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[Comments] (2) : Sumana's exercise program has strange commercials in two genres. First, there are commercials for Lifetime Original Movies. These movies feature women who were femme fatale characters in 1940s noir movies. Now the characters have been incarnated in harmless lives that match the Lifetime viewer demographic. But they still give off femme fatale vibes without knowing it, which leads male characters to become obsessed with them. In the 1940s noir movies with their male POVs, this obsession led the shamus to get in over his head with a dangerous dame. In the Lifetime Original Movies with their female POVs, it manifests as stalking. Sample dialogue: "But I'm married!" "Not to me."

Anyway, the real reason I wrote this entry is the other genre of commercial: the weird health-related ad. There's one running now that's just ridiculous. It's this guy standing in a roadside vegetable stand full of supermarket produce, talking about phytochemicals. To get all the phytochemicals he thinks we need, we'd have to eat 18 ears of corn a day, or 5 heads of lettuce. Yeah, or possibly as much as a single tomato! Jeepers. What about celery? How much celery would we have to eat?

The April Fool: I was fooled yesterday by Evan, who claimed he'd found a company that does the same thing as the company in "Mallory" (to be published any month now, probably). I maintain that it's only a matter of time until someone actually starts such a company. Who'll be laughing then? The viewers of NBC's hit sitcom 30 Rock, that's who!

[Comments] (3) Mini-Game Roundup: Dwarf Fortress: Sumana never reads my Game Roundups. She thinks they're boring. Okay, fine. But it turns out that if I start talking about a game I played, she thinks that's boring too. Last night I was talking about Dwarf Fortress and she fell asleep (admittedly, this was when we were going to sleep). But this morning when she didn't remember what I'd said last night, I tried to fill her in on the details of my argument, and she refused to listen. Thus, this entry, which is of a genre I'm already accustomed to her skipping.

I'd heard of Dwarf Fortress for a while but never played it because 1) it's a Windows game and 2) I was writing a book. But the book is done and the game runs perfectly under Wine, so I played it yesterday. The other day, Dwarf Fortress came up in a conversation between me and Adam Parrish where I claimed it was a roguelike game. Well, it does have a roguelike game in it, but that's nothing special. What's really interesting is the other game, a real-time strategy game based heavily around emergent properties.

You control a few dwarves trying to make a home for themselves. The dwarves themselves have a lot of autonomy: it's not like Warcraft where you're always telling individual units to move around. But you can give a dwarf a profession, you can show which rocks need to be mined, and once you build a workshop you can give jobs to the workshop. Each dwarf decides which open job to fulfil at the moment.

Each dwarf also has an internal monologue that describes how things have been going for them lately. You can make the dwarves happy by having the society produce booze, nice places for them to sleep and eat, and interesting things to do.

So I go along for a while, making buildings and inventing agriculture and bartering with caravans. The dwarves are perfectly happy in a state of primitive communism, assisted by me, the omniscient game player that reads their thoughts and directs their actions. Every year there are some migrants, so the population grows. And then civilization shows up.

Civilization (in the Huck Finn sense) comes in the forms of Dwarf Fortress's "nobles". These Balins-come-lately think they know better than me and my dwarves how society should be run. They demand better living quarters than the other dwarves, and contribute nothing to society except ridiculous demands and trade restrictions (they also unlock some interface features, which creates a weird metagame element that I could do without, given the shaky state of the existing interface).

This is the point at which I stopped playing. Apparently the nobles go on to create punishments for dwarves who don't meet the quotas. (Snippet from sheriff's internal monologue: "She was worried by the scarcity of cages and chains lately.") Then they create an economy and start charging rent for other peoples' rooms, and really why should I play a game when the people in the game have so much autonomy they can force me to do what they want but not vice versa? You can arrange for the nobles to meet with "accidents", but you just get another noble of the same type in a later year's immigration.

There are also some pretty big interface problems: inconsistent ways of sizing and selecting, as other reviews have pointed out. Other reviews also complained about the extended ASCII interface, but I think it's great. Very old school. However the ASCII art chosen for the workshops doesn't look like a workshop: it just looks like a mess on the ground. This makes it impossible to tell what kind of workshop you put in a certain place without moving the cursor over it.

The creator of DF is also the creator of many other games, including "WWI Medic" and "Liberal Crime Squad". LCS has a Linux version, I played it for a bit and was again impressed by the emergent properties. I was also struck by the BBS-door quality of the juvenile humor and the resemblance to the fun 80s roguelike "Mission: Mainframe".

[Comments] (1) Text As War: Kris's current Starslip storyline is incredibly good. If you're impatient, here's where it starts getting good. Text and supertext working in harmony!

First Three Rows May Get Wet: Today one of Sumana's co-workers gave her orchestra tickets to a play: Eugene O'Neill's "A Moon for the Misbegotten". Kevin Spacey produced(?) and starred in it, and I'm still not really clear on who Kevin Spacey is, but it also had Colm Meaney, and I have no such problem with him. It was a really good performance and since we were using someone else's last-minute cancellation tickets I wasn't always thinking about how much it had cost.

: The Minutillos came over today. Fun! They brought Connecticut Easter candy, not to be confused with Massachusetts maple syrup candy. Among other things, we came up with an idea for filing the Wikipedia serial numbers off of Catfishing and selling it as a quiz book.

: I've almost perfected my new economic weapon: the rent-seeking missile.

Will No One Rid Me Of This Turbulent Dwarf?: Dwarf Fortress redux. Yesterday I did another fortress with a trapped bedroom for getting rid of troublesome nobles. It kept the game playable: when there's no sheriff, you don't have to micromanage the nobles because no one will enforce their demands. But eventually I ran into the boundaries of the simulation, and got bored. I thought about about destroying my fortress in a big SimCity-style disaster, but I don't want to do that to all my little feedback loops.

: A link from Sumana-read weblog The Morning News that I thought were interesting but Sumana didn't want to bruise. There are now fake zero-rupee banknotes in India. As with any fake currency, this one has value of its own. In this case they let you defuse a situation where you're expected to give a bribe. That reminds me I need to write down the coconut bribe story.

Beautiful Soup 3.0.4: Sometimes people express the opinion that Beautiful Soup should be in the standard library. Given the current state of the Python standard library, and the nature of standard libraries in general, I'd rather it not. The standard library is extremely resistant to change—look at sgmllib. It's easier to start over—look at urllib2 and httplib2.

The two other reasons I've seen given for not including BS in the standard library are that it has unspecified Unicode bugs, and that the name is silly. Dude, just rename it. Also, you're using a programming language named after a sketch comedy show. As for the Unicode bug(s), I fixed the one people were complaining about, and the result is Beautiful Soup 3.0.4.

I was actually doing a very large change that no one had complained about, and it wasn't working out well. I decided to just do a release full of easy stuff, since a lot of people were having the Unicode problem.

I'm also seriously thinking about retiring Rubyful Soup, because hpricot is a lot faster.

[Comments] (4) Kris Tries Subtlety: In today's Starslip.

[Comments] (1) : Been reading some classic SF short stories. I cannot express the depths of my disappointment that "A Gun for Dinosaur" is not about a dinosaur who buys a gun. Not since Internet-Linked Sharks!

[Comments] (1) Battlestar Galactica Recasting: In this edition of BSGR, Jeffrey Tambor plays Colonel Tigh the same way he played George Bluth.

[Comments] (1) A Little Bit About Kurt Vonnegut: Fifteen years ago, Andy Schile and I were cultural scouts for each other. One night we were talking on the phone and he mentioned Breakfast of Champions. It had everything we could desire in a book: ridiculous sci-fi plots, crude drawings in random places, authorial self-insertion. It was a starter kit for a career in postmodernism.

I read Breakfast of Champions sitting on the floor in a high school library, somewhere along the Grapevine between Bakersfield and LA. I was trapped in the library for an evening because my mother was attending a teacher's conference there.

The bulk of Vonnegut I read while trapped in the Bakersfield College library. This time I wasn't confined to the library building—I was taking a summer class at the college— but there was nowhere else to go in the heat and I didn't have a ride home until my mother was done teaching her class.

At this point I've read all Vonnegut's novels except Mother Night. I remember the act of reading almost all of them (even the bad ones), which doesn't happen often. But my two overriding memories are the discovery from Andy (who I'm seeing tomorrow) and the feeling of being stranded in a library like in The Twilight Zone. Or Hocus Pocus, for that matter.

[Comments] (1) : I met Sumana at work. We walked up to Central Park and climbed rocks. On the way home we were in one of the newfangled subway cars, much to the delight of the train-geek kid next to us. He was going into Queens to eat Carvel ice cream and stay at his babysitter's house. All that and a ride in the new model of subway car!

Poe's Mashup: I'm reading Steven Jay Gould's last book, The Hedgehog, the Fox, and the Magister's Pox, which is about what science can do vs. what the humanities can do. I was expecting to have a big argument with Gould on this because I really disagree with the way he's applied this "magisteria" model to science and religion. Maybe this is an artifact of my upbringing, but what Gould describes does not look like religion in general; it looks like Unitarian Universalism.

But I think the magisteria model makes a lot of sense in this context, and in the first section of the book he comes up with good points about analytical tools. But what I really want to talk about is one of these cool pieces of detective work that Gould does. This bit is copied in from an essay in Dinosaur in a Haystack, which I haven't read.

Edgar Allen Poe wrote a book about mollusk biology, or, as it was called then, conchology. It included English translations from Cuvier, and plates of drawings. Except he didn't write it. First, it was a joint project with a guy named Wyatt. Second, Poe ripped off a lot of the introduction from another conchology book (The Conchologist's Text Book by Thomas Brown), and Wyatt stole the plates from the same source. In "Poe's" book the plates show up in a different order, but so what? Ripoff.

This kind of behavior was not unheard of in the early 19th century, when the US was still in its "prosperity through copyright violation" phase, but it's still pretty sleazy. But here's the thing. In the 18th century, mollusk biology was called "conchology" because you generally didn't study the soft mollusky bits. You studied the shells, because that's what you had. In the 19th century this was changing: mollusk biology was being renamed malacology ("study of the soft bits"), and the Poe/Wyatt book was part of the change.

But at the time there was no primary literature about the soft bits in English. Only in French, from Cuvier and Lamark. Poe translated Cuvier's descriptions of mollusks and made them available for the first time (?) in English. Why were the plates in a different order? Because the original conchology book ordered them according to a shell-based classification. The Poe/Wyatt ripoff ordered them according to the soft bits.

In other words, they made a mashup. They took French text from source A, excerpted and translated it with attribution. They took English text from source B, sort of rewrote it and claimed it as original. They took a whole bunch of pictures from source B, rearranged them to tell a different story than source B told, and published them without attribution. Every element of the book comes from somewhere else, but the finished product is original. Their motives were clearly mercenary, but unlike most copyright ripoff artists of the nineteenth century they weren't reprinting something without understanding it. They were taking their sources apart and recombining them to tell a new story. And without telling anyone that's what they were doing, except to cash in on Cuvier's name recognition. It ranks slightly above those sleazy "100-in-one" Nintendo cartridges you used to see in video rental stores.

In a sense, the whole thing is moot by now since both the originals and the ripoff are in the public domain. Here's The Conchologist's Text Book with some of the plates, though others seem to have been washed out in the scanner. Here's a translation of Cuvier on mollusks, possibly Poe's source document. Can't find the ripoff, though.

: Thanks to vacation I was able to fix up a new story and submit it to Strange Horizons. IMO Strange Horizons is what most science fiction magazines will look like in about ten years, though they're donation-supported and I suspect most magazines will still sell subscriptions. Anyhow, they publish lots of good stuff including this recent essay about David Icke.

: Cool old map of the original Dungeon text adventure that turned into the Zork trilogy.

[Comments] (1) : Thanks to the newfound popularity of the Powerpoint Karaoke concept, Sumana was looking around at a site I'd never heard of before: Slideshare, the revolutionary new site that lets you see random peoples' slide decks. Sumana was trying to adapt to Powerpoint presentations Teresa Nielsen Hayden's advice for finding bad fanfic online. I suggested searching for corporate buzzwords and rote phrases, which worked very well. For instance, Sumana reports good results for "the end of the day". Of course, there's also a filetype:ppt search.

: Someone's messing with us.

Gravy Overload: The supermarket has a whole shelf unit devoted to gravy and substances you can turn into gravy. You might think it's broth but it's gravy. There's about as much gravy as there is canned soup. The sign in that aisle says "GRAVY". It also says "MACARONI". I guess you can call it macaroni.

[Comments] (1) : At last, scans of the Voynich Manuscript. They were in some LizardTech (David Icke take note) proprietary format, now converted to JPEG.

I just want to make an omelette!: Casting Leomund's Tiny Hut? Now you have options.

[Comments] (1) Check It And See: We had a great pre-anniversary date tonight: glacial rock climbing in Central Park, dinner at a mediocre West Side restaurant and then off to see Hot Fuzz, which was excellent. Best touch were the two nearly-identical desk sergeants, one of whom (IIRC) was always reading Iain Banks and the other of whom was always reading Iain M. Banks.

Incidentally, it looks like science fiction is a lot more mainstream in the UK than it is in the US. The lame Heathrow bookstore[0] had a whole shelf of science fiction books, many of which you wouldn't see even in a non-lame US bookstore. Admittedly this was a side effect of a simple-minded stocking strategy ("every British science fiction author except Ken Macleod"). But I'm pretty sure the bookstore in Grand Central (the least lame airport-style bookstore I know of) has no science fiction at all.

[0] I actually found it quite interesting cross-culturally, but I could tell it was the equivalent of any other airport bookstore.

: Triangle Donut hates Person Donut.

[Comments] (1) The Cut-Up Eye: Sumana and I had an anniversary picnic today with some friends. Then we came back home for awesome cupcakes. (It's a cake in a cup!) Sumana brought out that party favorite, the bad high school term paper on Al Capone, and there was the inevitable comparison to The Eye of Argon.

Yeah, what about The Eye of Argon? I hadn't read it in a long time and remembered it mainly for its extremely long sentences. At this point I had—not really fair to say "an idea" since it's the same idea I have all the time. I applied my idea to TEoA. Fortunately the online ASCII text is consistently formatted and easy to parse. A little bit of Python hacking gives me the latest addition to the crummy.com family of dadaist products: The Cut-Up Eye. Same sentences, same pacing, different order. Enjoy!

: I like all the specialized aggregation sites I've been encountering recently, though I don't know what will happen long-term to this kind of site. My favorite so far is Listening to Words, a collection of lectures. I think the world would be a better place if more college lectures had online audio or video available.

QOTD: "It was nice. A little heteronormative, but nice."

: Today I found online the original model for much of my work: The Policeman's Beard is Half Constructed, a story supposedly generated by a computer program. This program was written "in compiled BASIC on a Z80 micro with 64K of RAM". I think it's pretty obvious that the allegations of "authorship" here are very disingenuous: near as anyone can tell, the template language is a primitive form of the Dada Engine. The best you can say is that DE-like templates change the notion of "authorship" somewhat.

That said, in TPBiHC we see the thing I enjoy most about spam mail and the Eater of Meaning plugin I haven't written yet[0]: the Fennimore Cooper-like use of the right word's second cousin. You get sentences like "Revile these conflicts and we may daintily bolt our meat and quaff our sherry." You can really sense the prewritten template there, but the choice of words makes it hilarious.

[0] I did write it once but it was far too slow to use.

: Collabnet bought former rival VA's collaborative software division. I wish this would make my stock worth something.

This means that VA is now entirely in the business of selling ads on Slashdot and T-shirts from ThinkGeek. Compare this old article of mine from the days of rivalry.

He's Off The Ramp: Today I decided to get cracking on the album that's been percolating for about five years. I recorded one song and most of another one, and then my computer decided not to record things anymore. This is apparently not an uncommon problem on Ubuntu, but you usually notice it when you first try to record something, and not after three hours of everything working perfectly. And doing the things mentioned in the forums is supposed to help.

In other news, I went to the farmers market yesterday and got some of the famous ramps everyone's talking about. They are really good: they have the tingle of lilies without the poison. For $12 a pound they'd better be good. I sauted them and put them in a warm barley salad.

Update: I got it working thanks to this page, though my recording quality is still not as good as it was. Ramps are still yummy.

: In my dream last night I was talking to a television actress.

"So your character went to jail?"
"I don't know, I never watched the show."
"Did you find yourself saying things like 'Oh no, I'm in jail'?"

I guess George Lucas was making the show.

Now I can finance a heartbreak: Ah, that's better. It's hacky but I can record now. Today I did "Mattress King", the song I wrote with Jake Berendes last year when I was staying at his place. We wrote the song on a piece of dot-matrix printer paper: I'd write two lines and then pass it to Jake, who'd write two more lines. We actually wrote two songs this way, but one of them wasn't very good.

: Went out for a morning walk in the East Village. Ate at the neo-automat. The automat food was like the school lunch food you'd get on field trips. Plus the coin slot was jammed so I didn't even get the cool automat experience. They do sell insane amounts of frites, with sauces. You can get a KFC-sized bucket of french fries for $10. But elsewhere in the neighborhood are several dedicated frites places which I suspect are probably better.

[Comments] (6) : I went to an ITP art show this evening where my friend Adam Parrish was exhibiting his "byte organ". This is illegal where Adam comes from, but anything goes here in libertine New York. I took some pictures including one of Adam in front of the byte organ's video output. "It looks like you're on the cover of WIRED," I said. Now it looks even more like that because I made a fake WIRED cover for Adam. The other really cool thing at the show was the solar xylophone, by this guy.

: The day the Machine of Death anthology was announced, I had an idea and wrote about 4/5 of a story for the anthology. Then I decided I didn't really like the story and let it linger. Did I have to let it linger? No, but I did. Today Ryan North reminded everyone that it's the deadline, so I finished the story and submitted it. It was almost done, and it's not like I can hold out for a better deal for this story based on a specific anthology idea.

I'm still not crazy about the story, but I like it better than I did the first day. Mainly because the ending I wrote is less heavy-handed than the one I intended to write. Of course when I do that, I run the risk of making the ending incomprehensible to everyone else.

: Wow, the REST book is pre-selling really well all of a sudden. I don't have an explanation but it might be new exposure from this Coding Horror entry.

: Man, these guys have the awesome job. It's like being paid to be Joel Hodgson. Previously I thought only Joel Hodgson could get in on that action.

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