)

The reason I'm blowing my cover is to tell you about a theory I came up with earlier this week while talking to Adam Parrish that explains some things I've discovered during my short writing career. Adam is also writing a novel: he's retelling a Lovecraft story in novel form for NaNoWriMo. But under my questioning I learned that Adam is only doing this to get a better sense of the rules of narrative, so that he can destroy those rules, Duchamp-style.

Adam's real idea of a NaNoWriMo project is to generate a list of 50,000 random words from the dictionary and carve a story out of those words, the way a sculptor carves a statue from a block of randomly generated marble. So here's the first draft of Adam's ideal NaNoWriMo novel, which I wrote in about a minute.

Anyway, like a modernist fool I told Adam one of my rules of narrative. I discovered that the easiest way to write a novel is to throw a bunch of characters into a situation. If you get stuck, throw in more characters. If you can come up with enough characters, you'll eventually come up with some that have interesting interactions with each other and with the situation, and you can focus on those to do your worldbuilding and advance the plot.

Adam was skeptical of this idea. He thought I was speaking mystical writer talk about the characters taking on lives of their own. No, I said, it's just math. If you have N characters there will be N2-N possible relationships between them, and at any point in the plot you have (N2-N)/2 possible two-character scenes you might write. Most of those relationships and scenes will be stupid or impossible, but if you just get enough damn people in your book it will become obvious what to write about next. This explains a strange phenomenon I discovered: if you put someone or something in your novel early on, you will invariably find a use for them/it later.

When I read a novel, I'm happy with a character if I get to see two sides of them. If you can tell a story about a character's attitude toward the main plot arc, their attitude towards the main character, and their attitude towards another minor character, you can use two of those to illustrate their personality and the other to illustrate another side of them. If you can't do that, it's probably a sign your character isn't interesting enough.

This theory also illustrates something I've often found in short stories: too many characters. I can't count the number of times I've heard (or said) in writing group, "this character isn't necessary." It often happens to family members of the main character. It hurts to hear it because I always have a vivid picture of that character, but it's usually accurate. It might be a pain to rewrite the story without that character, but it's technically possible and the resulting story will take up less space in the reader's head. It also cuts word count, which means a cheaper story, which an editor is, on the margin, more likely to buy.

These characters get created in the early phase of story writing where the story isn't fully formed and you're not sure what's gonna happen. Because a short story is short you don't get a chance to show them in all their glory. Then because a short story has to be lean you end up cutting them. Sometimes there's no pain. Look at the deleted scene from "Awesome Dinosaurs". When I cut that 550-word scene I cut three speaking parts. I didn't have to change more than 100 words in the rest of the story to get rid of that scene. Sometimes it's tough. I've got a story that hasn't gone out for a while because I have to cut the main character's sister which means I need to redo all the worldbuilding.

But this problem with short stories is the flip side of what made me finally able to write (half of) a novel, already the longest piece of fiction I've ever written. You can toss characters into the pot and combinatorics will do some of the work for you. I get the feeling that this works better for serial novels, and so it would also work well for comic books and TV shows. (I find it helpful to think of my current project not as a novel, but as a soap opera in prose form.)

[Comments] (1) Reviews of Old Science Fiction Magazines: F&SF 12/1986: Fun cover, huh? That's for John Morressy's enjoyable fantasy-versus-science-fiction story "Spirits from the Vasty Deep".

I'm reading more of these magazines because all the books are packed up for the move. This was a really good issue. The best story here was "A Stage of Memory" by David Brin and his brother Daniel. Kenneth W. Ledbetter's "Outpost on Europa" has no big literary merit but is a great adventure with talking dolphins. Ron Goulart's "Glory" was a Hollywood vampire story that was fun but didn't really feel fresh (it's fairly similar to "A Deskful of Girls", a F&SF story from 1959 I reviewed last month). I didn't really enjoy Pamela Sargent's "The Soul's Shadow" but I did admire how it read like a D.J. Hall painting come to life.

In the book review column, Algis Burdys disses Walter Jon Williams's first novel, which I found a little distressing because I've got a later novel by him packed in my boxes of still-unread books.

Harlan Ellison's film column provides me with even more endless amusement than usual. His schtick is that in this column he's going to get right to the point, which leads to even more grandiose digressions and outrageously-stated opinions than an average Harlan Ellison F&SF film review column.

Ellison apparently hates James Cameron and must grudgingly admit that Aliens is "a rather good action-adventure". He loves Big Trouble in Little China as a "cheerfully blathering live-action cartoon that will give you release from the real pressures of your basically dreary lives." (He goes on for a full column of print in this vein.) He loves the 1937 Frank Capra film Lost Horizon, which had recently been restored and was making a tour.

He really loves The Great Mouse Detective, "the first new Disney animated to recapture the incomparable wonders of Fantasia, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Pinocchio and The Three Caballeros." I'm neither a huge Disney animation fan--the only one I really like is Pinocchio--nor an expert, but The Three Caballeros? The geography lesson? The movie whose plot summary is "It is Donald Duck's birthday. He recieves three presents."? Harlan Ellison, these random-ass opinions are why I love your twenty-year-old film review columns.

Anyway, I vaguely remember seeing The Great Mouse Detective when I was a kid, and it was definitely fun. But Three Caballeros fun? I dunno.

Ellison is really pissed off at the Geraldo Rivera TV special The Mystery of Al Capone's Vaults, referring to it as "that 2-hour con job" and calling Geraldo "increasingly lacertilian". Finally he gets to what is supposedly the point of the column, heaping praise on Labyrinth and regretful complaints on a Ridley Scott film called Legend which I'd never heard of. It's a movie that pits Tom Cruise against Tim Curry (look at their names! They're almost the same!), with Robert Picardo in a supporting role. And according to IMDB comments, a much better director's cut was released in 2002, so it's definitely worth a look.

And with that I close the book, or magazine, on this issue of F&SF. Enjoy the photo gallery, which also includes pix from the recently reviewed Analog. Don't miss the Hitchhiker's Guide ad, featuring a non-digital watch that's nonetheless a pretty neat idea.

Pop Culture Invades History: Yesterday I read Barbara Tuchman's amazing book on the Zimmerman telegram, The Zimmerman Telegram. It was a little distracting that Woodrow Wilson had an advisor named Edward House, because I kept reading paragraphs like this:

Superficially it would seem that Wilson, who dealt in principles and disliked details, was perfectly seconded by such a man as House, who loved the minutiae of deals and personalities. But this was not so. If Wilson had too much contempt for men, House had too little respect for principles. He became so immersed in his wire-pulling, in playing one personality against another, in keeping everyone conciliated and all wheels turning that this became and end in itself. The goal of negotiation became lost in the procedure.

As a bonus, there's a minor character named Princess Daisy.

: You probably didn't notice this because you read NYCB in a feed reader, but a while back I took down the Project Wonderful ads from the site. I did this not because Project Wonderful were jerks, the way Google AdSense are jerks, but because I wasn't really taking in any money from the ads. It wasn't literally $0.00, but it was significantly less than I bring in from the Beautiful Soup tipjar, which is just on one page.

I don't publish a popular web comic (or indeed a popular anything, except for Beautiful Soup), and it just wasn't worth it. So I've reclaimed those few pixels of vertical space. But if you have some crowd-pleaser that can push your ad bids above that elusive two-cent mark, I definitely recommend Project Wonderful over AdSense.

[Comments] (2) : In the scant months I've subscribed to it, the arXiv blog has served up many interesting and possibly insane bits of scientific speculation. The longest paper it's caused me to read is Michael Dittmar's four-part "The Future of Nuclear Energy", the most recent part of which was published recently.

On the surface the paper is an overview of the state of nuclear power, but an interesting argument quickly forms that the world doesn't have much exploitable uranium left. Here's my summary of the main argument, with extraneous and historical information removed:

  1. Every estimate of how much uranium is available uses data from the IAEA "Red Book".
  2. The Red Book is not a scientific document. The data is self-reported by uranium-mining countries, and is given to an unrealistic degree of precision with no margin of error. There's no way to check it.
  3. Trends in the Red Book year-over-year indicate that certain countries are fudging their data, for instance by pumping up the huge "uranium reserves that probably exist" number. This number being the main underpinning of the claims that there's enough uranium to supply our cravings for nuclear-derived electricity for however many years.
  4. Even if the Red Book is accurate, "however many years" is not as long as it sounds, since nuclear power plants are built to amortize their cost over 40-60 years. And right now nuclear power only generates 15% of the world's electricity. If you want to double that, "however many years" gets cut in half, and you still haven't replaced fossil fuels.
  5. What about high tech like breeder reactors? According to Dittmar, there are only a couple commercial breeder reactors in operation and they don't really produce a net increase in radioactive material. It's more like regenerative braking in an electric car, where you get some of the energy back.

    The technical problems with breeder reactors can theoretically be overcome with more research. (Dittmar has no hope for commercial fusion.) But, given the long development lead times and the fact that the necessary research isn't being funded right now, by the time they're commercially viable there won't be any tritium to run them on, because of the uranium problem. (Tritium can be generated in a conventional uranium-burning nuclear reactor, but very slowly--and it has a half-life of 12 years.)

I was intrigued by this analysis, because I always think a claim that some data set is wrong or has been misinterpreted is interesting. But because it's such a seductive narrative I also wanted to look at a high-quality response to Dittmar's claims. Any problems with the logic aside, there are a couple problems with Dittmar's presentation that give bad smells:

  1. Dittmar has an obvious bias against nuclear weapons, a bias that seems quite sensible to a civilian but which you should probably not write into your papers if you're trying to convince other nuclear scientists of something. Seriously, don't tell your readers to watch Dr. Strangelove. Anyone interested enough to read your paper has already seen it.
  2. Dittmar also believes that certain recovery techniques like reprocessing fuel rods for plutonium will inevitably drive proliferation of nuclear weapons. I've heard this argument before but I don't understand the physics of it, so I can't judge. Anyway, this really has nothing to do with his main argument, except insofar as he's attacking a pie-in-the-sky idea where the whole world uses nuclear energy for exclusively peaceful purposes.
  3. I don't think English is Dittmar's first language, because his grammar is not great. This is nothing that couldn't be fixed by an editor, but it makes his writing look crackpot-ish.

So I was on the market, and happy this morning when I saw that Paul Raven posted about Dittmar's paper on Futurismic today, and linked to this 2008 post on the Wall Street Journal environmental weblog. That weblog post dismisses contemporaneous "peak uranium" concerns by... citing the IAEA Red Book data. But the main point of Dittmar's paper is that the Red Book data is unreliable!

In desperation, I turned to the comment section on the original arXiv blog posting, hoping that there would at least be people arguing over the paper instead of just quoting the Red Book. Well, there was a lot of irrelevant arguing (fair enough, since there's a lot of irrelevant points in Dittmar's paper), but below is a rough classification of the relevant rebuttals:

OK, so after colliding thesis and antithesis in my Hegelian particle accelerator, I've come to the following tenative conclusions:

So there's something here, but it doesn't seem like a bombshell. Basically, the Red Book numbers are inaccurate and vague in many different ways, but used in policy arguments as though they were very accurate, because they're the only game in town. It's possible the numbers are so far off the mark that there will be a uranium price shock in 2013, but it seems pretty unlikely.

I'm interested in hearing the opinions of those who know more about these topics.

Hey Kids, It's Wolvy!: In case you didn't see on Sumana's weblog, our move is on hold for a couple months. But not before I packed half our stuff into boxes Hal got me from the comic book store. (The non-essential half, fortunately.)

One of the boxes used to contain Wolverine action figures, and there was a handwritten sticker on it saying "WOLVY ORIGINAL ACTION". The box has been sitting in the living room for days and I kept looking at that sticker. Wolvy original action! It was distracting, so I took the sticker off. A search shows that "Wolvy" is not a common way to refer to Wolverine; maybe it's comic book store slang.

: Sumana has been published in GNOME Journal. Check out her overview of the Telepathy project, cunningly titled "Telepathy Overview".

Reviews of Old Science Fiction Magazines: Analog 1986/06: A really interesting issue, despite the useless-in-isolation second part of Vernor Vinge's "Marooned in Realtime". First, there's Timothy "I'd Rather Be Writing Star Wars Tie-In Novels" Zahn, with an enjoyable space opera piece, "The Evidence of Things Not Seen". Geoffrey A. Landis has the funny "Stroboscope", in which a guy cryogenically freezes himself as a cheap way of time travel, but people keep waking him up and making him sign forms.

Those are the two stories from this issue that I thought were really good. But there's also "Bugs" by Christopher Anvil, an incredibly weird story about the mid-80s personal computer industry. "Bugs" is like Anvil took one of those "if computers were cars" email forwards and turned it into a science fantasy story.[0] In 1986. The ending is a disappointment and everything is a huge cliche, but I couldn't stop reading it. It's like the Hamlet of email forwards. Also, for whatever reason all the computer companies are named after animals: Sharke, Gnat, Barricuda, Cougar.

Misc.: Book review column praises Speaker for the Dead and Always Coming Home. G. Harry Stine's "Alternate View" column covers the history of the Kalashnikov, revealing an odd kind of faith in central planning:

One can hope the new Soviet avtomat Kalashnikova obr 1974 is a big hit and replaces the AKM. The AK74 is a scaled-down AKM firing a Soviet 5.45mm. round. The need to keep the smaller weapon well maintained may deter terrorists from using it...

(Sumana wants me to add that the 19th was the Kalashnikov's anniversary (?) and that The Colbert Report did a bit about it.)

Interesting ads are up in a gallery. Ad not pictured says that Arthur C. Clarke has "one of the world's most exciting and honored imaginations."

PS: Has anyone read "Twist Ending" by Barry Longyear? This issue has an ad that promises "a realm where the dinosaurs, after 70 million years, decide it is finally time to return to Earth."

[0] You can get away with a fair amount of magic when writing "hard" SF about computers. Much more than you could get away with when writing about spaceships or mining equipment.

[Comments] (1) Giving Thanks For Awesome Dinosaurs: Just in time for Thanksgiving, the Drabblecast has recorded a dramatization/reading of "Let Us Now Praise Awesome Dinosaurs". With a cast of thousands! Okay, a cast of five. But that's four more people than I ever imagined would collaborate to read one of my stories out loud. Check it out, and share the awesomeness. The announcer at the monster truck rally, in particular, is perfect.

[Comments] (2) : Happy Thanksgiving! We already did Thanksgiving early this month, with Susanna in Salt Lake, 'cause we were going to be moving right now. But we're not moving, and all the vacation time I saved up for the move will be spent working on the novel and possibly on some Beautiful Soup updates. I'm on vacation more or less for the rest of the year. The downside is that there's no one in town to have a day-of Thanksgiving with but Sumana, who doesn't like having a fridge full of Thanksgiving food twice in the same month.

In that spirit, let me help you waste some time. Recently, through Jaime Weinman's weblog, Sumana and I discovered the YouTube channel of bobtwcatlanta, who's put up hours and hours of video: old commercials, which I thought would be kind of interesting, but which have paled in comparison to the amazingly engrossing intros to old TV shows. Sumana and I have spent a couple hours watching these intros and marveling at the crap that used to be on TV, and also at the surprising non-crap where we were expecting terribleness of a cosmic-microwave-background-like uniformity.

Occasionally we were so astounded (positively or negatively) by an intro that we wrote down the name of the show for later research. Now, I share this list with you. Although this list reads like Leonard's wacky list of fake TV shows, this is 100% stuff that was shown on real televisions. (Except, possibly, the last one.)

Reviews of Old Science Fiction Magazines: F&SF 1991/08: Three "eh"s for the stories in this issue. Almost all of them were decent, but nothing stood out. The best stories were the last two, "A Long Time Dying" by Geoffrey A. Landis and "The Woman, the Pilot, the Raven" by Dean Whitlock. Proving how subjective this stuff is, there's an editorial at the beginning (not seen all that often in F&SF) where Kristine Kathryn Rusch talks about what a tough room she is.

The big unspoken theme this issue is the collapse of the Soviet Union. Specifically, not seeing it coming. The cover date is August 1991, the month of the hardline anti-Gorbechev coup that IMO was the point at which the USSR started seriously falling apart. But the magazine was surely in stores the previous month and had been put to bed months earlier. With that in mind, here's the intro to a Bruce Sterling story:

National news commentators looked tired by the middle of 1990. The Cold War had eased, the Soviet Block had released restrictions on its satellites and the world seemed a little warmer. Sometimes it seemed as if we had stepped into an alternate universe . . . at least until Iraq invaded Kuwait. Bruce Sterling's story, "The Unthinkable," returns to that place where the Cold War appears to have lost a bit of its edge -- in a true alternate universe, filled with its own demons and nightmares.

"The Unthinkable" is kind of a Lovecraft take on the nuclear arms race. No, not quite like "A Colder War." Although it's a pretty accurate prediction of 1992, modulo the magic, the story's introduction apologizes that it's not more topical!

Similarly, August 1991 was not a good time for Norman Spinrad to publish a novel called Russian Spring that projects the space race into the future. From Amazon reviews it seems his biggest predictive blunder was saying "Soviet Union" instead of "Russian Federation", but it's a little sad to read Orson Scott Card saying that Russian Spring is "almost certain to be the book of the year" given that the book looked obsolete before the year was out. Here's the F&SF review from Orson Scott Card's website site if you want to read it. I'll just quote the most poignant part of the review:

Current events will catch up with him, but not as quickly as you might expect: For instance, there's no mention of the Gulf War in Russian Spring, and indeed, the novel might have been written entirely before that war took place -- and yet the Gulf War is exactly the kind of thing that Spinrad's future America could do, and if we let our euphoria at victory lead us to become global bullies, his vision of a morally and economically bankrupt America may be far more accurate than any of us would wish.

There are a couple more minor things I could mention but I'll close by highlighting an ad from the classifieds:

ALIENS PROGRAM IBM PC Games. Nifty demo disk [5.25 or 3.5] $2.00. Tommy's Toys, Box 11261, Denver, CO 80211.

I vaguely remember this from BBS days; this guy had a shareware company and his schtick was that he was so prolific because he was a space alien. In actuality, as he now admits on his website, he was just using QuickBasic to make cheap games. Now he's a novelist, with such titles under his belt as "Baby Boomer Morticians", "Space Reachers 2999", and "Salvation Day: The Immortality Device." Not an Unwinder's Tall Comics character, folks, a real person.

Beautiful Soup 3.0.8: I bet you didn't expect a Beautiful Soup release (unless you saw the foreshadowing a couple days earlier). But Aaron DeVore made a bunch of improvements, and 3.0.x is still the branch you'd use if you had a choice, and I decided to spend a few hours applying patches and writing unit tests, and there you go.

I've come up with a Linux kernel-like system where 3.1.x is retconned into the 'development' branch. Hopefully sometime on this vacation I'll decide to finish the 'development' work and release a Beautiful Soup version 4 that everyone can use.

Here's the direct download.

lol i got drunk and drew this, plz caption: Yesterday I showed Alexei and his friends around the Met. I've gotten pretty good at showing people the best parts of the Met: my full tour takes 3 hours, which seems like a long time but there's 30 hours of stuff in there. Compare the MoMA, where you can see everything in 3 hours and a lot of it sucks. What I'm saying is, book your tour today.

This time around, I thought to bring a camera to take pictures of some of my favorite things. But not Damien Hirst's shark, because--this is hilarious--they have a guard whose entire job is to tell people not to take pictures of the shark. Fairly high on the list of most degrading jobs. I may put up my pictures eventually, though some of them didn't come out and they're probably not the highest-quality Internet pictures of the works in question.

But I do have the highest-quality Internet pictures of the Luo Ping/Jiang Shiquan joint "Insects, Birds, and Beasts" (mentioned earlier), and I present those to you now in all their abuse-of-whitespace glory, along with translations of the poems. One part I didn't remember from last time: "According to his inscription, Luo Ping painted this album while intoxicated." Oxen, clams, ants, monkeys, etc: enjoy.

A spider can kill a centipede
Whether it's called a centipede or any other name.
Pity those in the world's web:
Those with poison are not lenient with each other.

[Comments] (1) : Last week I wrote a bit of my novel that involved the phone system ISS astronauts use to to call their families. I presumed this system existed but couldn't find any technical details, so I made up a space-to-ground radio-based system that let me write a farcical scene. In retrospect, I guess I could have asked my boss. But anyway.

Yesterday I found two amazing HTTP resources, both probably via BoogaBooga, which make it much easier to write about the ISS: Bruce Sterling's interview with astronaut Nicole Stott, and Michael Barratt's video tour of the entire ISS, which apparently underwent spring cleaning recently because he's very proud of how tidy everything is.

In the interview, Nicole Stott says "The main tool we have for communicating with our family friends (aside from email) is an IP phone." So my space-to-ground-radio solution is officially non-canon.

I try somewhat hard not to contravene established facts, but I'm not gonna change this, because 1) it's too messy for fiction. Why do they have an IP phone but no Web access? I'm sure there's a reason, but in writing group that would get me dinged for inaccuracy. The whole reason this phone conversation is happening is because the offworld Internet gateway isn't working, so the IP phone wouldn't work either and they'd have to fall back to something like the solution I came up with. But my POV character doesn't know any of this and I only have 20 words to set up the phone call. This is the slippery slope that gives us magic movie computers that do things computers can't really do.

2) I set my 'realistic' works in alternate universes, precisely to give me some Finux-like wiggle room. In "Mallory" I reinvented the whole history of the personal computer. In the novel, the space shuttle was retired after the Columbia disaster, and there's an abandoned moon base. I've got room to play around with minor things like phone systems, without feeling the guilt I'd feel if I introduced psychic powers or faster-than-light travel.

Anyway, check out the interview and video. It's like an early Christmas gift to me--the gift of worldbuilding!

[Comments] (3) Request Weblog Music Reviews: Hey, remember back in March when I asked you for music recommendations and never followed up? Well, I did buy those albums, and after months of occasionally listening to part of one of them, today I bit the bullet. I listened to all nine albums today while working on my novel. And now, the results! In the reviews below I give my impression of the album, a mean song rating (I rated the songs in Banshee as I listened), plus the person who originally recommended the album, for convenient wrecking of friendships.

  1. Menomena, "I Am The Fun Blame Monster!": More like Meh-nomena. (Unfortunately, not more like Mahnamahna.) Songs that are too long and too slow with too few words. Playing only the last two minutes of each song gives a decent album. Mean song score: 2.111... stars. Originally recommended by Nathaniel.
  2. Moloko, "Do You Like My Tight Sweater?": Funky and with lots of random lyrics. However, also suffers from fairly serious repetition. Does a song really need to repeat its chorus twenty times? I know that some will say "yes", but they are wrong.

    This musical style seems pretty similar to Menomena, but because I really liked the first track I was willing to put up with random track intros like the creepy moaning sounds at the beginning of "Party Weirdo". Or maybe I just like female vocalists better than male vocalists. Mean song score: 2.77 stars. (This was dragged down by the many tracks less than 30 seconds long. Mean song score without them: 3.0 stars.) Originally recommended by Evan.

  3. Eux Autres, "Hell is Eux Autres": Awesome rock with male and female vocalists that remind me of (the band) Barcelona. Originally recommended by Dave (Griffith?). Mean song score: a solid 3.555... stars.
  4. Girl Talk, "Night Ripper": Brilliant, but not brilliant enough to make me enjoy super-layered hip-hop remixen. "This song has the same meter as that one" is a game that's fun to play ad hoc with boring songs, but kind of annoying when extended to album length. And when I start playing that game with your remix, you've lost me. Mean song score: 1.63 stars. Maybe I'd like it better if I caught more of the references, though I did catch a fair number of them and it rarely improved my opinion of the remix. Originally recommended by Evan.
  5. Chroma Key, "Dead Air For Radios": Originally recommended by "Kangaroo" Jack Masters, and is exactly what I imagined him listening to. Oceans of sound with drums and strange electronic sounds and found audio and reverb. I never specifically wanted a song to be over but I also never had a specific positive impression of a song, except for the final, creepy "Hell Mary". Mean song score: 3.11 stars.
  6. Dan Bern, "Dan Bern": This guy is hilarious. The Dylan impression is unnecessary, but his songwriting is great albeit heavy-handed. Mean song score: 3.18 stars due to a weak second half. Originally recommended by Mike Popovic.
  7. Veldt, "The Cause The Effect": Originally recommended by Kevan. Was not optimistic about this: I gave British Sea Power a listen because Kevan is always listening to it, and I didn't like them. I don't feel any different after having listened to this album, and listening to BSP right now, I think I like them better than Veldt. Mean song score: 2.1818... stars.
  8. Silver Jews, "The Natural Bridge": Pavement precursor album, originally recommended by the jake. I don't really like Pavement, but Jake's taste is always good. And... this sounds like a less rocking Pavement. The songwriting is excellent ("All houses dream in blueprints" is the single best line in this review corpus), but the singer puts no emotion into it. It's like hearing a zombie sing. Mean song score: 2.4 stars.
  9. The Wiyos, "Hat Trick": Good-tymey swing music that rocks harder than most of the rock music on this list. Like if the Prairie Home Companion house band had more of an edge. Mean song score: 3.38 stars. Originally recommended by Mirabai.

I recommend Eux Autres, Dan Bern, and The Wiyos to the general NYCB-reading public. Thanks to everyone who gave me suggestions, even the ones I hated. (I still love you!)

Now that I've accomplished that guilt-relieving task, I invite you to pile on additional guilt. Give me more music recommendations! Links to "best of 2009" and "best of the 2000s" lists will be accepted, though I won't buy every damn album on them.

[Comments] (3) The Christmas Bulletin Board: The apartment across the parking lot from our living room put up a big Christmas tree, but we don't have the room for a Christmas tree (a small Charlie Brown-esque one would technically fit, but it would be a pain to deal with). Last week I suggested to Sumana that we adopt the unknown neighbors' tree and mooch off their Christmas spirit.

But on Sunday I had a better idea. We have some Christmas ornaments: some heirloom glass snowflakes, some old needlepoint ornaments, and an ornament Sumana's babysitter gave her when she was a kid. And we have a bulletin board that I cleaned off when I thought we were moving, and bulletin boards are made from trees... So in the spirit of the season, I present to you our Christmas bulletin board:

Reviews of Not That Old Science Fiction Magazines: F&SF February 2009: Every story in this issue is good! In fact, almost every story is better than the Charles Coleman Finlay story ("The Texas Bake Sale", which has the best title but pales in comparison to all but Mario Milosevic's "Winding Broomcorn".) Fred Chappell's "Shadow of the Valley": great. The reprint of Jack Cady's Nebula-winning novella "The Night We Buried Road Dog": awesome. Eugene Mirabelli's "Catalog": good, and pushed beyond good by a metatextual classified ad in the classified ad section, which I don't think anyone has mentioned online before. I mention it now! It's great.

In my history of reviewing this damn stack of magazines I don't think I've ever found an issue as satisfying as I found this one. There's just not much to say. (Also I'm going to sleep soon.)

...In Popular Culture: Not sure where I found out about Tielhard-influenced SF writer George Zebrowski, and did not expect to find out (while researching this entry) that he sometimes collaborates with Pamela Sargent. Last year I picked up his novel Macrolife and a short story collection, The Monadic Universe. I read Macrolife back in May: I was hoping to like it, and it certainly had epic scope, but I found it pretty dull, so I didn't have high hopes for TMU.

But, I read through it today, because it's one of a dwindling number of books that I didn't pack into boxes, and it wasn't too bad. Most of the stories were 1970s New Wave fables of pollution and overpopulation, but the title story was very good, as was "Heathen God". But I read a lot of books, and apart from the yearly nostalgic look back (coming soon!), I don't mention them here unless I have some interesting tidbit to convey. Preferably something that's not already on the Web.

And so I do about "Assassins of Air", the most 1970s story in TMU. The protagonist steals old pollution-spewing cars and sells them for scrap, the illicit face of an economy that's going to great lengths to undo enormous environmental damage. And what does he do with his money?

"I need it now," Praeger mumbled. "I have to pay for my PLATO lessons. I gotta have it, honest."

What? That couldn't be the ahead-of-its-time PLATO time-sharing system, could it?

PLATO the sign read: PROGRAMMING LOGIC FOR AUTOMATIC TEACHING OPERATIONS. Once the facility had been free, just like chest X rays. Now students had to pay to milk the machine, twenty dollars a rap; but it was a good teach if you wanted to learn a skill.

Wow! PLATO became big in 1972 (insofar as it became big at all), and Assassins of Air was published in 1973. Zebrowski clearly had his ear to the ground. The technical details of PLATO don't exactly play a major part in the story, but it's still very impressive.

It made me wonder about the first pop culture references to the Internet or ARPANET. According to Wikipedia, the very first was either the 1969 Disney movie The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes, or a 1985 episode of Benson, the sitcom whose intro seemingly gives you permission to laugh at black people being chased by attack dogs. Google Book Search reveals an ARPANET reference in Theodore Roszak's 1983 thriller "Bugs". Not really sure where else I'd go for this information--TV Tropes has nothing--but it seems likely that there are multiple ARPANET references in early-1980s print science fiction, given how the damn thing was full of SF fans.

Hi, I'm Daisey: Came back from seeing Mike Daisey do "The Last Cargo Cult". As always, an amazing monologue. It's got 2 more days in New York and is then going to DC and Atlanta, so catch it if possible.

[Comments] (2) Request Weblog Music Reviews II: I strike again! Keep the suggestions coming. Can I have some harder rock, please?

  1. Neko Case, "Middle Cyclone". Recommended by Brendan. Gentle rock with female vocalist. Mean song score: 3.3999... stars though a couple days later nothing has really stuck in my memory.
  2. Tally Hall, "Marvin's Marvelous Mechanical Museum". Recommended by Sumana, recommended in turn by last.fm. Sumana went and found their excellent fourth-wall-ignoring music video for "Good Day". Different styles with a core of rock and close harmony. Very good stuff. Mean song score: 3.5 stars.
  3. Jukebox The Ghost, "Let Live And Let Ghosts". Recommended by Ben Heaton. Strangely enough, the first song on this album is also called "Good Day". Fun piano pop, but it's no Ben Folds. Mean song score: 3.0 stars.
  4. Camera Obscura, "Let's Get Out Of This Country". As long as I'm reviewing albums. Rachel gave this to Sumana last Christmas. Slow wavery ting-ting-ting-y pop. Not as good as I remember. Mean song score: 2.58333... stars. Maybe Sumana likes it better.

Reviews of Old Science Fiction Magazines: F&SF 01/2002: Yes, in case you needed to feel decrepit, the F&SF issue containing Gordon Van Gelder's 9/11 editorial now qualifies as "old". It's also got good stories by Gene Wolfe ("The Waif") and R. Garcia y Robertson ("Death In Love"). James Stoddard's "The Star Watch" is worth a read, and Harlan Ellison playfully gropes the reader with "Never Send To Know For Whom The Lettuce Wilts".

James Sallis' book review column gives the thumbs up to a William Tenn collection (never heard of him? he's awesome) and to Kelly Link's Stranger Things Happen. Kathi Maio's movie review column covers previously-unknown-to-me Happy Accidents, which sounds like if Primer was a romantic comedy. The Gregory Benford/Elizabeth Marlarte science column comes really close to discovering the uncanny valley, and contains this interesting bit:

We have no true idea of an upper limit on lifespan. If we eliminated all aging... eliminated diseases, and could avoid all causes of death except accident (including suicide), how long could we live? Most people, when asked, guess at ages like 120, or 150. The answer gathered from death rate tables is astonishing: close to 1500 years!

Cartoon insanity! Three of the four cartoons in this issue involve rats. There's one with rats in a maze, one with humans instead of rats in a maze, and... this one, which--what the hell? It's a dog whistle I just don't hear.

If you still don't feel old, check out the photo gallery, which has ads for defunct MMORPGs and novels you read a long time ago. Also the fourth-wall-breaking classified ad I mentioned in my review of the February 2009 issue.

[Comments] (2) What Separates Fantasy From Mainstream Fiction: From writing group: "If you have a giant animal draining the narrator's life force, the reader isn't going to think 'oh, that must be a metaphor for his alcoholism.' They're going to take it at face value."

[Comments] (4) : Sumana mentioned that the other night we went through Craiglist for entertainment. Eventually the well started running dry and we did searches in the personals for unlikely strings like "Linux". Well, "Linux" did uncover a thread in the "rants and raves section", in which a troll exhorted everyone 'DON'T USE "LINUX" SOFTWARE or BUY A LAPTOP WITH "LINUX" ON IT' because Linus Torvalds is an atheist and--stay with me here--therefore a worshipper of Satan.

There were a number of responses to this, covering almost the whole spectrum of possible responses: "Atheists don't believe that Satan exists." and "You are dumb." and my personal favorite:

First, what do you mean exactly by "Linux"? The entire OS, or just the kernel?

Torvalds created the kernel but not the operating system. The OS was written by Richard Matthew Stallman and his crew of volunteers, collectively known as the GNU project...

However, I was a bit disappointed not to see it pointed out that Bill Gates and Steve Jobs[0] also lack a God-belief, so really what choice do you have? You're screwed.

I really hope someone is archiving Craigslist for the future. It'll be a useful training corpus for turning emotionless, super-rational AIs into crazy, human-like AIs.

[0] Under the reasonable-to-me assumption that Jobs doesn't practice a theistic kind of Buddhism. Gates is clearly a "that's not an interesting question" agnostic. Fleeing to your Apple II? Not so fast--Steve Wozniak is a flat-out atheist.

[Comments] (3) Yes Sale #3: Because of the novel I only wrote one short story in 2009, but I sold it! My alt-history story "The Day Alan Turing Came Out" will be published in Raven Electrick Ink's Retro Spec anthology, helpfully classified under "fiction/sf/1980s/computers; gay rights." Publication date: I know not when.

Link Time: Holiday Special: The true meaning of Holiday is lost in the mists of time, but for now, enjoy some links.

The crummy.com nostalgia-thon begins around Christmas. Pretty much all the nostalgia will be 2009-related, because end-of-decade nostalgia sucks. Everyone's opinions are already formed and all the links are broken.

[Comments] (5) Ultimate Star Trek Nerd Speculation: I split this out of a forthcoming "best of links" post so I could discuss it in tedious detail. The link in question is a full-throated defense of Star Trek: Voyager which sparked a lively conversation between Sumana and myself back in August. Sumana has long despised Voyager, and on the whole my verdict is "not so great". But there are some excellent episodes,[0] and it did get better over time.

When Voyager was on the air, my problem with it was I didn't like the writing. As I watched it later I discovered another problem: the supporting cast is redundant. Most Trek supporting casts have an air of blandness (this is, in a nutshell, why DS9 is the best Trek series: pretty much the entire recurring cast is well-developed), but in VOY a lot of characters are just unnecessary.

Specifically, you don't need Chakotay, Tom Paris, or Harry Kim. You just need Tuvok. Whenever one of those three characters has a scene, it would be a better show if that were Tuvok's scene. You're probably thinking: "What about the episode where Paris learned a valuable lesson about blah? That wouldn't make sense with Tuvok!" Here's the thing: that episode was lousy. Pretty much every episode where these three characters act on their own initiative (as opposed to following orders) is lousy. But once those characters existed and the actors had contracts, the writers had to use them, and it watered down the plomeek soup.

Once we started talking about this, Sumana and I started trying to compress the casts of other Trek shows. The point is not to eliminate characters that we don't like--we love almost all these characters--but to try to get a similar cast with fewer characters, so that every character can be essential to almost every episode. This is a ruthless exercise in minimalism.

What's the point? Well, all these characters looked good in the series bible, but some of them didn't pan out. Some of them consistently bombed, some were underused. The thing is, you don't know ahead of time. A series bible is like a meta-screenplay. It can be implemented well or badly, and the final verdict doesn't come in until the end of the series.

This exercise is the flip side of tie-in novels and fan fiction. Instead of fleshing out the underused characters and exploring the ignored relationships, it lets us see which parts of the show were absolutely necessary to get the stories we liked. If you totally disagree with what Sumana and I like about Trek shows, you can probably express that disagreement in terms of your minimal cast.

Now on with the show. When I think Star Trek and "ruthless exercise in minimalism", I think of the original series. You can tell almost every TOS story with just Kirk, Spock, and McCoy. Everybody knows that. But you gotta have some other characters to spread the dialogue out, so let's dig deeper.

Do you need both Chekov and Sulu? Nope! TOS got along for a full season without Chekov. Do you need both Scotty and Spock? Not really! Let Spock fix the engines himself instead of telling Scotty to fix them.

Sumana took this opportunity to complain about the fact that Uhura, a chronically overlooked main character, is the only woman in TOS's main cast. I suggested making McCoy a woman. Sumana pointed out that they did exactly that in TNG, and nobody liked Dr. Pulaski. This had me stumped for a while, but now I have the solution: have Nichelle Nichols play McCoy instead of Uhura. Who would complain? Well, DeForest Kelley fans would complain, but look, now DeForest Kelley can play Khan. (Second-best solution: combine Scotty with Uhura instead of with Spock.)

Now that you see how the game works, back to VOY. As above, Tuvok subsumes Chakotay, Paris, and Kim. Apart from that, my suggestions are pretty minor. Seven of Nine can replace Kes--in fact, she did. With their powers combined, Seven and the Doctor can replace Neelix. Seven can also replace Torres, or Torres and the Doctor combined can replace Seven. But honestly I'd be perfectly happy with the Tuvok thing. You can tell most good VOY stories with Janeway, Tuvok, and Seven, but it's a stretch.

DS9 did an amazing job of developing a huge cast, so objectively speaking it doesn't need this exercise, but that's what makes it such a ruthless exercise. No one is spared! The TNG imports are out: Kira can do O'Brien's job, and Odo can do Worf's. Dax and Bashir can be combined. You still need Quark, but he can be a recurring character, like Rom, instead of a marquee character.

Sumana and I had a lot of fun messing with TNG, because it's the Trek we both grew up with. And TNG shows that major characters can just leave a show. The show didn't drastically change when Tasha Yar died, when Beverly Crusher left (or when she came back), or when Wesley Crusher left.

It's not much of an exaggeration to say you can tell all the interesting TNG stories with just Picard and Data. But you can't run the day-to-day business of Star Trek with just two characters, so let's add some more.

I think we have to leave Worf in place, especially since we got rid of him on DS9. The big question here is what to do with Riker, Troi, and Crusher, TNG's equivalents of Chakotay, Paris, and Kim. The situation's better than VOY because there's about 1.5 interesting characters between the three of them--but how to arrange them? The obvious thing to do is combine the two medical types, but the resulting character isn't any more interesting than Troi alone.

That's why we prefer to merge Troi with Riker and create a real XO character, someone responsible for mediating between the captain and crew. Either Marina Sirtis or Jonathan Frakes could play this character well. With this character you can play up Picard's reserve, make him a little less of a nice guy. If Picard is the captain everybody admires but nobody positively likes, this Troi-Riker character becomes the most interesting character on the show! Picard's more interesting, too. Combining characters doesn't just tighten up the show, it creates new possibilities.

You don't need Geordi LaForge when you have Data. If you really want to keep him (I do, he's my favorite TNG character), have him replace Crusher, but I don't think TNG needs a main-character doctor at all. Crusher was incredibly underused; have recurring guest stars do the sickbay scenes.

OK, one more. I haven't been messing with the commanders, because if you change the commander character you change the whole tone of the show.[1] But on ENT, Captain Archer isn't the strongest character: Tucker is. You can tell almost every good ENT story with Tucker, T'Pol, and Phlox[2]. You'll need an Archer+Reed+Mayweather+Sato character to spread out the dialogue, but with those four you're good to go. A Trek show where half the command staff are aliens would be really interesting, and quite appropriate for the ENT era.

[0] "Demon" and "Course: Oblivion" are among my favorite hours of Trek. For Sumana-like skeptics, some more excellent VOY off the top of my head: the "Equinox" two-parter (which shows what would have happened if VOY had been the Battlestar Galactica reboot), "Body and Soul", "Message in a Bottle". VOY also had some excellent stories about storytelling (eg. "Muse" and "Living Witness"), something that TNG tried occasionally but it never worked. DS9 fans especially should watch "Message in a Bottle" for its view into the Dominion War.

[1] Here's the kind of thing I come up with when I mess with the commanders. The DS9 pilot focuses on the great Federation diplomat Curzon Dax (Terry Farrell), who's been posted to the Bajoran system following the discovery of a strategically significant wormhole. Halfway through the pilot, Curzon is assassinated by Bajoran extremists trying to disrupt an ancient prophecy. The Dax symbiont must be saved at any cost, but the only Trill within range is Ezri Tigan (Avery Brooks), the troubled first officer of a nearby Federation starship. Yes, I said it. Avery Brooks plays Ezri Dax as the main character of DS9.

[2] Yeah, Phlox. He did kill a whole species that one time, but take him away and you no longer have ENT. Phlox's strength as a character comes from the fact that, by human standards, he's insaaaaane. IMO one of the most realistic depictions of a "human-like" alien in Trek. (Sumana asked me to add this disclaimer: "We cannot be sure how realistic this depiction is, because hypotheses about the behavior of imaginary aliens cannot be tested.")

Glasstravaganza!: We went to Beth's house tonight and talked about many things, including Phillip Glass. It was a Glasstravaganza, and you can take part as well, by enjoying these two bits of Phillip Glass fan art, as it were.

Beth mentioned that she'd read a play called "Phillip Glass Buys a Loaf of Bread" but never seen it. The play is so short that you can just watch an online video of the whole thing, and that's what we did.

Second, it's time for another Music Piracy Minute! One of Jake Berendes's lesser-known pieces, "Sorry State of Affairs", is a Phillip Glass tribute that's also a remix of the "Mr. Belvedere" theme song. Download that sucker now! Plus, for some reason this song always reminds me of Christmas music, so you get a festive two-for-one.

Totally unrelated picture: a surprisingly sweet ad found in this otherwise cynical grouping.

Pictures of 2009: In the spirit of year-end and decade-end housecleaning, I've gone through all the pictures I took in 2009 and made the interesting ones into photo galleries. I'll be sprinkling them into NYCB as the year winds down and I find I don't have anything written for the day. As happened today. So instead of words, enjoy pictures: Sumana's great visit to the London Transit Museum, and my much less interesting visit to Barcelona for the Canonical all-hands meeting.

Games That End With Your Suicide: Indie game trend of the year? I played four games in 2009 that end with the PC committing suicide or that won't end until the player kills the PC. Not to be all SPOILERy about it, but they were Every Day the Same Dream, Small Worlds, Don't Look Back, and Fathom[0]. These are just the (relatively) big names, the ones I saw on Play this Thing or Waxy. 2008's Karoshi Suicide Salaryman treated the topic lightly by making suicide a game mechanic, but in 2009 it was serious art.

Objectively speaking, this ending sucks. The only time I found it satisfying was in "Don't Look Back", which only has a suicide in the most technical sense. (I liked "Small Worlds" a lot, but thought the ending was a cop-out.) That's a 25% success rate, much worse than well-established indie game features like procedural generation and zombies.

I can see the attraction from an artistic standpoint: every PC death in a game is in some sense a suicide, because you could have done something different in-game, or not played the game at all. And you gotta end your game somehow, preferably in a way that separates your game from all the commercial projects. But the end of a game is always a cut scene, a place where interaction stops. And deciding what to put in a cut scene isn't a game-y choice. So I don't think you're saying much about games when you do this; you're just associating your game with a certain kind of film.

The suicide game is a subgenre of games that explore the meaning of death, or the relationship between the PC who just died and the PC you're controlling now. Death in real life is horrible, permanent, and it comes for everyone; in games it's a minor setback that can theoretically be avoided altogether. In 2008's Cursor*10, the PC's inevitable death and the player's inevitable trying again was a fun game mechanic. In 2009 we have Queens, Free Will: The Game, Lose/Lose, and a fourth game I can't remember the name of. It was a space shooter, like Lose/Lose, and it recorded your playthroughs and created ghosts, racing-game style, which you had to fight on subsequent playthroughs. (Something like that; I admit I didn't play it.) This was cool because the PC's death was a real mechanic that affected the next playthrough; it was the opposite of Cursor*10.[1]

My gaming wish for 2010: a game that looks like it's going to end with the PC's suicide, but instead at the crucial moment recreates the "WOW! YOU LOSE!" cutscene from "Bokosuka Wars". 'Cause that's how this game-ending technique makes me feel.

[0] This one's arguable, but "white light gets brighter and brighter until it obscures the entire screen, and that's the end" is common film shorthand for death. What's not arguable is that this ending sucks.

I also did not play, but watched a video of someone playing the impossibly hard platformer Super Ear Man Bros., another game that won't end until you kill the PC. This ending also sucks, but at least it's funny.

[1] I vaguely remember a sassy "ha, you can only play this game once because now the PC is dead" game from the 1990s, but I think it had no existence outside my own head. Good thing, too. There's also the infamous SMB1 hack "Air", where at one point you have to kill yourself to warp to an otherwise inaccessible checkpoint. I can't think of other predecessors, but I'm sure they're there.

Utah/Socrates: Yesterday I mentioned that I had a bunch of pictures from 2009 to show you over what's left of the year. Today I decided that I should also take care of a bunch of cool pictures I took in 2008 and never put online. That way I'll come out of the year with a smaller backlog.

I should be able to show you two galleries most days until the end of the year. Today's cute 2009 gallery comes from our November trip to Utah to see my niece and nephew. The 2008 gallery comes from our much shorter journey to the Socrates Sculpture Park, land of outdoor installation art. It's warm in those pictures! How did that happen? Oh yeah, the past.

[Comments] (3) Today's Pictures: The Pacific Northwest: Let's grab our stereotypical outfits and go on a scenic trip. First, it's my 2008 visit to Portland, where I saw Brendan, Kara, and a lot of moss. And a terrifying hypnocow. And Riana! And a donut shaped like a person.

Second, it's a Roy's Postcards supplemental gallery. In 1986 my dad went to the World's Fair in Vancouver without taking me or giving a good reason why I couldn't come. (You may have noticed some residual bitterness on my part.) He brought back a "passport" stamped by the World's Fair pavilions of countries all over the world. But unlike the boring stamps in real passports, these stamps were daring pieces of 1980s graphic design. Some of them, anyway. Let Norway show you how it's done.

Today's Pictures: Special "War on Life Day" Edition: I know what you want for Christmas: consumer electronics! That's why today's 2009 gallery is Computer Swag, sequel to Old Linux Schwag (it seems I'm not sure how that word is spelled) and Roy Richardson's Computer Buttons. Enjoy the shirts, pens, buttons, and random crap I've accumulated during my career in the computer industry. Includes a famous poster you may have forgotten about, which I found in pretty bad condition while wrapping posters up for the aborted move.

In the tradition of mixing awesome and boring Christmas presents, today's 2008 gallery is the consumer electronics equivalent of tube socks: cassette tapes! Not the generic tapes from the 1990s, but old cassette tapes, from the 70s and early 80s, when cassette tapes had brand names like "Sears". Tapes with awesome slipcases and weird slipcase linings. How do you know it's the 70s? Two-tone cassette tape. Oh yeah.

Today's Pictures: Special "The Regift that Keeps on Reviging" Edition: Yes, it's time to put online pictures that are already online. Specifically, pictures from my 2008 visit to the Computer History Museum with Kevin and Beril, Andrew and Claudia, and friends; photos which I uploaded to Flickr about a year ago. But now they're on crummy.com, where they belong.

There are a few new photos at the end of the gallery, which Beril took and sent to me. But the big draw is all those awesome old computers, many of which sent sent Kevin into a fit of murderous rage. Enjoy it again--it's been a year, do you really remember that there was a computer called the Gandalf? Looking at these pictures the day after Christmas should become a damn tradition.

Today's 2009 gallery is the trip I took with Alexei to the Met earlier this month. You already saw my photos of "Insects, Birds, and Beasts", but now witness my second attempt to get decent-quality photos of all my most coveted pieces in the Met. (My first attempt will be showing up later this week as a 2008 gallery.) Highlights of the highlights: Jackson Pollock's "Autumn Rhythm" (I also took closeups), three of Florine Stettheimer's four crazy 1920s consumerism-satire/love NYC paintings[0], and a shot of an ink cake. (More shots of ink cakes coming later this week, but they're not as well-lit as this one. But this one is kind of blurry, so oh well.) And, of course, a photo of me with "Piece of Cake". If only there were a photorealistic ink drawing called "Piece of Ink Cake", it would be the ultimate Met exhibit.

[0] I can't find where the fourth one is; I'm assuming private collection.

Year-End Cleanup Audio Bonus #1: More Scribbles, More Troubles : Before posting The Trouble With Scribbles I cut out a couple minutes due to the then-active embargo on public discussion of IF Competition entries. Now that the competition is over and Adam's "Earl Grey" has taken 5th place, you can legitimately hear me and Adam compare "Scribblenauts" and "Earl Grey".

[Comments] (1) Today's Pictures: Special "Not A Special Edition" edition: Today's theme is New York walks. From 2009 (in fact, from Friday), I take Sumana to Corona Park, former garbage dump, site of two World's Fairs, now the world's most desolate park. Well, I always seem to go in the winter on major holidays, but it suffers from serious institutional neglect as well. For instance, the city built a fancy new theater building next to the iconic Pavilion and Towers, but they forgot to fix the Pavilion and Towers themselves! They're unsafe and fenced off. I guess you can't tear them down and it's too expensive to rebuild them, so they just stay there, rusting. It's a great park precisely because of its clear history of decline, but I wouldn't complain if the city decided to restore it to its World's Fair glory.

In a busier part of New York, it's a photo record of Sumana and her sister walking down Broadway the entire length of Manhattan, back in 2008. Caution: includes Charles in Charge novelization.

Reviews of Old Science Fction Magazines: Analog 1986/09: Sick of these reviews? I've only got ten magazines left! Which means about another year of this feature. Oh well! Enjoy some low-quality ad photos.

This issue contains Stanley Schmidt's editorial response to the Challenger disaster, as well as letters from readers dealing with the same topic. Schmidt references a Harry Stine column from a 1983 Analog, "The Sky is Going to Fall", which discussed the public's likely reaction to a Shuttle disaster. It's not pretty. I thought I would write about this in some detail but it's too depressing and bloodless to synthesize peoples' raw reactions twenty years afterwards.

Schmidt mentions Barbara Morgan, Christa McAuliffe's backup for the Teacher in Space program, and hopes she'll be headed into space soon. Morgan did eventually fly a Shuttle mission, but not until 2007 and not as part of the Teacher in Space program.

OK, on to the stories. The best one is Vernor Vinge's "The Barbarian Princess", even though it's a story about people who run a science fiction magazine. It doesn't get as metafictional as I'd feared, and it gave the cover artist an excuse to do the kind of cover you never thought you'd see on Analog. Shelley Frier's "Plagiartech" was also very entertaining, but I felt like it wanted me to sympathize with the incredibly unsympathetic protagonist.

Arthur C. Clarke invents steampunk with his fake essay "The Steam-Powered Word Processor: A Forgotten Epic of Victorian Engineering". No kidding. Fully-formed steampunk, complete with Charles Babbage obsession, in 1986.

Halfway through Robert C. Murray's "The Immortal Smythe" I thought to myself: "this story is going to end with a terrible pun." In fact, the story ended with terrible fake science and then a terrible pun. Insult to injury.

Eric Vinicoff's "Haiku for an Asteroid Scout" is a pretty good story and has some original future-tech, but you'll have to fight your way through portmanteau words like "neomarble", "robomech", "holotank", and "pubtrans". (And "maglev", which only became a real word because of repetition in stories like this--I'm glad holotanks aren't practical, or we'd have them too.) The story takes place in Space Feudal Japan, so be prepared to do battle with corporate feudal lords, a restaurant called "Mount Fuji", seppuku, "synthetic ricepaper" (I would have written "paper"), and "the most expensive geisha house in P-Tokyo!" Geisha house?! What happened to love hotels and hookers? Also, the haiku sucked. You know what, screw it! I'm writing my own Space Japan story! With love hotels, and hookers!

Charles R. Pellegrino and James R. Powell write a check they'll never be able to cash with the title of their nonfiction article, "Making Star Trek Real". There a conversation in the letters section about whether Analog nonfiction articles assume too high or too low a level of technical knowledge. This issue's articles split the difference, by explaining really complicated things like K-mesons at the same level of detail used for fairly simple things like the inverse square law.

Elizabeth Moon's "Sweet Dreams, Sweet Nothings" is memorable only for its "notebook-sized computer with a flip-up screen" and some (biological) virus talk that starts out interesting but rapidly descends into implausibility. Harry Turtledove's "Though the Heavens Fall" is a sequel to his earlier, bad "And So To Bed", published eight months earlier, and it's worse than the original. Like a lot of alt-history it tries to be a cute remix of real history, as though history is a game of solitaire where you can play the cards in any order but the game always plays pretty much the same (maybe Turtledove pioneered this technique, I don't know much about alt-history). But it's not cute! I hate it! It doesn't help that "Heavens" is a very predictable story and in terrible taste.

Conflict of interest watch: the game column mentions but does not review the post-apocalyptic RPG Twilight 2000 (not affiliated with Twilight), which advertised heavily in Analog: there's been an ad for T2K in almost every issue I've read. Also, "Plagiartech" author Shelly Frier was Analog's associate editor at the time.

When I write these reviews I get a lot of people asking me "What kind of exposition have you found to be the clumsiest?" Actually, I am lying. No one asks me that. But I do have an answer if anyone ever does ask: the clumsiest exposition is that used to establish the timeframe of the story. Here's some dialogue spoken by the psychiatrist of the eponymous "Immortal Smythe":

Now Dr. Smythe. Surely you don't believe you have been resurrected on three occasions? This may be 2301, but medical science, while considered somewhat above the quackery state, cannot perform the ultimate Lazarus technique and restore the dead to the living.

Man, if my shrink talked like that I'd find another shrink. And here's a bit from "Though the Heavens Fall", which also gives you a picture of the cute history-remixing:

"I don't know," Gillen said judiciously. "When the Conscript Fathers wrote the Articles of Independence after we broke from England in '38, they gave us two censors to keep the power of the executive from growing too strong, as it had in the person of the king."


[Comments] (2) Nostalgiathon 2009: Best of Links January-June: Sorry to post so much stuff today, but I realized I'd better start putting up the end-of-year link posts, or else I might have to post some of them next year, which doesn't make any sense. Because I spent so much time on the novel, I've generally got less 2009 stuff than 2008 stuff: fewer new weblogs subscribed to, fewer links gathered, fewer photos taken. So here we go with links (culled from my and Sumana's shared del.icio.us feed) from the first half of 2009.

Today's Pictures: From 2009, Sumana's March trip to England. Mostly nice stereotypical pictures of Cambridge punting, but also has nice shots of the two Rachels.

And from 2008, the election night party at Professor Biella Coleman's place. A short gallery, but it includes a Kermit the Frog cookie cutter and Karl Fogel's dad.

[Comments] (1) Nostalgiathon 2009: Best of Links July-December:

Today's Pictures: Museum Showdown: No 2009 gallery today. Instead, it's a transatlantic museum showdown. In which museum was I able to take more cool pictures in 2008, the British Museum or the Metropolitan Museum of Art? Which museum-filling technique yields better artifacts: imperialist exploitation or robber-baron bequests? Whose cuisine will reign supreme?


I think I prefer the British Museum set, but that's because I see most of the best things in the Met set (the hilarious Book of the Dead translations, the ink cakes) every few months. Highlights: the Japan-Manchukuo Fraternity Board Game and Pieter van Laer's "Magic Scene with Self-portrait", which I'm glad I photographed in 2008 because I'm pretty sure the Met rotated it back into long-term storage.

There's at least one set of sculptures split between the museums: look in the background here and then here.

Nostalgiathon 2009: Best of Weblogs: Gaze with me into the mists of OPML... these are the weblogs I'm happiest I subscribed to in 2009. Again, not as many as in 2008.

Today's Pictures: Miscellaneous: An end-of-years extravaganza of miscellaneous one-off photos and sets too short to have their own galleries.

2009 includes Mission Accomplished, Zardoz Wines, TMBG, and Beth smashing a hard drive.

2008 includes L.H.O.O.Q., skeptical Sumana, DVD Commentary, and smug Adam Parrish.

Nostalgiathon 2009: Best of Crummy: In 2009 I wrote a lot of stuff. Most of that was novel-related (about 50k usable words so far!), but there was also a lot that I could show you immediately, and did. Here's the Crummy features and weblog entries that make me feel good about how I spent my time in 2009.

(I was planning to post the big "Best of Multimedia" entry tonight, but I don't have time to finish it, so hopefully that will come tomorrow.)

[Comments] (3) Audio Bonus #2: The International Year of Natural Fibres: Way back in January, our friend Martin pointed out that the UN had designated 2009 as the International Year of Natural Fibres. Sumana and I immediately spent an hour or so coming up with an anthem for the International Year of Natural Fibres. Which we never recorded.

Of course, what with projects like Keep the Fleece (creators of the world's longest scarf), the International Year of Natural Fibres didn't need any help from us. But we thought it would be a shame to let the International Year of Natural Fibres totally pass us by, so before natural fibres are crushed by the International Year of Biodiversity, enjoy the sixth crummy.com non-podcast podcast: Sumana and I giving our rendition of the INYoNF anthem.

Today's Pictures: Best-Of: Yes, it's time to get totally consumed in nostalgia, with a bunch of reruns from old picture galleries. There are a couple new pictures in each gallery, from sets like Sumana's graduation that I didn't include in the "misc" gallery.

2008 gallery features Bird, Mother 3, and Godzilla.

2009 gallery features an empty room, the unholy trinity, and many friends.

Nostalgiathon 2009: Best of Multimedia: Welcome to this gala end-of-end-of-year event. First off, it's a special presentation of The year in Internet video:

Film: I don't watch a lot of movies. I think I only went to the theater four times in 2009: to see "Star Trek", "Moon", "My Winnipeg", and "Ponyo". Most of the time Sumana and I watch movies at home. That said, the Crummy.com Movie of the Year is "University of Laughs", a 2004 Japanese movie that I've been looking for since 2005. (We eventually imported it from Yes Asia for an exorbitant sum.) It's an awesome film. Like, imagine "The Five Obstructions", except instead of Lars von Trier playing a funny prank on you, it's a police censor and your livelihood is on the line. And the film is hilarious. We saw it with Lucian and couldn't stop laughing. Between this movie and "Game Center CX", I'm coming to appreciate how dependent is Japanese humor on body language. Truly, this is the real secret of manzai.

Runner-up: the thematically similar "The Lives of Others", which won a lot of awards and you probably don't need me telling you how great it is. If for some reason you demand that I give the 2009 award to a film released in 2009, then I give it to "Moon", despite its huge plot holes.

Television: After Battlestar Galactica ended in disaster, I watched only one TV show: the ultimate Sumana/Leonard guilty pleasure, USA Network's Psych. The show's silliness continually breaks the fourth wall and the old dictum how "if it ain't on the page, it ain't on the stage". The "Tonight's Episode" episode titles are the clear spray-on preservative that gives the icing on the cake its gloss.

Food: Is food a "medium"? I say yes, and give appreciation for three New York restaurants that started in 2009 (or very late 2008): Vesta and Bare Burger here in Astoria, and Dos Toros (Mission-style taqueria!) near Union Square.

Books: I read 88 books in 2009 if you count the one I created, which I'm going to because that means I read exactly twice as many books as in 2008. I made a special effort to read more books this year, and it definitely succeeded. The Crummy.com Book of the Year is "Mason & Dixon" by Thomas Pynchon. Reread of the Year: my mother's copy of Stephen Jay Gould's "Bully for Brontosaurus", the book that originally introduced me to evolutionary theory (a ringer, it was practically my only reread of the year). "The Complete Dying Earth" was amazingly fun, as mentioned earlier. I also had a really good time with two espionage books: "Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy" and "The Zimmerman Telegram".

I can recommend two books from 2009 that you've never heard of. First, "Monday Begins on Saturday" by the Strugatsky brothers, obtained from Susan McCarthy. Second, "A Time of Gifts" by Patrick Leigh Fermor, which sat on my wishlist for 4 years after I heard about it on Crooked Timber. It's a book where I start every tenth paragraph thinking "This is it, the purplest prose ever, there's no way Fermor can pull out of this nosedive!" and by the end of the paragraph I'm like "Good show, old chap! Pip-pip, what?"

Worst book that I read all the way through in 2009: Reward for Retief, one of Keith Laumer's last novels. (My LibraryThing review: "Man, what a train wreck. Give us more Groaci!") I read it all the way through because I'm a Retief completist and because I admired Laumer for continuing to write after his stroke. Objectively speaking, he should have stopped in the mid-80s, but I'm sure he needed the money. Keeping a midlist author on your publication rolls as he passes his prime is not the most efficient method of wealth transfer, but it's a time-honored one.

I read about 150 individual short stories (ie. not part of collections), from magazines, writing group, and the TE slush pile. There is no Crummy.com Short Fiction of the Year this year because I recuse myself for conflict of interest. Also I can't really think of one, though you can't go wrong with Jack Cady's "The Night We Buried Road Dog".

Video games: I was talking about this with Kirk. Here's the thing. When I read a book, even a book I don't like, I learn something about writing. But when I play a video game, even a good game, I don't usually learn much about game design. There's probably fifty games I spent at least an hour playing in 2009, but I can only think of one that was both as stylistically interesting and as viscerally enjoyable as, say, "A Time of Gifts".

People who love movies might make a similar distinction. There are really interesting movies, there are really enjoyable movies, and every once in a while there's a movie with crossover appeal, the first movie to tell a really fun story using some previously introduced innovation. I think comparing video games and movies is a sucker's game so that's as far as I'm going to take this analogy.

When I think of 2009 games that are pure fun I think of a lot of entries in series: the "Metal Slug" anthology I picked up, "New Super Mario Bros. Wii" in multiplayer, Mega Man 9, the DS Grand Theft Auto game (I really love sandbox games, but most 3D first-person games make me nauseous, so I liked having a modern GTA I could physically play). All of these games combine a close allegiance to some longstanding series with solid implementation and attention to detail. I also think of "Retro Game Challenge" and my "Cave Story" replay, games that are just a collection of well-executed callbacks to older games.

When I think of games I that have a lot of innovation I think of "Scribblenauts", an amazingly creative game that has huge, huge conceptual and implementation problems. I think of "Barkley: Shut Up and Jam: Gaiden", a game that presents a deadpan sarcasm I can't remember seeing outside of interactive fiction, but objectively speaking not a game I want to play all the way through. I think of "Treasure World", a game that I was obsessed with for a couple weeks but which is not technically a game at all.

"Spelunky" is the only game I played in 2009 that I would consider fully successful in both enjoyment and innovation. It took the least popular aspects of roguelike games (permadeath and extreme dependence on randomness) and made them crowd-pleasers by incorporating them into a preexisting genre (super-difficult platformer), introducing roguelike replayability to people who hate ASCII graphics and turn-based keyboard controls.

The fact that I'm describing Spelunky in terms of other games and genres implies that it's not all that innovative. But creativity is almost always the combination of two preexisting things. The ideas in this year's innovative titles will be synthesized into 2011's crossover hits which will lead into 2015's soulless cash-cows.

OK, time to start work on the New Year's Eve party. Happy new year!



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