Sun Apr 01 2012 09:45 Dada Skies:
Over the years, my series of "Dada" projects has brought meaninglessness to formerly meaningful things: board games, Shakespeare, comics. Today, for my April 1 project I present Dada Skies, which randomly rearranges things that were randomly arranged to begin with: the stars as seen from Earth. It's a view I find strangely relaxing.
Dada Skies works like Dada Maps, by transcluding image tiles from a web service into a mosaic. In this case the service is the one provided by the Sloan Digital Sky Survey. There are enhancements I'd like to make to the view, but this is what I've got time for right now, and I want to do my part to keep alive the nascent tradition of releasing cool things on April 1.
Mon Apr 02 2012 10:22 Constellation Games Game Design Promo:
My editor has an extra advance copy of Constellation Games, which she asked me to give away in a gala promotional event! This put me in a pickle: I love giving things away, but I really hate "promotional events". So I came up with something fun: you can win a copy of the paperback (or, if you're already a subscriber, a subscription upgrade), by fleshing out the Constellation Database of Electronic Games of a Certain Complexity.
For those who haven't read Constellation Games: the CDBOEGOACC is an enormous XML document containing metadata for entertainment software from countless alien civilizations, as well as the computers and peripherals necessary to run that software. Like, imagine if Jason Scott worked for the Culture. To give you the idea, here are some CDBOEGOACC quotes from the narrator's Twitter feed:
- "Ruins Deluxe": Two-phase game. Build a fake ancient-civilization city, then sell souvenir crap to tourists who think the site is real.
- "Only for use while in the death-trance. Does not include hardware for invoking the death-trance." They always get you on peripherals!
- Make That Sale Ehmeyur! "Restored to popularity 306 years later when the hapless saleswoman Ehmeyur became a folk hero." #ganbare
- "All editions of this computer were destroyed and it is known only from wall carvings and one set of programming notes."
- #cdboegoacc will cheer me up. "During each play session, the player avenges the destruction caused by their previous session." #maybenot
Every CDBOEGOACC entry is a tiny science-fiction story about an alien culture and someone who responded to their culture by making a game. If you like this idea, you are the target audience for Constellation Games and you should enter this contest to win a copy. The CDBOEGOACC is the part of the book that was the most fun to write, and I can't think of a better gala promotional event than asking you to come up with these mini-stories.
You can write something tweet-sized like the quotes above, or you can flesh out an idea a bit more and put it on your weblog, or whatever. It doesn't matter to me, so long as you somehow make sure I know about it. Only entries I know about will be judged. Surefire ways to make sure I know about it: send me email, post a link in the comments below, or use the unwieldy hashtag #cdboegoacc on Twitter or Identica.
The contest ends when I wake up in the morning on April 10, one week from tomorrow, and pick my favorite CDBOEGOACC entry. We'll mail the winner their advance copy right away, which means you'll get the book a few days before its official release on April 17. (As a bonus, this uncorrected proof contains a huge continuity error in chapter 35, which you can find and then feel superior to me.) I'll also pick a random winner, who will get a free base subscription to the serial, plus a collected ebook once the serialization is done.
Since the goal is to make cool things, you can enter more than once to improve your chance of getting the paperback, but the random drawing is one entry per person. I will judge entries on the twin criteria of "sensawunda" and "comedy", the binary star by which I steer my novelist's ship. Have fun!
(6) Tue Apr 03 2012 09:07 Constellation Games Author Commentary #19, "Implementation Details":
We're more than halfway through the book! Traditionally, it's around this time that an author starts to have doubts about having signed on for this huge project. It's happened on all three of my books and it's happening again with this commentary. I have a great time writing this stuff every week, and I hope you're enjoying it, but it does take a lot of time. Time which might be better spent working on my second novel, "A Fire Upon the Derp".
Uh, anyway, last week's Twitter archive. Don't forget about the game design contest, which ends next week. This week we meet Dana Light 2.0, and the totally different human person who's not Dana, Svetlana Sveta.
- Speaking of stupid meme-puns, alternate title for this chapter: "The Pie Is A Fake".
- CG is getting LibraryThing
reviews from people who got advance copies (average rating: 3.88 stars!), and one reviewer mentioned that "[t]he story, told in a combination of first-person narration, blog posts, e-mails, and text messages, gets complicated."
I do not comment on reviews because I've seen what happens when authors comment on reviews, but I want to use that quote as lead-in to say that I think this chapter is where it really starts getting complicated. As of this week, the narrative has split into two different universes: one in which Bai's girlfriend is a Constellation AI modeled after a human AI modeled after a video game heroine, and one in which he's dumped the AI for a Russian mail-order bride. The narrator is now lying to you.
- In the second draft, "Svetlana Sveta" did not exist. Ariel talked
freely about "Dana" doing this and that, unprotected even by friends
lock. This was incredibly dumb, and in the third draft, Dana 2.0 tells Ariel this is dumb and to knock it off before he gets
everyone into trouble.
I couldn't just "real life" everything, because Dana shows up in some of the game reviews, and I didn't want to "real life" everything because one of the things I wanted to strengthen in the third draft was Ariel stressing out about lying to everyone. So I started here: I moved all the details of the Dana pickup into a "real
life" section, and created two contradictory summaries for Ariel's blog, one of which introduces Dana's alternate identity.
- I've mentioned before that almost every character in the book has
two names or identities. I didn't plan this, but it worked out that
way and I like it, so I'm beating that drum.
But what about the BEA agents? Recall from the chapter 5 commentary
that in the second draft, Ariel referred to the BEA agents with
ridiculous cop-show aliases. You never learned their real
names. Perfect symbolism! But then Cheryl pointed out in writing group
that if "Krakowski" is just an alias Ariel uses in his blog, I can't
use the "Crack-housey" joke in this chapter. So I made "Krakowski" his
real name. And that one stupid joke is why Krakowski and Fowler have only one identity each. That's what happens when you don't plan out your symbolism ahead of time.
- Svet is Russian for "light", so in a fit of pique Ariel
has named this fake person "Lighty McLight".
There's a reference later on to Svetlana being extremely tall. In
the third draft Ariel "established" this in this chapter along with
her silly name. I cut that detail in the final draft, but but decided to keep the later
reference, because why not.
- For the record, the ridiculous Fowler line I mentioned last week, which everyone wanted me to cut, was "Don't tempt this planet with your pie!"
- I almost missed this while rereading: Ariel drops into the present tense in the "real life" section. "I couldn't [tell Farang apart]. I still can't." It's not a big deal, but it reminds that Ariel is the author of the "real life" sections as much as he is the blog posts.
- In "real video game" news: Bai makes an Altered Beast
reference, but since it's not mentioned by name I don't count
it. Sonic & Cipher is a fake Sonic the Hedgehog game, but
of course Sonic is real. I mean he's a real-world fictional character. Sorry, kids!
In various earlier drafts, the game Ariel imagined playing in the
refugee camp was Cipher & Sonic (because in this universe
Sonic was a minor character in Sega's Cipher the Whatever series) and
Blizzard & Chaos (because Sonic didn't exist in this
universe and instead we had Blizzard Lizard, who can still be seen in
chapter 13). The work I put into these things; you have no idea.
- The Dana pickup scene was the only one that had Bai and Bruce in the same room, and the only one that really suffered when I got rid of Bruce. You may remember me mentioning a joke about Bruce's Simple Affect Metadata Exchange tattoo, which I moved to Twitter. (setup, punchline) That's fine, but I did have to cut a couple sub-jokes from this chapter once Dana (not Curic) told Bruce what the tattoo said. The best one:
"This is why you don't get random tats!" said Bai. "Didn't Omicron
Beta Digamma show you the informational video?"
"Big talk from a guy with Chinese characters tattooed on his
wrist," said Bruce.
"Yeah!" said Bai, flashing his wrist. "It's my mother's name! You
know how I know? 'Cause I can read! fucking! Chinese, Bruce!"
- I only named the fraternity because I thought it
would be funny to use an obsolete Greek letter in its name. ΟΒϜ is
probably also the frat Ariel got kicked out of (as recounted in chapter 2). Later on we'll see that Ariel met Bai right when he started college, so I imagine they became friends when they were both in ΟΒϜ.
- The scene with the Massmonger 31, like last week's
Brilhantes review, is mostly to give you some fun gaming stuff
in a plot-heavy chapter. After the novel got taken over by computers
like the Brain Embryo and the False Daylight, I wanted to have just
one scene where Ariel tries to use a computer that's completely
incompatible with his physiology. The plot wouldn't allow for a lot of
them, but I did get this one.
The experience of writing this novel has given me some sympathy for
stories where the aliens are not much different from humans. It's not
that hard to come up with this stuff; it is hard to use it in a
story that human readers can identify with.
That's the week! Stay tuned for next week's special tabletop gaming episode, when Ariel will say, "I think we should just nuke each other once and get it out of our systems."
Image credits: Wikimedia user Ecelan, Joshua Kaufman, Flickr user ePi.Longo.
← Last week | Next week →
Wed Apr 04 2012 14:27 TUNS:
For a while I've been gathering cool space-themed pictures to
illustrate the Constellation Games commentary, but there's way
more and they're way more varied than I need. Rather than abandoning
this embarrassment of visual riches, I recently started posting a
couple pictures a day to my microblog using the hashtag #retrorocket,
so named because I mostly focus on cool-looking old tech and people
working with or building it.
At the risk of revealing all my secrets, I'm getting the
#retrorocket pictures by harvesting the Internet Archive's NASA Images site, one year at a
time. I've combed through 1969-1988, and my technique will break down
around 1994, when there start to be thousands of pictures for each
year (even 1969 wasn't that bad). But 1994 is not all that retro,
really, is it? Yeah, it's kinda retro.
Despite the name, NASA Images has a lot of non-images: mainly
movies and technical documents. Recently one tech document caught my
Utilization Network System, a 1987 document laying out NASA's
recommendations for off-the-shelf PC hardware and software.
document pulls no punches, naming brand names, presenting huge benchmark tables, and spelling out just
what it takes to outfit an effective mid-80s networked office on
the taxpayer's dime. This is a time before Windows, in an office
environment without Unix. Let's take a look at this document and see
which products have the Right Stuff, and which
fizzle on the launch pad. (n.b. Entertainment Weekly didn't
want this for some reason, and I'm too lazy to change the segue.)
We'll start with the basic PC recommendation. "The recommended
workstation for TUNS is the Compaq DeskPro 286 with a 40 Mb hard
disk." Each should be equipped with an EGA card and a color
monitor. "The estimated GSA cost... is $4,087." (About $7700 in 2010
The use as a workstation of one of the newer 386 machines (based on
the Intel 80386 CPU chip) is not currently recommended. The power
provided by the 386 system is more than that required of the
Unlike a lot of offices in 1987, NASA understands the importance of
networking. That's why each workstation is fitted with a 3Com
Etherlink card ($451) and connected to a local file server running Novell
Advanced Netware/286. Netware wins out over now-obscure competitors
like 3Com's 3+ Share, Banyon VINES/286, Fox 10-net, and Lee Data's
LANMASTER. The Internet stack is not even considered: I'm sure NASA's
scientific installations are on the Internet by now, but
it's not really an option for IBM PCs, and the term "intranet"
The Compaq 286 used for workstations can also act as the file
server on a small LAN. But for a larger LAN, you do need to buy that
386, and for the really big installations, it's got to be "a Novell
T286B with a 183 Mb of hard drive space". And remember to buy
Although many vendors claim to sell "AT clones," ISN has occasionally
found very subtle differences in the performance of these "clones,"
which may result in problems during system integration.
For connecting to external sites and databases, each workstation
is outfitted with a Hayes Smartmodem 2400 at $579.
ISN does not recommend installation of 9600 baud modems at this
point. The lack of standard protocols, error-correction methods and
data compression techniques for 9600 baud communications means that
two modems from different vendors will rarely communicate with each
other at 9600 baud.
Printer time! TUNS spells out recommendations for cheapo dot-matrix
printers (the Epson FX-286e, $527), letter-quality daisywheel
printers (the Diablo D80IF, $1523), and laser printers for impressing
the boss (the HP Laserjet Series II, $1795). Note that the most expensive printer is half the price of the workstation PC.
Two printers, the Brother Twinwriter 5 and the Fortis
DH-45, include both dot-matrix and daisy-wheel print mechanisms. The
two companies are actually marketing the same printer under different
labels. Although this printer was initially viewed as an exciting
combination of functionality at a reasonable price, it was excluded
from further consideration after the Twinwriter 5 vendor reported
extremely poor reliability and great customer dissatisfaction.
What about software? For the most part, TUNS recommends
off-the-shelf 80s office software, Lotus 1-2-3 (GSA cost: $305) and
WordPerfect 4.2 ($173):
Although the evaluation scores for WordPerfect and Microsoft Word
show only a two point difference, the evaluation team highly
recommends WordPerfect because the evaluation team found it much
easier to use WordPerfect's ACSII-to-document transfer features.
But they choose Unify, a database I've never heard of, over 80s
heavyweights like dBase and Clipper. Why? Because Unity just has more
stuff, like a C library.
Oracle was eliminated as a possibility because a LAN version of the
software, although in development for some time, is still not
Each 286 workstation is loaded with about $100 worth of
utilities: Popular ones like Sidekick and Norton Utilities, as well as some more obscure ones: "Sideways to aid in the
printing of large spreadsheets; ScreenSave to protect the life of the
monitors; KeyBuffer to allow the user to enter characters from the
keyboard at a faster rate than acceptable under DOS; and FilePath to
aid in the use of multiple directories and sub-directories."
But the best part of the whole document is the section on email. The document identifies
a large number of requirements for an email system, such as:
The sender must be able to identify a single recipient,
multiple recipients, and a "group" mailcode consisting of multiple
mail identification codes but addressed as one unit.
And then presents a
huge table comparing the competitors (again, Internet email is not
even on the radar). And then decides to just keep using "the NASAMAIL
system currently available throughout NASA." NASAMAIL was actually
an installation of Sprint Telemail, which you can read a little more
about in RFC 1168,
including a mention of a Telemail-Internet mail gateway at NASA Ames.
It's a little odd that hardware of this description almost never shows up in the NASA Images archive! (I did see one mid-80s IBM PC sitting on someone's desk, but when I went back to look for it as an illustration I couldn't find it.) I think these recommendations were mostly for clerical workers and managers, and that the engineers and scientists (who show up quite a bit in the archive) used minicomputers, Unix workstations, and mainframes into the 90s.
I'm probably not gonna go through any more of these documents in any detail, but here are two others I found really interesting: the public
affairs plan for STS-1, the first Space Shuttle flight, and the original press kit for Apollo 13.
Tue Apr 10 2012 09:18 Constellation Games Author Commentary #20, "Feature Creep":
This week: Dana earns her paycheck, we learn the shocking (if you're a
Farang) secret of Sayable Spice, and Ariel stresses out and
gets a little stalkery.
I'm not sure who put a bunch of tags on CG's LibraryThing page, but they're pretty great. (and full of spoilers) Apparently CG is a bildungsroman about cosplay, douchebags, mecha-godzilla, real replicas, and vastening. I don't disagree!
Come for the Twitter archive, stay for the commentary. CDBOEGOACC contest winners will be announced as soon as I finish the post.
- Last week I mentioned that Svetlana Sveta did not exist in the
second draft. There were a lot of scenes with Ariel or Bai carrying
around and talking to a piece of paper. I think of the second draft as
what "really" happened, the factual basis for Ariel's blog posts
in the third draft.
You can see that Ariel isn't trying very hard to conceal the
truth. He left unchanged details like the way "Svetlana" dresses, and
he added over-the-top winks like Svetlana boasting about supplanting
Dana. Bits like "Svetlana held her smart paper against the
TV screen" are minimal glosses on what happened in the second draft ("I taped the
smart paper to the television").
- In SF that features humans among lots of alien species, there's frequently some BS idea that humans are special. I was going to write that TV Tropes probably has a name for it, and then I looked and yes, the name is: "Humans Are Special." This generalization takes many forms, none of which I like, but the one I dislike least is the one given in Babylon 5: humans are special in that they form communities.
This one at least has some truth to it. Human cultures are all over the map, but almost by definition they involve a bunch of humans forming a community. I wouldn't go as far as B5's suggestion that humans form inclusive communities (TV Tropes: "Humans Are Diplomats"). But it is a real tendency which distinguishes humans from, say, octopus.
Farang are more like octopus. There's nothing wrong with this, it's not time for them to learn a valuable lesson about what it means to be human, but it means their cultures have little in common with human cultures. A normal human put into a Farang body would be a misfit, the kind of person who produces offensive artwork like Sayable Spice. A human might be able to identify with such artwork, but probably not with its pugnaciousness.
(nb. humans are not special in the Constellation universe; Aliens are very similar and they got there first. This is the subject of chapter 25's deleted scene, which I'll put up when the time comes.)
- We finally get the tense Ariel/Jenny scene I mentioned a while
back, a scene that shows what Ariel thinks Jenny thinks of him, and
hiding in between, a little bit of what they actually think of each
other. "Found Objects" has an analogous scene from Jenny's POV.
- I've mentioned before that Tactical Nuclear Exchange is
basically Twilight Struggle with the complexity dialed way up,
but I really like that extra complexity: the ideology board
with its traps, the simulation of the shortcomings of Soviet central
planning where the Soviet player lays out a plan and the American
player shuffles the plan cards. Most of all, the idea that the game
can abruptly end and render all your setup time moot.
In Twilight Struggle, the player who starts a nuclear war
automatically loses. I sometimes find myself making decisions not to
help me win, but to help the game go on a normal amount of time given
how long it took to set up. I don't think this kind of decision-making
is even particularly unrealistic in a nuclear context, but it's only
half the story.
Because really, who cares who started the war? You're both dead. In
TNE the only thing that matters is who has more survivors. And
although 90% of the time the name of the game is a lie and a
"tactical" exchange will escalate until everyone dies, there's
some mechanism in TNE constantly working to convince you that
this time you can win but you gotta go for it now!
- It's a little Creative License-ish that people born in 1987 would be heavily into a board game about the Cold War. But maybe it's retro chic, and it does have all those cool expansions.
- Bonus mid-story Jenny facts: I discovered while looking at a very
early outline that Jenny's name was originally Jenny
Gallardo. I never explicitly changed it. Just, the first time I wrote
her surname in the story proper, it was "Gallegos". Which I do like
I saw The Middleman while finishing the second draft of
Constellation Games, and I was a little upset to see Natalie
Morales playing Wendy Watson very close to how I imagine Jenny:
kind of ticked off all the time at how not everyone is as smart as
she is. But I got over being upset.
- The launch of the Mars mission was the trickiest scene in the book
to write. This scene has to do a ton of exposition about the mission
itself, the way the Constellation uses ports for space travel, the
star-draw ritual, and the evolving use of patches to display fluid
overlay affiliations. It's got the first onscreen Gaijin and the
first appearance of Colonel Mason. And the narrator's nowhere near
the action! He's really stressed out and he's watching the action on
the Internet as a way of taking a break. Which, believe me, I've been
there, and it's not a good state of mind in which to write
In the second draft this scene was also the introduction of
the star-draw, and it was just too much for one little scene. So I
had Curic introduce the star-draw back in chapter 8, and now this
scene just has to remind you of it.
- I go back and forth on whether Ariel is being creepy in the
mission launch scene. I mean, he does have a romantic relationship
with Tammy, just not quite the one he thinks he has. But he is being
kind of obsessive about watching that video (and notice the name of
the chapter). It works either way.
Part Two's plot kicks into high gear next week, with the terrifying chapter 21, "Her". The chapter in which Tetsuo will say (but not demonstrate) "Sexual pair bonding!" Also next week: you can get a paper copy of the book and read the whole rest of the story! Then complain about how I'm not putting up this commentary fast enough.
Photo credits: US
Army, US Department of Defense, Flickr
← Last week Next week →
Tue Apr 10 2012 09:56 CDBOEGOACC Contest Results:
I was worried that no one would enter the CDBOEGOACC contest and it would be like a party where no one showed up. But ten people put in 29 entries, which is a pretty good party. I'm pretty sure all the entrants are Constellation Games subscribers, so I gotta work on my crossover appeal, but I'm happy with the turnout.
Once again, the grand prize is a galley copy of Constellation Games which will hopefully be delivered a few days before the paperback comes out. Even I don't have a galley copy, so you know it's exclusive. There'll also be a random drawing, and the winner will get a free basic-level subscription. Although since everyone who entered is already a subscriber, I don't know if you want that. Maybe you can give it to a friend, maybe you can negotiate a different prize with Kate, the publisher.
Anyway, let's take a look at the entries:
- First, you gotta check out Andrew Perry's
nerdtastic entries. He took little bits of worldbuilding I'd
scattered around the novel and created (AFAIK) the first piece of
Constellation Games fan fiction, featuring realistic Farang,
Alien, and Wazungu games, plus one created for humans by a Smoke
submind. I especially liked the "Flase Daylight".
In a non-ironic twist, Andrew's fidelity to existing Constellation Games canon was what cost him the award. Since I wrote the stuff he was stitching together, reading his CDBOEGOACC entries didn't make me feel like I was on a flight of fancy. But, I have asked Kate for dispensation to award Andrew the special CDBOEGOACC Jury Prize.
All the other entries were short concept quotes posted to Twitter. I've archived all of them here because I really hate the way Twitter's UI consigns the past to a dark, eternal oubliette.
- The Way Arounding: hide your shameful underscale color from your
husband's husband while negotiating a wedding contract with him
- "An invading army is coming. You have 3 days to store fat for
hibernation and to bury yourself deep enough to avoid detection."
- Young-Time Architecture: Design a nest for your eggs of sufficient
complexity to prevent yourself from eating them.
- Fish or Other Fish?: You are captured by Roetus. Arrange patterns
of color to convince them you're sentient before they eat you. (The
title "Fish or Other Fish?" comes from an event in Dolkoan history
where a fish and its twin competed for war-minister.)
- No Never Negation No No!: Find the lost start-card to your
transport shuttle in a series of exotic locations. #cdboegoacc
- No Never Negation No No No!: Sequel to NNNNN! You are the
transport-shuttle's start card. Hide to extend your owner's
- George Buckenham:
- Thermal Vent Orchestrator: Intended as a test of vent-controlling
verisimilitude, but usually played for laughs with cheats on.
- "When Catastrophe Strikes, Emulate the Octopus" [he adds: "this is actually the title of a Wired article"]
- Xarthru: "Falling shapes composed of four blocks descend from
above, arrange them in lines to clear them and score." Wait, what?
- Squigglers III: Eat delicious parasites off the tentacle monster on
which you live without becoming a meal yourself!
- Launch asteroids at a planet using the gravity wells of other
orbiting planets to save energy.The other player will return
fire. [This is very similar to "Occluded Occlusion", an Ip Shkoy
game mentioned in chapter 33. -LR]
- Gus Andrews
- Pentathlon: Behemoth bowling, cotyledon racing, flailing, cube
- Aesthetics-driven, unscored "doing-the-dozens"-style attempt to outdo
other players by producing the most nuanced cloud of gas
- Tikitu de Jager
- Bloom: Rediscover the excitement of first pollination. Only this
time YOU decide where the seeds fall.
- Society: Out-game negotiations influence in-game status, and
(where not prohibited by applicable social strictures) vice versa.
- Adam Parrish
- one player must communicate a terminal semantic taxon to others
without using distal mouthparts or pheromone glands
- Brendan Adkins
- "Largely Automated Testimony Extractor:" Only a game inasmuch as one can play to lose.
- "Hit The Button Before Anyone Else Hits The Button:" Popularity declined after players began using relativistic time dilation.
- "My Friend The Modular Dissent Repression System:" Hacks a hunter-drone's neural core to prioritize cuddling.
- "Inferior Gasband:" Created to defame a rival pseudofamily. Rivals later ate the designer and produced a successful sequel.
- "If You Outscore This Game's Designer At This Game Her Agents Will Implode Your Home Village With Hydrocarbons:" No longer true.
- "That's Enough:" designed for slowphase, an innovative anti-cheating system emits UV flares if the player displays life-signs.
- "Meatchild:" An innovative control scheme allows up to 4 million of Her hive-units to cooperatively guide a single biped.
- Mirabai Knight
- A long-scope evolutionary commerce game in which shoemakers must
adapt to the cyclic disappearance and reappearance of feet.
- Evan Baer (who entered after the deadline, but I'll at least put his entry up here)
- Stop, Memmings! subvert attempts of adorable figures to prevent access to Constellation drop boxes, which are empty when opened.
I thought all the entries were really good, although Adam may have been phoning it in. C'mon, Adam, this ain't Apples to Apples. Anyway, I'm excluding Adam and Brendan from consideration because they were beta readers. Here are my three favorites (apart from Andrew's, which I've already spilled the beans that it didn't win):
- "An invading army is coming. You have 3 days to store fat for
hibernation and to bury yourself deep enough to avoid detection." [Ornithopter]
- Pentathlon: Behemoth bowling, cotyledon racing, flailing, cube
dancing, bluntshooting [Gus Andrews]
- A long-scope evolutionary commerce game in which shoemakers must
adapt to the cyclic disappearance and reappearance of feet. [Mirabai Knight]
And the winner of the Constellation Games galley copy is... Ornithopter! I loved their game concept because it tied into a theme I don't really explore in CG: the repurposing of really awful historical situations as entertainment simulations.
But don't give up yet, non-disqualified entrants! We've still got the random drawing. And here's some Python code to perform it:
>>> import random
>>> entrants = ["Andrew Perry", "Ornithopter", "George Buckenham", "Benhimself", "Gus Andrews", "Tikitu de Jager", "Mirabai Knight"]
OK, well, that worked out. Andrew Perry will receive the random drawing prize, and we'll just call it the CDBOEGOACC Jury Prize.
And that's it for the gala CDBOEGOACC giveaway contest! I hope it was a fun time. I certainly enjoyed watching people come up with this stuff.
Mon Apr 16 2012 12:06 Beautiful Soup 4.0.4:
I haven't been mentioning all the Beautiful Soup releases I've been doing, because they're just maintenance releases, but I'll mention them occasionally because fixing bugs (and determining what's a bug and what's not) still takes up a fair amount of my time. We're up to 4.0.4 and I've fixed/worked around a number of bugs, including one that prevented Beautiful Soup from parsing an XML document larger than about 512 bytes.
I've also updated the docs quite a bit to help people solve common problems. I'm not sure where to stop, because Beautiful Soup is the first Python library a lot of people use, so it gets caught up in questions like "how do I install Python packages on Windows?" (It's not easy.)
Mon Apr 16 2012 14:58 CS161:
You could get a computer science education just by taking classes called CS161:
(7) Tue Apr 17 2012 09:14 Constellation Games Author Commentary #21, "Her":
This is one of the most important chapters in the book. I need you to
start feeling the weight of the Constellation as a geological-time,
astronomical-scale project, not just as the country where
Tetsuo and Curic were born. The best way is to show you the Earth contact mission through
the eyes of the one who's seen it all: the Her superorganism.
Twitter was quiet last week, and will be even quieter this week because the whole chapter takes place between 3 and 5 AM on a Tuesday. I think you should do some work this week instead of checking Twitter all the time.
Today is the official release of the paperback edition of Constellation Games! How does this work? I have no clue. I believe those of you who ordered the paperback will be getting it sometime this week, and those who have been resolutely refusing to preorder will soon be able to order it from the online store or get it from a local indie. In the meantime, how about a bulleted list? I know all about those.
- The other Constellation species take their human names from human
words for "outsider". But some words for "outsider" you don't want to
say; not in front of the children. So you might say "them"
instead. You can't trust them. Who do they think they
are. In honor of this, the members of Her are simply called Them.
- My high-concept idea for Her is a hive mind whose members are
themselves sentient. Smoke is a recursive version of the same idea. I
don't know of any preexisting examples of this in SF, apart from
Internet-like "world minds", but I'm sure there are some and I'd like
to hear about any you know of. It seems like a fun
thing to read about.
- I like how a lot of Them strongly
disagree with what Her is doing and talk back to her. (I should just abbreviate "conflict between partners" as CBP so I can refer to it more easily.) Her seems to
operate on a system of democratic consensus with a supermind veto,
which Curic interprets as an intolerable fascism.
Curic's "problems with authority" bit was one of the last things I
added to the manuscript. I think it works really well, especially
given what happens between Ashley and Her in "The Time Somn
- I came up with Her around the time I abandoned the first draft.
In the second draft she was mentioned a couple times before showing
up, but come chapter 21 the writing group felt like they had no forewarning of
her existence whatsoever. Maybe you feel the same right now, but I
did try to prep it a little better in later drafts. The biggest
change was in chapter 9, where I greatly expanded an Ariel/Jenny
disagreement about the relationship between Them and Her. (I think
disagreements are the best way to do exposition.)
- Grammar time! Her's name is "Her", and she does identify as female, although I don't know what that means. So: "I met some of Her's members and they told me
her opinion." You don't capitalize the pronoun; she's not God.
- There's a little bit of Arrested Development reference
going on here ("Her?"), but not much. In related news, I did
name a character Daisy just so I could have her say, "Hi, I'm Daisy!"
- Ariel's explanation of how game sequels get made is taken
almost wholesale from a conversation I had with a friend who'd worked for one of those social-games companies. (I'm making this vague just so I don't burn bridges they'd rather leave uncharred; if they read this, they should let me know if they want real credit.) I've never worked in the game industry at all, so it's probably the novel's most accurate bit of insider info.
- Is Her's choice of Sarah Vowell's voice for her English vocalizer
a good detail? I dunno. I mentioned earlier that the
celebrity-vocalizer thing was from "Vanilla" and probably not
something I'd use nowadays. But, when I was writing "The
Time Somn Died", I imagined Her sounding like Fluttershy from My
Little Pony. So the quiet cutesy voice is definitely part of the
- Back in January I had a dream about Constellation Games, a
dream that tried to convince me that I'd written and taken out a
scene in which Jenny has sex with the Her superorganism. Not the
individual Them, but Her herself. I resisted this idea for the usual
stodgy author reasons: I didn't remember writing any such scene, it
made no character sense, it was ontologically impossible, etc. It was
one of those early-morning dreams where you wake up briefly and go
back to sleep, and when I went back to sleep I was presented with an
actual draft of the Jenny/Her scene! A smoking gun! I thought to
myself "wow, I guess that dream I had earlier was accurate WAIT A
MINUTE THIS IS THE SAME DREAM."
- That binary star patch complicates the story so much. At least for
someone like me who's spent months thinking about the
characters. After reading the third draft, Brendan said he'd assumed
Ariel was lying about this meeting with Tammy. It would be a lot
simpler if Ariel were lying, but it clearly
happened. It's a "real life" section, Tetsuo and Daisy were there, and Ariel even switches
narration to the present tense and implies that he still has the
I use the patch in ways I'm really proud of, dramatically, but for
a long time I couldn't imagine what Tammy might have said to go along
with the patch, given what happens later. Fortunately, while writing
this commentary I came up with something. I can't say more
without big spoilers, so I'll come back to this later.
The meeting only happened because of weakness on my part. In the
second draft, chapter 21 ended with Ariel talking to Tetsuo and
Daisy, then going back through the port. And then I wrote chapter 22,
which did not turn out at all the way I thought it would. It turned
out so poorly for Ariel (I don't think this is a spoiler--he
warns you about it in this chapter) that in the third draft I added
the meeting with Tammy beforehand. Remember how I said that every
time Ariel gets laid, I'm about to ruin his life? The first time, I
had dramatic irony in mind, but this time I felt sorry for him.
This is the last time I'm nice to Ariel for the rest of the
book, so enjoy it.
On that note: tune in next Tuesday (or read the paperback) for Ariel's terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day. During the course of which he will say, "I'm more worried about my
friend's problem than in coming up with the perfect urine-related
analogy for the problem."
Image credits: Joachim Barrande, Flickr user fubsan
← Last week | Next week →
Mon Apr 23 2012 09:55 Some Interesting Game Aliens:
Editor Kate pointed me to this list of the best and worst aliens in video games. Without wanting to say anything bad about that list, I noticed that it (and similar lists I've found online) focuses heavily on the visual design of humanoid aliens from first-person shooters. So I thought I'd make my own list, in honor of the print release of Constellation Games (Publishers Weekly calls it "fun"!), highlighting some video game aliens that I find interesting from a game design perspective. I'm sure there are plenty more I haven't heard of, so if you have any additional suggestions, I'd like to hear about them in comments.
The invaders (Space Invaders)
Just gonna get this one out of the way. Among the most iconic
aliens ever devised, the invaders in the middle row have come to
symbolize video games as a whole. Apart from their visual style
there's nothing there, but the style is great.
The blobs (A Boy and his Blob)
These were my gut-reaction nomination for "best", because they're the only aliens
I can think of that only make sense in a video game. The blob
in A Boy and his Blob is a game mechanic personified: a
sentient inventory. This causes serious problems if you try to think about the species outside the context of the game—when your toilet clogs on Blobolonia, do you feed your friend a jellybean and turn them into a plunger? But within the game, it works great.
The Melnorme (Star Control II)
- If you want vivid alien characterizations, Star Control II is
your game. Unfortunately, most of those characterizations are based
on asinine stereotypes. That's why the Melnorme win it for me. It
would be easy to make "the trader race" greedy and sleazy—in
fact, SC2 does this with the other "trader race", the Druuge. But
the Melnorme are friendly cosmopolitans who're fun to
talk to. And they occasionally drop ominous hints that are never
followed up on anywhere in the game.
That said, there's nothing game-y about the Melnorme, they just
happen to be in a game. Every race in SC2 could guest on
Star Trek, and many of them have. So I'm not pushing this one very hard. At least they're not humanoid.
Honorable SC2 mentions: the Zoq-Fot-Pik, who are silly and fun;
and the Orz, who are similar to but not as well-executed as...
- From another dimension rather than from outer space, but aliens
nonetheless. The Roadside Picnic of video game aliens; the
Endermen follow rules that make perfect sense... to them. Their random rearrangement of blocks and sudden fits of aggro bear a twisted resemblance to your own behavior in Minecraft. Like you,
they are interlopers in the game world, and their behavior was
to challenge your dominance of it.
- I almost didn't count Giygas for the same reason I'm not counting the Meteor from Maniac Mansion: I already gave the "cool aliens that happen to be in a game" nod to Star Control 2. But the final battle of Earthbound does some interesting things with the game's generic JRPG battle system, so sure, I'll count it.
"Them" (The Legend of
Zelda: Majora's Mask)/The Martians (Metal Slug 2)
These aliens are composed entirely of pop culture cliches. The
interesting thing is not their design but the fact that they show up
at all. These aliens aren't just from another planet: they're from
another genre. The Martians show up and abruptly turn your tasteless WWII run-and-gun into a '50s saucer flick. And
"They" show up in a Zelda game. Albeit a Zelda game that also features a time loop and travel to the moon.
When I asked on Twitter for peoples' favorite video game aliens, the only response I got (thanks, Laura!) was also in the vicinity of this category: Crypto from Destroy All Humans, which I haven't played but which looks just like the movie Mars Attacks!.
Board game bonus! The Loser (Cosmic Encounter)
- Cosmic Encounter is all about embodying game mechanics into alien species, and the Loser is the best, because it forces you to have debates about what it means to "win" a game. Whatever chaos is happening due to the other players' equally unbalanced species choices, the Loser multiplies it. My absolute fave.
And there you go. Let me know of any you think I missed—this is a bizarrely underexplored field, though maybe I just think it's bizarrely underexplored because I spent a long time writing a novel about it. I mean, I also thought it was weird no one had explained how game titles work.
Image credits: Flickr user philosofia, DeviantArt user aeonpants, DeviantArt user dczanik, DeviantArt user EliteParanoid, SNK, Felicia Cano.
(4) Tue Apr 24 2012 09:38 Constellation Games Author Commentary #22, "Nerfed":
This chapter is bad news for Ariel but good news for me, because yesterday I got my box of author copies. That means those of you who ordered paperbacks should be getting them soon. This EXCLUSIVE SIDE COVER REVEAL shows the playtime synergies possible for those who shelled out for the Adamantium package with its USB key.
In a couple weeks I may do a special spoiler post so that those who've read the whole book can ask me questions about stuff that hasn't been serialized yet, rather than waiting until the appropriate chapter comes up in the serialization.
There's a solitary tweet in last week's microblog archive. Let's move on to the commentary:
I came into this chapter treating it like a chess problem. I had all
the pieces on the board and the question was how Ariel would outsmart
the BEA again, the way he did with Dana. I sat down and puzzled over this and had a
long conversation with Beth trying to figure out how to get Ariel out
of this scrape.
And after about forty-five minutes of being totally stumped I asked
myself the obvious question: Why am I trying to get Ariel out of
At this point I knew how the book would end (it turns out I only
knew how Part Two would end). I didn't have the plot planned out
between now and then, but at some point I needed to break Ariel. This
is the perfect time to start. He's stressed out from
Sayable Spice work, shaken from his encounter with Her and the
revelation of Curic's ambivalence. Let's just go for it.
So I destroyed Ariel's house. He tries all the clever gambits I
thought of for him, and they don't work, and he loses. And that was
the single best thing that ever happened to the book. From this point on the characters are developed enough that I can do whatever horrible things I want to them. They'll either figure something out and come out on top, or they'll lose, and either way it'll be interesting reading.
A lot of this week's commentary is me telling stories that are at
best tangentially related to the chapter. But if that's good enough
for big-name DVD commentaries, it's good enough for me:
- This was a little clearer in the third draft, but hopefully it's
still clear. Something's going to happen around October 13 that makes
Ariel willing to tell the truth about his house. The backdated post
is a little flash-forward to the end of part two. So live in
suspense! Or read the paperback, whatever.
- I got tons of pushback about Fowler's pie line in chapter 19,
but apparently "That fucking snitch crate!" is A-OK.
- The Legend of the Bystander review got stuck in the
beginning of this chapter because that's the last possible place it
can go—after September 2 there's no more Brain Embryo. Because
I placed that scene without thinking about it on a plot level, I
didn't notice until just now that it creates a bizarre
incongruity. Ariel keeps going back to Curic in the house-losing
conversation ("You need to talk to Curic about this," "Maybe Curic
can stop this."), even though he's just learned that Curic is crazy.
I'm gonna file this under "accidental awesomeness" rather than
"correctly regarded as goofs", because I think it fits in very well
with what we see of the Ariel/Curic relationship. But it was totally
- The missile defense joke is super inaccurate (much like missile
defense itself—heyo!), but I left it in 'cause it's a funny
failure mode. Inaccuracies: 1) An object with negative mass would
probably look like nothing at all. 2) If that glitch did happen, the
investigation would take months and a low-level State Department
bureaucrat would never hear about it. 3) The port + its casing + the
telepresence robot probably has a positive net mass anyway.
The most likely in-story explanation is that Krakowski found out
about Ariel's trip through old-fashioned HUMINT and is now trying to
dazzle him with technobabble (a favor Ariel will return later). After
all, the Constellation's not very good at keeping secrets. But I'm
good at taking... Creative License.
- There's not really an "Austin Building Inspection Division" per se. Krakowski is clearly referring to the Building Inspection Division of the city's Planning and Development Review Department.
- The Greenland Treaty has been mentioned before, but now it's a done
deal. Although it's mentioned several more times throughout the book, I
deliberately left the details vague, because 1) who cares, and 2) if
I set down the details I can't change them later to fit a future
story. But non-canonically, Greenland has gained independence from
Denmark and is now effectively a client state of the Hierarchy
- When I took this chapter to writing group there was one person who
really loved Fowler's line about using a black hole as a lathe. Yes,
it's a good line. Very evocative, if I do say so myself. But this
person was stuck on it. They said I should expand on that line in
flashback, and spun a fantastical scene describing the port's
construction, like the beginning of the Lord of the Rings
movie where you see the Rings of Power being made.
One of the rules of my writing group is that the person whose story it
is doesn't talk until everyone else has given their critique. So I
said nothing. But I thought: what the hell?! I can't put that in
a comedy novel! It would read like Spinal Tap playing "Stonehenge"!
I have no other complaints about this persons' critiques (they're
not with the group anymore), and I've certainly delivered my share of idiosyncratic critiques. But that moment has stayed with me,
perhaps because it's the kind of random obsession I expect from my
- Ariel's defense of his parents' toilet-training techniques was
inspired by one of my earliest memories. When my mom was training my
sister Susanna, she bought bags and bags of cheap grocery-store candy
to use as bribes, because Susanna was being difficult. This did not
sit well with me, as my access to candy had always been severely
constrained, despite my willingness to get on board with the
In particular I remember coveting a bag of circus peanuts. Circus
peanuts! I had never even heard of such a thing. Like a peanut and a
candy at the same time! Oh, how I longed for those circus
peanuts. But they were for Susanna.
I told this story to Susanna last year when I went to visit for
Christmas, and she had absolutely no memory of it. I don't remember
my own toilet training, so it's quite possible my mom went the
bribery route with Susanna because I'd been so horrible. Or that I'd had circus peanuts and forgotten about them.
Anyway, if you subscribe to that archaic psychology theory that
explains everything about a person in terms of their toilet training
experience, you've now got a bonanza to work with.
- And closing out this week's commentary with another personal story explaining
something that doesn't need to be explained. Dana's plan to disguise
herself as a flyer for a chiptune concert is a super-obscure
reference to a surprise birthday
party I planned for Sumana in 2008. I came up with an imaginary
chiptune concert as a way to get out of the house without making her
want to come with. I don't even think that qualifies as a
"reference", but that's why Dana says "chiptune concert" and not
- Puzzle Korner: next week, Krakowski's going to ask Ariel about something Her said in chapter 21. Do you know what that might be?
Pretty chunky commentary this week, hope you enjoyed it. Be sure to tune in next week for chapter 23, when Jenny will say, "I don't masturbate to it."
Image credits: yours truly, the city of Austin, NASA/Ames, Wikimedia Commons user Hoshie.
← Last week | Next week →
Fri Apr 27 2012 12:01 o Invasion:
There are some rogue os in the Constellation Games acknowledgements. "N. K. Jemison" should refer to the Nebula and Hugo-nominated author N. K. Jemisin, not to a person who doesn't exist. And "Beth Lermon" is of course my friend Beth Lerman.
Surely these are far from the only typos in the book [I originally wrote "on the book"], but they're really bad, and deserve a special correction, and my apologies.
Sat Apr 28 2012 08:55 Hidden Treasures:
There's a competition going on right now called "Hubble's Hidden Treasures", a competition to identify amazing but overlooked images within the Hubble Space Telescope's massive twenty-year data archive. I have no special expertise in image processing or astronomy, but I so coveted the prize of an iPad that I thought I'd try my hand.
See, most people who enter this contest are taking pictures of nebulae and galaxies and setting up the colors to represent different wavelengths of light. Here's a nice example. These images have aesthetic value but are merely emblematic of Hubble's scientific value, which comes from the raw data. As long as we're playing that game, why not find aesthetic satisfaction in Hubble's glitches? My innovative thinking will surely net me the prize.
Just as an example, here's a super-washed-out image that could have the date and place of your punk show written in the middle of it. Lots of images have glitchy edges, and my original plan was to make a collage of the glitchy edges. But then I found the image to the right, which blew my stupid idea out of the water.
I call this ghostly image "hst_05909_01_wfpc2_fr418n18_pc", because that's its Hubble dataset ID, but if I were hanging it in an art gallery I'd call it "Cygnus", because that's the search I used to find it. Here it is big and zoomable. Here's a larger image (it's the full WFPC2 image--the one to your right comes from the Planetary Camera bit of the WFPC2) which I think makes it clear the feature you see is a photographic artifact and not a real thing in space.
I don't have anything more to say about hst_05909_01_wfpc2_fr418n18_pc; it's just a nice piece of abstract photography. The Hubble Legacy Archive is great stuff in general, though.
 Can the winner get 5 minutes of Hubble observation time or something contest-specific? Just trying to think outside the box here. The box labeled "box of iPads for use as contest prizes".
|Unless otherwise noted, all content licensed by Leonard Richardson|
under a Creative Commons License.