(6) Tue Apr 01 2008 09:26 Mallory:
At last! On the auspicious first day of April, Futurismic has published my first story, "Mallory"! Read it and/or weep. This is why I've been thinking so much lately about intertextuality in games. Futurismic blurb:
[T]his one has got everything. Seriously - geek hackers and classic arcade games, electronic Darwinism and domestic espionage, venture capital and Valley-esque start-ups … and a healthy dose of intellectual property panic. Leonard Richardson’s Futurismic début is quite a piece of work!
The story was written in 2006 and it takes place in 2007 (alternate universe, natch), so it's already experienced the old-science-fiction effect where parts of it are obsolete and other parts still read like The Future. I'm also not really happy with the writing, just because I know I can do better now. Hopefully that's just the writer never being satisfied with his writing; I'm not crazy about the writing in the Ruby Cookbook either.
Anyway, check it out. You'll probably like it if you read this weblog and you didn't subscribe thinking I would be talking about REST all the time and are now reconsidering.
(6) Tue Apr 01 2008 23:50 April First Reconsidered:
My first couple years on the net I enjoyed the silly things people did on April Fool's Day, but it got old quickly. You put up a fake website or put something on your website you wouldn't normally or you swap websites with someone else, or something under the rubric of "etc". In fact let's classify the whole spectrum of activities as "etc." I end up spending the day in a defensive crouch of skepticism and not enjoying or believing anything. I still like one-on-one AFD pranks, but I'm tired of the kinds of pranks you can pull by publishing HTTP resources to lots of people.
Except, a bunch of great things happened in my net experience today that made me think about a new direction for April 1: as a day to launch new projects that are maybe kind of crazy, but that have some meat to them. My thinking started in this direction on the 31st, when jwz announced he'd gotten the old Netscape corporate site running at its original URL. This was for the previously-mentioned ten-year anniversary of the Netscape source release, not for April Fool's Day, but it had all the good aspects of a traditional Internet AFD joke, without any aggravating deception. It was a cool hack released at an appropriate time.
First cool thing that happened today was that "Mallory" was published. Falsely publishing a story of mine would be a really dumb AFD prank on anyone except me, but I've fallen for "Mallory"-related pranks before, so I had a feeling of relief on realizing it had actually been published. And I realized--I really like this feeling! The feeling that something cool could have been a prank, society would have sanctioned its being a prank, but it was real. Where have you been all these AFDs past, anonymous feeling?
Second cool thing is that Fafblog started publishing again. As I write this the jury's still out on whether posting will continue, whether it was only for this AFD, whether posts will appear on Fafblog only once a year on the Internet's favorite holiday, or what. After doing about five seconds of research my guess is that there will be more Fafblog posts and that they will involve carrots. I'm making an argument here about what would be cool, so the question is actually moot. AFD was a great day to start posting to Fafblog again.
Okay, third thing is that Kris started a new comic today, chainsawsuit (doesn't look like he told the weblog software about the Monday-Wednesday-Friday update schedule). And the comics are really cheap-looking but they're funny and I think Kris occasionally needs to be constrained to doing cheap-looking comics. It's good for him. And why not launch a new cheap-looking comic on AFD?
Fourth thing I don't care as much about, but it fits the theme: Flickr put up their old copy of The Game Neverending, which was the project that resulted in Flickr and then Flickr took over everything and very few people ever saw the game. This was done as part of an AFD joke but according to a reliable source the site will outlive AFD.
See what I mean? AFD is a day where you can pull pranks, yes, but also a day where you can put out interesting work without having to worry about how it ties into what you normally do or how you'll justify it to shareholders. You can make a fresh start of something you abandoned. If you want to do something really infrequently, you can do it every year on April 1st; we're here on the net for the long term.
AFD could be a Carnival, a festival day where no rules apply and you don't know what to expect. And if you're the sort of person who just likes the pranks, this benefits you too. People like me are inured to traditional Internet AFD jokes. If April 1st is the day when some people make fake web pages for fake oddball projects and some people release their actual oddball projects, your audience can't dismiss your prank out of hand.
(5) Wed Apr 02 2008 19:54 Quick Mallory Note:
I don't want to be a person who annotates his own stories in public, partly because I don't actually know anything, but mostly because stories need to stand on their own. But I wanted to say something not about the ending to "Mallory" but about possible reactions to it. I ended the story where I did because (rot13 spoiler) gung'f jurer Ivwnl'f sevraqfuvc jvgu Xrvgu raqf. For me that's the climax because I read "Mallory" mainly as a story about (rot13) gur pbeebfvir rssrpgf naq bccbeghavgl pbfgf bs cnenabvn. But obviously there are parts of the story that I didn't tie up, and I've gotten pushback on ending it where I did.
Pushing back is fine, I can always try something different next time, but if you'd like to see the plot threads tied up, the best thing to do is to write your own story using the same characters. That's an easy thing to say flippantly but it's is a time-honored literary technique that, like so much other creative activity, was cast into disrepute by modern copyright law and is making a comeback. I've done it, I'm pretty sure most writers have done it, and it's a good thing to do if you feel the urge.
I used to never do this because I bought into a common argument against it: that using other people's characters is an empty exercise in wish-fulfillment and that the result will have no literary value. But then I discovered there's nothing special about other people's characters. If you have good original characters you'll find yourself with exactly the same wish-fulfillment temptation as if you were using someone else's. Part of learning to write is harnessing your desire for wish-fulfillment so that it serves the needs of a narrative.
Anyway, I doubt anyone will ever actually reuse my characters, but it's something I've found helpful in the past.
(1) Wed Apr 02 2008 22:10 Dungeon Design:
When Gary Gygax died about a month ago there were heartfelt outpourings, recollections of peoples' adolescences, memories of playing AD&D. Or, more congruent with my experience, memories of not playing AD&D but instead scouring the rulebooks and designing elaborate dungeons for the glorious day when you would get your friends as interested in playing as you were. For a while now, but especially since Gygax's death loaded it back into my analytical mind, I've been thinking about those dungeons.
I once designed a sixteen-le layer cake of a dungeon, each level themed around one of the elemental, para-elemental, or quasi-elemental planes, each containing a piece of an artifact that was necessary to kill the big evil guy who lived at the bottom of the dungeon. Yes, this guy had made a decision to live in a place where the theme was "vacuum", or salt or whatever it was. This dungeon was located somewhere in the middle of a field, in my poorly-sketched-out overworld.
What made me find satisfaction in designing this dungeon? What made me feel like this bizarre artificial construction was something you'd find in the middle of a field, in the sort of game where you tried to realistically portray another person? Even then I'd spent most of my life playing games where this kind of thing was an everyday occurrence: Zelda and Rogue and Colossal Cave. But as we all were told last month, all of those games have their roots in D&D.
Penny Arcade did a tribute to Gygax after his death (scroll down), but I think they paid him a more fitting tribute with this 2006 comic (link doesn't work right now but I'm pretty sure that's the one I want). The source of the artifact's power is its name. There will be dungeons, and dragons in those dungeons.
The name was chosen almost at random, because it sounded good; ie. because it's a powerful incantation. Its power grabs me even today when I know that D&D-like rules only explore part of the space of role-playing games. It survives even though I've made the more damaging realization that dungeons don't make any sense.
A dragon wouldn't fit in a typical dungeon. The dragon in The Hobbit had a huge cave to lounge around in, with convenient access to the outside. The enclosed spaces in Howard and Leiber and de Camp can get cramped but only rarely do you get something that looks like a D&D dungeon, because only rarely would a "dungeon" not break the rules of fantasy writing. Most of the time, a dungeon is a trick that only feels real if you're acting it out.
I'm reading Fischer/Leiber's "The Lords of Quarmall" right now, and it's strange mostly because there is this subterranean labyrinth that's laid out like a D&D dungeon. Of course it's also a place where people live, a concern you almost never see in D&D dungeons.
A D&D "dungeon" does not correspond to any realistic space, even if it's nominally a castle or crypt. Where did this concept come from and why does it feel right for dungeons to contain dragons? I started becoming aware that there was even a question here when I read this LiveJournal post a while back. It quotes the original D&D manual as placing the "dungeons beneath the 'huge ruined pile, a vast castle built by generations of mad wizards and insane geniuses.'"
The D&D manual refers to the "Underworld". There's no underworld in the Chainmail rules. Wargames strive for realism in terrain, and when I was a kid I instinctively avoided the wargaming parts of D&D; I still would if I still played it. My friend Adi (on the right) plays Warhammer and it looks so boring to me. On the rare occasions when I indulged in a taste for premade AD&D modules, I always skipped the hex paper and went right for the graph paper. I didn't have any figurines; when I DMed, we role-played the swordfights instead of keeping track of where everyone was. We wanted the dungeons.
I think dungeons were something that happened in the transition from a wargame to a role-playing game, or from a game with communally enforced rules to a game where one player was the referee. Was D&D the first game to have distinct levels, each one a challenge from the designer to the player? It feels right, but I can't say because I'm so deeply embedded in that metaphor. If that's true, it's not just that a whole lot of individual games were inspired by D&D; it's that it was the source for one of today's dominant game styles.
In sixth grade I drew out a whole Mega Man game, maps like you'd see in Nintendo Power. It probably wasn't any more ridiculous than, say, Mega Man 4, and it made a lot more sense than the temple of elemental weirdness I'd do later. I followed up Mega Man with an "original" game that was a rip-off of the Goonies II NES game. I was always drawing maps that were supposed to be played under certain well-defined rules.
So, why the hell did Dr. Wily always theme out his robot armies like Vegas hotels? Who put all the stairs and doors and ladders in that huge interlocking set of caverns underneath a restaurant in Oregon? Who would build a dungeon, carve out those twisty little passages, make sure all the rooms were square and stuff a live dragon through the front doorway?
These are the deeds of mad wizards and insane geniuses, like we were when we were younger. Who was I talking to when I drew those maps? I was talking to you.
Update: Uh, I did have one figurine, an ent. Treant! It was a treant! Except it really was an ent because I never used it to play D&D. My mother gave it to me and it was a souvenir of our shared LoTR fandom.
(2) Thu Apr 03 2008 15:36 Stonehenge!:
Yesterday Sumana had the idea of selling chocolate models of Stonehenge as equinox gifts. I thought that's one of those ideas that's so good someone must already do it. But no one does! All I could find was this one-off. Classic stuff-selling opportunity, just waiting for you to invest a lot of time and capital into it!
Update: I got the idea that I could make a chocolate Stonehenge on the cheap by pouring tempered chocolate into a Stonehenge mold. None of those either!
(3) Fri Apr 04 2008 20:23:
Another interesting use of April Fool's Day: Guncho, a multiuser hosting environment for interactive fiction, was announced on April first, complete with unrealistic details and jokey anagrammed name. Then on April second the unrealistic details were rescinded, like a wave rolling back from the beach, and what was left was something cool. So even people who demand trickery on AFD can enjoy it.
I was thinking Guncho would be a good platform for something Kevan was working on, I won't mention it because a quick scan doesn't show him announcing it, but he's probably thinking the same thing.
(2) Sat Apr 05 2008 08:38 Unremarkable Taste:
I spent a lot of time after we moved to New York trying to keep mental track of the restaurants we'd eaten at and what we thought and what restaurants people had recommended. Only recently did I come up with the brilliant idea of keeping all this information in an HTML page so I didn't keep looking up the same Chowhound threads every time we wanted to go out for a nice dinner. Eventually I'll publish it for your New York-visiting convenience, but for now just take my word for it.
I knew about one weblog covering my neighborhood (Joey in Astoria), but after starting this project I discovered another (The Foodista), and I also found a local forum that has a lot of restaurant-related posts.
Specifically (he says, getting to the real point of this entry), it's occasionally got people who try to astroturf their own restaurants. But they're restauranteurs and not astroturf experts, so you get something sub-infomercial quality like "OCEANO'S the new place in town", complete with Fox News-style push poll.
It's not really cool to make fun of the writing of someone for whom English is probably not their first language, but beyond the spelling and grammar mistakes there's so much rhetorical wrongness in that fake writeup ("DON'T BE FOOLED....between the latino flair.there is something for eve[r]yone."), plus Mary Sue-ism and weird syntactic mistakes like mismatched brackets, that it achieves a kind of transcendence.
i didn't know what to try first.the wait staff was very helpful with their suggestion and i started off with the coconut shrimp appetizer,(delicious with each bite!!! to say the least.}well.as i was still debating on the suggestions of my waiter this gentleman approached my table.he akked me how everthing was,come to find out he was one of the owners!!!! what a pleasant man he suggeted that i try his favorite dish.CHURRASCO CON CHIMICHURRI.you have to try this mouth watering dish words cannot describe the unremarkable taste.
Now the thread has got other people reviewing the restaurant and everyone paranoid that everyone else is a shill. I know which restaurant the thread is talking about and I was kind of interested in trying it, but now I think I should not go just because of this astroturf. And there's not even any reason to do this, because a forum where people talk about local restaurants is not exactly a hostile environment for someone who wants to get the word out about their restaurant. As one thread participant puts it:
The thing is, if they had come on and been all "Hey, my name is Joe, and I own/my friend owns/I am the bartender at Oceano, please come down, if you do and mention this, we'll give you a free glass of wine/10% off/a great big hug/whatever, it would have been cool and this thread would be a lot different.
Compare the recently-opened Mojave which everyone is falling over themselves to praise (we ate there earlier this week and it was great) and where someone in an official capacity shows up and doesn't try to deceive you and is honest and offers free stuff:
From tomorrow we are going to have HAPPY HOURS.. I never worked in a place that implemented happy hours, so i hope it's not going to backfire on me...Sierra Nevada and dos xx are really good. and now we finally perfectioned the SANGRIA. i am sure you will like it, it comes with fresh fruit left in the wine for 1-2 days.. and very very very little ice.....
Anyway, for who of you write in this site i would to offer you an afterdinner drink when you mention about astorians.com
The difference seems clear. There's also a panini restaurant that has such a fan base there's a thread where someone posts every day with the soup of the day.
(1) Sat Apr 05 2008 20:54 Dilbert Minus Dilbert:
I've had this idea for a little while, based on Garfield Minus Garfield, and today I did three examples with my nearly-nonexistent GIMP skills. Comedy gold!
Garfield never uses changes of scene (or even perspective, I think), where Dilbert often changes the scene in the second or third panel. Garfield has a small cast of characters; Dilbert has a large cast. So a DMD comic can just be an art-film-esque sequence of closeups and disturbing statements.
In stock Garfield we see Garfield's thought balloons as he remarks on the activities of the other characters (some scientists have speculated that these remarks are jokes). But the other characters don't see his thought bubbles and so can't respond. Garfield lives in a hell where he can never make himself be understood. This is why in GMG we see Jon talking to himself; he's already talking to himself in stock Garfield.
But people talk to each other in Dilbert all the time; it's just that they always talk past each other. Remove Dilbert from a Dilbert cartoon and in one sense you've got people who are having half a conversation with an imaginary person. But you're not missing much because Dilbert is the only one who really engages with what the other person is saying, and he's gone.
My personal favorite:
Update: Karen in Wichita provides prior art.
(3) Sat Apr 05 2008 22:40:
The back of this old Ace paperback has an order form for other Ace paperbacks, but in the ad copy the title is very slightly bolded (in a way that hasn't aged well with the paper) and put right in front of the author's surname. So you see intriguing titles like this:
The last one being especially evocative. "In a city ruled by crime, I was Darkness LeGuin's left hand... and the one man she could never trust."
- Big Time Leiber
- City Simak
- This Immortal Zelazny
- The Left Hand of Darkness LeGuin
This is a simple enough trick that I'll probably hack up a script to generate them automatically and find some more. Sumana and I had a similar game where we looked at books in the bargain bin at the bookstore and tried to find adjacent books whose titles would fit together.
Update: Once again I save Brendan the trouble of coming up with his own character names.
(1) Sun Apr 06 2008 09:43 The Manahmanah Of Man:
Omega Point. Bop be ba de ba.
(2) Sun Apr 06 2008 18:25:
We searched for my mother's name just now to see if there was anything of hers on the web that we hadn't seen. There wasn't a lot but we did find a magazine article she wrote in 1983 (yes, that whole URL does appear to be necessary). I knew the underlying story but I'm not sure if it's because I'd read this article or because she'd told me the story. Anyway, it's something new if you miss my mother's writing.
(6) Tue Apr 08 2008 19:11 Namespace Collision:
Today Leonard Lin linked to Beautiful Soup. I've never met Leonard but we know many of the same people, and so I keep running into traces of him and getting confused. Danny O'Brien once cced me on a mail that made no sense because I wasn't the Leonard he'd had a particular brainstorm with. Then there was the time I was on a consulting job and started encountering comments like "Leonard suggests X" in code I'd never seen before. Yup, guess who.
If my name was Dave I'd probably be long over this, but there just aren't very many Leonards. According to government statistics, 7 in 1000 Americans in my age cohort are named Leonard. That sounds okay but it's only 1250 people. But on the other hand, I'd only need to meet 98 people before I had a better-than-even chance of meeting another Leonard.
I'm mainly reproducing this graph because I like the way the x-axis is labelled. "Leonard" is right near the tick to the right of "Roy". Incidentally, "Leonard" is even less popular now then when I was born, having switched popularities with "Leonardo". Pre-Web I sometimes found it a burden to have an unpopular name, but now on balance it's great. I guess what I'm saying is, name your kid Leonard.
(2) Wed Apr 09 2008 07:32:
Before pirate vs. ninja, there was monkey vs. crab.
(7) Sat Apr 12 2008 18:55 Copyright Question:
This is almost certainly a dumb question that I already know the answer to, but I'm in the position of the economist in the joke who ignores the $20 bill on the ground because if was really there, someone would have already picked it up.
I really like old catalogs like the Sears catalog, and for years I've waited for the day when someone would put them online. And then I waited a few more years. And then a few more years. And now I'm starting to think that it's not going to happen unless I do something about it. So what to do? Obviously the original catalogs are out of copyright, and in fact there's a cottage industry in putting out facsimiles. This cottage industry thrives to the extent that you can't reliably find original catalogs on auction sites even if there are any, because sellers stupidly or maliciously label their reprints as original.
So, can I buy a facsimile, scan the catalog pages (not the cover or newly-copyrighted introductory material), and put the scans online? Could I act as a private-sector Carl Malamud, buy a CD full of scans, and just dump them on a web site? I suspect the answer is yes. BUT. None of these facsimiles are complete copies! Most of them omit hundreds of pages from the original catalogs. This is 1) annoying and unsatisfying, and 2) makes the facsimile into a derivative work.
So, the editorial work that went into deciding which pages to keep and which to not, is that a part of the derivative work that can be copyrighted? It doesn't add anything new to the work, but clearly some work went into it. My traditional five seconds of research indicates that only original "material" can be copyrighted, and that a decision about what to leave out isn't "material". Is this right?
My backup question is why no one else has done this, apart from it being a big job. Many less interesting, equally long public domain documents have been digitized, which makes me think there's some subtle copyright problem I don't see.
There are a number of (mostly Canadian) old catalogs at the Internet Archive, including this cool sucker.
Sun Apr 13 2008 20:44:
Another Internet Archive thing I found recently: a dump of ISBNs and pages obtained by crawling Amazon.
Also, my family, and any other readers of this weblog who don't follow the same weblogs I read, should be aware of two very interesting video lectures that have been making the rounds.
1) Computer scientist Randy Pausch talks about how he achieved his childhood dreams. 2) Neuroanatomist Jill Taylor describes the subjective experience of her stroke and how it corresponds with what's known about the brain.
And apropos catalogs, my fellow catalog obsessives give their suggestions about the best modern catalogs. I've enjoyed the Lindsay's catalog and (as long-time readers are aware) American Science & Surplus.
(2) Mon Apr 14 2008 22:56:
It's odd, but when I have a full-time job and I waste a whole evening, I feel worse than when I don't have a job and I waste a whole day. I think it's because now I have to do a full day of work before I get another shot at the projects I was meaning to work on.
(5) Tue Apr 15 2008 18:33 Phone Toy:
I was talking to my niece on the phone (she's at the "ba ba ba" stage) and I was reminded of the time she called Sumana by accident and Sumana brought her tech-support phone skills to bear. Kids love to play with phones. Up to a certain point they like to play with the buttons and then they become interested in the conversational aspect. I started thinking about a self-contained phonelike toy that would follow the child through these stages of development.
The toy has a video screen and four big buttons underneath, each a different color and with a different shape embossed on it. There's also a speaker and a microphone. At first the toy is like a Simon Says game; you push the buttons and you get patterns of sound and light. Over time the available patterns get more complex. I don't know how babies feel about having their own voices recorded and played back, but you could do something with that.
Then the four big buttons gradually become associated with fictional characters who show up on the screen when you activate them. They'll talk or read to you. They'll respond to your mood and when you start learning words, they'll do some simple voice recognition. Then it turns into The Diamond Age, I guess.
(1) Wed Apr 16 2008 12:23:
A great, over-the-top account of a job interview at X10, of "wireless spy-cam" fame, where the corporate culture is wedded to the level of quality often called "mediocrity" even though it's really really bad.
From BoogaBooga Gadgets, which I just started reading recently. Incidentally I like the writing style on BBG more than on vanilla BB. BB is all "I shall make a point to employ this new technology at my next soirée!" and BBG is all "I've been plugging the leaks in the roof with the bodies of orphans I found in back of the workhouse, but these new nanotech fibers are just as absorbent and don't smell as bad."
(3) Wed Apr 16 2008 23:10:
What with one thing and another I was trying to find the stop-motion LEGO fan video for Portal for Sumana. (It doesn't add much fun on top of the intrinsic fun of the source material, but there are a couple good sight gags.) I was a bit stymied by the real point of this entry, which is that there's a thriving subgenre of Lego stop-motion movie that revolves around connecting points in space-time. Random example. Longer, more cinematic example from the 1980s. Some of them are Portal fan videos but I prefer the ones that aren't, because their warping mechanics feel more natural to the medium. You see things like people disassembled piece by piece and reassembled elsewhere.
Let me link again to "The Magic Portal" so you don't miss it. It really is a piece of work, with car chases and spaceship interiors built with 1980s pieces, like in that old book where the Scandinavian LEGO dude and his wife get bored with their life in the LEGO housing development, disassemble their house, and turn it into a spaceship. Plus the guy who made it went on to do Gabe Koerner-esque work as an animator on The Matrix and The Lord of the Rings.
(1) Thu Apr 17 2008 17:44 FOLLOW ME:
It didn't take me long to find the LEGO book I mentioned in my previous entry: it's the "LEGOLAND Idea Book" for 1980 and I found it at The Brickfactory. (Site navigation is not addressable; go here and it's #6000.) The iconic "homesteading the noosphere" spread is just as I remember it. (1 2 3. Note especially the pile of pieces they stumble upon at the top of that second image!)
But I was totally wrong about the spaceship. They don't tear apart their house and build a spaceship from the pieces. They watch a movie about spaceships and then find a real spaceship in the parking lot and take off in it. Also their house burns down halfway through the book and they bring in contractors to build another one. Oh well. On the plus side, I've now got a great idea for a story. It's not plagiarism if what you remember is different and more dramatically satisfying than the original!
Man. So much of my aesthetic sense comes from this book! Check out the Village People space aliens.
Fri Apr 18 2008 08:42 The Medi-Yorker #3:
I know, it's been four years since I last presented a perfectly bland New Yorker cartoon idea in these pages, but you can't rush genius.
This one uses the "cocktail party" New Yorker cartoon graphic. One guy says to the other: "So, what do you drink to forget?"
PS: Since the last Medi-Yorker, two books of rejected cartoons from regular New Yorker cartoonists have come out, both called The Rejection Collection. I read the first volume at Susan McCarthy's house and it was excellent. It also made me stop blaming the cartoonists for these lame cartoons. In fact their talents are far greater than mine, because they're capable of stooping to Medi-Yorker level every week.
(3) Sat Apr 19 2008 22:41:
Here's the kind of unrelenting journalism we need to see more of. Semi-relatedly, I'd be very interested to hear other peoples' schoolyard video game folklore. The ones I remember are so generic I'm not even sure they actually happened: allegations that finishing a game let you see such-and-such female character nude (we were young, and ignorant of Standards and Practices), bald assertions that you'd accomplished impossible feats.
It seems like the sort of memory that would be really interesting, but when I look back I don't see any inventive lies or interesting legends. It's like we didn't even know how to BS properly. Prove me wrong, fellow nerds.
(1) Mon Apr 21 2008 17:27 Crypto B-Movies:
- Attack of the Known Plaintext
- The Amazing Colossal Man In The Middle
Tue Apr 22 2008 08:03:
Wow! A huge 1951-1970 run of PS Magazine ("The preventive maintenance monthly") is online. It's an Army magazine about troubleshooting equipment and filling out forms, with illustrations by Will Eisner. No other single publication captures as well the thrill of the Prelinger Library.
via Bibliodyssey. Also of note: the editorial voice of the Letters section addresses any officers who write in as "Sir".
(1) Wed Apr 23 2008 14:01:
I thought that not living in the UK I was safe from Phorm's scummy business practices, but just now I got LinkedIn connection spam from someone who works at Phorm! They work all the angles!
Or maybe guy-who-works-at-Phorm reads my weblog, in which case I present a special message to him: dude, come on.
(3) Thu Apr 24 2008 17:32 Best Seller:
About 40% of the time when I go on the subway I share a car with a woman reading Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert. Statistically speaking that's a lot of books! Looking at Amazon reviews I see that it's been Oprahfied.
(4) Thu Apr 24 2008 21:55 Lame Complaints:
Astoria, the Queens neighborhood where we live, has worked out really well for us but I have a couple minor food-related complaints. Keep in mind these complaints are situations where it's as much work for me to get the complained-about thing as it was for me to get anything when I lived in San Francisco. So they're pretty lame, but I do have them.
I like an occasional croissant for breakfast, and there are bakeries near my house that make croissants, but the croissants are terrible. The taste like buttery sandwich rolls. These aren't French bakeries; they're Greek or Italian or Mexican. They're good for black-and-white cookies, but not croissants. And you can't really get a croissant from a coffee shop either. So I need to plan my croissant desires for the weekend where I can go into Manhattan and enjoy some of the world's best croissants (eg. City Bakery's bizarre pretzel croissants). Which is probably just as well, but I'd prefer to have the option of spontaneity.
The second thing is cheese. There are places in Astoria where you can get good cheese, for instance a deli on 30th Avenue whose name I don't remember that makes their own really good mozzarella variant. But all the places are Italian or Greek places and they just sell Italian or Greek cheese. I like a cosmopolitan cheese selection so again I save up my cheese-buying urges for the weekend and go to Whole Foods. Though I guess if I was serious about cheese there's probably some fromagierie in the Village I should be attending, but Whole Foods is near the farmer's market.
So, that's pretty much it food-wise. Everything else is fine, until of course the world runs out of food altogether. Tonight we went back to Mojave, the southwestern resturant, and it was still great. We walked back home to perform research for this entry, investigating rumors of a French bakery laughably called "Le Croissant Shoppe". The address turned out to be an apartment building. There's a "Le Croissant Shoppe" in Manhattan so there was probably a screen-scraping or knowledge-synthesis accident that dropped it into Astoria.
(3) Fri Apr 25 2008 06:37:
I couldn't sleep, and my upgrade to Hardy broke my test suite runner,
so you get a weblog entry. Sumana was laughing it up at re-titled
Atari cartridge cover art. They're pretty good and they gave me a
There's an art game similar to Telephone where Alice describes a
picture, Bob draws a picture from the description, Carol describes
Bob's picture, Dale draws a picture from Carol's description, and so
on. This page is basically one step in a similar meta-game played with
video games. There was a design document for a game called "Casino"
which got turned into a 2600 game and a cover art painting. The cover
art image was doctored to depict another game called "I Am A Vegas
Showgirl". That implies a very different game, which once made would
have different cover art. And a game made from that cover art would be
Deja Vu or something.
Second, "Salvador Dali's Pinball Thrills" is a great game
idea. Short-, medium-, and long-time readers will know that I
generally prefer Dada to surrealism, parce que je n'aime pas
l'amour. But any
pinball table is already a work of surrealist art, so why not do
one themed around, say, The Temptation of St. Anthony? And now
that we have good-looking software pinball, we could create a
pinball board that's a dreamworld of shifting symbols.
I'm also wondering what's with the 1910s theme in several of those
Atari cover art paintings. Not a time remembered fondly (or at all) by
your typical Atari 2600 purchaser.
Sat Apr 26 2008 19:13 Beautiful Soup 3.0.6:
It's out. Basically I had a few hours to look at peoples' complaints to the mailing list, so you get a few bugfixes. Kind of a grind to be honest.
Sat Apr 26 2008 19:51 Ramping Up:
Often when I talk with Evan the conversation comes around to Infinite Jest. I was researching some question we had about whether Joelle van Dyne could be thought of as Ophelia (answer: inconclusive), and came across
this discussion of academic plagiarism and cheating, which includes Consumer Reports-style ranking of online paper-writing and -buying services. A custom-written paper on Infinite Jest cost $71.80. Too bad the paper doesn't make much sense (the topic itself doesn't make much sense, but the paper is worse).
PS: Ramps are back. This has been a public service announcement.
Sat Apr 26 2008 23:09:
I try not to be the sort of person who posts weblog entries about the latest episode of Battlestar Galactica, but I wanted to give episode writer Jane Espenson props for her excellent name-check of the Mithraic mystery cult.
(3) Sun Apr 27 2008 09:55 Hardy Kingfisher:
Keeping in the spirit of "Might as well do a release", I just did a release of NewsBruiser. Yes, you heard right. The last release happened over three years ago, back when there was still hope in the world. People seemed to smile more then... there were concerts in the park... but enough of this sepia-tinged nostalgia. NewsBruiser 2.6.2 is here!
New features include: commenting is less aggravating for commenters (you no longer have to give your email address, a useless feature akin to the way BBS signups used to ask for your home address), comments are less aggravating for administrators (a certain class of HTML-heavy comment spam couldn't be removed via the edit screen, and now it can be), "Today in History" works a lot better for weblogs that have, say, ten years of archives. The del.icio.us export supports the new del.icio.us API. Stuff like that.
As usual, all of the crummy.com weblogs have been automatically upgraded, and since that's a pretty good chunk of NewsBruiser's active installed base, we're doin' pretty well. Of course the crummy.com weblogs have had most of the bug fixes for some time, because all those changes I mentioned, and indeed all the NewsBruiser work I've done for the past three years, were directly motivated by my needs or someone on crummy.com's needs or Sumana's needs.
This is the big problem with NewsBruiser: in the early 2000s I'd add features (RSS 3.0 anyone?) just because I thought they were cool and I liked programming, or because someone had said they might use NewsBruiser in the future if I added such-and-such a feature. The result is a sprawling code base (at least it's modular!), a UI that reaches further than my limited UI design skills can take it, and except for Seth none of those people ended up using NewsBruiser anyway. And now I've got a program that works fine and is very reliable, but which contains core samples from my entire history as a working programmer (which means a lot of ugly code) and has a lot of unnecessary features.
Some of my initial goals (running on Python 1.5.2 because hosting services didn't have 2.x yet) don't make sense anymore. Some (no external dependencies at all) still make sense in the abstract but I think they make NB a lot more complicated than it needs to be. The template system is weird and terrible, and I should be using someone else's template system that has things like loops. I still don't think NewsBruiser should depend on a particular web framework but I would like to keep the data store in a SQLite file. That would make indexing and categories (to pick two examples) much simpler.
It would put an end to NewsBruiser's current infinite extensibility, but you know what. I've used this program for ten years. I'm the person with the strangest needs who actually uses it, and I've got a pretty good idea of what I need from it. So I could just start over, bring in whatever code I can from the old NewsBruiser, and have something shiny and compact that implements the Atom Publishing Protocol.
To the extent there's demand for weblog software written in a reasonable language (ie. not Perl or PHP), NewsBruiser could still be a player. But my hard realization of today is that there's not really such a demand. The vast majority of weblog installations based on free software use Movable Type (Perl) or WordPress (PHP) or LiveJournal (Perl). The people have spoken, the bastards. And life is short, and I've already got an open source project that hundreds of people depend on, which I don't spend enough time working on. So why spend a lot of time improving another project when no one (not even me, really) will appreciate the improvement?
So we bruise on, boats against the current. I'll make the changes I need to make to keep myself and my hostees happy, but NewsBruiser is officially what we call "stable", and has been for three years. I probably won't do any more than small fixes until the Python 1.5 idioms in NewsBruiser start being deprecated.
Mon Apr 28 2008 22:52:
You'd think I'd have gotten enough history of interactive fiction from all the other books on the topic I've read, but Let's Tell A Story Together held my interest. Plus it's the first time I skimmed the back of the book looking for my name and my name actually showed up! Somehow I hadn't heard of Acheton or it hadn't registered on my mind or something.
(2) Tue Apr 29 2008 21:21 Teeth Suck: The Continuing Saga:
I'm pretty well-off now, but up until I graduated from college I was poor. Not where's the next meal coming from poor, thank goodness, but working all your spare time to pay the bills poor. There are many ways it sucks to be poor, but one part that I really hated was being treated like I was poor.
Being poor is like going through airport security all the time. You always need something from someone who doesn't need you, doesn't care about you, and suspects you're trying to scam them. In fact, airport security is just a pathological case: it's for people too "poor" for fractional jet ownership. All of America's great leveling experiences: jury duty, the DMV, phone support, the emergency room, etc., are leveling in that they treat everyone the way America treats the poor.
I've made it a goal in life to be treated that way as little as possible. I don't think anyone should be treated that way, so I also do what I can to stop it in general, which as it turns out is not much at all. Which brings us to tonight's word: dental insurance.
Due to circumstances previously discussed, Sumana and I are on student health insurance and have our dental work done at the NYU dental college. The waiting room is always crowded and chaotic, the waits are long, you have to fill out the insurance forms yourself, and the actual work is very slow (it's done by dental students who frequently need to bring real dentists over for help). And of course it's done by dental students, which means it's more likely something would go disastrously wrong. It's dental work for people who can't pass up an opportunity to spend time to save money. Compare to the ritzy Dentist 2.0, where we shelled out big bucks out-of-pocket, but had a really good experience with little waiting.
So dental work is more aggravating for me than it used to be. But why complain about it now, apart from weblogs being places to complain about things. Because six months ago it was discovered that I have a magic lesion. The dental student assigned to me said that there are always dental students who need to fill minor cavities of a certain dimension for the board exams. She asked if I'd be willing to have the cavity filled as part of someone's board exam in the spring. I said sure. Go in and have it filled as part of a checkup, go in and have it filled as part of an exam. The only difference is that in the latter case you're helping someone become a dentist.
Well, I found out the second difference around February, when I got my first call from a dental student wanting to fill my cavity. When you get a cavity filled as part of a board exam, you have to make the trip to the NYU dental school twice: once to get an X-ray of the tooth in question for grading purposes, and once for the actual filling. Oh yeah, the X-ray will happen in the middle of the day on, say, Tuesday, and the actual filling will happen at 7 AM on Sunday. But! I'll get the filling done for free and $100 on top of that.
Oh yeah. I recognize this. The lure of the hundred dollars. When I was in college I considered, among other biology-related money-making schemes, having board work done at the UCLA dental school. In retrospect I should have gone for it. That $100 would have been welcome, and going to the dentist at all back then would have saved me a root canal down the line.
Now? Not so much. I have the privilege of putting a high price on my time. The 7AM on Sunday thing doesn't bother me much, but I'm not interested in making a separate trip in the middle of a workday just to get some X-rays. I asked if they could reuse the full-spectrum X-rays I'd gotten when I started getting work done at NYU. They weren't very old at that point. Nope, they had to be new X-rays of the tooth in question. Sorry, I said. I'm not interested. I was stoic in the face of reminders that I was being offered $100 for my time.
Last week I got another call from another dental student preparing for the boards. I turned him down and explained why I had turned down the first dental student. But this guy sounded desperate. I'm like the only guy in New York City with a lesion that's the right shape. And after I explained why I'd said no the first time, he said he could meet me halfway. I didn't have to come in the middle of the day for the X-rays; he would meet me at 6PM on, say, Tuesday, and we could do them then. And he'd pay me $100! I hemmed and hawed and eventually agreed.
Today I went down to the land of dentistry and met the dental student, and he was really good. He fast-talked his way into an X-ray booth downstairs so I wouldn't have to wait 15-20 minutes for one of the overbooked booths reserved for my ilk. He took the X-rays and a cast of the tooth. It was an even better experience than Dentist 2.0. I actually started thinking things like "Wow, things move really smoothly when it's just you and the dentist getting things done!"
You knew it was coming. At this point I found out the third difference between getting the cavity filled as part of the appointment and getting it filled as part of a board exam. He's explaining what's going to happen on Sunday and he says something like "Oh, it's going to be an amalgam filling. I noticed you've got composite fillings. Is that going to be a problem?"
Yes. Another one of the things I can do now that I'm well-off is not let people put silver and mercury into my head. I have lousy teeth but they're mine, and I want to keep them looking like teeth. A dental student can see I've got lots of fillings just by looking at my teeth, but I don't want to advertise that fact to laymen.
Thus begins the Tense Situation. The rules say that the lesion has to be a certain size and that it has to be filled with amalgam, or maybe the amalgam's a cost-saving measure or whatever. The dental student suggests I can have the cavity filled with amalgam for the exam, and then have the amalgam taken out and composite put back in. I ask how long that will take. It turns out he's talking about two different visits: the board exam, and then a follow-up appointment where I do what I was planning to do in the first place: have a tooth drilled and filled with composite. So after the board exam I'll be where I am now. Except I'll have to pay for the second appointment, which will wipe out any $100-related gains I may have made from the first, and then some.
I ask if my student insurance will cover the second appointment. Oh. I have insurance! No problem! All I have to do is show up for two dentist appointments, which I'd agreed to do earlier. True, I've already wasted an evening coming over here for a third dentist appointment, but that's a sunk cost at this point.
That's when all the stuff I mentioned earlier really hits me, about when I was in college and thought about having board work done. This program isn't a way for the helpful rich guy with bad insurance to help dental students pass the boards. It's a way for a poor person with no insurance to get a cavity filled and make a little money on the side. I've broken the parameters of the program with my snobbish insistence on fillings that don't look like crap or activate my fear of biting a piece of aluminum foil while eating a burrito.
I feel terrible but I'm not going to go through a dental procedure just so I can have it done again a week later. I say I'm sorry a lot and walk out. I walk out knowing that the dental student is probably in the same situation I was in in college. He probably has a bunch of loans. When he graduates he'll start making good money, but right now he needs to spend $100 on some lab equipment for a demonstration. And his lab equipment has just walked out. Now I'm the one acting like I don't need someone else. I'm the one with the power to say no, and it doesn't make me feel better that the alternative to 'no' is a deeply unpleasant experience for me.
The only bright side is that the dental student told me this after he saw my other fillings, instead of on Sunday. If he'd sprung the filling surprise on me in front of the people giving the exam, he said, they would have flunked him for poor patient management. Now at least he's got a chance to find someone else.
Wed Apr 30 2008 22:03:
I got nothing, so before going to sleep I'll just point you to my favorite Starslip Crisis ever.
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