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3 years ago: Fundamental Indeed

10 years ago: All these procedural dramas; why no object-oriented...

11 years ago: Sony Walkman Personal Stereo Park

16 years ago: "It's becoming increasingly evident that Linux caught...

[No comments] The Lonely Dungeon: Tactics: The huge monstrous crab is hungry and
attacks all non-locathah who enter the water or
attempt to travel on the ledges. It uses its 10-foot
reach to attempt to grab victims on the ledge. If it can
establish a grapple (note its +22 grapple modifier!), it
deals automatic constriction damage each round.
While partially submerged in the pool, the crab gains
improved cover (+8 to AC and +4 to Reflex saves). Dear diary, once again I have created the greatest bot ever. It's The Lonely Dungeon (Tumblr, Twitter), another in my tradition of "out-of-context selections from a very large corpus". In this case the corpus is all those RPG sourcebooks that came out in the late 20th century.

I found these books fascinating when I was a kid. They were full of secret information, obscure contigencies, bit characters with weird motivations, worldbuilding for made-up societies. Each paragraph was a little story about why this part of the game couldn't be handled by the normal rules.

Now the books have been replaced by newer editions, or just forgotten since nobody plays the games anymore. As forbidding as they seemed, all those crypts and forests and space stations were incomplete unless someone was going through them and uncovering their secrets.

One of my current interests is worlds that end not through some calamity, but because the inhabitants get bored and move out. Like Minecraft Signs, The Lonely Dungeon is a spotlight picking out features of abandoned worlds.

I've been working on this bot for over a year in spare moments. For the first time in Leonard bot history, The Lonely Dungeon's primary medium is Tumblr, so that I can give you the full OCRed text of the text box. It's better for accessibility, especially as those scans can be difficult to read. I had to learn a lot about PDFs and image processing, and I've scaled back this bot from my original plans, but those plans are still on the table in some form. More on this when it happens! In the meantime... keep adventuring.

[No comments] January Film Roundup: How you doin'? I'm bringing the beginning of February into this post just so there's more than two things in this list. I was pretty busy all month and we spent a lot of evenings watching this month's Television Spotlight. Missed the whole Coen brothers retrospective at Film Forum, oh well.

And now, the Television Spotlight, focusing on a show that we started in January and finished in February:

[Comments] (2) The Minecraft (And Other Games) Archive Project: As suggested in the previous Minecraft Archive Project post, I have now completed a capture of the CurseForge family of sites. They host a lot of Minecraft stuff I hadn't downloaded before, including the popular Feed the Beast series of modpacks, lots of other modpacks, mods, and a ton of Bukkit plugins (not really sure what those are or how they differ from mods TBH).

CurseForge also has sites for Terraria and Kerbal Space Program, as well as many other games I haven't heard of or don't care about. I paid $30 for a premium membership and grabbed it all, downloading about 500 gigabytes of images and binaries. This doubles the size of the 201512 capture (though it probably introduces a lot of duplicates).

Here are the spoils, ordered by game:

Game What Capture Size (GB)
Firefall Add-ons <1
Kerbal Space Program Mods 23
Kerbal Space Program Shareables 1.8
Minecraft Bukkit plugins 19
Minecraft Customization <1
Minecraft Modpacks (Feed the Beast) 15
Minecraft Modpacks (Other) 87
Minecraft Mods 33
Minecraft Resource Packs 80
Minecraft Worlds 45
Rift Add-ons 7.5
Runes of Magic Add-ons 1.8
Skyrim Mods 6.4
Starcraft 2 Assets 4.7
Starcraft 2 Maps 46
Terraria Maps 4.8
The Elder Scrolls Online Add-ons <1
The Secret World Mods <1
Wildstar Add-ons 1.7
World of Tanks Mods 40
World of Tanks Skins 12
World of Warcraft Addons 48

Here's the really cool part: CurseForge projects frequently link to Git repositories. I cloned every one I could find. I ended up with 5000 Minecraft/Bukkit repositories totalling 47 gigs, 103 Kerbal Space Program repositories totalling 6 gigs, and a couple hundred megabytes here and there for the other games. That's over 50 gigs of game-mod source code, which I predict will be a lot more useful to the future than a bunch of JAR files.

These numbers are gloriously huge and there are two reasons. 1. this is the first capture I've done of CurseForge, and possibly the only full capture I will ever do. So I got stuff dating back several years. 2. CurseForge keeps a full history of your uploaded files, not just the most recent version (which is typically what you'd find on Planet Minecraft or the Minecraft forum). Some of the World of Warcraft add-ons have hundreds of releases! I guess because they have to be re-released for every client update. And it doesn't take many releases for a 100MB Minecraft mod pack to start becoming huge.

Anyway, as always it's good to be done with a project like this, so I can work on other stuff, like all the short stories I owe people.

Minecraft Archive Project: The 201512 Capture: On December 27th I started the third capture for the Minecraft Archive Project. Previous captures ran in February 2015 and March 2014. This time I collected about 420 gigabytes of material.

Screenshot of the Thermal Pointe map.

Here's the breakdown by what I believe the new files to be:
TypeNumber of filesCollective size
Maps33112320 GB
Maps (MCPE)15522 GB
Resource packs213730 GB
Resource packs (MCPE) 176172 MB
Mods6082 10 GB
Mods (MCPE)18391 GB
Screenshots33565157 GB
Skins31064132 MB
Server records25923361 MB
Blog posts6562129 MB

This time I think I was able to archive about 60-65% of the maps I saw, compared to 73% in the last capture. Even so, we ended up with 33k new maps in this capture versus 22k in the last one--and I didn't even get the adf.ly maps this time! (Nor will I--it's a huge pain and I'm sick of it.) 2012 was the single biggest year for custom Minecraft maps, and there was a downward trend visible in 2013 and 2014, but it looks like 2015 was really huge.

Screenshot from zero.min.org, a server that's been up since 2010

Couple new features in this capture: I started keeping track of blog posts and server records from Planet Minecraft. Server records are especially important because they usually feature screenshots, and in twenty years those screenshots will be the only record of what those servers looked like.

I've completely given up on the idea of archiving public servers--it's still theoretically possible but it's a full-time job for two developers, so I'd need to get a grant or some volunteer interest from the modding comunity. In fact, a few months ago the multiuser server I played Minecraft on went down, and I don't know whether my stuff is still around. That's life! Gonna archive the screenshots.

Screenshot for the Fairy Lights mod

The full dataset is now about 2.4 terabytes. I bought a new drive to store the archive and set it up with XFS, and it does seem to improve the performance when iterating over the file set.

As always I'm putting a copy of the data on a server at NYPL Labs, and I recently gave Jason Scott a drive that contained the first two captures, so he can do whatever Jason thing he wants with the data. I don't have any plans to make this archive public, or even to re-run the Minecraft Geologic Survey on the new data. My maximum supportable commitment is spending some time once a year to shepherd these scripts through saving a representative sample of this artform.

I'm going to leave everything else to the future when the archive becomes valuable to other people. I am doing exploratory work for adding a third site to the archive, but that's all I'll say about that for now.

The Crummy.com Review of Things 2015: Another year has gone, but what's the big deal? Let's remember the magical moments, like 12:12:12 on 12/12, or June 30th's leap second. Good timestamps, good timestamps. Here are the most worthwhile investments of my hard-earned 2015:

Books

I've been giving books short shrift by only mentioning a single Crummy.com Book of the Year, and in 2015 I started reading books on my commute (partly because I'm developing a tool that helps people read books on their commute), so I can afford to mention more than one. I have records of reading 25 books this year, and probably a couple more slipped through the cracks, but I've got a solid best-of slate.

The 2015 Crummy.com Book of the Year is Dragonfly: NASA And The Crisis Aboard Mir by Bryan Burrough. So much good stuff in that book. If you want to write fictional dingy spacecraft, you can't do better than looking at the dingy spacecraft we've actually built.

Runners-up:

  1. Nightwood by Djuna Barnes (who needs her own NYCB post)
  2. Jim Henson: The Biography by Brian Jay Jones
  3. You Can't Win by Jack Black (not that Jack Black)
  4. The Space Opera Renaissance, ed. David G. Hartwell and Kathryn Cramer (book needs its own NYCB post)
  5. Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking, by Anya von Bremzen
  6. The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet, by Becky Chambers

Honorable mention to Mallworld by Somtow Sucharitkul, a book that I didn't love, but I was blown away by its inventiveness. In 1982, Sucharitkul crammed Mallworld with all the jokes that would later be used in Futurama.

Film

Saw ninety-one features this year. As always, only films I saw for the first time are eligible for consideration, though that only eliminates three. Here are my must-see movies:

  1. The Americanization Of Emily (1964)
  2. Mad Max: Fury Road (2015)
  3. The Brink's Job (1978)
  4. Inside Out (2015)
  5. Sullivan's Travels (1941)
  6. Sunset Boulevard (1950)
  7. The Breaking Point (1950)
  8. The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962)
  9. Sweet Smell of Success (1957)
  10. Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009)
  11. The Parallax View (1974)
  12. Nightmare Alley (1947)

And this year's bumper crop of "recommended" films:

  1. The Best of Everything (1959)
  2. Clueless (1995)
  3. Wagon Master (1950)
  4. The Crimson Kimono (1959)
  5. The Godfather, Part II (1974)
  6. Desperately Seeking Susan (1985)
  7. Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015)
  8. Inside Man (2006)
  9. The Grapes of Wrath (1939)
  10. Kundo: Age of the Rampant (2014)
  11. Ed Wood (1994)
  12. How To Marry A Millionaire (1953)
  13. Brainstorm (1983)
  14. Invention For Destruction (1958)

Honorable mentions to the burglary in Rififi (1955) and the hotel tour in The Shining (1980). I don't want to sit through the whole movie again but those scenes were awesome.

Bots

Looking at the list of my follows I feel like I need to broaden my bot horizons because I love all of Allison's bots (except that damn Unicode Ebooks, which still has three more followers than Smooth Unicode) and I love bots that post images from image collections, and that doesn't seem like a very diverse set. Anyway, here are my faves of 2015:

Games

Didn't play a lot of new video games this year because of the persistent problem with my computer shutting off if I dare to start up a game. I did replace the computer near the end of the year, so there will probably be more games in 2016. In the meantime, the Crummy.com Game of the Year is the super-atmospheric This War of Mine; its only flaw, which it shares with nearly all games, is that it's not roguelike enough.

A couple runners-up and honorable mentions:

  1. 80 Days
  2. Mini Metro
  3. Alphabear

I played board games pretty regularly but the only new game I remember is the much-loved "Code Names", which I also think is great.

I'd wanted to do an escape room this year, but put the idea on hold when Sumana wasn't interested. Near the end of the year, though, Pat Rafferty (who now works at an escape room in Portland) invited me to join his room-escaping team, and I leapt stood up at the opportunity. As part of a crew of six, I helped to repair a drifting spacecraft. It was really immersive, finally allowing me to live the experience of crawling through a Jeffries tube.

My only complaint is the puzzles were free-to-play iOS game-level stuff. I understand why you have to do it that way, since none of us would be able to repair a spacecraft in real life, but it meant that a very immersive exploration experience was constantly interrupted by having to decode some Morse Code or solve cheesy riddles. Same reason I didn't like Myst. I did like the puzzles that made you combine objects.

Going Out

Sumana and I at Town Hall for PHCStereotypically this section would be called "Going Outside", but all the things I want to talk about happened indoors. In fact, two of them happened in the same building: the Town Hall Theater near Times Square. In fact, all of them, since I moved the escape room to the previous section,

Sumana and I both grew up listening to NPR, and we're both fans of the schticky comedy and down-home existentialism of A Prairie Home Companion (though less ardent fans than we were as teenagers). 2015 was the year I told Sumana (paraphrase) "You know, PHC does shows in New York, and as a project focused around a single individual who has been doing it since before we were born, it might not be around for much longer. We should see it live while we have the opportunity." Sumana was convinced by my airtight logic, and we caught the April 25th show. We had lousy seats but it was fun!

Town Hall selfie pre-PDQThen, near the end of the year, the PDQ Bach Golden Anniversary Concert Kickstarter was announced. As per previous paragraph, Sumana and I are also fans of Peter Schickele's ur-podcast Schickele Mix, so we went through a similar process, although I ended up going to the concert alone. This time I had a great seat! Beautiful music, lots of laughs, I'm really glad I went.

Food

As you can see from the associated pictures, I lost a lot of weight in 2015. I still have a little more planned, but I'm very close to the impossible-seeming target weight I set in July. I found the Atkins diet to be very effective. I don't think I have a lot of self-control, but I am very, very stubborn, and Atkins lets you substitute stubbornness for self-control.

Because of this I didn't exactly spend a lot of time in 2015 exploring New York's burgeoned restaurant scene, and the Food section will be correspondingly short. However, I want to give a special shout-out to the King of Falafel halal food truck in Astoria. See, most places, if you order a meal without the carby thing, they'll simply omit the carby thing, yielding about 60% of a meal. However, if you order a plate at King of Falafel and ask for no rice, they will fill up the empty space with more meat and salad, and you still get a full meal. Thanks, King of Falafel. Saved my sanity.

Also this sugar-free flourless chocolate cake recipe is good for managing your chocolate cravings. Honorable mention: xylitol.

My Accomplishments

People say that being on Atkins normalizes your energy level, getting rid of the highs and crashes, and I've found this to be true but very inconvenient, since the highs are where I do all my creative work, and the crashes happen at night, a.k.a. "getting sleepy", or they happen at 2 PM, when I drink some tea, problem solved. Right now I feel like it's 1:30 PM all day. Anyway, if you don't count the amazing work I did going from Before to After, 2015 wasn't my most productive year, since I spent half the year in power-saving mode.

But I did finish Situation Normal, and handed it off to an agent, so the book is officially Not My Problem. I've started work on a new novel, Mine, my take on the classic Big Dumb Object In Space story.

I wrote four short stories: "We, the Unwilling" (a bonus story for Situation Normal); "The Katie Event" (the third in the Awesome Dinosaurs trilogy, which you haven't seen because the second in the trilogy needs a revision); "Worm Hunt" (exploratory work for a novel I probably won't write); and "Only G51 Kids Will Remember These Five Moments", which I think I can sell if I ever get around to sending it out.

I gave three talks of note:

I crafted a fabulous NaNoGenMo entry with a one-line shell script: Alphabetical Order.

Four bots came from my fingers in 2015:

I also breathed new life into Smooth Unicode by implementing beautiful emoji mosaics.

Well-wishing

Finally I want to wish all of you readers the best in 2016, and to ask you to tell me what you liked in 2015. or what you're proud of accomplishing. I like other peoples' posts like this (Here's Allison's, here's Darius's), and I think taking a moment at the beginning of the new year to look back is satisfying in a way that can't be matched by the corporate "best of the year" lists that dominate the end of the old year.

[Comments] (1) December Film Roundup: The final Film Roundup of the year! Step onto the red carpet, and... no, wipe your feet first! Geez.

And now, the Television Spotlight focuses on a show that we watched in its entirety in December:

November Film Roundup: I remember this month's movies being meh-ful, but when I went back to the list there were three really good movies, and I'd just allowed my memories to be overwhelmed by the underwhelming movies, because I saw the three really good movies all in a row. No more! Let joy be unconfined!

Roy's Postcards Return[s]!: Back in 2009 I started a project to transcribe and put online over 1000 postcards my dad bought in the 1980s. The toolchain that took things from postcards to web pages was always kind of rickety, and the project petered out altogether when my sisters sent me about 500 more postcards that Dad sent them. I decided I wouldn't start it up again until I'd transcribed all 1500 postcards and could put everything up at once.

Now it's done! The best way to experience it is through the daily @RoyPostcards bot. This is a labor of love for me, so I'm not as concerned that people follow along, but I tried to add interesting commentary whenever I could, and it's an interesting glimpse into everyday life in the 80s.

October Film Roundup: This month starts very mainstream, with lots of gunplay and explosions, but—plot twist!—takes a right turn into the avant-garde. And then ends with some random stuff. Just the way I, and, hopefully, you, like it.

And now, the continuation of Television Roundup. We actually finished a show this month!

Bot Techniques: The Wandering Monster Table: In preparation for the talk I'm giving Friday at Allison's unofficial Bot Summit, I'm writing little essays explaining some of the techniques I've used in bots. Today: the Wandering Monster Table!

In D&D, the Wandering Monster Table is a big situation-specific table that makes it possible for you, the Dungeon Master, to derail your carefully planned campaign on a random mishap. You roll the dice and a monster just kind of shows up and has to be dealt with. There are different tables for different scenarios and different biomes, but they're generally based on this probability distribution (from AD&D 1st Edition):

This doesn't mean you're going to run into Ygorl (Lord of Entropy) once every twenty-five adventures. There are a ton of Very Rare monsters, and Ygorl is just one chaos lord. He can't be everywhere. What this means is that most of the time the PCs are going to experience normal, boring wandering monsters. Die rolls form a normal distribution, and 68% (~65%) of die rolls will fall within one standard deviation of the mean. Those are your common monsters.

Go out two standard deviations (95%, ~65%+20%+11%) and things might get a little hairy for the PCs. Go out three standard deviations (99.7%, ~65%+20%+11%+4%) and you're looking at something really weird that even the Dungeon Master didn't really plan for. But what, exactly? That depends on the situation, and it may require another dice roll.

The WMT is a really good abstraction for creating variety. I use it in my bots all the time. Here's a sample of the WMT for Serial Entrepreneur:

common = ["%(product)s", "%(product)s!", "%(product)s...\n%(variant)s...", "%(product)s? %(variant)s?", ... ] uncommon = [ "%(product)s... %(variant)s...? Just throwing some ideas around.", "%(product)s... or maybe %(variant)s...", "%(product)s or %(variant)s?", "Eureka! %(product)s!", ... ] rare = [ "I don't think I'll ever be happy with my %(product)s...", "Got a meeting with some VCs to pitch my %(product)s!", "I'm afraid that my new %(product)s is cannibalizing sales of my %(variant)s.", "The %(product)s flopped in my %(state)s test market... back to the draw ing board.", ... ] very_rare = [ "Am I to be remembered as the inventor of the %(product)s?", "Sometimes I think about Edison's famous %(product)s and I wonder... can my %(product2)s compare?", "I haven't sold a single %(product)s...", "I hear %(billionaire)s is working on %(a_product)s...", ... ]

This creates a personality that most of the time just mutters project ideas to itself, but sometimes (uncommonly) gets a little more verbose, or (rarely) talks about where it is in the product development process, or (very rarely) compares itself to other inventors. The 'common' bucket contains nine entries which are slight variants; the 'rare' bucket contains 32 entries which are worded very differently.

The WMT works the same way in Smooth Unicode and Euphemism Bot. All these bots have their standbys: common constructs they return to over and over. Then they have three more tiers of constructs where the result is aesthetically riskier, or the joke is less likely to land, or a little of that construct goes a long way.

I also use the WMT in A Dull Bot to a more subtle purpose. Each tweet contains a random number of typos, and each typo is chosen from a WMT. One of the common typos is to transpose two letters. A very rare typo is to uppercase one word while leaving the rest of the sentence alone.

The WMT fixes one of the common aesthetic problems with bots, where every output is randomly generated but it gets dull quickly because the presentation is always the same. Since you can always dump more stuff into a WMT, it's an easy way to keep your bot's output fresh. In particular, whenever I get an idea like emoji mosaics, I can add it to Smooth Unicode's WMT instead of creating a whole new bot.

There's a Python implementation of a Wandering Monster Table in olipy.

Auditioning: Sampling a Dataset to Maximize Diversity: My latest bot is Roller Derby Names, which takes its data from a list of about 40,000 distinct names chosen by roller derby participants. 40,000 is a lot of names, and although a randomly selected name is likely to be hilarious, if you look at a bunch of them they can get kind of repetitive. My challenge was to cut it down to a maximally distinctive subset of names. I used a simple technique I call 'auditioning' (couldn't find a preexisting name for it) which I first used with Minecraft Signs:

  1. Shuffle the list.
  2. Create a counter of words seen
  3. For each string in the list:
    1. Split the string into words.
    2. Assume the string is not distinctive.
    3. For each word in the string:
      1. If this word has been seen fewer than n times, the string is distinctive.
      2. Increment the counter for this word.
    4. If the string is distinctive, output it.

My mental idea of this process is that each string is auditioning before the talent agent from the classic Chuck Jones cartoon One Froggy Evening. One word at a time, the string tries to impress the talent agent, but the agent has seen it all before. In fact, the agent has seen it all n times before! But then comes that magical word that the agent has seen only n-1 times. Huzzah! The string passes its audition. But the next string is going to have a tougher time, because with each successful audition the agent becomes more jaded.

You don't have to worry about stopwords because the string only needs one rare word to pass its audition. By varying n you can get a smaller or larger output set. For Minecraft Signs I set n=5, which gave a wide variety of signs while eliminating the ones that say "White Wool". For Roller Derby Names I decided on n=1.

Here's the size of the Roller Derby Names dataset, n-auditioned for varying values of n:
nDataset size
∞ (original data)40198
10040191
5040089
1037860
636104
535307
434203
332751
230387
125710

Auditioning the Roller Derby Names with n=50 excludes only the most generic sounding names: "Crash Baby", "Bad Lady", "Queen Bitch", etc. Setting n=1 restricts the dataset to the most distinctive names, like "Battlestar Kick Asstica" and "Collideascope". But it still includes over half the dataset. There's not really a lot of difference between n=10 and n=4, it's just, how many names do you want in the corpus.

I want to note that this is this is not a technique for picking out the 'good' items. It's a technique for maximizing diversity or distinctiveness. You can say that a name excluded by a lower value of n is more distinctive, but for a given value of n it can be totally random whether or not a name makes the cut. "Angry Beaver" made it into the final corpus and "Captain Beaver" didn't. As "beaver" jokes go, I'd say they're about the same quality. When the algorithm encountered "Captain Beaver", it had already seen "captain" and "beaver". If the list had been shuffled differently, the string "Captain Beaver" would have nailed its audition and "Angry Beaver" would be a has-been. That's show biz. This technique also magnifies the frequency of misspellings, as anyone who follows Minecraft Signs knows.

Also note that "Dirty Mary" is excluded by n=50. It's not the greatest name but it is a legitimate pun, so in terms of quality it should have made the corpus, but "Dirty" and "Mary" are both very common name components, so it didn't pass.

PS: Boat Name Bot (Roller Derby Names's sister bot) does not use this technique. There's no requirement that a boat name be unique, and TBH most boat-namers aren't terribly creative. Picking boat names that have only been used once (and are not names for human beings) cuts the dataset down plenty.

[Comments] (4) : Recently I gave a talk called "The Enterprise Media Distribution Platform At The End Of This Book". It summarizes my first eighteen months on the Library Simplified project at NYPL Labs. The goal of Library Simplified is to make it as easy to check ebooks out from a public library as it is to buy them from Amazon.

We've just secured a multi-year grant to expand the project, and we are hiring up from two developers to eight. We are quadrupling the size of our development team.

This is a really satisfying job for me because I'm making life substantially better for people who aren't already well off. If you like that prospect, if you like what I say in the "Enterprise Media Distribution" talk, and you want to work on this project, you should apply for one of these position by sending your resume to info@librarysimplified.com.

I'm going to link to the job listings in a minute, but first I want to make it real clear that we put up these listings largely to have entry points into the HR system. As the team lead I'm not concerned with counting how many terms on your resume match terms used in the job listing. We need two Android developers and four people to write server-side code and HTML and Javascript. I don't think we need a team made up entirely of Senior Developers. Other skills might be more important.

For instance, we need someone with devops experience. We'll be dealing with e-commerce, cryptography, and machine learning—all things I know little about. We don't care if you have a CS degree, but if you have a Library Science degree or have worked in the publishing industry, that would be useful. We have big collections in Spanish, Chinese and Russian, but nobody on our team reads those languages. Stuff like that.

With that in mind, here are the job listings:

As you can see if you click around, getting into the HR system to formally "apply" for these jobs requires filling out a really long form. (Update: and now these links don't even work anymore because the jobs got shifted around.) Instead of doing that, send your resume to info@librarysimplified.com and we'll only ask you to fill out the form if we want to bring you in for an interview.

All these positions are in New York City, in the big building on 42nd Street with the lions. This is a project funded by grants, and the salaries we offer are not competitive with Facebook or Goldman Sachs, but they are competitive with other nonprofits. The benefits are good. This is not a job that ruins your life. It's 35 hours a week and you get four weeks of vacation per year. I work from home about one day a week. Send me email or leave a comment if you have any questions about benefits.

[Comments] (1) To Stop Disturbance: I was reading to Sumana the most interesting bits from Washington Goes To War, a book by David Brinkley about the changes to Washington D.C. over the course of World War II. It's full of interesting historical tidbits, including:

But the thing Sumana wanted me to record verbatim was the policy that Washington D.C.'s Casino Royal put into place for dealing with the inevitable fistfights between soldiers and sailors. "Night after night," these inter-service resentments boiled over, and so the Casino Royal wrote down these rules and posted them "on a wall backstage under the heading TO STOP DISTURBANCE."

  1. Lower the house lights
  2. Turn the spotlight on a large American flag hanging from the ceiling
  3. Start up an electric fan aimed at the flag, causing it to flutter
  4. Have the band instantly stop playing dance music and strike up "The Star-Spangled Banner".
  5. Call in the military police and the navy's shore patrol
It always worked. The soldiers and sailors stopped swinging at each other, faced the flag and stood at attention while the band played. There was no way a uniformed military man in wartime could refuse to do this, however angry he was. Before the anthem was finished, the military police and the shore patrol were walking up the steps from Fourteenth Street.

The one that really gets me is #3. I can see how this behavior would be drilled into you as a reflex action, but #3 makes it feel like they're trying to inspire you, remind you what you're fightin' for. And then the MPs show up.

September Film Roundup: Didn't see a lot of movies this month, so I'm going to add a new mini-feature that will run for the next few months. I'll be briefly reviewing some TV shows that, although I haven't seen (and may never see) absolutely every episode, I feel like I can evaluate the show as a whole. But first, our feature presentations:

And now the TV section. Obviously my technique of waiting until I can evaluate the show as a whole, creates a selection bias towards good television shows. I'll sit through a bad movie and then pan it in Film Roundup, but a bad TV show is outa here, especially since I watch movies on my own but I only watch TV with Sumana. But what's the problem with talking about good TV? Try this on for size:

(Before you ask, Religious Huckster Trick #1 is "God told me to tell you to give me money.")

[Comments] (4) Top 100 Films From Women Directors: Sumana is tired of dude movies, so I went through this list of 100 great movies by female directors and noted the ones that a) I think Sumana would like (no Pet Sematary) and b) I am willing to watch (no Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles, a film Sumana really likes but just thinking about it makes me fall asleep. I'm asleep right now!) There were about twenty-five such movies.

The above-linked list is very quirky, and although the idiosyncracies generally work in the reader's favor (gotta figure out a way to see Jodie Mack's Dusty Stacks of Mom (2013)), it left rhetorical space for men to come into the comments section and say HOW could you OVERLOOK this GROUNDBREAKING film, [potentially useful recommendation], for you see, I know a LOT about FILM. Which I must admit would have happened anyway.

I don't know a lot about film, but I do know how to run SQL queries against IMDB data, so I thought I would make an intersubjective list of the top 100 films directed by women, judged by their IMDB ratings. In general I copied the implicit rules of the hand-picked list. Only feature-length films are here. No documentaries, no concert footage. (There is one comedy special in here, but whatever.)

As usual, films with fewer than 150 votes on IMDB were not considered. Also as usual, there are no links because the IMDB dataset is far too ancient for such things. I did some spot checks and kicked a couple movies off the list for obvious astroturfing. I don't believe one of the movies on this list is real, but I left it on the list because it's so weird.

Here's the list:

TitleDirectorIMDBGenres
1. The Matrix (1999)Wachowski, Lana8.7Action, Sci-Fi
2. Cidade de Deus (2002)Lund, Kátia8.7Drama, Crime
3. Voskhozhdenie (1977)Shepitko, Larisa8.3Drama, War
4. Drushyam (2014)Sripriya8.3Drama, Thriller, Family
5. Moe no suzaku (1997)Kawase, Naomi8.2Drama
6. Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara (2011)Akhtar, Zoya8.1Drama, Romance, Comedy, Adventure, Family
7. Salaam Bombay! (1988)Nair, Mira8.1Drama, Crime
8. Mr. and Mrs. Iyer (2002)Sen, Aparna8.0Drama
9. Le roman de Renard (1930)Starewicz, Irene8.0Comedy, Fantasy, Animation, Family
10. Slumdog Millionaire (2008)Tandan, Loveleen8.0Drama, Romance
11. Persepolis (2007)Satrapi, Marjane8.0Drama, Animation, War, Biography
12. Chelovek s bulvara Kaputsinov (1987)Surikova, Alla8.0Romance, Comedy, Musical, Western
13. Zero Motivation (2014)Lavie, Talya7.9Drama, Comedy
14. Chou tin dik tong wah (1987)Cheung, Mabel7.9Drama, Romance
15. Out 1, noli me tangere (1971)Schiffman, Suzanne7.9Drama
16. Tau ban no hoi (1982)Hui, Ann7.9Drama
17. Gett (2014)Elkabetz, Ronit7.9Drama
18. Sharasôju (2003)Kawase, Naomi7.9Drama
19. Gangoobai (2013)Krishnaswamy, Priya7.9Drama, Family
20. Patrice O'Neal: Elephant in the Room (2011)McCarthy-Miller, Beth7.9Comedy
21. Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975)Akerman, Chantal7.9Drama
22. Little Miss Sunshine (2006)Faris, Valerie7.9Drama, Comedy, Adventure
23. English Vinglish (2012)Shinde, Gauri7.9Drama, Comedy, Family
24. Shrek (2001)Jenson, Vicky7.9Comedy, Fantasy, Animation, Adventure, Family
25. La distancia más larga (2013)Pinto, Claudia7.9Drama
26. Pasqualino Settebellezze (1975)Wertmüller, Lina7.9Drama, Comedy, War
27. Dönüs (1972)Soray, Türkan7.8Drama, Romance
28. Strangers in Good Company (1990)Scott, Cynthia7.8Drama
29. Awakenings (1990)Marshall, Penny7.8Drama, Biography
30. Dolgie provody (1971)Muratova, Kira7.8Drama
31. Ne dao Bog veceg zla (2002)Tribuson, Snjezana7.8Romance
32. Tong nien wang shi (1985)Yang, Li-Yin7.8Drama, Biography
33. Dedictví aneb Kurvahosigutntag (1993)Chytilová, Vera7.8Comedy
34. Cheshmane John Malkovich 1: Viggo Mortensen (2004)Solati, Sara7.8Drama, Fantasy, Horror, Mystery
35. Earth (1998)Mehta, Deepa7.8Drama, Romance, War
36. Nu ren si shi (1995)Hui, Ann7.8Drama, Comedy
37. Lost in Translation (2003)Coppola, Sofia7.8Drama
38. Efter brylluppet (2006)Bier, Susanne7.8Drama
39. Water (2005)Mehta, Deepa7.8Drama, Romance
40. Die Abenteuer des Prinzen Achmed (1926)Reiniger, Lotte7.8Romance, Fantasy, Animation, Adventure
41. Rocks in My Pockets (2014)Baumane, Signe7.7Comedy, Drama, Animation
42. Kirschblüten - Hanami (2008)Dörrie, Doris7.7Drama, Romance
43. Selma (2014)DuVernay, Ava7.7Drama, Biography, History
44. Nirgendwo in Afrika (2001)Link, Caroline7.7Drama, Biography
45. Hævnen (2010)Bier, Susanne7.7Drama
46. S tebou me baví svet (1983)Polednáková, Marie7.7Comedy, Family
47. Nastroyshchik (2004)Muratova, Kira7.7Drama, Comedy, Crime
48. Die Höhle des gelben Hundes (2005)Davaa, Byambasuren7.7Drama
49. Sita Sings the Blues (2008)Paley, Nina7.7Comedy, Fantasy, Romance, Animation, Musical
50. Sans toit ni loi (1985)Varda, Agnès7.7Drama
51. Olivier, Olivier (1992)Holland, Agnieszka7.7Drama
52. Little Fugitive (1953)Orkin, Ruth7.7Drama, Family
53. Film d'amore e d'anarchia, ovvero 'stamattina alle 10 in via dei Fiori nella nota casa di tolleranza...' (1973)Wertmüller, Lina7.7Drama, Romance, Comedy
54. Le bonheur (1965)Varda, Agnès7.7Drama
55. Krylya (1966)Shepitko, Larisa7.7Drama
56. Jibeuro Ganeun Gil (2013)Pang, Eun-jin7.7Drama
57. Whale Rider (2002)Caro, Niki7.7Drama, Family
58. Frozen (2013)Lee, Jennifer7.7Family, Fantasy, Animation, Adventure, Comedy, Musical
59. Europa Europa (1990)Holland, Agnieszka7.7Drama, War, History
60. Elsker dig for evigt (2002)Bier, Susanne7.7Drama, Romance
61. Die Fremde (2010)Aladag, Feo7.6Drama
62. Away from Her (2006)Polley, Sarah7.6Drama
63. Saving Face (2004)Wu, Alice7.6Drama, Romance, Comedy
64. Tou ze (2011)Hui, Ann7.6Drama
65. En chance til (2014)Bier, Susanne7.6Drama, Thriller
66. Wadjda (2012)Al-Mansour, Haifaa7.6Drama, Comedy
67. My Life Without Me (2003)Coixet, Isabel7.6Drama, Romance
68. Neposlusni (2014)Djukic, Mina7.6Drama
69. 36 Chowringhee Lane (1981)Sen, Aparna7.6Drama, Romance
70. Depuis qu'Otar est parti... (2003)Bertuccelli, Julie7.6Drama
71. The Hurt Locker (2008)Bigelow, Kathryn7.6Drama, War, Thriller
72. American Psycho (2000)Harron, Mary7.6Drama, Crime
73. The Secret Life of Words (2005)Coixet, Isabel7.6Drama, Romance
74. Brødre (2004)Bier, Susanne7.6Drama, War
75. Yeo-haeng-ja (2009)Lecomte, Ounie7.6Drama
76. Ting shuo (2009)Cheng, Fen-fen7.6Drama, Romance
77. I Am Sam (2001)Nelson, Jessie7.6Drama
78. The Namesake (2006)Nair, Mira7.6Drama
79. Boys Don't Cry (1999)Peirce, Kimberly7.6Drama, Biography
80. Büyük adam küçük ask (2001)Ipekçi, Handan7.6Drama
81. Hanezu no tsuki (2011)Kawase, Naomi7.6Drama
82. Pora umierac (2007)Kedzierzawska, Dorota7.6Drama
83. La faute à Fidel! (2006)Gavras, Julie7.6Drama, History
84. Kazoku no kuni (2012)Yang, Yong-hi7.5Drama
85. Zir-e poost-e shahr (2001)Bani-Etemad, Rakhshan7.5Drama
86. Proof (1991)Moorhouse, Jocelyn7.5Drama
87. Ramchand Pakistani (2008)Jabbar, Mehreen7.5Drama
88. Te doy mis ojos (2003)Bollaín, Icíar7.5Drama, Romance
89. Nanayomachi (2008)Kawase, Naomi7.5Drama
90. La misma luna (2007)Riggen, Patricia7.5Drama
91. Travolti da un insolito destino nell'azzurro mare d'agosto (1974)Wertmüller, Lina7.5Drama, Comedy, Adventure
92. Samt el qusur (1994)Tlatli, Moufida7.5Drama
93. Et maintenant on va où? (2011)Labaki, Nadine7.5Drama, Comedy
94. The Japanese Wife (2010)Sen, Aparna7.5Drama, Romance
95. An Angel at My Table (1990)Campion, Jane7.5Drama, Biography
96. Antonia (1995)Gorris, Marleen7.5Drama, Comedy
97. Hooligans (2005)Alexander, Lexi7.5Drama, Sport, Crime
98. Trolösa (2000)Ullmann, Liv7.5Drama, Romance
99. A New Leaf (1971)May, Elaine7.5Romance, Comedy
100. We Need to Talk About Kevin (2011)Ramsay, Lynne7.5Drama, Thriller
101. Ke tu qiu hen (1990)Hui, Ann7.5Drama
102. Mita Tova (2014)Granit, Tal7.5Drama
103. Ratcatcher (1999)Ramsay, Lynne7.5Drama
104. ...ing (2003)Lee, Eon-hie7.5Romance
105. Tin shui wai dik yat yu ye (2008)Hui, Ann7.5Drama
106. American Splendor (2003)Berman, Shari Springer7.5Drama, Comedy, Biography
107. Tian yu (1998)Chen, Joan7.5Drama
108. Cloud Atlas (2012)Wachowski, Lana7.5Drama, Sci-Fi
109. Jestem (2005)Kedzierzawska, Dorota7.5Drama
110. Korotkie vstrechi (1968)Muratova, Kira7.5Drama, Romance
111. Dogfight (1991)Savoca, Nancy7.5Drama, Romance, War
112. Across the Universe (2007)Taymor, Julie7.5Drama, Fantasy, Romance, Musical
113. Sedmikrásky (1966)Chytilová, Vera7.5Drama, Comedy

There are 113 movies in this list because IMDB ratings only have 0.1 star precision. If you're a woman and you direct a movie that gets a 7.5, congrats, you're tied for 84th place.

Susanne Bier and Ann Hui each have five films on the list. Naomi Kawase has four. Some of the directors share the credit with a man, notably Lana Wachowski and Suzanne Schiffman. Barring any titles I don't recognize because they're not in English, the only films on this list I've seen are Sita Sings the Blues, Whale Rider, Frozen and A New Leaf. My personal favorites, among movies I know were directed by women, are A New Leaf and Wayne's World.

Finally, here's the base query I used to get the info I needed out of the database. I used the same database I built for Ghostbusters Past.

select distinct(title.id), title.title, title.production_year, rating.info, votes.info, movie_info.info, kind_id, name.name, name.gender from title join cast_info on title.id=cast_info.movie_id join name on cast_info.person_id=name.id join movie_info_idx as rating on rating.movie_id=title.id join movie_info_idx as votes on votes.movie_id=title.id join movie_info on movie_info.movie_id=title.id where cast_info.role_id=8 and kind_id=1 and movie_info.info_type_id=3 and rating.info_type_id=101 and votes.info_type_id=100 and name.gender='f';

Update: The pedantry continues with Darius Kazemi telling me that Loveleen Tandan was the casting director on Slumdog Millionare, not the director who yelled "cut!" and "action!" and "it's a wrap!". If IMDB says role_id=8, that's good enough for me, but YMMV.

Update #2: danima asked about English-language films. I don't think IMDB tracks the primary language of a film, just whether a language is used in the film. So I can filter on "English", but I'll still pick up films that are primarily in French or Hindi, so long as there is some English dialogue. Our story begins right after Across the Universe, where the previous list leaves off. Basically if your film is in English you only need to get a 7.4 or 7.3 (still several standard deviations above the median) to get in the top 100. I have not vetted this list for astroturf:

57. Pismo do Amerika (2001)Triffonova, Iglika7.4Drama
58. Bastard Out of Carolina (1996)Huston, Anjelica7.4Drama
59. Frida (2002)Taymor, Julie7.4Drama, Romance, Biography
60. Chance (2002)Benson, Amber7.4Drama, Comedy
61. Kaméleon (2008)Goda, Krisztina7.4Drama, Comedy, Thriller
62. Paris, je t'aime (2006)Chadha, Gurinder7.4Drama, Romance, Comedy
63. Le fils de l'autre (2012)Lévy, Lorraine7.4Drama
64. Lifted (2010)Alexander, Lexi7.4Drama
65. Belle (2013)Asante, Amma7.4Drama
66. Desert Flower (2009)Hormann, Sherry7.4Drama, Biography
67. Me and You and Everyone We Know (2005)July, Miranda7.4Drama, Comedy
68. On Dangerous Ground (1951)Lupino, Ida7.4Drama, Romance, Thriller, Film-Noir, Crime
69. Paris, je t'aime (2006)Coixet, Isabel7.4Drama, Romance, Comedy
70. Bound (1996)Wachowski, Lana7.4Drama, Thriller, Crime
71. Zero Dark Thirty (2012)Bigelow, Kathryn7.4Drama, Thriller, History
72. También la lluvia (2010)Bollaín, Icíar7.4Drama, History
73. Monsoon Wedding (2001)Nair, Mira7.4Drama, Romance, Comedy
74. Mimì metallurgico ferito nell'onore (1972)Wertmüller, Lina7.4Comedy
75. Hollow Reed (1996)Pope, Angela7.4Drama
76. The Trouble with Angels (1966)Lupino, Ida7.4Comedy
77. The Selfish Giant (2013)Barnard, Clio7.4Drama
78. Mikey and Nicky (1976)May, Elaine7.4Drama
79. José Rizal (1998)Diaz-Abaya, Marilou7.3Drama, War, Biography, History
80. Titus (1999)Taymor, Julie7.3Drama, Thriller, History
81. Sepet (2004)Ahmad, Yasmin7.3Drama, Romance, Comedy
82. Kung Fu Panda 2 (2011)Yuh, Jennifer7.3Family, Drama, Animation, Adventure, Action, Comedy
83. Put oko sveta (1964)Jovanovic, Soja7.3Comedy, Adventure, Western
84. Fish Tank (2009)Arnold, Andrea7.3Drama
85. Infinitely Polar Bear (2014)Forbes, Maya7.3Drama, Comedy
86. An Education (2009)Scherfig, Lone7.3Drama
87. The Black Balloon (2008)Down, Elissa7.3Drama, Romance
88. North Country (2005)Caro, Niki7.3Drama
89. Thousand Pieces of Gold (1991)Kelly, Nancy7.3Romance, Western
90. Funny Valentines (1999)Dash, Julie7.3Drama
91. The Secret Life of Bees (2008)Prince-Bythewood, Gina7.3Drama
92. Stander (2003)Hughes, Bronwen7.3Action, Drama, Biography, Crime
93. Shao nu xiao yu (1995)Chang, Sylvia7.3Drama
94. The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio (2005)Anderson, Jane7.3Drama, Biography
95. Craig's Wife (1936)Arzner, Dorothy7.3Drama
96. Firaaq (2008)Das, Nandita7.3Drama, History
97. Blood and Sand (1922)Arzner, Dorothy7.3Drama, Romance, Sport
98. My Brilliant Career (1979)Armstrong, Gillian7.3Drama, Romance, Biography
99. Eve's Bayou (1997)Lemmons, Kasi7.3Drama
100. The Name Is Rogells (Rugg-ells) (2011)Warner, Rachel7.3Romance, Adventure
101. The Voices (2014)Satrapi, Marjane7.3Comedy, Thriller, Crime
102. The Woodsman (2004)Kassell, Nicole7.3Drama
103. Talaash (2012)Kagti, Reema7.3Drama, Mystery, Thriller, Crime
104. My First Mister (2001)Lahti, Christine7.3Drama, Romance, Comedy
105. Big (1988)Marshall, Penny7.3Drama, Fantasy, Romance, Comedy
106. Monster (2003)Jenkins, Patty7.3Drama, Biography, Crime
107. The Secret Garden (1993)Holland, Agnieszka7.3Drama, Fantasy, Family
108. Little Women (1994)Armstrong, Gillian7.3Drama, Romance
109. Fire (1996)Mehta, Deepa7.3Drama, Romance
110. The Connection (1962)Clarke, Shirley7.3Drama

August Film Roundup: I think this month is about as close as Film Roundup has gotten to a random sample of movies. The museum did a series based on the 70mm film format, so we got three movies that have nothing in common except a decision to put really big film in the camera. Overall pretty happy with this month's crop though.

[Comments] (2) July Film Roundup: Sumana was gone for most of the month, and I discovered how easy it is to get to Film Forum from the library to see a movie after work. And when Sumana was around we saw a bunch of movies together, and the upshot is that I've now seen every movie ever made and there are no more movies. Here's just a sampling of the films I saw in July.

In honor of seeing The Third Man and The Fifth Element in the same month I'd like to announce the Criterion Collection Film Festival. I call it that because I've collected movies that meet a certain criterion. I don't anticipate any trouble. Anyway, here's the lineup!

  1. The First Time (2012)
  2. The Second Face (1950)
  3. The Third Man (1949)
  4. The Forth Kind (2009)
  5. The Fifth Element (1997)
  6. The Sixth Sense (1999) <- Bruce Willis double feature!
  7. The Seventh Seal (1957)
  8. The Eighth Day (1996)
  9. The Ninth Configuration (1980)

Hope to see you there!

[Comments] (1) June Film Roundup:

Tragically, this marks the end of Film Roundup, as the resolution I foolishly made late in the month means that the only movies I can see from this point on are the likes of Hocus Pocus (1993), Heaven's Prisoners (1996), Hurt Penguins (1992), and the Tagalog comedy classic Haba-baba-doo! Puti-puti-poo! (1997). We'll miss the magic, the mystery, but most of all... the movies.

Wait, I can just disregard resolutions? They're not legally binding? Amazing! See you next month! I gotta go cancel my Columbia Record Club membership.

[Comments] (1) Beautiful Soup 4.4.0 beta: I've found an agent for Situation Normal and the book is out to publishers and I don't have to think about it for a while. As seems to be my tradition after finishing a big project, I went through the accumulated Beautiful Soup backlog and closed it out. I've put out a beta release which I'd like you to try out and report any problems.

I've fixed 17 bugs, added some minor new features, and changed the implementations of __copy__ and __repr__ to work more like you'd expect from Python objects. But in my mind the major new change is this: I've added a warning that displays when you create a BeautifulSoup object without explicitly specifying a parser:

UserWarning: No parser was explicitly specified, so I'm using the best available HTML parser for this system ("lxml"). This usually isn't a problem, but if you run this code on another system, or in a different virtual environment, it may use a different parser and behave differently. To get rid of this warning, change this:
BeautifulSoup([your markup])
to this:
BeautifulSoup([your markup], "lxml")

It's a little annoying to get this message, but it's also annoying to have your code silently behave differently because you copied it to a machine that didn't have lxml installed, and it's also annoying when I have to check pretty much every reported bug to see whether this is the problem. Whenever I think I can eliminate a class of support question with a warning, I put in the warning. It saves everybody time.

The other possibility: now that Python's built-in HTMLParser is decent, I could make it so that it's always the default unless you specify another parser. This would cause a big one-time wrench, as even machines which have lxml installed would start using HTMLParser, but once it shook out the problem would be solved. I might still do that, but I think I'll give everyone about a year to get rid of this annoying warning.

Anyway, try out the beta. Unless there's a big problem I'll be releasing 4.4.0 on Friday.

[Comments] (1) Reviews of Old Science Fiction Magazines: Analog 1985/07: Here it is, the final entry in this series, started seven years ago when I picked up a bunch of old SF magazines at a swap-fest. I've acquired a lot of magazines since then, and those are getting 'old', so it could continue, but this is the last of the original set. And good riddance, because this magazine smells like laundry detergent for some reason.

So what do we got? The cover story (one assumes) is the first part of Timothy Zahn's "Spinneret", which would later be published as a novel. It was good but I kinda see where it's going and don't feel a strong need to read the novel.

Eric G. Iverson's "Noninterference" is a pleasant story whose sole purpose is to dis the Prime Directive. The accompanying artwork seems more appropriate to a story about the mixing of the ultimate prog-rock album.

Charles L. Harness's "George Washington Slept Here" is the cream of this issue: a creative, funny and entertaining story that combines several Analog favorites (aliens, historical figures, and fussy middle-aged hobbies) that you rarely see together. Bonus: no time travel or major alt-history, just a character with a really long lifespan. I really liked the concept of the main character, a lawyer who loses every case he takes, but in a way that's more beneficial to his client than if he'd won. That concept's strong enough to support a series, but it looks like this is the only one.

This month's vague story blurbs:

Now to nonfiction. David Brin's essay "Just How Dangerous Is The Galaxy?" classifies every known potential solution to the Fermi Paradox and puts them in a big table by which term of the Drake Equation they affect. He also introduces his own "Water World" solution, which he deigns to classify in a separate section called "Optimism". This solution posits that "Earth is unusually dry for a water world," and that intelligent life evolves all the time, and thrives for long periods, but very rarely builds spaceships. I'm just riffing on the idea here, and I don't buy the idea that "hands and fire" are prerequisites to advanced technology, but you could imagine a dolphin-type civilization treating a planet's surface and atmosphere the way we treat low-earth orbit.

Tom Easton's book review column includes a review of Ender's Game, which wanders into a long philosophical discussion that I won't reproduce here because it's pretty similar to stuff you can find on the Internet. I was disappointed to read that "Russel M. Griffin's The Timeservers is a pale incarnation of the diplomatic satire that made Laumer's Retief so popular." It was a Phillip K. Dick Award finalist, though, so maybe it's just on a different wavelength from Laumer.

In letters, paleontologist Jack Cohen returns fire at Tom Easton, who in an earlier book review column disputed the evolutionary biology in Harry Harrison's Cohen-collaboration West of Eden. And reader Michael Owens has it out with Ben Bova about the latter's support of the Star Wars program. Summary of Owens: "far from leading to a defense-oriented world, Star Wars leads to another offense-oriented arms race." Bova responds that he wrote a book (Assured Survival) that deals with all this stuff, and then mentions this comforting tidbit:

[T]he new defensive technologies do not apply only to satellites and ballistic missiles. They are already being developed into "smart weapons" that will make the tanks, artillery, planes, and ships of conventional land and sea warfare little more than expensive and very vulnerable targets. "Star Wars" technologies (plural!) can make all forms of aggressive warfare so difficult that an era of worldwide peace is in view—if the nations of the world want peace.

Which leads nicely into the thing I've saved for last because I've got a lot to say about it, in direct violation of my usual "if you can't say anything nice" rule. Previously on Analog, columnist G. Harry Stine asked readers to send in their answers to the following question, which I will quote in full:

What, in your opinion, is the most important problem that technologists should tackle in the next twenty years, and why do you believe this?

In this issue Stine reports the results, and I was looking forward to doing a kind of The Future: A Retrospective thing on them.

The first thing Stine does is disqualify 120 of the 127 replies he got. That may seem extreme, but that's approximately what I'd do if I was running a magazine and accepting fiction submissions. I was kind of laughing along as he disqualified entries for exceeding the word limit or otherwise ignoring the rules, but then I got to this:

49.61% of the replies [63 of 127]... discussed problems that were either (a) not technological problems, but social and political instead; (b) already solved or well along the road to solution; (c) trivial and parochial in their scope; (d) based on incorrect, incomplete, or outmoded data; and/or (e) the result of someone else's telling the respondent that the problem was a problem because the expert said so, whereupon the respondent stated it on faith without checking.

And at this point I gotta call bullshit. You didn't say "most important technological problem", you said "most important problem technologists should tackle." Social and political problems have technical aspects, and vice versa. The impact of a technological development is judged by its effect on society. This is the basis of the science fiction genre! You could replace every vague Analog story blurb with "Social and political problems tend to have technical aspects, and vice versa...", and it would always fit the story!

Half of Analog's readership can follow directions but their opinions are wrong. Let's take a look at the top five disqualified "problems" (all direct quotes, scare quotes in original):

  1. Control of nuclear weapons
  2. the "population explosion"
  3. the "energy shortage"
  4. the "raw materials shortage"
  5. "pollution" in various and sundry forms

I sure am glad technologists didn't waste any more time on these non-problems after 1985! According to Stine, America's ballistic missile defense system is well on its way to solving #1 (if the nations of the world want peace, of course). #2 isn't a problem anymore because the rate of population growth has slowed. #3 and #4 were never real problems. ("The only reason we had an 'energy shortage' was to provide an excuse for politicians and bureaucrats to gain control of natural resources, and thereby gain control over people.") As for #5, who's to say what counts as "pollution"? Like most words, it's a "semantically-loaded term". "Pollution in its many forms may be a localized problem in some areas, but it is not a worldwide problem."

So what are the seven entries that made the cut? I'm glad you asked, previous sentence:

  1. "Making products maintenance-free, i.e. designed for a 100-year life with a 0.0001 probability of maintenance." DISQUALIFIED. Maybe the move from 75 years to 100 would be a technical improvement, but the problem as it exists today is a problem with the way products are sold, and technical improvements won't change that.
  2. "[C]ontrol of the weather" to boost crop yields and prevent famine. SEMI-DISQUALIFIED. Modern famines are political problems, not technical problems. Control of the weather would indeed be great, not for this reason, but because it would let us mitigate the damage caused by our worldwide pollution problem.
  3. "The construction and maintenance of closed ecological systems". Sure, OK.
  4. Here's the shortest quote I could get that explains this one:
    Education depends on communication. John points out that communication involves moving information from place to place... which really isn't much of a problem, but... managing the information is. It's possible to download lots of information into a student's mind. But if the student doesn't know how to determine what information is meaningful and relevant... everything stored in the student's memory is useless.

    Now that's more like it! Not only is this a real problem, it's one that we made significant progress on between 1985 and 2005!

  5. "The development of the direct link between the human mind and the computer to produce a true intelligence amplifier." Another good one. We got both parts of this (mind-computer link and intelligence amplifier), but in practice they don't have anything to do with each other.
  6. "[T]he construction by machines of very small machines." This also happened but proved not to be a huge deal, and even Stine is kinda skeptical ("he doesn't specify exactly what technological problems can be solved by developing sub-microscopic technology"). I'm gonna go out on a limb and say the real problem is the reader doesn't specify exactly what social or political problems can be solved with this technology.
  7. And finally,
    Del Cain of Augusta, ME presented a technological problem that is as much philosophical as technological... He wants technologists to develop structures and artifacts that tend to support healthy behavior in human beings—i.e. to help people live and rear children so they can develop to their full potential without trauma but not without struggle, difficulty, or drama. To do this, he believes that we should solve the technological problem of determining what are the optimum sizes and structures of healthy communities. In short, he feels that the big problem is developing technology with a life-affirming philosophy behind it.

    I don't understand how Del Cain managed to smuggle the concept of Scandanavian social democracy past G. Harry Stine, but good job. No, wait, I figured it out: I'm projecting, and so was he.

Well, there we go, that's our look at old SF magazines of the 80s. To commemorate the end of the series, I've scanned all the old ads in this magazine, not just the ones I thought were interesting or funny. But here are the ones I thought were interesting or funny:

I'll leave you with this question: what, in your opinion, is the most important problem that technologists should have tackled from 1985 to 2005, and why do you believe this?

May Film Roundup: This month features some interesting foreign films, an old-favorite blockbuster, and an awesome new blockbuster with a surprising connection to one of my all-time favorite films. What are these nuggets of cinema gold? I don't know, I'm just the intro paragraph, you'll have to ask the bulleted list:

[Comments] (3) The Future Is Prologue: I'm experimenting with writing a prologue for Situation Normal, to reduce the thrown-into-the-deep-end feeling typical of my fiction. I say 'experimenting with' rather than 'just doing it' because I wrote something and it wasn't a prologue. I'd just turned back the clock to before the book started and written a regular scene.

I don't like prologues for the very reason I'm trying to write one: they're introductory infodumps. I usually skim them, unless they look like the Law and Order style prologues where the POV character dies at the end of the scene. But this book has so many POV characters already, I don't think I should go that route.

I talked it over with Sumana and she gave me the idea of pacing the prologue as though it were the first scene of a short story. That's something I've done before, so I know I can do it again, and it doesn't mean big infodumps, just more internal monologue.

I'd like your suggestions of genre fiction books with effective prologues. Prologues that made you say "yes, I want to read a whole book about this stuff." I can't think of many examples but I admit I'm blinded by prejudice.

April Film Roundup: Sumana spent a lot of time out of town this month, so I took the opportunity to clear out a bunch of items on my "movies I want to see but Sumana doesn't" list. But there's also plenty of movies we saw together. How can you tell the difference?... I think you'll be able to tell.

March Film Roundup: We saw lots of stuff this month but not a lot of feature films. The upside is that a lot of what I did see is online for free.

January Film roundup:


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