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[Comments] (11) : Sumana and I were talking about whether or not science fiction writers had envisioned second-order effects of personal computers, like screen savers. Discussion was somewhat limited by the fact that neither of us could even think of anyone writing an SF story about the personal computer before it showed up in hardware. The usually-helpful Technovelgy doesn't help much here (it does say there is a pocket computer in The Mote in God's Eye, a year before the Altair). As has already been established this is exactly the kind of thing I don't know, so I'm sure my readers can provide lots of interesting examples.

I'm specifically interested in stories where a computer is assigned to or owned by a relatively average person, regardless of the computer's size or power. All we can think of is people going to the computing center to use the monolithic communal computer, using the shared ship's computer, etc. Of course, the easy solution is to update all those old stories by simply appending ".com" to the monolithic computer's ACRONYMAC name.

: Usually I'm underwhelmed by the edge.org yearly question, but this year's ("What have you changed your mind about?") has yielded a lot of interesting answers. In general I think asking about edge cases and failure conditions gives interesting results.

[Comments] (5) : Once in a while we get a glimpse in the New York Times of the crushing problems that beset the incredibly rich. The problems seem to center around that home away from home, the home away from home. A year ago it was the difficulty of getting an appliance fixer to come on a boat to Dolphin's Ass, MA and fix the stove in your summer home. But what about stocking said home with books? Books don't buy themselves, you know (except on the Kindle). And sometimes your guests want to read a book they'd enjoy, not something you bought because it's the right dimensions to fill a shelf. ("Don’t forget the oversize art books for those tall bottom shelves.")

"At one Manhattan couple’s weekend home in the Catskills, books seem to have a life of their own." I blame Gumby.

It's like an article about arranging a dinner party for mutually incompatible species of aliens. ("If grandparents are going to be the guests, then you should have... photo books of places they’ve lived in or visited, maybe art books or military histories or books on their hobbies.") If I had an extra home I was going to let people borrow, I'd probably stock it with books I'd already read and liked, copies of which I conveniently already own and want to get out of the book-crowded house. If you don't like it you can bring your own books! Get off mah property!

PS: Due to an extended-family sharing thing I actually have access to one of these summer homes, but since it's in Utah I've so far avoided being the sort of person who gushes about 'the summer home', or even goes there.

PPS: Apparently all my writing is now going to have the tone of TF:AR entries.

: From that we go way, way downmarket to misleading TV gadget ads, including an early one from 1985. Sumana and I have always loved the actors who feign cartoonish incompetence at everyday tasks so as to make the product advertised look more useful. I never know the intended register of those scenes. Do the rubes who buy the gadgets see the incompetence scenes as mere Seinfeld-esque exaggerations of real everyday problems?

Anyway, that reminded us of the Rototron Cornbobber, so we had to watch that again. Rick Lax, who wrote and co-starred in the infomercial, now has a law school weblog. You, sir, are a mouthful!

: There's a group on LibraryThing listing the contents of famous peoples' libraries.

: As part of my ongoing experiments with poetic meter, I put up a feature that creates new Shakespeare sonnets from the existing ones. I've got two generation mechanisms and I'm not sure which is better, so I'm going to let them both run for a while.

A similar thing exists already, but it includes rhyme constraints (not a bad thing) and lots of undada human volition (well...).

I've also got one for Paradise Lost, but Shakespeare was more fun.

: We finally went to the famous Chinatown Ice Cream Factory and ate ice cream. I was intrigued by the chocolate pandan ice cream. "It's chocolate and pandan," said the cashier. Uh-huh. "Pandan is a Malaysian leaf." Okay, I'll eat a leaf. It was good, sort of nutty.

[Comments] (1) If you're not recycling, you're throwing it all away: I've got a "space" screensaver on my laptop, which I thought it would be cooler than it is, though it's pretty cool: it fades through a random slideshow of famous astronomy pictures. Every once in a while it fades from the earthrise picture to the Sombrero Galaxy and I think "Oh no, the earth's exploded."

"[O]ne of the first things he did was to nationalize all of the businesses on this part of the lake": I'm a sucker for things with "mega" in the name, so I enjoyed National Geographic's 2004 African Megaflyover, a travelogue with aerial and ground pictures.

: Evan and I were brunching at our accustomed table and bemoaning the death of the personal letter as an art form. Oh, it's so much more intimate than email. Except I never got around to sending any of those letters, and once my mom got email we talked a lot more. So bah to the personal letter. But Evan had the retro Stockholm syndrome we old-timers sometimes get when we think about old technology. He liked the way you didn't know when your letter would arrive, when there was a several-day lag time and a day or two of uncertainty on either side.

Well, email used to be like that, as Clifford Stoll will tell you. And there's no reason why it couldn't be like that again, if you want to do some sort of Colonial Williamsburg E-Maile reenactment (that's the hipster Williamsburg, not the one in Virginia). Old standby mailtothefuture.com has been shut down, but mailtothefuture.org has sprung up in its place. All that's missing is the random element; you have to specify your delivery time to the hour, which is way too precise for these purposes.

HassleMe has a nice randomness element to it, but that's because it's emailing you periodically, reminding you to read an improving book or whatever.

[Comments] (1) Intriguing Search Requests: amiga star trek roguelike

All-Time Stupid Slogans:

  1. "Freshness — Hostess — Kids... They Go Together!"
  2. Collect U.S. Commemoratives
    • They're Fun
    • They're History
    • They're America

(The latter in use for at least thirty years.)

[Comments] (1) Slide a sandwich through the slot!: Text ad said, "The Chinese Boom is Real". I read "The Chinese Room is Real".

[Comments] (1) : There are a lot funny things about Leonard Nimoy singing "The Ballad of Bilbo Baggins", but I like to think the funniest thing would be Lobelia Sackville-Baggins's reaction if she heard it.

[Comments] (3) Mystery Songs: This story begins with Linnette the Psycho Elf, a friend of mine and Andy's from Prodigy, who sent Andy a tape of rare They Might Be Giants bootlegs. At the end of the tape there were three songs, possibly a demo's worth, by a non-TMBG band which used what sounds like a Hammond organ. One of the songs ("The Latest Theory") is just okay, but the other two are excellent and have stayed in my head ever since. Today I digitized them as part of my digitize-and-get-rid-of-tapes project. Here they are, with my inaccurate title guesses chosen for maximum Googlability.

No reliable information has survived about this band. I think they were local to Linnette, who lived in Massachusetts, I think, or somewhere in the East with a lot of trees, I guess because where else would an elf live? And the band may have opened for TMBG at one point. I've been low-key searching for information about this band for fifteen years, and although the amount of data I can search has grown by orders of magnitude this information is never in the pile. So I'm taking the first step and hoping someone attaches another piece eventually. And if not, you can at least enjoy the songs. Also it would be cool to hear from Linnette again if she reads this.

Disappointing update #1: Andy sez, "Wow, I'd completely forgotten about that tape, those mystery tunes, and their supplier! I think the original tape melted in my old VW."

Non-disappointing update #2: Caleb Wilson identifies the musician as Brian Dewan! The songs are from an EP put out by John Flansburgh's Hello Recording Club. Andy says, "The Internet saves the day again!"

[Comments] (5) : Sumana is back! She says, "We should sponsor a Summer of Code project where we pay young hackers to write ports of robotfindskitten. We could call it Summer of Kitten."

Who else is in my house? IT'S SETH DAVID SCHOEN.

[Comments] (6) : My least favorite science fiction story type is "space aliens act friendly but in a shocking twist they're out to screw us over." You no longer see this much in published stories, but I encounter it with some frequency because I'm still catching up and because I often take a lucky dip (love that phrase) into the old stories published at Project Gutenberg.

I am moved to write by one story in particular "PRoblem", by Alan Nourse, which I read recently. It's truly aggravating because it starts out as a fun illustration of the many, many possibilities for human/space-alien conflict that don't involve hostility. I was thinking "This is really good for 1956!" And eventually I thought "Wait, they're resolving the really good conflict with a few pages to go, could it be that..." Oh no! In a shocking twist, the aliens were out to screw us over! So I got caught by the twist, but at what cost? I was caught because the story convinced me it was too good for a cheesy twist ending.

I guess since it's in the public domain now I could just write my own ending. That won't solve the general problem though.

[Comments] (2) Pressing Issues:

Susie: did you want me to fedex your lederhosen?


Leonard: i always thought it was disturbing how there was a fisher price dog that was a regular dog, but also a dog that was a person who could drive cars etc.

[Comments] (1) : I hadn't heard about Boltzmann brains before reading this NYT article, but I knew vaguely that inflation was making cosmologists come up with strange ideas. It's a great idea, and one that deserves to be explored in fiction, but I don't understand why a Boltzmann brain is supposed to be more likely than an orderly universe containing billions of real brains. If I'm reading it right, a Boltzmann brain and a universe are both possible results of a random fluctuation in the meta-universe. But a Boltzmann brain is very complicated and a universe is just a set of initial conditions. Basically I'm a computer programmer and the instructions for a universe that will eventually contain brains seem a lot simpler (therefore more likely) than the instructions for a brain. The universe is a lot larger than the brain, but if these things are budding off from the meta-universe I don't think our concepts of size are relevant.

Maybe a Boltzmann brain with my specific mental states is more likely than a universe containing a real brain with my specific mental states? As you can tell I don't understand this very well, but I just wrote 7 TF:AR entries (only 44 to go!) so I get to babble for a while. Maybe Kris has devoted some thought to the problem; it's the sort of creepy idea that would keep him awake.

Update: This weblog entry seems to be saying that I don't understand it because I don't believe the underlying argument about the structure of the universe. If I did believe that argument I'd understand Boltzmann brains, and then immediately agree that the whole thing was ridiculous and change my mind.

[Comments] (1) Question Center Roundup: If you're like me, you probably lack the attention span neccessary to read through seventeen pages of the World Question Center finding out what eggheads have changed their minds about. You're stymied by the fact that there's no consistency whether the headline of an entry is the proposition the author changed their mind to, the proposition they changed their mind from, or just the topic on which they changed their mind.

But you're probably not enough like me to decide to go through the whole thing anyway and post a best-of, the entries that stuck in my mind as telling me something new and interesting. Which I just did. Enjoy!

: "It's Weird Al's compilation album, More Songs About Food and Food."

Cinematic Titanic: Initially I shied away from buying the Cinematic Titanic DVD because of the gargantuan 10-day backlog. Of course, I put off buying for more than 10 days because of it, but at least I was in control of not getting what I'd ordered. On the 17th I saw that the self-reported wait was down to "up to 5 days", and bought. My DVD went out the next day and it arrived today. So really the major bottleneck was the USPS getting a DVD all the way to New York from Northampton, MA. I guess there weren't fresh horses at the Hartford Inn or something.

Haven't seen it yet, but looking forward to it. Also got some AWESOME from Brendan.

: I can't get enough of the Super Golden Crisp that is John Harris's writing. Not content to write the @Play column for GameSetWatch, he also plays Peter Schickele at Gamasutra with his "Game Design Essentials" series (1 2 3 4). Man, it's better than actually playing games.

Cinematic Titanic - Reviewed!: Sumana was interested in watching the Cinematic Titanic DVD with me. I was apprehensive as Sumana has heretofore reacted towards MST3K in a way that must be described as lukewarm. We watched the first half last night and then I finished it off by myself this evening. She was happy that there was a woman in the cast, but not interested enough to stick around.

In terms of riffs it was a solid early episode of MST3K. That's not as good as it sounds; I have a very-long-term project to watch all the episodes of MST3K, and one thing I've discovered is that the early episodes aren't nearly as good as I remember. There's a lack of polish and an over-dependence on observational riffs.

Observational riffs take some aspect of the film and tie it in to some aspect of pop culture or common knowledge. This derives from the KTMA and first season episodes where there wasn't much (or any) writing done beforehand, and it was just noting who looked like who or what sounded like what. Oozing Skull example: Joel doing the Mod Squad theme song because a particular shot looks like the Mod Squad opening sequence. Classic baby-boomer Joel riff that's only funny because it comes as one of a flood; however, he does then turn it into a meta-joke, one of the funniest in the movie.

Commentary riffs do what people say MST3K does: "make fun of bad movies". It's not making fun to say that something looks like the Mod Squad opening sequence; it is making fun to say (Oozing Skull example) "Yeah, it's nice to just slowly ease into a chase scene."

The best riffs combine an observational with a commentary riff. The first one that comes to mind is from MST3K "Pod People": "Even the movie The Fog didn't have this much fog." It combines two jokes that aren't that funny ("The Fog starring Adrienne Barbeau!" and "Boy, there sure is a lot of fog in this movie") to get a result that's funny.

Here's the thing: I associate this sort of riff very strongly with Mike Nelson. It grows in prominence as Mike goes from staff writer to head writer to star of MST3K to nearly the most senior MST3K staff member to post-MST3K solo projects. Mike Nelson has been refining this technique almost nonstop for eighteen years. It's not easy to do, and he's good at it. I find the last couple seasons of MST3K dominated by bland one-note characters and a need (possibly imposed by Sci-Fi Channel brass) to jump strange new sharks every week, but the movie riffs are consistently funny. They're also extremely nasty, because most of them are this combo that takes the movie down a peg while tickling some semirelated part of your brain.

The Cinematic Titanic team don't have Mike and haven't done this sort of work since the end of MST3K. Two of them have been over at America's Funniest Home Videos, which doesn't have much call for sophisticated comedic devices. So this movie doesn't have much of what I think was the best device to come out of MST3K.

Another thing that would help would be fleshing out the riffers as characters in a fictional situation. Having a framing device really helps with suspension of disbelief, even a minimalist device like Uncle Morty's Dub Shack/The Film Crew. This is especially important because there's five people in the theater, and only Frank and Mary Jo have really distinctive voices (even UMDS only has four, and they're always doing funny voices). This will also help the problem some other reviewers noted, where the riffers were hamming it up. I suggest they're hamming it up because they don't have characters to play.

This is more an analytical review and less a "should you watch this" review, but in general I think you should watch this if you like MST3K. I'll keep buying the DVDs and will let you know once CT hits its stride. I've also ordered some Film Crew DVDs so that I can try the Mike fork of MST3K out on Sumana.

: I had some fun today flipping through My Year of Flops, reviews of commercially and critically unsuccessful movies written by The Onion AV Club's Nathan Rabin, who I thought was but was actually not the person who wrote my favorite-ever phrase from The Onion (referring to Jonah as "the Nineveh-averse prophet").

[Comments] (1) SNACK FOOD PRODUCT OR WHATEVER: Have another business trip (business trip) coming up, so once again I'm toiling in the TF:AR backlog mines. While looking up edible spoons I become enamored of the king of the patent overreach tricks: appending "or the like" to the name of your patent. "Covered food storage bowl or the like", "DISPOSABLE DIAPER OR THE LIKE", "Greeting card or the like". Here's my fave, which seems to be the patent on the Frito.


: I'm back in Florida. According to a sign I just missed Rudy Giuliani at the Ron Jon Surf Shop.

: People are buzzing online about the 50th anniversary of the Lego PATENT (sorry, LEGO patent), but I haven't seen anyone link to the patent. It's US patent #3005282 (filed six months after the Danish patent (?)), and it has some nice diagrams.

You can see a big chunk of the history of Lego by looking through patents. Toy patents from the 1950s are fun in general--big surprise!

: I always thought "redux" was a French word, but Mr. Québécois says it's not. Turns out it's Latin.

Overlooked Wargames: Napoleon at Chattanooga

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