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[Comments] (3) Excess Capacity: Sooo close to having a completed draft of this novel. Writing it has been a humbling experience, as I often find myself criticizing someone else's work when I suddenly perceive the same flaw in myself.

For instance, recently people in my feed reader started writing about Lost. This has happened on and off for a few years and I always tuned it out, but this time the chatter didn't go away, and soon enough I learned that the series finale was approaching. Now, I don't own a TV, since I have more important things to--no, just kidding. I do own a TV, and I even watch a couple shows. But I've only seen one episode of Lost (the Allison Janney one, which I saw in Utah with Susanna and John).

When the show started, I didn't watch because it sounded like a boring soap opera. Over the years I heard faraway rumors of fantastic and science fictional elements being added to the show's world, but it never really stuck with me. When I saw JJ Abrams do something nerdy like guest-edit an issue of Wired or get hired to direct the Star Trek reboot, I'd think: wow, what a weird choice, like: "You know who would be great for this? The guy who created House, M.D.! He's busy? Okay, we'll settle for Lost!"

But recently things heated up. The tor.com weblog started doing a Lost roundtable every week, and a lot of people whose weblogs I read turned out to be Lost fans who'd simply been waiting until the end was in sight to post about it. Within the space of a couple weeks, the show's cred was hugely enhanced in my eyes. The Allison Janney episode was lackluster, but every show has bad episodes. I found myself eager to vicariously experience everyone's reaction to the finale.

And then the finale happened and the excited people in my feed reader became really disappointed. Not Battlestar Galactica disappointed, but pretty bad. Disappointed because almost none of the fantastic or science fictional elements introduced into the show had amounted to a hill of magic nanobeans. In terms of closure, it could have just been a regular soap opera.

Except, wait, why am I saying "soap opera"? That's kind of a disparaging term, but it's exactly how I was thinking of my novel: a story about more-or-less ordinary people who have weird interrelationships and complicated backstories. And achieving any kind of closure in a soap opera is nothing to sneeze at, since soap operas, like life, are not designed with stopping points.

But given that a show is gonna end, generally better to pay off any outstanding plot-loans. I went to a fan wiki to check out these fantastical elements that didn't participate in the closure. Honestly, I was blown away. There is some great, evocative stuff here, especially in the DHARMA Initiative region. I was sold on the cheesy orientation films alone. If you dig deeper into the worldbuilding it decoheres, the same way the Star Trek movie makes less sense the more you think about it, but that's television SF for you. The worldbuilding was entertaining enough to get me to spend an hour browsing a fan wiki for a show I've only seen once.

But yeah, what happened to this stuff? In fantastic fiction the constructed world is a character. In Lost it's the most interesting character by far. And that character didn't get any closure. If you're Stanislaw Lem you can get away with this--I don't have a pressing need to know what "really" happened on the Lost-esque planet in "Eden". But you're not Stanislaw Lem.

But I can't stop there anymore, because I now see the same flaw in myself. My novel contains elements that advance characterization or plot within the context of a specific chapter, but which someone looking at a wiki page afterwards might say "Why didn't that go anywhere?" Well, it didn't go anywhere because it was a flashlight designed to illuminate something else. That's just a technique I use to avoid infodumps. But what if this whole time you thought the flashlight was a gun I'd carefully placed on the mantelpiece?

I'm pretty happy with the ending I'm writing. It won't be perfect, but I'll get better with practice. I hope I'll stay happy with it, but the more I complain about other peoples' work, the more problems I see in my own. Moral: stop complaining??

: Eye doctor, trying to jam something into my eye: "C'mon, keep your eye open, it's not a puff." That puff has a hell of a bad reputation!

Update: I was sitting in the office wondering if anyone actually calls doctors "Doc", and then someone walked by and said "Hey, Doc." So, there are people who do that.

[Comments] (2) : I'm mesmerized by this Dali-esque landscape of inappropriately scaled Honeywell products from the 1950s.

Man Bites Dog: Now Fun!: Kevan and Holly are here! They brought Sumana and me some games as gifts, including Man Bites Dog, a deck of cards with common New York Post-style headline words like "FEDS", "CROOKED", and "BLASTS". There are also some rules for a game, but upon reading the rules we came to the same conclusion as Board Game Geek reviewers ("it is totally about luck", mean rating 4.74 out of 10). Instead of playing, we started experimenting to try to make a more fun game using the same cards. Here's what we eventually came up with.

Everyone gets five cards, and when you play a card you draw back up to five. Everyone scans their hand looking for a word that can be a headline all by itself, like "HERO" or "TERROR". If you've got one, play it in the center of the board. If no one has one, exchange cards until someone does.

Your goal is to make magic squares of headlines: an NxN grid of headlines that can be read either horizontally or vertically. You start off with a 1x1 magic square:


Now play proceeds clockwise from whoever played the first card. Play three additional cards around the first one to make a 2x2 magic square:


Now you've got four front-page Post headlines: "HERO COP", about a heroic cop, "DRUGS CRAZY", about someone who really likes drugs, "HERO DRUGS", about new lifesaving drugs, and "COP CRAZY", which might be about a crazy cop or about someone who's crazy for cops.

Now do it again. Build around two of the edges to make a 3x3 magic square. You're free to play a card on top of a card already played if you really need to get rid of a problematic word, but in general you should just fill in the two new edges. Here's a 3x3 square I made up--you can see there are now nine headlines.


That's "Attacks Rare: Czar", clearly some kind of Homeland Security thing. I don't recommend playing to ensure the diagonals also work, but you can often find something fun by reading them, like "INDICTED DRUGS CZAR" in this case.

Fill in another two edges to get a 4x4 magic square, and then another two to get a 5x5 square. You've won! Laugh and learn. There is no way and no reason to keep score.

The fun of newspaper headlines, as longtime readers of either this weblog or Language Log know, stems from the fact that they've given up the short words that let you figure out what the longer words mean. In a crossword puzzle, a letter can be used in two different words. By making a crossword puzzle out of headline words, a word can be in two different headlines and pleasingly mean different things each time.

We tried a number of crossword variations, but we liked the magic square version the best. At every stage you end up with valid headlines, and the headlines grow over the course of the game, from "HERO" to "HERO COP" to "INDICTED HERO COP" to "INDICTED HERO COP NAKED" to "INDICTED HERO COP NAKED AGAIN". At the end you have a compact mass of silliness.

So, that's our variant. You can make your own MBD deck by picking nouns and verbs from actual headlines, a process that if automated would keep the game fresh and topical. I would also really like to see a magic square made from four or five real headlines.

[Comments] (8) 100% Completion: The first draft of my novel is complete! At 91,500 words, it's five times longer than the longest fiction I'd written up to this point. Now that I've finished a draft, I can tell you the name of the story without feeling like that'll jinx it: it's called Constellation Games.

ACK!: Sumana showed me ACK!, a fun web comic that brings the Amar Chitra Katha drawing style into the present day. "Yo, I was huge in the Mahabharata!" It's like a Sumana-friendly "Space Ghost: Coast to Coast". Humor value for those who haven't read ACK comics? TOTALLY UNKNOWN.

The Joy of Being Sick:

Leonard: [burp]
Sumana: Wow, that sounded like Skype booting up.

[Comments] (5) Roy's Postcards Anniversary: A year ago on Father's Day I launched Roy's Postcards, a project to transcribe and comment on the >1000 postcards in my late father's collection. This weekend I'm sick, for the first time in quite a while, and it turns out to be the perfect mental state to type up transcriptions and do menial tasks in the GIMP. So I topped up the backlog with another 100 postcards. And since today is Father's Day, you get an AWESOME BONUS POSTCARD: Hobbiton in Northern California!

Stats update: there are now almost 400 postcards in the Roy's Postcards archive, 250 in the backlog, and 550 still to be typed up. Beyond that, since starting this project Susanna sent me 175 postcards our father sent her, and in a masterful display of parental non-favoritism, I've got almost exactly the same number of postcards for Rachel. With my sisters' postcards added in, this project can go on a whole year longer than I originally planned. So it's like I'm launching it today!

[Comments] (1) How To Recognize Different Types of Web Service From Quite A Long Way Away: As I emerge from the swamp of sickness, I bring you free stuff on the Internet. Today, it's a record of one of the two talks I gave at TriPZUG back in April when I went to North Carolina for WWW2010. The other talk, and my WWW2010 talk itself, will be forthcoming.

This talk is a quick exegesis of the "Richardson Maturity Model" for web services. If you want to get into it you can see the slides and hear the (slightly edited) recording. If you just want the stuff from my talk that's not in other, similar, discussions, here it is:

First, a clarification: some people think the Richardson Maturity Model is named after me, but that would violate Stigler's Law of Eponymy. It's actually named after my father.

Second: for this talk I identified three really simple questions you can ask to determine where a web service sits on the RMM:

  1. Is there more than one URI?
  2. Do URIs designate specific things? (As opposed to invoking actions.)
  3. Are there any links?

Third, something I mention on the main talk page but that I'd like to give more exposure here and get feedback on. After the talk I got dinged by a friend for not giving a good enough response to this question in the Q&A:

"We've been pounded with REST for the past ten years, and no one has come up with a standard besides 'HTML' or 'XML', ad nauseum. Do you see any resolution to that coming?"

What I said in response to that question was technically accurate, but I didn't provide any advice. Here's my advice. You want a good default choice that can settle arguments and save you from having to make all the design decisions yourself? There is a standard: AtomPub. Take whatever you're trying to do and make it fit the AtomPub paradigm. Not only will your design be RESTful, your service will fit into a preexisting ecosystem.

If you think AtomPub won't work with what you're trying to do, you're probably wrong. Google, for instance, publishes web services for many very different applications (spreadsheet, calendar, map, etc. — basically anything that gets pluralized and has "Google" slapped on the front), and they're all based on AtomPub. You might find a better fit with your problem space if you did a RESTful design from scratch, but that's the nature of standards.


The Network Is The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes: In my quest for the pop culture origins of the Internet, I bought a used copy of the 1969 Disney movie The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes, starring Kurt Russell. Why? Basically because Wikipedia listed it under "The ARPANET in film and other media". This got me pretty excited.

It's a little far-fetched to expect an ARPANET reference in a kids' movie released almost immediately after the ARPANET was created, but the movie does take place at a college, and I figured it was possible someone had gone to Stanford, talked to some computer people to see "what's up with computers these days", and gotten the phrase "Interface Message Processor" or something to use as a bit of set dressing.

After all, moviemakers today routinely employ science advisors to tell them that what happens in the screenplay is impossible because it violates the second law of thermodynamics; the moviemakers then decline to totally rewrite their screenplay and instead add a little scene of someone shouting "We need more thermodynamics!" I wasn't expecting accuracy, but I was hoping for a throwaway reference on a chalkboard.

But, in point of fact, Wikipedia is wrong: this movie contains absolutely no references to the ARPANET. [0] In fact, it barely contains any computer. The computer breaks about fifteen minutes in, Kurt Russell gives himself superpowers trying to fix it, and we never see it operational again. The rest of the movie focuses on Kurt Russell's new computer-like ability to scan and regurgitate a wide variety of data.

In an accidentally realistic twist, the Russell character's powers don't make him any smarter—there's no question of using him to solve the world's problems—he just knows a lot of facts. (He's also good with languages, and there's one line that claims he's solved the Chinese Room, but they don't go anywhere with this. They show him going to the UN and palling around with all the delegates, but it's not like they're asking him for advice.)

The movie also deals in an antiseptic Walt Disney way with topics like student demonstrations (misleadingly played up on the movie poster), but it all takes second place to the dean's rivalry with the dean of the nearby state college, a numbers game run by the always-enjoyable Cesar Romero, and the use of a superhuman with the powers of Wikipedia to win a trivia quiz show.

Why would someone watch this movie and think it had some reference to the ARPANET? I have no idea. I find it likely that this movie was copied into the Wikipedia entry from a more general list of old movies about computers, like this one. In the movie there's one computer component that superficially resembles an IMP, but 1) it's not an IMP, and 2) the H316 hardware used in the IMP was also used in other minicomputers, including the incorrectly-maligned Kitchen Computer, so even spotting something that looks like an IMP proves nothing.

Someone with more hardware knowledge might know what computer was used as a prop in the movie, if it's a real computer at all. Judging from glimpses of the labels on buttons, I think it's a mishmash of equipment from the early 60s that was stripped and rewired to blink randomly.

I did find one interesting bit of window-dressing: at 10:30 there's a partial shot of what looks like a cheat sheet for a computer's instruction set or operating system. It's called "POS", the instructions are divided into a "Physical Level" and a "Logical Level", and they include "EXCP", "WAIT", "OPEN FILE", "CLOSE FILE", "GET FILE", and "PUT FILE"--all of those take an argument (?) "CCB-NAME". Since the ISO networking stack has a "physical layer", it's possible someone glimpsed this card, thought "Aha! The Internet!" and rushed to Wikipedia or whatever source Wikipedia is based on. That's the best I can come up with.

If I may damn with faint praise, the first fifteen minutes of the movie are fun. The opening credits are great, with a corny sitcom-theme-style opening song (which describes a much better movie) and visuals that combine colorful 60s geometric design with computer imagery like punch card chads and reel-to-reel tape.

The first scene features a professor played by William Schallert (who'd just played the Federation bureaucrat in "The Trouble with Tribbles") trying to convince the antediluvian dean that dropping $10k on a computer (about $60k in today's money) would be a great investment for the school.

Meanwhile the loveable, nonthreatening youth of the college are eavesdropping on this conversation via transitor radio, and check this out--Kurt Russell is eighteen years old when they're filming this movie. The other kids are in their early twenties. I've been watching all these old B-movies that cast twenty-four-year-olds as high school students, and by comparison these college-age kids look too young to be in college! It's insanity.

Anyway, the kids convince local businessman Cesar Romero to donate an old computer to the college, he does so (apparently without wiping the tapes he's been using to computerize his numbers racket), there's a great scene where they set up the enormous computer, and then an interesting scene where the computer's capabilities are demonstrated (pretty realistic, by the standards of the rest of the movie). In a very strange twist, the computer breaks when the professor tries to get it to run a twenty-year-old program off a tape. (That would be a program from 1950--like a friggin' UNIVAC program or something. Supposedly this computer's twenty years old.) That's pretty much the end of the good part.

Of all the movie's inaccuracies, the worst comes at the end, when the guy who was in "The Trouble With Tribbles" reenacts the first scene with the dean, except instead of a computer, he's trying to get the dean to drop a few grand on another technological wonder, the electroheliospectrograph. Apparently computers are just a fad for this guy. Kurt Russell reprised his bland college-student character in two sequels, which employ more traditional SF gimmicks like invisibility potions and strength serums. If I'd been in charge I would have made a new stupid college computer teen comedy every few years as a kind of marker to track society's feelings towards computers through the 70s and 80s.

I watched the movie with Pat, 1) to make watching a bad old movie bearable, 2) to have another pair of eyes looking for ARPANET references. Pat's opinion: "They should do a sequel starring Kurt Russell as he is now."

The movie was remade with Kirk Cameron in 1995, and it's possible that movie is the one with the reference to the Internet, but I'm not really interested in something that late.

[0] I got a used DVD of the movie, and there were a few seconds of skipped video. It's possible the elusive ARPANET reference was in there. It's very very unlikely.

The Update Wore Tennis Shoes: Oh, I forgot to mention this in my review: a scene in The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes features the art of Marcel Duchamp. There's a gag where a few of the boys squint at Nude Descending a Staircase for a while before deciding it doesn't appeal to their prurient interest.

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