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[No comments] More Dice Fun: A while back I wrote about a maddening but interesting book called Scarne on Dice. It's a really huge book which I intend to get rid of ASAP, but before I do there's a couple things about dice, and cheating at dice, I wanted to quote.

In perhaps the most entertaining section of the book Scarne takes on the sleaziest parties in this whole wretched business, "the crooked gambling supply houses", who sell outdated cheating devices at huge markups. According to The Big Con: The Story of the Confidence Man, another book I read recently, the mailing lists of these supply houses were coveted by con artists, because by definition, everyone on those lists "liked the best of it." One catalog's advice to buyers, according to HoyleScarne:

When telegraphing use the following code: PAINT for cards and CUBE for dice.

I feel like this led to a lot of telegrams like "DESIRE FIVE PAIR LOADED CUBE AND TWO DECKS MARKED PAINT FOR CHEATING AT CUBE AND PAINT STOP."

This head-slapping entry from Scarne's inventory of trick dice needs to be quoted in full:

DOOR POPS

These are a very brazen brand of mis-spotted dice that show 7 or 11 every roll. Since the catalog lists them, there apparently are buyers, but they are strictly for use on very soft marks and then only on dark nights. One die bears only the numbers 6 and 2; the other nothing but 5's! Since anyone but a blind man would tag these cubes as mis-spots, the moment they rolled out, they are of no use except for night play under an overhead light when the chumps can't see anything but the top surfaces of the dice. Strictly for use by cheats who don't know what a real set of Tops is.

There's a a couple entertaining but long stories of specific cheats which I won't transcribe. The best is the story of "the mouth switch". Seems there was a craps hustler in the 30s who kept a trick die in his mouth and introduced into the game it by cupping the dice in his hands and "blowing" on them. They called him "Mononucleosis Joe". Actually they called him "The Spitter," but they only started calling him that after he tried this trick while drunk and ended up rolling all three dice onto the craps table.

Finally, a tale of collegiality which I feel gets really boring if you explain what the numbers mean:

Several years ago the Harvard Computation Laboratory put a battery of calculating machines to work and came up with a whole book full of answers. Since the binomial formula is used in many problems and so often requires staggering amounts of arithmetic, they constructed a set of Cumulative Binomial Probability Distribution Tables which give provability fractions for a wide range of values of n, r, and P. And because Dr. Frederick Mosteller, Chairman of the Department of Statistics, had seen a copy of Scarne on Dice and was aware of the 26 game problem, he saw to it that the calculating machienes were asked to provide figures for the terms n = 130 and P = 1/6.

It's easy to read this book and feel superior to the people who get fooled by seemingly rudimentary tricks (David Maurer, author of The Big Con, specifically points this out in his book), but I'm sure someone who knew their stuff could take my entire roll in a crooked dice game. Why am I so sure? Because you could take my entire roll in a completely fair dice game.

[No comments] The Crummy.com Review of Things 2014: Another year, another blog post summing it up. Here's 2013. And here's 2014:

Creations

2014's big project was The Minecraft Archive project, which led into The Minecraft Geologic Survey, which led into the Reef series and two huge bots. I'm planning on doing a refresh of the data this year to get maps created in 2014--hopefully it'll be easier the second time.

I also finished Situation Normal, edited it and have now sent it out to editors and agents. I'm cautiously optimistic. I finished two short stories, "The Process Repeats" and "The Barrel of Yuks Rule", and like many of my stories they're a rewrite away from being sellable and who knows when I'll get the time.

I gave a talk on bots at Foolscap and a talk on improving Project Gutenberg metadata at Books in Browsers. That ties into my job at NYPL. I had a full-time job for most of this year, for the first time in a while, and 2015 is the year you'll get to use what I'm making.

Subcategory: Bots. You won't believe how many autonomous agents I created in 2014! I'm not even going to show you all of them, only the ones I'm really proud of. I'm going to order them by how much I like them, but I'll also include their current Twitter follower count--the only measurement that really matters in this post-apocalyptic world.

My secret goal for 2014 was to have a bot whose follower count was greater than my own. Minecraft Signs (probably my favorite bot of all time) came close but didn't quite make it.

I also created a bot that's so annoying I didn't release it. Maybe this year.

Film

I scaled back my film watching versus 2013, but still saw about fifty features. Here's my 2014 must-watch list. As always, only films I saw for the first time are eligible for this prestigeless nonor.

  1. Pom Poko (1994)
  2. Alien (1979)
  3. My Love Has Been Burning (1949)
  4. Seven Chances (1925)
  5. A Town Called Panic (2009)
  6. Alphaville (1965)
  7. Frozen (2013)
  8. The King of Comedy (1982)
  9. Playtime (1967)
  10. The Women (1939)

These are more or less the films I would watch again (a very high bar to clear), although The King of Comedy should be watched once and only once. I'm kind of surprised that Playtime got on here since I wasn't wild about it, but I really can see how it'll be better the second time.

The runners-up: films I recommend, but will probably not see again, and if you're like "aah, it's three hours long" or "aah, David Bowie alien penis", I'll understand:

  1. Solaris (1972)
  2. The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976)
  3. Guardians of the Galaxy (2014)
  4. Queen Christina (1933)
  5. Paprika (2006)

Literature

Didn't read a lot of books this year, but I made them count. The Crummy.com Books of the Year are Dispatches, Michael Herr's Vietnam reporting memoir, and Phil Lapsley's phone-phreak history Exploding the Phone, which covers about the same time period. Both awesome.

Sumana and I selected Kim Stanley Robinson's "The Lucky Strike" for a Strange Horizons reprint. It's a great story.

Audio

Since I started commuting again it was a decent year for discovering new podcasts. Sumana and I love Just One More Thing, a deep-dive Columbo podcast. I also really like Omega Tau, a podcast that will do a two-part series on shipping container logistics, or a five-parter on the hardware and operation of the space shuttle. Honorable mention to the guilty pleasure-ish Laser Time, which is more or less random nostalgia but which brings out a lot of interesting deep cuts.

Games

Didn't play a lot of video games because a) Minecraft Archive Project took up all the time I used to spend playing Minecraft, and b) my desktop developed a weird problem where it abruptly powers off if I stress it too much, e.g. by playing a modern computer game. I should really address this problem, but I have not, because it does prevent me from spending too much time on games.

Played a lot of board games with friends as usual. The Crummy.com Board Game of the Year is 2014's The Castles of Mad King Ludwig, a building game that captures the true thrill of interior design. Runner-up: Hanabi, the cooperative game that magically turns passive-agressiveness into an asset that benefits all. Dishonorable mention to 1989's Sniglets, a party game where having fun requires not that you disregard the scoring system (a common thing for party games) but that you deliberately play to lose.

That reminds me, I should have mentioned in 2014's review of 2013 that Encore is a party game from 1989 that's really, really good. You have to have the right group though.

That's it! How we doin' in 2015? I'm getting a lot done. In fact I just wrote this big blog post talking about the best of 2014... oh, but you're probably not interested. See ya!

[Comments] (2) December Film Roundup: And in this corner... Film Roundup!

Conceptual Crossovers: Over my Christmas break I read Glen David Gold's Sunnyside, a great novel, a little literary for my taste, but really solid. It's one of those novels with interweaving plots, and Charlie Chaplin is the main character of one of the strands. Around the middle of the book, Chaplin is at a rally in San Francisco, giving a speech trying to sell government bonds for WWI. His rhetoric starts to falter, and we go from a transcript of the speech into a pretty believable interior monologue:

He felt abandoned. He hated the war. He hated that the country was in it, that there was no place to go but forward, that more atrocities were to come. He felt people were never intentionally beastly or malicious, but they were pompous and foolish; awful decisions were made by men divorced from their own humanity. He thought that universal peace was within reach if only people ceased to be stupid.

When he had pretended to be Trotsky, he had spoken well. But now that he was trying to be both himself and a servant of the world, he was failing. He persevered, believing that the simple act of faith, the spirit of talking with the audience, would lead to a kind of communion.

I thought this was really amazing because Gold's monologue, juxtaposed with his Chaplin character is doing at this point, explained the ending of The Great Dictator for me. Why real-life Chaplin is willing to turn the intense climax of his scathing film into a soppy train wreck: that's how he thinks he can actually make a difference. This is the only time you will listen. I still don't like the ending, but I have some sympathy in my Grinch-scale heart for the decision.

Over the break I also experienced a literature/film epiphany in the opposite direction. In my Constellation Games author commentary I say that I "reuse some of the character of Ariel from The Tempest, the guy with magic powers who gets bossed around all the time." But after rewatching The Little Mermaid I gotta admit that Ariel is also named after the girl who's so obsessed with an alien culture that she fills a cave with their incomprehensible stuff.

[Comments] (2) 2014 Scrapbook, Part 2: That Belongs In A Museum: Welcome back, let's check out some cool stuff I can't afford.

Providence

In March, before starting my job at NYPL, I took a trip to Providence to hang out with Jake (still an awesome guy after nearly twenty years of friendship). Jake introduced me to the Retro-Computing Society of Rhode Island, who have an amazing museum. I say "museum", it's just one big room, and it looks like this:

I believe that all museums have a room that looks like this; it's just that at RCSRI that room is coextant with the display portion of the museum.

RCSRI has an open house once a month, but we got a private tour because Jake is a close personal friend of the proprietor.

The said proprietor, seen holding a Singer paper tape.
Just one of the incredible sights.
Good advice.
The front of a specialized tablet peripheral for CAD (?), about four feet square.
I can DIAL-A-VUP from the briny deep.

I took several detailed photos of the famous "space cadet" keyboard for the Symbolics LISP machine, because although this computer is famous in hacker lore, at the time there were no good close-ups online. (I dunno about now. Well, there are now, because I'm putting these up, but as I'm writing this draft, I don't know.)

Overview.
RUB OUT
Note the four directional buttons with thumbs-up and thumbs-down.

Los Angeles

Museum of my youth, the Los Angeles Museum of Natural History.
Dino kids.

London

Along with my uncle Leonard I visited the Worshipful Company of Clockmakers, who have a museum of clockmaking in the back of the London Guild Hall. The Guild Hall is still an active government building, so make sure you go all the way round the back for the museum, though I'm not sure why I'm even giving this advice because apparently the Clockmakers' Museum has all been packed up to be moved to the Science Museum. Anyway, I'm really glad I got to see this little museum because it was full of tons of amazing old clocks (many of which still run), and equipment for building and repairing them.

Like this toolchest.

Another new favorite: the Tring tiles from the British Museum. Two-panel comic strips show Jesus as a little kid getting into trouble. "Left: A boy playfully leaps onto Jesus's back and then falls dead. Right: Two women complain to Joseph... while Jesus restores the boy to life."

And the parents don't take this lying down! On another tile, "Parents shut their children in an oven, to prevent them playing with Jesus." A well-thought-out plan.

New York

From the Sidewalk Museum of Discarded Art, a picture of the New York skyline made of Cheetos.

The Met had a fabulous exhibit with a lot of Xu Bing. I got my chance to get some good photos of An Introduction to Square Word Calligraphy, a set of rules for writing English words like they're Chinese characters.

"Rain, rain, go away"
The alphabet.

And of course there was his masterpiece of eaten meaning, Book From The Sky.

Man, I wish this had been the inspiration for Smooth Unicode instead of Allison's thing. Bring some class to my bots for once.

I also saw these assembly instructions for an Alexander Calder mobile.

Do not lose!

And Paul Klee's Carcasonne set.

Portland

Finally, on a trip to Portland I indulged in some Mondrian candy.

Liquid Velocity 3 by Jun Kaneko

[Comments] (1) 2014 Scrapbook, Part 1: As I'm sure you've noticed, the direction of NYCB has trended away in recent years from me journaling and putting up photos of everything I do shortly after I do it. With so many large companies encouraging millions of people to do this and mining the data to create more annoying ads, it doesn't seem as fun. Call me contrarian!

But before the end of the year I wanted to sort of catch you up with a little scrapbook of some of the good times from 2014. This is mostly tourist and family stuff; I've kept all the cool museum finds for a separate post.

West Coast

I took a brief trip to the Bay Area, where I sorted out a ton of stuff in Kevin Maples's garage that we left with him when we moved from San Francisco in 2005.

Like Russian Ricky Martin gum from 2001.
Or Sumana's grade-school poster on Lee Iacocca.

Sumana and I met up in Seattle for the Foolscap conference, where I was a guest of honor along with Brooks Peck. It was my first con and I had a great time! Thanks to Ron Hale-Evans for inviting me.

The official Guest of Honor portrait, or at least a photo from that session.
One of the installation pieces I ran at the conference, in its conference-hotel context.

Airplane!

In a pretty amazing development I got an email from Doug, a fan of Constellation Games who keeps a private plane at a New Jersey airport. We hung out one Saturday and he and his wife took me and Sumana on a flight up the Hudson River.

Really fun random experience. Thanks, Doug.

England

In the summer I brought my acquired-on-the-cheap tuxedo to London for Rachel's wedding.

Wedding party.
Rachel's speech.
While in London I visited the incredible Monument to Heroic Self-Sacrifice

We went with the kids to Warwick Castle in... Warwickshire.

Celebrating its 1000th anniversary!
Castle Warwick was a huge tourist trap.
But it had great views...
...and siege machinery.
No trip is complete without a visit to The Butts.

The Holidays

We got some nice snow for Thanksgiving.
I made a TON of pie.
Christmas was the polar opposite--shirtsleeves at Disneyland.
I don't know if Susanna realized that this picture made her family look like we were all about to pull off a heist.
We made a TON of cookies.

The Year In Stone Lions

Rawr.
Rawr.
Rawr.

The Year In Reusable Orbiters

Susanna and kids underneath Endeavor.
The Intrepid's on-deck building holding the Enterprise, seen during the plane flight.

The Year In Signage

All of these are from the UK, because foreign signs are just funnier.

I thought the contrast between old and new style was really striking.
Oh no! Disappointment!
Possibly the worst sign in the world.

[Comments] (2) November Film Roundup: 2014's penultimate roundup! Here it is.

Over Thanksgiving I also saw a bunch of Phineas and Ferb with kids, and it's a fun kids' show, but not gonna review it. Okay, fine: it's a fun kids' show. The characterization is pretty bad and based on stereotypes but the multi-layered plots are very clever. There's your review.

[Comments] (1) Public Service Film Roundup:

...And Maps: I've got some exciting new stuff for people who read NYCB but not my Twitter feed (which, if you consider the future, is the vast majority of everyone who reads NYCB). As I mentioned in the film roundup, I went to the Books in Browsers conference with my NYPL colleague James English. James gave an overview of the Library Simplified project we work on, and then I gave a talk I like to call (and did call) "Project Gutenberg Books are Real Books!".

Part of my work on Library Simplified is to integrate Project Gutenberg books into our ebook catalog. This sounds easy, and it is, so long as you're willing to treat Gutenberg books as second-class citizens that live in their own poorly-documented area. I'm trying to do something more like what Amazon did with its free Kindle books (BTW I recently discovered that they're selling the newer ones)—turn the Gutenberg texts into no-frills derivative editions that are nonetheless fully integrated into the storefront.

Second, there's a new Reef map, Reef #4: The Timeline, a cross-section of Minecraft history going from late 2010 to mid-2014. I think it's the most accessible of the Reef maps—it's small and it's obvious what's going on.

As is tradition, I introduced Reef #4 with a video, in which I compelled Lapis Lauri and Ron Smalec to race to the end of the Timeline for my own amusement (and theirs).

As you can tell I'm working on all kinds of stuff, notably something you will probably never see—the pitch document for Situation Normal. I really hate writing this stuff and it's a huge pain, but why write a book if you're not going to try to sell it?

October Film Roundup: Pretty slim pickings this month. (Damn, shoulda used that line back in April after I saw 1941. Oh well, no one will even know—wait, am I typing this? Computer, end program.)

It may appear that I wouldn't have seen any movies in October were it not for my trip to San Francisco. What you don't know is that by taking the trip to San Francisco I missed out on a weekend of cool old horror movies at the museum. So it was probably two movies either way.

Reviews of Old Science Fiction Magazines: F&SF October/November 1991: I bet you thought this Crummy mini-feature was dead! That's because it was! When I started making pro sales I decided it wasn't a good idea to be constantly badmouthing my colleagues and the venues I was trying to sell to. So I stopped posting reviews. But a while ago Sumana and I were asked to pick a story to reprint in Strange Horizons, and I really had no idea, because these reviews are the only records I have of which short stories I've read. (We ended up choosing Kim Stanley Robinson's "The Lucky Strike".) And then I took this 1991 magazine on my most recent plane trip and pretty much everything in the magazine was fun. So I thought I'd mention some of the fun and keep a record for posterity.

There will still be some badmouthing, notably of the ad at the beginning of the magazine for a dorky "sexpunk" book. It's a two-page spread that includes some quotes from the stories, two of which are dramatizations of urban legends. Then it shows you the book's I-missed-the-80s cover, and then it brings on the hard sell: "Eleven Short Stories, Two Novelettes, One Novella—256 pages on acid-free paper." I gotta say, I was on the fence until I heard the book was printed on acid-free paper! I'll paste my scrapbook photos into it!

OK, on to the positivity! Carolyn Ives Gilman's "The Honeycrafters" is a Nebula award nominee-to-be that works its one basic idea from all angles and captures the thrill of Minecraft's Forestry mod. A super, super fun read. Bradley Denton has a great Breaking Bad-esque story in "Rerun Roy, Donna, and the Freak", complete with drugs cooked in an RV. Jane Yolen's "Dear Ms. Lonelylegs" is silly and only four pages long.

There's a weird subplot in the book review columns (one by Algis Budrys, one by Orson Scott Card) about how books that come out in paperback first are considered second-class citizens of the book world. Books that come out in hardcover first and then paperback are the upper-crust of 1990s science fiction society, living the high life while "paperback originals" are left to toil in the sweat mines. It's a fascinating glimpse of a distant culture.

Harlan Ellison, O.G. hipster, waxes about the thrill of introducing someone to something great and then the anti-thrill of not being able to be a snob after everyone knows about the great thing. In this film review column he kind-of-but-not-really passes the torch to Kathi Maio. By which I mean Ellison's column will still be printed whenever he sends one in, but Maio is able to review three films in six pages, where Ellison writes twelve pages in this issue and encounters only one film, The Rocketeer (he luvs it). So we're not really looking at two film review columns, we're looking at one film review column plus Harlan Ellison's blog. A wise editorial decision on the part of F&SF.

In Isaac Asimov's science column, Isaac Asimov bemoans the downsides that come along with being as smart as Isaac Asimov. Fortunately, the mighty brain of Isaac Asimov is able to cope with such petty inconveniences. I like how Asimov's column (the topic is energy) gives respect to underappreciated scientists, not just once but repeatedly.

Back to stories. Mike Resnik's "Winter Solstice" is a sad story of Merlin that really highlights how the concept of someone living backwards in time is incoherent—one of Dan Simmons's Hyperion books covered some of the same ground and I had the same problem there. Lois Tilton's "A Just and Lasting Peace" is nice and creepy alt-history that does more character development than a lot of alt-history. (With a title like that, you know it's creepy alt-history!) Marc Laidlaw's "Gasoline Lake" had too many plot twists to keep my interest but I loved the setting and the setup.

There's a cartoon of a starfield where one star says "We're the star that inspired the verse 'Twinkle Twinkle Little Star'" and another star says "Yeah? Well we're the star that inspired the song: "When You Wish Upon A Star". I may be overthinking this, but... why does each star speak of itself in the plural? Is there an unspoken SFnal twist in which stars are collective intelligences? How did the stars discover these facts? Did Jane Taylor and Leigh Harline use long-range transmission to inform the stars that inspired them? Or is this the opposite of the "lunar real estate" scam, where stars pay for certificates that lay claim to certain human songs? If you were a star, and you communicated with another star over a distance of hundreds of light-years, is this really what you would talk about? Would it be fair to say that these stars are so vain they think this song is about them?

Unaccountably, the cartoon does not answer these questions. I will say that this issue contains a "Dr. Quark, Low-Tech Physicist" cartoon that I liked.

You know, looking over this it's clear that mostly what I want to do is make note of the stories I liked and then snark on the columns, so maybe I'll rev this feature back up. Anyway, this issue was really fun. Pick up a copy 23 years ago!

[Comments] (4) The Bot of Mormon: I don't usually do in-depth analyses of my bots, especially one that's probably not gonna break ten followers, but my most recent bot is very personal to me, and the making of it turned out to be much stranger than I expected. It's The Bot of Mormon, "the most correct bot", a text-generating process with a very niche audience but the niche audience includes me, so I'm happy. A few of my recent favorites:

And again I say unto you, and more especially the elephants and cureloms and cumoms.

— The Bot Of Mormon (@TheBotOfMormon) October 16, 2014

A large and tough businessman, I pray only that I might always be found as Abraham Lincoln said: "Die when I may, by a wild olive tree."

— The Bot Of Mormon (@TheBotOfMormon) October 16, 2014

"As we read in the Book of Mormon, but I will have him come to the phone."

— The Bot Of Mormon (@TheBotOfMormon) October 14, 2014

A note: In a bid for more followers, as well as not alienating all my relatives, I designed the Bot of Mormon to be a bit of harmless humor for believing LDS folk (early versions could be pretty offensive, and I chose not to go that route). However, Saints might take offense at this blog post about how and why I made the bot. So, fair warning. Here we go.


It's not much of an exaggeration to trace my interest in generative text back to my experience growing up in Mormonism. Mark Twain famously called the Book of Mormon "chloroform in print", and I believe the reason it's so boring is that it was produced by a process similar to automatic writing. It's full of stalling and retreats to stock phrases. But what starts with the Book of Mormon sure doesn't end there. When I was a kid, church every week was a three-hour festival of stock phrases and repetition.

See, in the LDS church the task of coming up with things to say every week rotates around the general membership. Topics are assigned, and there are only about fifty topics total. Since every acceptable topic has been covered a million times before, the simplest way to make a new talk is to remember bits of old talks and mash them together.

When I was a kid I experienced this from both ends, and writing the talks was especially intense for me because despite my best efforts, I didn't actually believe. My talks were literally constructed by assembling meaningless symbols into patterns that matched what I saw other people doing. Naturally, ever since I caught the botmaking bug I've wanted to recreate this experience with a bot. I registered @TheBotOfMormon quite a while ago. But I couldn't figure out what to do until recently, when I hit upon the idea of taking as my corpus not the Book of Mormon itself, but the General Conference talks.

General Conference is a big twice-yearly event in Salt Lake where the top brass show y'all how it's done. These guys used to be lawyers and corporate executives, and their talks are all vetted by committee, so the result is... well, sometimes someone will say something offensive, but even that I wouldn't call "interesting". What is interesting is that Conference is where Mormonism meets the twenty-first century. By which I mean that's where you can see the pros use nineteenth-century language and rhetoric to talk about same-sex marriage (undesirable!) and the Internet (a mixed bag!) That's the kind of juxtaposition I thought would make a good bot. As it turns out, I was right... sort of. Eventually.

To give you a picture of what goes on in General Conference, here's a table I made of the top ten topics by decade, according to the keywords in the <meta> tags for each talk.

1970s1980s1990s2000s2010s
  1. obedience
  2. missionary work
  3. spirituality
  4. testimony
  5. Jesus Christ
  6. welfare
  7. priesthood
  8. family
  9. plan of salvation
  10. youth
  1. Jesus Christ
  2. missionary work
  3. service
  4. obedience
  5. priesthood
  6. faith
  7. love
  8. family
  9. spirituality
  10. adversity
  1. Jesus Christ
  2. faith
  3. family
  4. priesthood
  5. love
  6. service
  7. Holy Ghost
  8. obedience
  9. prayer
  10. Atonement
  1. faith
  2. Jesus Christ
  3. service
  4. testimony
  5. obedience
  6. family
  7. Holy Ghost
  8. prayer
  9. love
  10. priesthood
  1. Jesus Christ
  2. service
  3. faith
  4. priesthood
  5. obedience
  6. adversity
  7. family
  8. love
  9. Holy Ghost
  10. Atonement

You can see the shape of the fifty acceptable topics there. Anyway, I downloaded the Conference talks and set about applying my usual bag of tricks to the corpus to come up with an interesting transformation. Imagine my surprise when none of my techniques worked!

The _ebooks algorithm, up to this point an unending generator of hilarity from any corpus, failed miserably. The word-frequency filter I used to find the interesting signs for Minecraft Signs, also failed. Markov chains were useless, big surprise. I had a dim idea that the key to bot gold here was the subordinate clauses: the sentences that run on and on in a lawyerly way, embroidering themselves with their own Talmudic interpretations. I tried Queneau assembly of sentences at the clause level. This was good enough to get the bot launched, but it wasn't great. Each individual clause is very likely to be boring, its boringness has no relationship to word frequency, and combining clauses doesn't help. The corpus is fractally boring.

"Here you will find happiness, we know that the rejoicing, or anything else, they are in a state contrary to the nature of happiness."

— The Bot Of Mormon (@TheBotOfMormon) October 2, 2014

Okay, I thought, time to break out the big guns. I incorporated the Book of Mormon into my corpus, the Doctrine & Covenants; even the Pearl of Great Price, the bizarro crown jewel of the LDS canon. None of it helped. (The Pearl of Great Price helped a little—it's really weird—but it's also very short.)

Behold, and began to put heavy burdens upon their backs, and prayers of faith.

— The Bot Of Mormon (@TheBotOfMormon) October 6, 2014

But legend told of a secret weapon: the Journal of Discourses. Basically a large collection of General Conference talks from the late 19th century, during the polygamy era, containing a ton of fiery rhetoric and juicy doctrines downplayed or outright disowned by the modern church. Some might consider it dirty pool, but I was desperate to get some interesting content out of my bot. I Queneau-ified every Discourse in the Journal and added it to the corpus... to no avail. It was still dull! On the sentence fragment level, it's tough to even distinguish between the 'scandalous' stuff in the Journal and the dishwater they serve up at Conference nowadays.

And now behold, as it were, most of them in environments very different from their own.

— The Bot Of Mormon (@TheBotOfMormon) October 9, 2014

At this point I was so frustrated that I honestly started to question my unbelief. What are the odds that a corpus of text spanning hundreds of authors over nearly 200 years could be so uniformly dull? Was some divine hand at work, keeping things from getting too interesting? With shaking hands I ran my tests against a control sample: the Gutenberg text of a non-Mormon book of sermons. And it turns out nineteenth-century religious language is what's fractally boring. It's nothing to do with Mormonism in particular. The modern stuff is dull because it copies and recombines the nineteenth-century stuff.

And that, finally, was the key to what little success I've achieved with @TheBotOfMormon. When the bot is funny, the funny thing is not the rambling juxtaposition of sentence fragments per se. It's the juxtaposition of modern concepts with nineteenth-century language. To get the bot to work I would have to actually recreate that juxtaposition, not just hope for it.

Enter the Corpus of Historical American English. (Thanks, BYU! Seriously, what a great project.) This has word frequencies for every decade from the 1810s up to 2009. I picked out all the words that were 10x more common between 1930 and 1980 as they were between 1830 and 1880. I tagged all the sentence fragments that were distinctly twentieth-century. Now I can guarantee that every assemblage has an old-timey component and a more modern component, and the chances of humor go way up.

The lesson I want to take from this is that every corpus is different. I thought I could handle the LDS corpus with the same tools I use on Gutenberg, because they're both full of archaic language, but I was totally wrong. Once I engaged with the text this became obvious, but I came into this holding the text at arms' length because it held a lot of bad childhood memories.

There's no generic bot kit that will work on anything. (Well, there is, but it uses Markov chains and I don't like it.) Even my really simple bots like I Like Big Bot and Boat Names required a lot of custom behind-the-scenes work to find the most interesting subset of the data.

Perhaps this can serve as my new rule. A new bot needs to present a different way of being a bot, not just a different corpus. And adding more text to a corpus I don't know how to handle just makes the problem worse.

[Comments] (2) On Scarne On Dice: At a book sale where the deal was "$5 for all the books you can fit in a bag" I picked up a book that barely fit in the bag, Scarne on Dice, originally published in 1943 and updated in 1974. The author, John Scarne, combines a ton of genuine gambling expertise with the demeanor of a megalomaniac crackpot. The jacket copy, written by some unknown soul *cough*, describes him as "the man who made the phrase 'Acording to Hoyle' obsolete and replaced it with 'According To Scarne'". He's invented his own kind of dice, Scarney Dice®, which are normal six-sided dice except that the two face and the five face have the word "DEAD" on them.

With Scarney Dice you can play a number of games such as Scarney 3000® ("the favorite dice game of the members of the John Scarne Game Club of my hometown of Fairview, New Jersey"), Scarney Put-and-Take Dice, Scarney Duplicate Jackpots, Scarney 21 Up and Down, Scarney Bingo Dice, and Scarney Black Jack. Many of these games feature dice combinations called "Big Scarney" and "Little Scarney", or require a player to call "Scarney" when exploiting a winning position.

There are also three chapters of the book devoted to card games Scarne has invented, games like Scarney® ("the first really new card game concept of this century"), Scarney Gin, and Scarney Baccarat. These games—stay with me here—are card games, they include no dice, and they have no place in a book called Scarne on Dice, especially since John Scarne also wrote a whole other book called Scarne on Cards. But since we're going down this route, how about the family portrait in the front of the book where John Scarne poses with his wife, his son, his books, and the board games he invented, most notably a checkers-like thing called Teeko. Did I mention that he named his son after his board game? Oh, and after himself, of course. John Teeko Scarne.

But unlike every other person like this I've ever encountered, John Scarne actually knows his stuff. He convincingly debunks parapsychology dice-rolling experiments by contrasting the way the experiment was run with the way casinos handle dice. He explains ludicrous systems for beating the casinos and then explains why they're mathematically impossible. His chapters on how to spot loaded dice, rigged games, steer joints, and general cheating are clearly a light rewrite of the lectures he went around giving on Army bases to stop GIs losing their paychecks to craps hustlers. He has a convincing description of what it would take to run an underground gambling operation, down to a detailed payroll.

What is going on here? My initial guess was that gambling is a field where being a Jeffrey Lebowski-esque blowhard is tolerated and even encouraged. That's still my primary guess, actually. But after reading the most interesting 200 pages of this massive tome and skimming the rest I I wonder if something else is going on. This book is mostly about craps, a folk game with a relatively clear origin in Hazard but no real chain of custody between its origin and the modern day. Maybe Scarne just wants to make damn sure that his contributions to ludology are properly credited. Unfortunately, his habit of naming everything after himself just made it that much easier to ignore his innovations and play the same games people have been playing for hundreds of years.

But there was one game that John Scarne invented whose genius I appreciate, even though I'll never play it. It's a drinking game called Scarney Pie-Eyed Dice and it survives in a modified version called Twenty-One Aces. Scarne describes a couple variants but here's the simplest one: in Scarney Pie-Eyed Dice the players take turns rolling two dice until someone rolls nothing but twos and fives (these are the "DEAD" faces of official Scarney dice). The first person to accomplish this orders a drink. Scarne recommends "a double rye with celery tonic, vodka with chili sauce", or something equally weird. The second person to roll twos and fives drinks the drink, and the third person to roll twos and fives pays for the drink.

That's just great. It creates two types of tension at once—who's going to drink the drink and who's going to pay for it, and it uses creativity from an unrelated field as a game mechanic. Good job.

September Film Roundup: A whopping two films this month, at best. October's also not looking great. For movies, I mean. Everything else looks pretty good.

[Comments] (1) The Minecraft Geologic Survey: I've been waiting for all the pieces to go into place before writing about this on NYCB, and now the pieces are in place. The lightning strikes my castle laboratory and the Minecraft Geologic Survey rises! (See Fig. 1.)


Fig. 1

Back in May I announced that I'd downloaded 65,000 Minecraft maps from the official Minecraft forum, and used the data to make my @MinecraftSigns bot. Later I took over Allison Parrish's defunct @minecraftebooks and revitalized it with _ebooks-style quotes from the books found in Minecraft worlds. (Plus, as of a few days ago, command block outputs that incorporate the names of followers, Exosaurs-style.)

But all the while, in the background, I was downloading. Worlds, screenshots, mods, player skins, texture packs... everything with a URL. I ended up with about two terabytes of data, an amount that here in 2014 is not difficult for me to store but is very difficult to transfer or process.

To get the signs and the books for my bots, I had to load every Minecraft world into Python and go through every chunk looking for entities. I ended up with about 180,000 worlds, and iterating over them all was a very time-consuming process. Fortunately, I had two more projects that would amortize all that computer time.

Both projects required that I take "core samples" of each world, extracting individual chunks that were likely to be interesting and forming a new world (like the one pictured above) containing only those chunks. The resulting dataset is representative of the full more-than-a-terabyte package of original worlds, but because it's just a very tiny sample, the whole thing weighs in at a comparatively slim 12 gigabytes.

That's small enough to go on the Internet Archive, and small enough for you to download it and use it in your own project. I wrote a detailed guide to the data, which includes not only 170,000 synthetic Minecraft worlds but a big JSON file (also available on its own) containing all the metadata and sign text and other things you'd need to do a text-based project.

The other project is The Reef, a series of Minecraft maps that combine the chunks obtained from the survey into mashup maps that incorporate designs from many different authors. For instance, you've got The Reef #1, which sticks spawn chunks from 10,000 different maps together to form a (mostly) naturally-sprawling terrain. Or maybe you'd prefer the Skyburbs, a thousand Skyblock maps jammed next to each other.

I've got plenty more ideas for Reef maps, but now that the data is available I think this is a good point to put the project on pause for a while. I will be publishing the code I use to make my Twitter bots and the Reef maps, to encourage you to play with the data and do your own thing.

I'm concerned about the Minecraft servers that have been shutting down since Mojang changed their EULA to include strict rules on monetization. People have been giving a lot of attention to the Microsoft buyout, but the EULA change is what's affecting servers right now. I would really like to offer an archive service for Minecraft servers that are being shut down (plus just original worlds that people have lying around on their hard drives), but I don't see a good way to get the word out. It's not like the typical Archive Team project where you can go into a server that's shutting down and download everything. The server owner has to take the initiative. Also bandwidth and storage become a problem for me at this point. So this is more of an open question than something I know how to solve. It may not get solved.

August Film Roundup: Another month full of major progress on major projects, but I managed to squeeze in four features:

[Comments] (4) Month of Crowdfunding 2014!: After taking a break last year because I didn't have a steady paycheck, Month of Crowdfunding (né Month of Kickstarter) has returned! (2011) (2012) Here's how it works: every day in August I will pledge to some crowdfunding project or another. Yes, that's pretty much it.

Unlike previous years, I will not be doing writeups of each project I back, because I am in the middle of novel revisions. I will just edit this post every day with a brief update. I will also not be trawling the crowdfunding sites every day looking for quirky, offbeat projects. That worked in 2011 when Kickstarter was very small, and it worked in 2012 because I created special software tools for making it work. This year, I will rely heavily on a revolutionary new concept I call crowdnepotism.

Here's how it works. If your friend has a crowdfunding project or Patreon that you want me to support, or you've backed a project and you'd like me to back it as well, please let me know through a comment on this post, a message to @leonardr on Twitter, or an email to leonardr@segfault.org. Please do not tell me about your own project. Tell me about anyone's project but your own. The true meaning of Month of Crowdfunding is found in focusing on other people. That's the only limitation. If you say it's okay, I'll mention you as the person who suggested the project to me in the list below.

Speaking of which, the list below. The projects backed so far:

  1. The Ashville Blade - Supporting the journalism of a friend of Sumana's.
  2. "A History of Mobile Games: 1998-2008" - Just seems like a cool book.
  3. Dj CUTMAN, creator of a chiptune podcast that I listen to at work.
  4. "An Alphabet of Embers", an anthology edited by Shweta and suggested by Zack.
  5. Designers and Dragons, a "comprehensive, four-volume history of the roleplaying game industry." (Found via @CrowdBoardGames and unknowingly ratified by Jim Henley.)
  6. Ninja Pizza Girl, "a serious game about bullying, emotional resilience – and pizza delivering ninjas", suggested by Nathaniel.
  7. Andrea Phillips's writing
  8. Epanalepsis, a graphical adventure game.
  9. Ben Briggs' chiptunes.
  10. Jenny LeClue, another graphical adventure, suggested by Andy Baio.
  11. Mia S-N's illustrations, suggested by Sumana.
  12. Accessing the Future, an SF anthology.
  13. Stretching the notion of "crowdfunding", I sent some money to Saladin Ahmed, who just had his basement flood.
  14. The games of Anna Anthropy.
  15. The games of Avery Mcaldno.
  16. Tree Climbing for Climate Change Research
  17. Why the long face? Functional morphology of a unique fossil porpoise
  18. #OperationHelpOrHush
  19. Legends of Beforia, a card game prototype by #botALLY Patrick Rodriguez.
  20. Kris's comics, yay. (Not suggested by Kris.)
  21. African Skies: Establishing an Observatory for Students in Ghana
  22. I think the name of this project is too corny to say. It's a butter knife that works like a cheese grater.
  23. [Yeah, having troubles keeping this up to date, sorry.]
  24. Noisebridge reboot
  25. Critical Distance
  26. Dawn of the Algorithm (suggested by Mike Mongo)
  27. MS treatment for Paul Jessup, suggested by Saladin Ahmed, paying it forward.

As with the previous two Months, my daily budget is $25 or whatever it takes to get a cool reward. That corresponds to a $2 monthly Patreon pledge. And don't forget, crowdnepotism is a registered trademark of... what, now there's paperwork for registering trademarks? Screw that.

Final update: As you can tell this was a bit of a disaster, consistency-wise. I would frequently leave MoC for days at a time and have to go back and backfill, and near the end I gave up. So I think I'm done with the MoC "tradition". Not because there's not cool stuff on crowdfunding sites (there's a ton of it) but because I'm busy with other stuff now, and "back a project every day for a month" is no longer the interesting experiment it was in 2011. Even going through the science crowdfunding sites and funding science experiments became a bit of a chore given all the other stuff I have going.

I've also discovered that backing a bunch of projects gets me stuff, and I've already got more stuff in my life than I'd like. So I'm going to keep on with my rest-of-the-year strategy of using crowdfunding sites like a normal person.

[Comments] (3) July Film Roundup: I saw most of these movies on airplanes, and I have no regrets. Not about that, anyway.

[Comments] (2) The Average Minecraft Skin: Currently my two spare-time hobbies are 1) Situation Normal revisions and 2) gathering Minecraft data. Yes, I'm still at it! There's a lot more data than I anticipated! I'm up to about 175,000 maps, and I've branched out into archiving mods and texture packs. There's even more I could do, but pretty soon I'm going to have to put away the data-gathering part of this project for six months or a year so I can get other stuff done.

My reach keeps expanding because whenever I decide that a certain dataset isn't interesting and I won't bother with it, I immediately come up with something really cool to do with the dataset. For instance, Minecraft skins, the little images that are bitmapped onto your character in the game to make you look like a penguin or Jean-Luc Picard. I never really cared much about skins, but in the process of deciding not to bother with them, I discovered that Planet Minecraft, one of the biggest repositories of skins, lets someone who uploads a skin specify a gender ("male", "female", "interchangeable", and "other"), as well as a category classification ("animal", "cartoon", "famous person", etc.). Now I was interested! Skins are data about how people present themselves in the virtual world, data that I could gather and graph.

Here's a simple graph showing the skins available on Planet Minecraft, broken down by category and gender:

Self-reported gender of Minecraft skins

In every category male skins are drastically overrepresented, but the discrepancy is smallest in "Other". Why? My guess is that "Other" is where you'd put a skin that you made to represent yourself.

Since there are only two different sizes for skin images, you can average a number of skins together to get a new skin. Here's a skin that is the average of 100 of the most popular "female" skins on Planet Minecraft:

And here's the average of 100 of the most popular "male" skins:

That's a pretty preliminary result, but I think it's interesting. The major sexual dimorphism among Minecraft skins—the shape of the eyes—comes through loud and clear. If you want to use one of these as your actual Minecraft skin, I recommend going in with an image editor and erasing the upper-right part of the image. Otherwise your character's head will be shrouded in a ghostly hat, and it won't look good.

June Film Roundup: It doesn't get better than this. I liked every single movie I saw this month. Two, maybe three of them are in my top ten. I guess that's what happens when you only see time-honored classics and movies you've already seen and loved. I'm posting this a little early because I'm going on vacation next week. Have fun!

May Film Roundup: Ready for "Wacky Wednesdays" here at News You Can Bruise? Here's the deal. We got five movies in the May roundup, but only three of them I actually saw in May! One is from April and one I saw yesterday. Also, it's not Wednesday.

@MinecraftSigns, And Minecraft Maps: I finished a draft of Situation Normal and sent it in to writing group, so I've now got time to reveal the other non-NYPL project that's been taking up all of my time. Ta-da! It's a bot! @MinecraftSigns posts signs that I found in Minecraft maps using the pymclevel library I learned for the Historical Minecraft project.

For a long time, signs were the only form of textual self-expression possible in Minecraft. You get four lines of 15 characters each. In normal play they're generally used as labels or signposts. Custom mapmakers also use them for instructions to the player, dialogue, narration, and hidden messages. They are a medium of communication with more severe character restrictions than Twitter, which makes them a great subject for a Twitter bot. Signs posted so far range from the profound:

This one's
about dropping

To something I think I saw on one of those trendy t-shirts recently:

peanuts and
pickles and
potatoes and
Paul

To the crowd favorite so far:

Do not
Extinguish fire
You will lose.

Oh goodie, you say; another bot from Leonard! What will he come up with next? Yet another bot? The answer is yes. But, before you dismiss @MinecraftSigns as just another window into a beautiful realm of found poetry, ask yourself this: how did I get this data in the first place? Where did all these Minecraft signs come from? Oh, I don't know, maybe from the sixty-five thousand Minecraft maps I've got on my hard drive?

That's right. After the Historical Minecraft project I thought back to late 2011 when I was enjoying the world of custom Minecraft maps. I then thought forward to early 2012, when I was kind of done with custom Minecraft maps, but when I moved all the ZIP files I'd downloaded onto a backup drive rather than deleting them, because these things don't stay on the Internet forever and it would be nice to have a copy, say, twenty years from now. And then, in early 2014, two years into that twenty, I was thinking about that little act of preservation and it hit me: who's archiving the rest of those maps?

The answer was: apparently nobody. And then the answer quickly became: I am. From the middle of April to the middle of May I archived 65,000 maps linked to from the Minecraft maps forum. That's out of about 100,000 maps total. I verified that 25,000 maps are gone, and there are about 10,000 maps I didn't get because they're scattered across a million different file-sharing sites.

So, at least a quarter of the maps put up since 2010 are already gone. I was able to get screenshots for a lot of the missing maps, so it's not a total loss, but that's still really bad, and not only because it's generally bad when interesting things leave the Internet.

Minecraft is the medium used by a lot of accomplished designers and artists. The most obvious examples IMO are Vechs (Super Hostile) and three_two (Vinyl Fantasy). Those two are pretty legendary and their maps are in no danger of being lost, but there's a lot of really great stuff published in 2011-2012 that was lost in the flood. 2011-2012 was the silent-film era of Minecraft custom maps, when the genres were being defined and the first wild experiments were happening, but when the medium was not taken seriously enough to warrant systematic preservation. In the future we'll have tools for finding the overlooked gems, but first those maps have to make it to the future.

Speaking of the future, Minecraft is the training ground for the next generation of game designers, the way ZZT was the training ground for my generation. There's a ZZT archive; it's got about 2,000 ZZT games. How many are lost? Sure would have been nice to save more of them, but all we had back then was BBSes. We didn't have a big official "ZZT forum" with a special place for posting links to your games.

Finally, even a map that's made by a young child who grows up to be an actuary rather than a game designer is valuable. For one, it's valuable to the actuary. I didn't grow up to be a visual artist, but I value this awful, mysterious poster I drew when I was six. That poster would be long gone if someone (my mother) hadn't archived it for me. Second, these maps might be useful in the aggregate as a source of information about period slang or the way children visualize three-dimensional space. Third...

Well, I think one reason Minecraft is so popular with kids is it recreates an experience that American kids generally aren't allowed to have anymore: going outside and playing in a semi-natural environment, on your own or with friends, without parental supervision. There's this infamously bad Minecraft map from 2011 called Quest for Gallell, which turned out to be made by a six-year-old. Presumably this goofy swashbuckling playthrough was made before the players knew they were making fun of a six-year-old's map, but if you watch the video you'll notice that the players understand how to approach the map: like kids playing together in the woods. They're acting out kids acting out adults.

Quest for Gallell is the three-dimensional record of an imaginative play session, which you can play through yourself if you want. It sucks that kids can't play outside anymore, but at least we have some records of what they do instead. Those records are worth saving.

Crosspost: Apparently I have a new weblog! It's my NYPL staff weblog and I've put up a post about a project I worked on with Paul Beaudoin on like my second day at NYPL Labs. We turned a historical contour map into a Minecraft world. This is cool on its own, but it also means I now know how to programmatically generate Minecraft maps with Python scripts. The possibilities are endless, and you'll be seeing more of them later. Like, when I'm done with this novel.

If you must get all your Minecraft news in video form, you're surprisingly picky but you're also in luck. I took Nashville's own Joe Hills on a tour of 1860 Manhattan, and he recorded the whole thing. My only regret is that I didn't prime the buried TNT he discovers near the end of the video.

[Comments] (1) April Film Roundup: Running late this month because of work on Situation Normal. But I'm sick of writing that tonight, so let's crank out some great reviews of (mostly) great movies.

[Comments] (1) March Film Roundup: April Fools! As part of an elaborate prank spanning over a year I have slowly turned NYCB into mostly a film review blog! Hahahahaha... ah...

Anyway, I'm trying out a new strategy for spending less time writing these film roundups. Instead of trying to analyze each movie in detail I'm going to write only as much about a movie as I feel like writing in the moment. Sometimes this will still be a lot, but most of the time I think a paragraph's worth of text will suffice.


This document (source) is part of Crummy, the webspace of Leonard Richardson (contact information). It was last modified on Monday, September 09 2013, 18:05:52 Nowhere Standard Time and last built on Saturday, January 31 2015, 00:45:01 Nowhere Standard Time.

Crummy is © 1996-2015 Leonard Richardson. Unless otherwise noted, all text licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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