Sat Dec 05 2009 10:19 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.
(1) Sun Dec 06 2009 10:26:
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!
(3) Mon Dec 07 2009 19:52 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
(3) Tue Dec 08 2009 21:13 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:
Wed Dec 09 2009 23:24 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.)
Thu Dec 10 2009 22:32 ...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.
Fri Dec 11 2009 22:18 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.
(2) Sat Dec 12 2009 11:41 Request Weblog Music Reviews II:
I strike again! Keep the suggestions coming. Can I have some harder rock, please?
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
Sun Dec 13 2009 16:10 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.
(2) Mon Dec 14 2009 18:50 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."
(4) Tue Dec 15 2009 08:41:
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 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.
 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.
(3) Wed Dec 16 2009 09:11 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.
Sat Dec 19 2009 18:37 Link Time: Holiday Special:
The true meaning of Holiday is lost in the mists of time, but for now, enjoy some links.
- Giving Anonymously launders your charitable donations so that you can give money to someone you know without awkwardness, or give to a nonprofit without getting on their mailing list. Donations are not tax-deductible and "[i]t is against the law to use Giving Anonymously to pay employees as a way of avoiding payroll taxes."
- Printable holiday cards with Hubble pictures on them. Not pictured: the supernova remnant from Arthur C. Clarke's story "The Star".
- Seasonal desserts I want to make but haven't yet: butter cookies, pumpkin-hazelnut donuts.
- Not-directly-holiday-related metaspecial! Two friends of mine have joined group weblogs that talk about video games. Warp Skip! is like Adam Parrish's 20th weblog, and Alexei Othenin-Girard is reviewing casual games for Jay is Games. I myself am suspicious that Jay is not really Games, and Alexei promised he would investigate this, but I have not heard from him on the topic.
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.
(5) Sat Dec 19 2009 23:18 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, 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
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
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
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. 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. 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.
 "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.
 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.
 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.")
Sun Dec 20 2009 23:37 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.
Tue Dec 22 2009 21:48 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.
Wed Dec 23 2009 10:34 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. 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.
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.
 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.
 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.
Wed Dec 23 2009 19:41 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.
Fri Dec 25 2009 10:47 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.
Sat Dec 26 2009 10:48 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, 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.
 I can't find where the fourth one is; I'm assuming private collection.
Sun Dec 27 2009 13:16 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".
(1) Sun Dec 27 2009 13:32 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.
Sun Dec 27 2009 20:54 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
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."
Oh, was it '38? THIS HAS NO RELEVANCE TO THE STORY
(2) Sun Dec 27 2009 22:56 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.
Mon Dec 28 2009 10:49 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.
(1) Mon Dec 28 2009 17:14 Nostalgiathon 2009: Best of Links July-December:
Voyage: Escape From Cute, a fun Shiren the Wanderer
homebrew clone for the DS.
- Remember fresh berries? A tip to keep them fresh.
tiny Starfleet strike force. Not the Defiant as seen in "One Little Ship".
- The Game Crafter does
print-on-demand for board games. Has anyone I know used this?
- A labor of love: charts of all the Nintendo Power game popularity data 1988-1994. Really needs to be put into a spreadsheet.
- For an excessive sum, you too can own a Shinya Arino-style Famicom controller business card case.
- A recreation of one of those crazy Futurist dinners I've been telling you about for years. (Not constantly, obviously.)
- 100 Days in Glacier National Park.
- The Twitter account "douchesFollowMe".
- Perhaps H.P. Lovecraft's least chilling work, "A Reminiscence of Dr. Samuel Johnson".
- The Crummy.com Symbol of the Year.
- Could the TV
Tropes Story Generator make it possible for TV Tropes to
help a writer get work done? No! Don't fall for it!
- We all know what Werner von Braun thinks of the disposition of
rockets once they go up. But before they go up, he's
- In 1997 I read a science fiction story by Rob Malda of Slashdot fame, about a Tamagotchi-like Perl script. I thought it was a really good story, and it was also notable for being good SF despite not having any fantastic element--it was technically possible, even in 1997. I can't find the story itself, but I did find this 1999 summary of the story, so I know I'm not making it up. Does anyone remember this? Anyone have a copy? Update: Michael Yount found it by the clever trick of going to Rob Malda's homepage.
- If it's the end of the year, it's time to dust off this excessive, cheesy New Years strata. The recipe for it, I mean. (Substitute fried mushrooms for prosciutto to make it vegetarian.)
Tue Dec 29 2009 10:19 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.
Tue Dec 29 2009 21:00 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.
- Sisoid's Blog of Geekery, featuring obsessive reviews of comic books and Star Trek ephemera. For instance, did you know that Cremaster 3 is not just a ripoff of Donkey Kong, it's a ripoff of an old Conan the Barbarian comic? Conan? Conan!
- The Daisy Owl web comic.
- The Geek Feminism Blog, now with extra Sumana.
- The Physics arXiv Blog.
- Two game-related weblogs: Hardcore Gaming 101 and
- Objectively speaking, Baking Bites needs to be on this list, even though I'm not sure when I subscribed to it. Pretty much every recipe on that site is something I want to make, and often I do make it, to great acclaim.
- One of my goals in 2009 was to seriously learn about the pop culture
of the 1970s, instead of dismissing it as an era covered in fake wood
paneling and drenched in canola oil. My Retrospace has
done... something to inform me about this time. I can't say I agree
with the writer's conviction that the 1970s were the pinnacle of pop
culture, but it's always good to read people with whom you disagree.
- Twitter update! So many people started using Twitter and Identica this year
(even Sumana!) that my anti-Twitter
position seems more William F. Buckley-esque by the day. I now
subscribe to several Twitter feeds and it's possible that in the
coming year I will even post. If nothing else, it seems like
the simplest way to have a conversation with Kris.
When "...Awesome Dinosaurs" was published I started searching Twitter for the phrase "awesome dinosaurs" to find people talking about the story, and I never stopped. The story talk died out months ago, but now it's a never-ending celebration of dinosaurs and their awesomeness.
Wed Dec 30 2009 11:24 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.
Wed Dec 30 2009 18:01 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.
- Quick jokes: The secret of manzai, Ultimate Generic Joke, Schooljailhouse Rock.
- Justice Will Take Us Millions of Intricate Moves, the transcript w/slides of my 2008 QCon talk in which I tell the story of the Internet and introduce a heuristic for web service maturity. The transcript went up in 2009, so it counts.
- The epic six-part series How Game Titles Work.
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.
- Thoughtcrime Experiments! Analysis of the Thoughtcrime Experiments slush pile, and writing tips to get your fiction noticed.
- My critically-acclaimed rewrite of the Battlestar Galactica ending.
- Dada Chess. See also commenter "b"'s lucid explanation of why Black might have an advantage in Dada Chess. (Black's lead over White has diminished in the past 6 months but is still there.)
- Roy's Postcards, which will keep going on for another couple years. (And I should probably process another 100 or so postcards to top up the backlog).
- The tale of the lintsagna.
- "Let Us Now Praise Awesome Dinosaurs", incisive analysis of same, and an audio dramatization.
- The two-part Nostalgiaudit.
(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.)
(3) Thu Dec 31 2009 00:05 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.
Thu Dec 31 2009 10:28 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.
Thu Dec 31 2009 16:44 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:
- The single best media value of 2009 is Chrontendo. About 30 hours
of video reviews of Famicom and NES games. My consistent exercise
- Academic runners-up: David
Blight's incredible class on the Civil War and Reconstruction, and
J. Bradford Delong's economic history of the
20th century, which is really more like "J. Bradford Delong
talks about whatever he wants and then tests you on it," but which is full of interesting stuff.
- Surprise dark-horse entertainment: bobtwcatlanta's
Youtube channel, full of engrossing television ephemera from the
80s and 90s.
- James Rolfe continued to entertain with his AVGN videos
(best episode of 2009: Michael Jackson's
Moonwalker, posted before Michael Jackson's death made it cool/tasteless to
do Michael Jackson-themed web videos). But if you can't stand Rolfe's
scatology-obsessed Nerd character, you should at least watch his
amazing documentary of a life spent making films, Cinemassacre 200,
which only has one F-bomb right at the beginning.
- Infomania's Viral Video Film
School and Target:
Women also continued their runs of excellence.
- Another noteworthy workhorse: the mega-agglomeration of That Guy With The Glasses, which at this point has a couple dozen web "shows", transformative works all. They're hit or miss, but I've found maybe eight that I really like, and I let those accumulate in browser tabs until I've got enough to get me through a thirty-minute run.
- Now on to miscellaneous one-offs. The Match Game 1977 School Riot, in which the mannered high civilization of The Match Game collapses into anarchy and warlordism. (Don't know how TMG worked? Invest a couple minutes in some boring video of TMG working properly, and then you can enjoy both this video and the excellent Saturday Night Live parody "It's A Match".)
- Music videos: One from the 80s that uses "Sinistar" as a metaphor for a bad
relationship. One from TMBG. OK Go does it again. A rerun of "Wishmaster Misheard", revealed in 2009 to have been created by our friend Lucian.
- Music videos featuring unrelated pop culture characters: The world-famous Bohemian Rhapsody Muppets turns the unwieldy, huge Muppets cast into a strength. Four Super Mario World levels, one for each part in Queen's "Don't Stop Me Now".
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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