<M <Y
Y> M>

lol i got drunk and drew this, plz caption: Yesterday I showed Alexei and his friends around the Met. I've gotten pretty good at showing people the best parts of the Met: my full tour takes 3 hours, which seems like a long time but there's 30 hours of stuff in there. Compare the MoMA, where you can see everything in 3 hours and a lot of it sucks. What I'm saying is, book your tour today.

This time around, I thought to bring a camera to take pictures of some of my favorite things. But not Damien Hirst's shark, because--this is hilarious--they have a guard whose entire job is to tell people not to take pictures of the shark. Fairly high on the list of most degrading jobs. I may put up my pictures eventually, though some of them didn't come out and they're probably not the highest-quality Internet pictures of the works in question.

But I do have the highest-quality Internet pictures of the Luo Ping/Jiang Shiquan joint "Insects, Birds, and Beasts" (mentioned earlier), and I present those to you now in all their abuse-of-whitespace glory, along with translations of the poems. One part I didn't remember from last time: "According to his inscription, Luo Ping painted this album while intoxicated." Oxen, clams, ants, monkeys, etc: enjoy.

A spider can kill a centipede
Whether it's called a centipede or any other name.
Pity those in the world's web:
Those with poison are not lenient with each other.

[Comments] (1) : Last week I wrote a bit of my novel that involved the phone system ISS astronauts use to to call their families. I presumed this system existed but couldn't find any technical details, so I made up a space-to-ground radio-based system that let me write a farcical scene. In retrospect, I guess I could have asked my boss. But anyway.

Yesterday I found two amazing HTTP resources, both probably via BoogaBooga, which make it much easier to write about the ISS: Bruce Sterling's interview with astronaut Nicole Stott, and Michael Barratt's video tour of the entire ISS, which apparently underwent spring cleaning recently because he's very proud of how tidy everything is.

In the interview, Nicole Stott says "The main tool we have for communicating with our family friends (aside from email) is an IP phone." So my space-to-ground-radio solution is officially non-canon.

I try somewhat hard not to contravene established facts, but I'm not gonna change this, because 1) it's too messy for fiction. Why do they have an IP phone but no Web access? I'm sure there's a reason, but in writing group that would get me dinged for inaccuracy. The whole reason this phone conversation is happening is because the offworld Internet gateway isn't working, so the IP phone wouldn't work either and they'd have to fall back to something like the solution I came up with. But my POV character doesn't know any of this and I only have 20 words to set up the phone call. This is the slippery slope that gives us magic movie computers that do things computers can't really do.

2) I set my 'realistic' works in alternate universes, precisely to give me some Finux-like wiggle room. In "Mallory" I reinvented the whole history of the personal computer. In the novel, the space shuttle was retired after the Columbia disaster, and there's an abandoned moon base. I've got room to play around with minor things like phone systems, without feeling the guilt I'd feel if I introduced psychic powers or faster-than-light travel.

Anyway, check out the interview and video. It's like an early Christmas gift to me--the gift of worldbuilding!

[Comments] (3) Request Weblog Music Reviews: Hey, remember back in March when I asked you for music recommendations and never followed up? Well, I did buy those albums, and after months of occasionally listening to part of one of them, today I bit the bullet. I listened to all nine albums today while working on my novel. And now, the results! In the reviews below I give my impression of the album, a mean song rating (I rated the songs in Banshee as I listened), plus the person who originally recommended the album, for convenient wrecking of friendships.

  1. Menomena, "I Am The Fun Blame Monster!": More like Meh-nomena. (Unfortunately, not more like Mahnamahna.) Songs that are too long and too slow with too few words. Playing only the last two minutes of each song gives a decent album. Mean song score: 2.111... stars. Originally recommended by Nathaniel.
  2. Moloko, "Do You Like My Tight Sweater?": Funky and with lots of random lyrics. However, also suffers from fairly serious repetition. Does a song really need to repeat its chorus twenty times? I know that some will say "yes", but they are wrong.

    This musical style seems pretty similar to Menomena, but because I really liked the first track I was willing to put up with random track intros like the creepy moaning sounds at the beginning of "Party Weirdo". Or maybe I just like female vocalists better than male vocalists. Mean song score: 2.77 stars. (This was dragged down by the many tracks less than 30 seconds long. Mean song score without them: 3.0 stars.) Originally recommended by Evan.

  3. Eux Autres, "Hell is Eux Autres": Awesome rock with male and female vocalists that remind me of (the band) Barcelona. Originally recommended by Dave (Griffith?). Mean song score: a solid 3.555... stars.
  4. Girl Talk, "Night Ripper": Brilliant, but not brilliant enough to make me enjoy super-layered hip-hop remixen. "This song has the same meter as that one" is a game that's fun to play ad hoc with boring songs, but kind of annoying when extended to album length. And when I start playing that game with your remix, you've lost me. Mean song score: 1.63 stars. Maybe I'd like it better if I caught more of the references, though I did catch a fair number of them and it rarely improved my opinion of the remix. Originally recommended by Evan.
  5. Chroma Key, "Dead Air For Radios": Originally recommended by "Kangaroo" Jack Masters, and is exactly what I imagined him listening to. Oceans of sound with drums and strange electronic sounds and found audio and reverb. I never specifically wanted a song to be over but I also never had a specific positive impression of a song, except for the final, creepy "Hell Mary". Mean song score: 3.11 stars.
  6. Dan Bern, "Dan Bern": This guy is hilarious. The Dylan impression is unnecessary, but his songwriting is great albeit heavy-handed. Mean song score: 3.18 stars due to a weak second half. Originally recommended by Mike Popovic.
  7. Veldt, "The Cause The Effect": Originally recommended by Kevan. Was not optimistic about this: I gave British Sea Power a listen because Kevan is always listening to it, and I didn't like them. I don't feel any different after having listened to this album, and listening to BSP right now, I think I like them better than Veldt. Mean song score: 2.1818... stars.
  8. Silver Jews, "The Natural Bridge": Pavement precursor album, originally recommended by the jake. I don't really like Pavement, but Jake's taste is always good. And... this sounds like a less rocking Pavement. The songwriting is excellent ("All houses dream in blueprints" is the single best line in this review corpus), but the singer puts no emotion into it. It's like hearing a zombie sing. Mean song score: 2.4 stars.
  9. The Wiyos, "Hat Trick": Good-tymey swing music that rocks harder than most of the rock music on this list. Like if the Prairie Home Companion house band had more of an edge. Mean song score: 3.38 stars. Originally recommended by Mirabai.

I recommend Eux Autres, Dan Bern, and The Wiyos to the general NYCB-reading public. Thanks to everyone who gave me suggestions, even the ones I hated. (I still love you!)

Now that I've accomplished that guilt-relieving task, I invite you to pile on additional guilt. Give me more music recommendations! Links to "best of 2009" and "best of the 2000s" lists will be accepted, though I won't buy every damn album on them.

[Comments] (3) The Christmas Bulletin Board: The apartment across the parking lot from our living room put up a big Christmas tree, but we don't have the room for a Christmas tree (a small Charlie Brown-esque one would technically fit, but it would be a pain to deal with). Last week I suggested to Sumana that we adopt the unknown neighbors' tree and mooch off their Christmas spirit.

But on Sunday I had a better idea. We have some Christmas ornaments: some heirloom glass snowflakes, some old needlepoint ornaments, and an ornament Sumana's babysitter gave her when she was a kid. And we have a bulletin board that I cleaned off when I thought we were moving, and bulletin boards are made from trees... So in the spirit of the season, I present to you our Christmas bulletin board:

Reviews of Not That Old Science Fiction Magazines: F&SF February 2009: Every story in this issue is good! In fact, almost every story is better than the Charles Coleman Finlay story ("The Texas Bake Sale", which has the best title but pales in comparison to all but Mario Milosevic's "Winding Broomcorn".) Fred Chappell's "Shadow of the Valley": great. The reprint of Jack Cady's Nebula-winning novella "The Night We Buried Road Dog": awesome. Eugene Mirabelli's "Catalog": good, and pushed beyond good by a metatextual classified ad in the classified ad section, which I don't think anyone has mentioned online before. I mention it now! It's great.

In my history of reviewing this damn stack of magazines I don't think I've ever found an issue as satisfying as I found this one. There's just not much to say. (Also I'm going to sleep soon.)

...In Popular Culture: Not sure where I found out about Tielhard-influenced SF writer George Zebrowski, and did not expect to find out (while researching this entry) that he sometimes collaborates with Pamela Sargent. Last year I picked up his novel Macrolife and a short story collection, The Monadic Universe. I read Macrolife back in May: I was hoping to like it, and it certainly had epic scope, but I found it pretty dull, so I didn't have high hopes for TMU.

But, I read through it today, because it's one of a dwindling number of books that I didn't pack into boxes, and it wasn't too bad. Most of the stories were 1970s New Wave fables of pollution and overpopulation, but the title story was very good, as was "Heathen God". But I read a lot of books, and apart from the yearly nostalgic look back (coming soon!), I don't mention them here unless I have some interesting tidbit to convey. Preferably something that's not already on the Web.

And so I do about "Assassins of Air", the most 1970s story in TMU. The protagonist steals old pollution-spewing cars and sells them for scrap, the illicit face of an economy that's going to great lengths to undo enormous environmental damage. And what does he do with his money?

"I need it now," Praeger mumbled. "I have to pay for my PLATO lessons. I gotta have it, honest."

What? That couldn't be the ahead-of-its-time PLATO time-sharing system, could it?

PLATO the sign read: PROGRAMMING LOGIC FOR AUTOMATIC TEACHING OPERATIONS. Once the facility had been free, just like chest X rays. Now students had to pay to milk the machine, twenty dollars a rap; but it was a good teach if you wanted to learn a skill.

Wow! PLATO became big in 1972 (insofar as it became big at all), and Assassins of Air was published in 1973. Zebrowski clearly had his ear to the ground. The technical details of PLATO don't exactly play a major part in the story, but it's still very impressive.

It made me wonder about the first pop culture references to the Internet or ARPANET. According to Wikipedia, the very first was either the 1969 Disney movie The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes, or a 1985 episode of Benson, the sitcom whose intro seemingly gives you permission to laugh at black people being chased by attack dogs. Google Book Search reveals an ARPANET reference in Theodore Roszak's 1983 thriller "Bugs". Not really sure where else I'd go for this information--TV Tropes has nothing--but it seems likely that there are multiple ARPANET references in early-1980s print science fiction, given how the damn thing was full of SF fans.

Hi, I'm Daisey: Came back from seeing Mike Daisey do "The Last Cargo Cult". As always, an amazing monologue. It's got 2 more days in New York and is then going to DC and Atlanta, so catch it if possible.

[Comments] (2) Request Weblog Music Reviews II: I strike again! Keep the suggestions coming. Can I have some harder rock, please?

  1. Neko Case, "Middle Cyclone". Recommended by Brendan. Gentle rock with female vocalist. Mean song score: 3.3999... stars though a couple days later nothing has really stuck in my memory.
  2. Tally Hall, "Marvin's Marvelous Mechanical Museum". Recommended by Sumana, recommended in turn by last.fm. Sumana went and found their excellent fourth-wall-ignoring music video for "Good Day". Different styles with a core of rock and close harmony. Very good stuff. Mean song score: 3.5 stars.
  3. Jukebox The Ghost, "Let Live And Let Ghosts". Recommended by Ben Heaton. Strangely enough, the first song on this album is also called "Good Day". Fun piano pop, but it's no Ben Folds. Mean song score: 3.0 stars.
  4. Camera Obscura, "Let's Get Out Of This Country". As long as I'm reviewing albums. Rachel gave this to Sumana last Christmas. Slow wavery ting-ting-ting-y pop. Not as good as I remember. Mean song score: 2.58333... stars. Maybe Sumana likes it better.

Reviews of Old Science Fiction Magazines: F&SF 01/2002: Yes, in case you needed to feel decrepit, the F&SF issue containing Gordon Van Gelder's 9/11 editorial now qualifies as "old". It's also got good stories by Gene Wolfe ("The Waif") and R. Garcia y Robertson ("Death In Love"). James Stoddard's "The Star Watch" is worth a read, and Harlan Ellison playfully gropes the reader with "Never Send To Know For Whom The Lettuce Wilts".

James Sallis' book review column gives the thumbs up to a William Tenn collection (never heard of him? he's awesome) and to Kelly Link's Stranger Things Happen. Kathi Maio's movie review column covers previously-unknown-to-me Happy Accidents, which sounds like if Primer was a romantic comedy. The Gregory Benford/Elizabeth Marlarte science column comes really close to discovering the uncanny valley, and contains this interesting bit:

We have no true idea of an upper limit on lifespan. If we eliminated all aging... eliminated diseases, and could avoid all causes of death except accident (including suicide), how long could we live? Most people, when asked, guess at ages like 120, or 150. The answer gathered from death rate tables is astonishing: close to 1500 years!

Cartoon insanity! Three of the four cartoons in this issue involve rats. There's one with rats in a maze, one with humans instead of rats in a maze, and... this one, which--what the hell? It's a dog whistle I just don't hear.

If you still don't feel old, check out the photo gallery, which has ads for defunct MMORPGs and novels you read a long time ago. Also the fourth-wall-breaking classified ad I mentioned in my review of the February 2009 issue.

[Comments] (2) What Separates Fantasy From Mainstream Fiction: From writing group: "If you have a giant animal draining the narrator's life force, the reader isn't going to think 'oh, that must be a metaphor for his alcoholism.' They're going to take it at face value."

[Comments] (4) : Sumana mentioned that the other night we went through Craiglist for entertainment. Eventually the well started running dry and we did searches in the personals for unlikely strings like "Linux". Well, "Linux" did uncover a thread in the "rants and raves section", in which a troll exhorted everyone 'DON'T USE "LINUX" SOFTWARE or BUY A LAPTOP WITH "LINUX" ON IT' because Linus Torvalds is an atheist and--stay with me here--therefore a worshipper of Satan.

There were a number of responses to this, covering almost the whole spectrum of possible responses: "Atheists don't believe that Satan exists." and "You are dumb." and my personal favorite:

First, what do you mean exactly by "Linux"? The entire OS, or just the kernel?

Torvalds created the kernel but not the operating system. The OS was written by Richard Matthew Stallman and his crew of volunteers, collectively known as the GNU project...

However, I was a bit disappointed not to see it pointed out that Bill Gates and Steve Jobs[0] also lack a God-belief, so really what choice do you have? You're screwed.

I really hope someone is archiving Craigslist for the future. It'll be a useful training corpus for turning emotionless, super-rational AIs into crazy, human-like AIs.

[0] Under the reasonable-to-me assumption that Jobs doesn't practice a theistic kind of Buddhism. Gates is clearly a "that's not an interesting question" agnostic. Fleeing to your Apple II? Not so fast--Steve Wozniak is a flat-out atheist.

[Comments] (3) Yes Sale #3: Because of the novel I only wrote one short story in 2009, but I sold it! My alt-history story "The Day Alan Turing Came Out" will be published in Raven Electrick Ink's Retro Spec anthology, helpfully classified under "fiction/sf/1980s/computers; gay rights." Publication date: I know not when.

Link Time: Holiday Special: The true meaning of Holiday is lost in the mists of time, but for now, enjoy some links.

The crummy.com nostalgia-thon begins around Christmas. Pretty much all the nostalgia will be 2009-related, because end-of-decade nostalgia sucks. Everyone's opinions are already formed and all the links are broken.

[Comments] (5) Ultimate Star Trek Nerd Speculation: I split this out of a forthcoming "best of links" post so I could discuss it in tedious detail. The link in question is a full-throated defense of Star Trek: Voyager which sparked a lively conversation between Sumana and myself back in August. Sumana has long despised Voyager, and on the whole my verdict is "not so great". But there are some excellent episodes,[0] and it did get better over time.

When Voyager was on the air, my problem with it was I didn't like the writing. As I watched it later I discovered another problem: the supporting cast is redundant. Most Trek supporting casts have an air of blandness (this is, in a nutshell, why DS9 is the best Trek series: pretty much the entire recurring cast is well-developed), but in VOY a lot of characters are just unnecessary.

Specifically, you don't need Chakotay, Tom Paris, or Harry Kim. You just need Tuvok. Whenever one of those three characters has a scene, it would be a better show if that were Tuvok's scene. You're probably thinking: "What about the episode where Paris learned a valuable lesson about blah? That wouldn't make sense with Tuvok!" Here's the thing: that episode was lousy. Pretty much every episode where these three characters act on their own initiative (as opposed to following orders) is lousy. But once those characters existed and the actors had contracts, the writers had to use them, and it watered down the plomeek soup.

Once we started talking about this, Sumana and I started trying to compress the casts of other Trek shows. The point is not to eliminate characters that we don't like--we love almost all these characters--but to try to get a similar cast with fewer characters, so that every character can be essential to almost every episode. This is a ruthless exercise in minimalism.

What's the point? Well, all these characters looked good in the series bible, but some of them didn't pan out. Some of them consistently bombed, some were underused. The thing is, you don't know ahead of time. A series bible is like a meta-screenplay. It can be implemented well or badly, and the final verdict doesn't come in until the end of the series.

This exercise is the flip side of tie-in novels and fan fiction. Instead of fleshing out the underused characters and exploring the ignored relationships, it lets us see which parts of the show were absolutely necessary to get the stories we liked. If you totally disagree with what Sumana and I like about Trek shows, you can probably express that disagreement in terms of your minimal cast.

Now on with the show. When I think Star Trek and "ruthless exercise in minimalism", I think of the original series. You can tell almost every TOS story with just Kirk, Spock, and McCoy. Everybody knows that. But you gotta have some other characters to spread the dialogue out, so let's dig deeper.

Do you need both Chekov and Sulu? Nope! TOS got along for a full season without Chekov. Do you need both Scotty and Spock? Not really! Let Spock fix the engines himself instead of telling Scotty to fix them.

Sumana took this opportunity to complain about the fact that Uhura, a chronically overlooked main character, is the only woman in TOS's main cast. I suggested making McCoy a woman. Sumana pointed out that they did exactly that in TNG, and nobody liked Dr. Pulaski. This had me stumped for a while, but now I have the solution: have Nichelle Nichols play McCoy instead of Uhura. Who would complain? Well, DeForest Kelley fans would complain, but look, now DeForest Kelley can play Khan. (Second-best solution: combine Scotty with Uhura instead of with Spock.)

Now that you see how the game works, back to VOY. As above, Tuvok subsumes Chakotay, Paris, and Kim. Apart from that, my suggestions are pretty minor. Seven of Nine can replace Kes--in fact, she did. With their powers combined, Seven and the Doctor can replace Neelix. Seven can also replace Torres, or Torres and the Doctor combined can replace Seven. But honestly I'd be perfectly happy with the Tuvok thing. You can tell most good VOY stories with Janeway, Tuvok, and Seven, but it's a stretch.

DS9 did an amazing job of developing a huge cast, so objectively speaking it doesn't need this exercise, but that's what makes it such a ruthless exercise. No one is spared! The TNG imports are out: Kira can do O'Brien's job, and Odo can do Worf's. Dax and Bashir can be combined. You still need Quark, but he can be a recurring character, like Rom, instead of a marquee character.

Sumana and I had a lot of fun messing with TNG, because it's the Trek we both grew up with. And TNG shows that major characters can just leave a show. The show didn't drastically change when Tasha Yar died, when Beverly Crusher left (or when she came back), or when Wesley Crusher left.

It's not much of an exaggeration to say you can tell all the interesting TNG stories with just Picard and Data. But you can't run the day-to-day business of Star Trek with just two characters, so let's add some more.

I think we have to leave Worf in place, especially since we got rid of him on DS9. The big question here is what to do with Riker, Troi, and Crusher, TNG's equivalents of Chakotay, Paris, and Kim. The situation's better than VOY because there's about 1.5 interesting characters between the three of them--but how to arrange them? The obvious thing to do is combine the two medical types, but the resulting character isn't any more interesting than Troi alone.

That's why we prefer to merge Troi with Riker and create a real XO character, someone responsible for mediating between the captain and crew. Either Marina Sirtis or Jonathan Frakes could play this character well. With this character you can play up Picard's reserve, make him a little less of a nice guy. If Picard is the captain everybody admires but nobody positively likes, this Troi-Riker character becomes the most interesting character on the show! Picard's more interesting, too. Combining characters doesn't just tighten up the show, it creates new possibilities.

You don't need Geordi LaForge when you have Data. If you really want to keep him (I do, he's my favorite TNG character), have him replace Crusher, but I don't think TNG needs a main-character doctor at all. Crusher was incredibly underused; have recurring guest stars do the sickbay scenes.

OK, one more. I haven't been messing with the commanders, because if you change the commander character you change the whole tone of the show.[1] But on ENT, Captain Archer isn't the strongest character: Tucker is. You can tell almost every good ENT story with Tucker, T'Pol, and Phlox[2]. You'll need an Archer+Reed+Mayweather+Sato character to spread out the dialogue, but with those four you're good to go. A Trek show where half the command staff are aliens would be really interesting, and quite appropriate for the ENT era.

[0] "Demon" and "Course: Oblivion" are among my favorite hours of Trek. For Sumana-like skeptics, some more excellent VOY off the top of my head: the "Equinox" two-parter (which shows what would have happened if VOY had been the Battlestar Galactica reboot), "Body and Soul", "Message in a Bottle". VOY also had some excellent stories about storytelling (eg. "Muse" and "Living Witness"), something that TNG tried occasionally but it never worked. DS9 fans especially should watch "Message in a Bottle" for its view into the Dominion War.

[1] Here's the kind of thing I come up with when I mess with the commanders. The DS9 pilot focuses on the great Federation diplomat Curzon Dax (Terry Farrell), who's been posted to the Bajoran system following the discovery of a strategically significant wormhole. Halfway through the pilot, Curzon is assassinated by Bajoran extremists trying to disrupt an ancient prophecy. The Dax symbiont must be saved at any cost, but the only Trill within range is Ezri Tigan (Avery Brooks), the troubled first officer of a nearby Federation starship. Yes, I said it. Avery Brooks plays Ezri Dax as the main character of DS9.

[2] Yeah, Phlox. He did kill a whole species that one time, but take him away and you no longer have ENT. Phlox's strength as a character comes from the fact that, by human standards, he's insaaaaane. IMO one of the most realistic depictions of a "human-like" alien in Trek. (Sumana asked me to add this disclaimer: "We cannot be sure how realistic this depiction is, because hypotheses about the behavior of imaginary aliens cannot be tested.")

Glasstravaganza!: We went to Beth's house tonight and talked about many things, including Phillip Glass. It was a Glasstravaganza, and you can take part as well, by enjoying these two bits of Phillip Glass fan art, as it were.

Beth mentioned that she'd read a play called "Phillip Glass Buys a Loaf of Bread" but never seen it. The play is so short that you can just watch an online video of the whole thing, and that's what we did.

Second, it's time for another Music Piracy Minute! One of Jake Berendes's lesser-known pieces, "Sorry State of Affairs", is a Phillip Glass tribute that's also a remix of the "Mr. Belvedere" theme song. Download that sucker now! Plus, for some reason this song always reminds me of Christmas music, so you get a festive two-for-one.

Totally unrelated picture: a surprisingly sweet ad found in this otherwise cynical grouping.

Pictures of 2009: In the spirit of year-end and decade-end housecleaning, I've gone through all the pictures I took in 2009 and made the interesting ones into photo galleries. I'll be sprinkling them into NYCB as the year winds down and I find I don't have anything written for the day. As happened today. So instead of words, enjoy pictures: Sumana's great visit to the London Transit Museum, and my much less interesting visit to Barcelona for the Canonical all-hands meeting.

Games That End With Your Suicide: Indie game trend of the year? I played four games in 2009 that end with the PC committing suicide or that won't end until the player kills the PC. Not to be all SPOILERy about it, but they were Every Day the Same Dream, Small Worlds, Don't Look Back, and Fathom[0]. These are just the (relatively) big names, the ones I saw on Play this Thing or Waxy. 2008's Karoshi Suicide Salaryman treated the topic lightly by making suicide a game mechanic, but in 2009 it was serious art.

Objectively speaking, this ending sucks. The only time I found it satisfying was in "Don't Look Back", which only has a suicide in the most technical sense. (I liked "Small Worlds" a lot, but thought the ending was a cop-out.) That's a 25% success rate, much worse than well-established indie game features like procedural generation and zombies.

I can see the attraction from an artistic standpoint: every PC death in a game is in some sense a suicide, because you could have done something different in-game, or not played the game at all. And you gotta end your game somehow, preferably in a way that separates your game from all the commercial projects. But the end of a game is always a cut scene, a place where interaction stops. And deciding what to put in a cut scene isn't a game-y choice. So I don't think you're saying much about games when you do this; you're just associating your game with a certain kind of film.

The suicide game is a subgenre of games that explore the meaning of death, or the relationship between the PC who just died and the PC you're controlling now. Death in real life is horrible, permanent, and it comes for everyone; in games it's a minor setback that can theoretically be avoided altogether. In 2008's Cursor*10, the PC's inevitable death and the player's inevitable trying again was a fun game mechanic. In 2009 we have Queens, Free Will: The Game, Lose/Lose, and a fourth game I can't remember the name of. It was a space shooter, like Lose/Lose, and it recorded your playthroughs and created ghosts, racing-game style, which you had to fight on subsequent playthroughs. (Something like that; I admit I didn't play it.) This was cool because the PC's death was a real mechanic that affected the next playthrough; it was the opposite of Cursor*10.[1]

My gaming wish for 2010: a game that looks like it's going to end with the PC's suicide, but instead at the crucial moment recreates the "WOW! YOU LOSE!" cutscene from "Bokosuka Wars". 'Cause that's how this game-ending technique makes me feel.

[0] This one's arguable, but "white light gets brighter and brighter until it obscures the entire screen, and that's the end" is common film shorthand for death. What's not arguable is that this ending sucks.

I also did not play, but watched a video of someone playing the impossibly hard platformer Super Ear Man Bros., another game that won't end until you kill the PC. This ending also sucks, but at least it's funny.

[1] I vaguely remember a sassy "ha, you can only play this game once because now the PC is dead" game from the 1990s, but I think it had no existence outside my own head. Good thing, too. There's also the infamous SMB1 hack "Air", where at one point you have to kill yourself to warp to an otherwise inaccessible checkpoint. I can't think of other predecessors, but I'm sure they're there.

Utah/Socrates: Yesterday I mentioned that I had a bunch of pictures from 2009 to show you over what's left of the year. Today I decided that I should also take care of a bunch of cool pictures I took in 2008 and never put online. That way I'll come out of the year with a smaller backlog.

I should be able to show you two galleries most days until the end of the year. Today's cute 2009 gallery comes from our November trip to Utah to see my niece and nephew. The 2008 gallery comes from our much shorter journey to the Socrates Sculpture Park, land of outdoor installation art. It's warm in those pictures! How did that happen? Oh yeah, the past.

[Comments] (3) Today's Pictures: The Pacific Northwest: Let's grab our stereotypical outfits and go on a scenic trip. First, it's my 2008 visit to Portland, where I saw Brendan, Kara, and a lot of moss. And a terrifying hypnocow. And Riana! And a donut shaped like a person.

Second, it's a Roy's Postcards supplemental gallery. In 1986 my dad went to the World's Fair in Vancouver without taking me or giving a good reason why I couldn't come. (You may have noticed some residual bitterness on my part.) He brought back a "passport" stamped by the World's Fair pavilions of countries all over the world. But unlike the boring stamps in real passports, these stamps were daring pieces of 1980s graphic design. Some of them, anyway. Let Norway show you how it's done.

Today's Pictures: Special "War on Life Day" Edition: I know what you want for Christmas: consumer electronics! That's why today's 2009 gallery is Computer Swag, sequel to Old Linux Schwag (it seems I'm not sure how that word is spelled) and Roy Richardson's Computer Buttons. Enjoy the shirts, pens, buttons, and random crap I've accumulated during my career in the computer industry. Includes a famous poster you may have forgotten about, which I found in pretty bad condition while wrapping posters up for the aborted move.

In the tradition of mixing awesome and boring Christmas presents, today's 2008 gallery is the consumer electronics equivalent of tube socks: cassette tapes! Not the generic tapes from the 1990s, but old cassette tapes, from the 70s and early 80s, when cassette tapes had brand names like "Sears". Tapes with awesome slipcases and weird slipcase linings. How do you know it's the 70s? Two-tone cassette tape. Oh yeah.

Today's Pictures: Special "The Regift that Keeps on Reviging" Edition: Yes, it's time to put online pictures that are already online. Specifically, pictures from my 2008 visit to the Computer History Museum with Kevin and Beril, Andrew and Claudia, and friends; photos which I uploaded to Flickr about a year ago. But now they're on crummy.com, where they belong.

There are a few new photos at the end of the gallery, which Beril took and sent to me. But the big draw is all those awesome old computers, many of which sent sent Kevin into a fit of murderous rage. Enjoy it again--it's been a year, do you really remember that there was a computer called the Gandalf? Looking at these pictures the day after Christmas should become a damn tradition.

Today's 2009 gallery is the trip I took with Alexei to the Met earlier this month. You already saw my photos of "Insects, Birds, and Beasts", but now witness my second attempt to get decent-quality photos of all my most coveted pieces in the Met. (My first attempt will be showing up later this week as a 2008 gallery.) Highlights of the highlights: Jackson Pollock's "Autumn Rhythm" (I also took closeups), three of Florine Stettheimer's four crazy 1920s consumerism-satire/love NYC paintings[0], and a shot of an ink cake. (More shots of ink cakes coming later this week, but they're not as well-lit as this one. But this one is kind of blurry, so oh well.) And, of course, a photo of me with "Piece of Cake". If only there were a photorealistic ink drawing called "Piece of Ink Cake", it would be the ultimate Met exhibit.

[0] I can't find where the fourth one is; I'm assuming private collection.

Year-End Cleanup Audio Bonus #1: More Scribbles, More Troubles : Before posting The Trouble With Scribbles I cut out a couple minutes due to the then-active embargo on public discussion of IF Competition entries. Now that the competition is over and Adam's "Earl Grey" has taken 5th place, you can legitimately hear me and Adam compare "Scribblenauts" and "Earl Grey".

[Comments] (1) Today's Pictures: Special "Not A Special Edition" edition: Today's theme is New York walks. From 2009 (in fact, from Friday), I take Sumana to Corona Park, former garbage dump, site of two World's Fairs, now the world's most desolate park. Well, I always seem to go in the winter on major holidays, but it suffers from serious institutional neglect as well. For instance, the city built a fancy new theater building next to the iconic Pavilion and Towers, but they forgot to fix the Pavilion and Towers themselves! They're unsafe and fenced off. I guess you can't tear them down and it's too expensive to rebuild them, so they just stay there, rusting. It's a great park precisely because of its clear history of decline, but I wouldn't complain if the city decided to restore it to its World's Fair glory.

In a busier part of New York, it's a photo record of Sumana and her sister walking down Broadway the entire length of Manhattan, back in 2008. Caution: includes Charles in Charge novelization.

Reviews of Old Science Fction Magazines: Analog 1986/09: Sick of these reviews? I've only got ten magazines left! Which means about another year of this feature. Oh well! Enjoy some low-quality ad photos.

This issue contains Stanley Schmidt's editorial response to the Challenger disaster, as well as letters from readers dealing with the same topic. Schmidt references a Harry Stine column from a 1983 Analog, "The Sky is Going to Fall", which discussed the public's likely reaction to a Shuttle disaster. It's not pretty. I thought I would write about this in some detail but it's too depressing and bloodless to synthesize peoples' raw reactions twenty years afterwards.

Schmidt mentions Barbara Morgan, Christa McAuliffe's backup for the Teacher in Space program, and hopes she'll be headed into space soon. Morgan did eventually fly a Shuttle mission, but not until 2007 and not as part of the Teacher in Space program.

OK, on to the stories. The best one is Vernor Vinge's "The Barbarian Princess", even though it's a story about people who run a science fiction magazine. It doesn't get as metafictional as I'd feared, and it gave the cover artist an excuse to do the kind of cover you never thought you'd see on Analog. Shelley Frier's "Plagiartech" was also very entertaining, but I felt like it wanted me to sympathize with the incredibly unsympathetic protagonist.

Arthur C. Clarke invents steampunk with his fake essay "The Steam-Powered Word Processor: A Forgotten Epic of Victorian Engineering". No kidding. Fully-formed steampunk, complete with Charles Babbage obsession, in 1986.

Halfway through Robert C. Murray's "The Immortal Smythe" I thought to myself: "this story is going to end with a terrible pun." In fact, the story ended with terrible fake science and then a terrible pun. Insult to injury.

Eric Vinicoff's "Haiku for an Asteroid Scout" is a pretty good story and has some original future-tech, but you'll have to fight your way through portmanteau words like "neomarble", "robomech", "holotank", and "pubtrans". (And "maglev", which only became a real word because of repetition in stories like this--I'm glad holotanks aren't practical, or we'd have them too.) The story takes place in Space Feudal Japan, so be prepared to do battle with corporate feudal lords, a restaurant called "Mount Fuji", seppuku, "synthetic ricepaper" (I would have written "paper"), and "the most expensive geisha house in P-Tokyo!" Geisha house?! What happened to love hotels and hookers? Also, the haiku sucked. You know what, screw it! I'm writing my own Space Japan story! With love hotels, and hookers!

Charles R. Pellegrino and James R. Powell write a check they'll never be able to cash with the title of their nonfiction article, "Making Star Trek Real". There a conversation in the letters section about whether Analog nonfiction articles assume too high or too low a level of technical knowledge. This issue's articles split the difference, by explaining really complicated things like K-mesons at the same level of detail used for fairly simple things like the inverse square law.

Elizabeth Moon's "Sweet Dreams, Sweet Nothings" is memorable only for its "notebook-sized computer with a flip-up screen" and some (biological) virus talk that starts out interesting but rapidly descends into implausibility. Harry Turtledove's "Though the Heavens Fall" is a sequel to his earlier, bad "And So To Bed", published eight months earlier, and it's worse than the original. Like a lot of alt-history it tries to be a cute remix of real history, as though history is a game of solitaire where you can play the cards in any order but the game always plays pretty much the same (maybe Turtledove pioneered this technique, I don't know much about alt-history). But it's not cute! I hate it! It doesn't help that "Heavens" is a very predictable story and in terrible taste.

Conflict of interest watch: the game column mentions but does not review the post-apocalyptic RPG Twilight 2000 (not affiliated with Twilight), which advertised heavily in Analog: there's been an ad for T2K in almost every issue I've read. Also, "Plagiartech" author Shelly Frier was Analog's associate editor at the time.

When I write these reviews I get a lot of people asking me "What kind of exposition have you found to be the clumsiest?" Actually, I am lying. No one asks me that. But I do have an answer if anyone ever does ask: the clumsiest exposition is that used to establish the timeframe of the story. Here's some dialogue spoken by the psychiatrist of the eponymous "Immortal Smythe":

Now Dr. Smythe. Surely you don't believe you have been resurrected on three occasions? This may be 2301, but medical science, while considered somewhat above the quackery state, cannot perform the ultimate Lazarus technique and restore the dead to the living.

Man, if my shrink talked like that I'd find another shrink. And here's a bit from "Though the Heavens Fall", which also gives you a picture of the cute history-remixing:

"I don't know," Gillen said judiciously. "When the Conscript Fathers wrote the Articles of Independence after we broke from England in '38, they gave us two censors to keep the power of the executive from growing too strong, as it had in the person of the king."


[Comments] (2) Nostalgiathon 2009: Best of Links January-June: Sorry to post so much stuff today, but I realized I'd better start putting up the end-of-year link posts, or else I might have to post some of them next year, which doesn't make any sense. Because I spent so much time on the novel, I've generally got less 2009 stuff than 2008 stuff: fewer new weblogs subscribed to, fewer links gathered, fewer photos taken. So here we go with links (culled from my and Sumana's shared del.icio.us feed) from the first half of 2009.

Today's Pictures: From 2009, Sumana's March trip to England. Mostly nice stereotypical pictures of Cambridge punting, but also has nice shots of the two Rachels.

And from 2008, the election night party at Professor Biella Coleman's place. A short gallery, but it includes a Kermit the Frog cookie cutter and Karl Fogel's dad.

[Comments] (1) Nostalgiathon 2009: Best of Links July-December:

Today's Pictures: Museum Showdown: No 2009 gallery today. Instead, it's a transatlantic museum showdown. In which museum was I able to take more cool pictures in 2008, the British Museum or the Metropolitan Museum of Art? Which museum-filling technique yields better artifacts: imperialist exploitation or robber-baron bequests? Whose cuisine will reign supreme?


I think I prefer the British Museum set, but that's because I see most of the best things in the Met set (the hilarious Book of the Dead translations, the ink cakes) every few months. Highlights: the Japan-Manchukuo Fraternity Board Game and Pieter van Laer's "Magic Scene with Self-portrait", which I'm glad I photographed in 2008 because I'm pretty sure the Met rotated it back into long-term storage.

There's at least one set of sculptures split between the museums: look in the background here and then here.

Nostalgiathon 2009: Best of Weblogs: Gaze with me into the mists of OPML... these are the weblogs I'm happiest I subscribed to in 2009. Again, not as many as in 2008.

Today's Pictures: Miscellaneous: An end-of-years extravaganza of miscellaneous one-off photos and sets too short to have their own galleries.

2009 includes Mission Accomplished, Zardoz Wines, TMBG, and Beth smashing a hard drive.

2008 includes L.H.O.O.Q., skeptical Sumana, DVD Commentary, and smug Adam Parrish.

Nostalgiathon 2009: Best of Crummy: In 2009 I wrote a lot of stuff. Most of that was novel-related (about 50k usable words so far!), but there was also a lot that I could show you immediately, and did. Here's the Crummy features and weblog entries that make me feel good about how I spent my time in 2009.

(I was planning to post the big "Best of Multimedia" entry tonight, but I don't have time to finish it, so hopefully that will come tomorrow.)

[Comments] (3) Audio Bonus #2: The International Year of Natural Fibres: Way back in January, our friend Martin pointed out that the UN had designated 2009 as the International Year of Natural Fibres. Sumana and I immediately spent an hour or so coming up with an anthem for the International Year of Natural Fibres. Which we never recorded.

Of course, what with projects like Keep the Fleece (creators of the world's longest scarf), the International Year of Natural Fibres didn't need any help from us. But we thought it would be a shame to let the International Year of Natural Fibres totally pass us by, so before natural fibres are crushed by the International Year of Biodiversity, enjoy the sixth crummy.com non-podcast podcast: Sumana and I giving our rendition of the INYoNF anthem.

Today's Pictures: Best-Of: Yes, it's time to get totally consumed in nostalgia, with a bunch of reruns from old picture galleries. There are a couple new pictures in each gallery, from sets like Sumana's graduation that I didn't include in the "misc" gallery.

2008 gallery features Bird, Mother 3, and Godzilla.

2009 gallery features an empty room, the unholy trinity, and many friends.

Nostalgiathon 2009: Best of Multimedia: Welcome to this gala end-of-end-of-year event. First off, it's a special presentation of The year in Internet video:

Film: I don't watch a lot of movies. I think I only went to the theater four times in 2009: to see "Star Trek", "Moon", "My Winnipeg", and "Ponyo". Most of the time Sumana and I watch movies at home. That said, the Crummy.com Movie of the Year is "University of Laughs", a 2004 Japanese movie that I've been looking for since 2005. (We eventually imported it from Yes Asia for an exorbitant sum.) It's an awesome film. Like, imagine "The Five Obstructions", except instead of Lars von Trier playing a funny prank on you, it's a police censor and your livelihood is on the line. And the film is hilarious. We saw it with Lucian and couldn't stop laughing. Between this movie and "Game Center CX", I'm coming to appreciate how dependent is Japanese humor on body language. Truly, this is the real secret of manzai.

Runner-up: the thematically similar "The Lives of Others", which won a lot of awards and you probably don't need me telling you how great it is. If for some reason you demand that I give the 2009 award to a film released in 2009, then I give it to "Moon", despite its huge plot holes.

Television: After Battlestar Galactica ended in disaster, I watched only one TV show: the ultimate Sumana/Leonard guilty pleasure, USA Network's Psych. The show's silliness continually breaks the fourth wall and the old dictum how "if it ain't on the page, it ain't on the stage". The "Tonight's Episode" episode titles are the clear spray-on preservative that gives the icing on the cake its gloss.

Food: Is food a "medium"? I say yes, and give appreciation for three New York restaurants that started in 2009 (or very late 2008): Vesta and Bare Burger here in Astoria, and Dos Toros (Mission-style taqueria!) near Union Square.

Books: I read 88 books in 2009 if you count the one I created, which I'm going to because that means I read exactly twice as many books as in 2008. I made a special effort to read more books this year, and it definitely succeeded. The Crummy.com Book of the Year is "Mason & Dixon" by Thomas Pynchon. Reread of the Year: my mother's copy of Stephen Jay Gould's "Bully for Brontosaurus", the book that originally introduced me to evolutionary theory (a ringer, it was practically my only reread of the year). "The Complete Dying Earth" was amazingly fun, as mentioned earlier. I also had a really good time with two espionage books: "Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy" and "The Zimmerman Telegram".

I can recommend two books from 2009 that you've never heard of. First, "Monday Begins on Saturday" by the Strugatsky brothers, obtained from Susan McCarthy. Second, "A Time of Gifts" by Patrick Leigh Fermor, which sat on my wishlist for 4 years after I heard about it on Crooked Timber. It's a book where I start every tenth paragraph thinking "This is it, the purplest prose ever, there's no way Fermor can pull out of this nosedive!" and by the end of the paragraph I'm like "Good show, old chap! Pip-pip, what?"

Worst book that I read all the way through in 2009: Reward for Retief, one of Keith Laumer's last novels. (My LibraryThing review: "Man, what a train wreck. Give us more Groaci!") I read it all the way through because I'm a Retief completist and because I admired Laumer for continuing to write after his stroke. Objectively speaking, he should have stopped in the mid-80s, but I'm sure he needed the money. Keeping a midlist author on your publication rolls as he passes his prime is not the most efficient method of wealth transfer, but it's a time-honored one.

I read about 150 individual short stories (ie. not part of collections), from magazines, writing group, and the TE slush pile. There is no Crummy.com Short Fiction of the Year this year because I recuse myself for conflict of interest. Also I can't really think of one, though you can't go wrong with Jack Cady's "The Night We Buried Road Dog".

Video games: I was talking about this with Kirk. Here's the thing. When I read a book, even a book I don't like, I learn something about writing. But when I play a video game, even a good game, I don't usually learn much about game design. There's probably fifty games I spent at least an hour playing in 2009, but I can only think of one that was both as stylistically interesting and as viscerally enjoyable as, say, "A Time of Gifts".

People who love movies might make a similar distinction. There are really interesting movies, there are really enjoyable movies, and every once in a while there's a movie with crossover appeal, the first movie to tell a really fun story using some previously introduced innovation. I think comparing video games and movies is a sucker's game so that's as far as I'm going to take this analogy.

When I think of 2009 games that are pure fun I think of a lot of entries in series: the "Metal Slug" anthology I picked up, "New Super Mario Bros. Wii" in multiplayer, Mega Man 9, the DS Grand Theft Auto game (I really love sandbox games, but most 3D first-person games make me nauseous, so I liked having a modern GTA I could physically play). All of these games combine a close allegiance to some longstanding series with solid implementation and attention to detail. I also think of "Retro Game Challenge" and my "Cave Story" replay, games that are just a collection of well-executed callbacks to older games.

When I think of games I that have a lot of innovation I think of "Scribblenauts", an amazingly creative game that has huge, huge conceptual and implementation problems. I think of "Barkley: Shut Up and Jam: Gaiden", a game that presents a deadpan sarcasm I can't remember seeing outside of interactive fiction, but objectively speaking not a game I want to play all the way through. I think of "Treasure World", a game that I was obsessed with for a couple weeks but which is not technically a game at all.

"Spelunky" is the only game I played in 2009 that I would consider fully successful in both enjoyment and innovation. It took the least popular aspects of roguelike games (permadeath and extreme dependence on randomness) and made them crowd-pleasers by incorporating them into a preexisting genre (super-difficult platformer), introducing roguelike replayability to people who hate ASCII graphics and turn-based keyboard controls.

The fact that I'm describing Spelunky in terms of other games and genres implies that it's not all that innovative. But creativity is almost always the combination of two preexisting things. The ideas in this year's innovative titles will be synthesized into 2011's crossover hits which will lead into 2015's soulless cash-cows.

OK, time to start work on the New Year's Eve party. Happy new year!

<M <Y
Y> M>


Unless otherwise noted, all content licensed by Leonard Richardson
under a Creative Commons License.