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Dada Skies: Over the years, my series of "Dada" projects has brought meaninglessness to formerly meaningful things: board games, Shakespeare, comics. Today, for my April 1 project I present Dada Skies, which randomly rearranges things that were randomly arranged to begin with: the stars as seen from Earth. It's a view I find strangely relaxing.

Dada Skies works like Dada Maps, by transcluding image tiles from a web service into a mosaic. In this case the service is the one provided by the Sloan Digital Sky Survey. There are enhancements I'd like to make to the view, but this is what I've got time for right now, and I want to do my part to keep alive the nascent tradition of releasing cool things on April 1.

Constellation Games Game Design Promo: My editor has an extra advance copy of Constellation Games, which she asked me to give away in a gala promotional event! This put me in a pickle: I love giving things away, but I really hate "promotional events". So I came up with something fun: you can win a copy of the paperback (or, if you're already a subscriber, a subscription upgrade), by fleshing out the Constellation Database of Electronic Games of a Certain Complexity.

For those who haven't read Constellation Games: the CDBOEGOACC is an enormous XML document containing metadata for entertainment software from countless alien civilizations, as well as the computers and peripherals necessary to run that software. Like, imagine if Jason Scott worked for the Culture. To give you the idea, here are some CDBOEGOACC quotes from the narrator's Twitter feed:

Every CDBOEGOACC entry is a tiny science-fiction story about an alien culture and someone who responded to their culture by making a game. If you like this idea, you are the target audience for Constellation Games and you should enter this contest to win a copy. The CDBOEGOACC is the part of the book that was the most fun to write, and I can't think of a better gala promotional event than asking you to come up with these mini-stories.

You can write something tweet-sized like the quotes above, or you can flesh out an idea a bit more and put it on your weblog, or whatever. It doesn't matter to me, so long as you somehow make sure I know about it. Only entries I know about will be judged. Surefire ways to make sure I know about it: send me email, post a link in the comments below, or use the unwieldy hashtag #cdboegoacc on Twitter or Identica.

The contest ends when I wake up in the morning on April 10, one week from tomorrow, and pick my favorite CDBOEGOACC entry. We'll mail the winner their advance copy right away, which means you'll get the book a few days before its official release on April 17. (As a bonus, this uncorrected proof contains a huge continuity error in chapter 35, which you can find and then feel superior to me.) I'll also pick a random winner, who will get a free base subscription to the serial, plus a collected ebook once the serialization is done.

Since the goal is to make cool things, you can enter more than once to improve your chance of getting the paperback, but the random drawing is one entry per person. I will judge entries on the twin criteria of "sensawunda" and "comedy", the binary star by which I steer my novelist's ship. Have fun!

[Comments] (6) Constellation Games Author Commentary #19, "Implementation Details": We're more than halfway through the book! Traditionally, it's around this time that an author starts to have doubts about having signed on for this huge project. It's happened on all three of my books and it's happening again with this commentary. I have a great time writing this stuff every week, and I hope you're enjoying it, but it does take a lot of time. Time which might be better spent working on my second novel, "A Fire Upon the Derp".

Uh, anyway, last week's Twitter archive. Don't forget about the game design contest, which ends next week. This week we meet Dana Light 2.0, and the totally different human person who's not Dana, Svetlana Sveta.

That's the week! Stay tuned for next week's special tabletop gaming episode, when Ariel will say, "I think we should just nuke each other once and get it out of our systems."

Image credits: Wikimedia user Ecelan, Joshua Kaufman, Flickr user ePi.Longo.

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TUNS: For a while I've been gathering cool space-themed pictures to illustrate the Constellation Games commentary, but there's way more and they're way more varied than I need. Rather than abandoning this embarrassment of visual riches, I recently started posting a couple pictures a day to my microblog using the hashtag #retrorocket, so named because I mostly focus on cool-looking old tech and people working with or building it.

At the risk of revealing all my secrets, I'm getting the #retrorocket pictures by harvesting the Internet Archive's NASA Images site, one year at a time. I've combed through 1969-1988, and my technique will break down around 1994, when there start to be thousands of pictures for each year (even 1969 wasn't that bad). But 1994 is not all that retro, really, is it? Yeah, it's kinda retro.

Despite the name, NASA Images has a lot of non-images: mainly movies and technical documents. Recently one tech document caught my eye: Technology Utilization Network System, a 1987 document laying out NASA's recommendations for off-the-shelf PC hardware and software.

This document pulls no punches, naming brand names, presenting huge benchmark tables, and spelling out just what it takes to outfit an effective mid-80s networked office on the taxpayer's dime. This is a time before Windows, in an office environment without Unix. Let's take a look at this document and see which products have the Right Stuff, and which fizzle on the launch pad. (n.b. Entertainment Weekly didn't want this for some reason, and I'm too lazy to change the segue.)

We'll start with the basic PC recommendation. "The recommended workstation for TUNS is the Compaq DeskPro 286 with a 40 Mb hard disk." Each should be equipped with an EGA card and a color monitor. "The estimated GSA cost... is $4,087." (About $7700 in 2010 dollars.)

The use as a workstation of one of the newer 386 machines (based on the Intel 80386 CPU chip) is not currently recommended. The power provided by the 386 system is more than that required of the workstation.

Unlike a lot of offices in 1987, NASA understands the importance of networking. That's why each workstation is fitted with a 3Com Etherlink card ($451) and connected to a local file server running Novell Advanced Netware/286. Netware wins out over now-obscure competitors like 3Com's 3+ Share, Banyon VINES/286, Fox 10-net, and Lee Data's LANMASTER. The Internet stack is not even considered: I'm sure NASA's scientific installations are on the Internet by now, but it's not really an option for IBM PCs, and the term "intranet" doesn't exist.

The Compaq 286 used for workstations can also act as the file server on a small LAN. But for a larger LAN, you do need to buy that 386, and for the really big installations, it's got to be "a Novell T286B with a 183 Mb of hard drive space". And remember to buy name-brand:

Although many vendors claim to sell "AT clones," ISN has occasionally found very subtle differences in the performance of these "clones," which may result in problems during system integration.

For connecting to external sites and databases, each workstation is outfitted with a Hayes Smartmodem 2400 at $579.

ISN does not recommend installation of 9600 baud modems at this point. The lack of standard protocols, error-correction methods and data compression techniques for 9600 baud communications means that two modems from different vendors will rarely communicate with each other at 9600 baud.

Printer time! TUNS spells out recommendations for cheapo dot-matrix printers (the Epson FX-286e, $527), letter-quality daisywheel printers (the Diablo D80IF, $1523), and laser printers for impressing the boss (the HP Laserjet Series II, $1795). Note that the most expensive printer is half the price of the workstation PC.

Two printers, the Brother Twinwriter 5 and the Fortis DH-45, include both dot-matrix and daisy-wheel print mechanisms. The two companies are actually marketing the same printer under different labels. Although this printer was initially viewed as an exciting combination of functionality at a reasonable price, it was excluded from further consideration after the Twinwriter 5 vendor reported extremely poor reliability and great customer dissatisfaction.

What about software? For the most part, TUNS recommends off-the-shelf 80s office software, Lotus 1-2-3 (GSA cost: $305) and WordPerfect 4.2 ($173):

Although the evaluation scores for WordPerfect and Microsoft Word show only a two point difference, the evaluation team highly recommends WordPerfect because the evaluation team found it much easier to use WordPerfect's ACSII-to-document transfer features.

But they choose Unify, a database I've never heard of, over 80s heavyweights like dBase and Clipper. Why? Because Unity just has more stuff, like a C library.

Oracle was eliminated as a possibility because a LAN version of the software, although in development for some time, is still not available.

Each 286 workstation is loaded with about $100 worth of utilities: Popular ones like Sidekick and Norton Utilities, as well as some more obscure ones: "Sideways to aid in the printing of large spreadsheets; ScreenSave to protect the life of the monitors; KeyBuffer to allow the user to enter characters from the keyboard at a faster rate than acceptable under DOS; and FilePath to aid in the use of multiple directories and sub-directories."

But the best part of the whole document is the section on email. The document identifies a large number of requirements for an email system, such as:

The sender must be able to identify a single recipient, multiple recipients, and a "group" mailcode consisting of multiple mail identification codes but addressed as one unit.

And then presents a huge table comparing the competitors (again, Internet email is not even on the radar). And then decides to just keep using "the NASAMAIL system currently available throughout NASA." NASAMAIL was actually an installation of Sprint Telemail, which you can read a little more about in RFC 1168, including a mention of a Telemail-Internet mail gateway at NASA Ames.

It's a little odd that hardware of this description almost never shows up in the NASA Images archive! (I did see one mid-80s IBM PC sitting on someone's desk, but when I went back to look for it as an illustration I couldn't find it.) I think these recommendations were mostly for clerical workers and managers, and that the engineers and scientists (who show up quite a bit in the archive) used minicomputers, Unix workstations, and mainframes into the 90s.

I'm probably not gonna go through any more of these documents in any detail, but here are two others I found really interesting: the public affairs plan for STS-1, the first Space Shuttle flight, and the original press kit for Apollo 13.

Constellation Games Author Commentary #20, "Feature Creep": This week: Dana earns her paycheck, we learn the shocking (if you're a Farang) secret of Sayable Spice, and Ariel stresses out and gets a little stalkery.

I'm not sure who put a bunch of tags on CG's LibraryThing page, but they're pretty great. (and full of spoilers) Apparently CG is a bildungsroman about cosplay, douchebags, mecha-godzilla, real replicas, and vastening. I don't disagree!

Come for the Twitter archive, stay for the commentary. CDBOEGOACC contest winners will be announced as soon as I finish the post.

Part Two's plot kicks into high gear next week, with the terrifying chapter 21, "Her". The chapter in which Tetsuo will say (but not demonstrate) "Sexual pair bonding!" Also next week: you can get a paper copy of the book and read the whole rest of the story! Then complain about how I'm not putting up this commentary fast enough.

Photo credits: US Army, US Department of Defense, Flickr user my_eye.

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CDBOEGOACC Contest Results: I was worried that no one would enter the CDBOEGOACC contest and it would be like a party where no one showed up. But ten people put in 29 entries, which is a pretty good party. I'm pretty sure all the entrants are Constellation Games subscribers, so I gotta work on my crossover appeal, but I'm happy with the turnout.

Once again, the grand prize is a galley copy of Constellation Games which will hopefully be delivered a few days before the paperback comes out. Even I don't have a galley copy, so you know it's exclusive. There'll also be a random drawing, and the winner will get a free basic-level subscription. Although since everyone who entered is already a subscriber, I don't know if you want that. Maybe you can give it to a friend, maybe you can negotiate a different prize with Kate, the publisher.

Anyway, let's take a look at the entries:

All the other entries were short concept quotes posted to Twitter. I've archived all of them here because I really hate the way Twitter's UI consigns the past to a dark, eternal oubliette.

I thought all the entries were really good, although Adam may have been phoning it in. C'mon, Adam, this ain't Apples to Apples. Anyway, I'm excluding Adam and Brendan from consideration because they were beta readers. Here are my three favorites (apart from Andrew's, which I've already spilled the beans that it didn't win):

And the winner of the Constellation Games galley copy is... Ornithopter! I loved their game concept because it tied into a theme I don't really explore in CG: the repurposing of really awful historical situations as entertainment simulations.

But don't give up yet, non-disqualified entrants! We've still got the random drawing. And here's some Python code to perform it:

>>> import random
>>> entrants = ["Andrew Perry", "Ornithopter", "George Buckenham", "Benhimself", "Gus Andrews", "Tikitu de Jager", "Mirabai Knight"]
>>> random.choice(entrants)
'Andrew Perry'

OK, well, that worked out. Andrew Perry will receive the random drawing prize, and we'll just call it the CDBOEGOACC Jury Prize.

And that's it for the gala CDBOEGOACC giveaway contest! I hope it was a fun time. I certainly enjoyed watching people come up with this stuff.

Beautiful Soup 4.0.4: I haven't been mentioning all the Beautiful Soup releases I've been doing, because they're just maintenance releases, but I'll mention them occasionally because fixing bugs (and determining what's a bug and what's not) still takes up a fair amount of my time. We're up to 4.0.4 and I've fixed/worked around a number of bugs, including one that prevented Beautiful Soup from parsing an XML document larger than about 512 bytes.

I've also updated the docs quite a bit to help people solve common problems. I'm not sure where to stop, because Beautiful Soup is the first Python library a lot of people use, so it gets caught up in questions like "how do I install Python packages on Windows?" (It's not easy.)

CS161: You could get a computer science education just by taking classes called CS161:

[Comments] (7) Constellation Games Author Commentary #21, "Her": This is one of the most important chapters in the book. I need you to start feeling the weight of the Constellation as a geological-time, astronomical-scale project, not just as the country where Tetsuo and Curic were born. The best way is to show you the Earth contact mission through the eyes of the one who's seen it all: the Her superorganism.

Twitter was quiet last week, and will be even quieter this week because the whole chapter takes place between 3 and 5 AM on a Tuesday. I think you should do some work this week instead of checking Twitter all the time.

Today is the official release of the paperback edition of Constellation Games! How does this work? I have no clue. I believe those of you who ordered the paperback will be getting it sometime this week, and those who have been resolutely refusing to preorder will soon be able to order it from the online store or get it from a local indie. In the meantime, how about a bulleted list? I know all about those.

On that note: tune in next Tuesday (or read the paperback) for Ariel's terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day. During the course of which he will say, "I'm more worried about my friend's problem than in coming up with the perfect urine-related analogy for the problem."

Image credits: Joachim Barrande, Flickr user fubsan

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Some Interesting Game Aliens: Editor Kate pointed me to this list of the best and worst aliens in video games. Without wanting to say anything bad about that list, I noticed that it (and similar lists I've found online) focuses heavily on the visual design of humanoid aliens from first-person shooters. So I thought I'd make my own list, in honor of the print release of Constellation Games (Publishers Weekly calls it "fun"!), highlighting some video game aliens that I find interesting from a game design perspective. I'm sure there are plenty more I haven't heard of, so if you have any additional suggestions, I'd like to hear about them in comments.

The invaders (Space Invaders)

Just gonna get this one out of the way. Among the most iconic aliens ever devised, the invaders in the middle row have come to symbolize video games as a whole. Apart from their visual style there's nothing there, but the style is great.

The blobs (A Boy and his Blob)

These were my gut-reaction nomination for "best", because they're the only aliens I can think of that only make sense in a video game. The blob in A Boy and his Blob is a game mechanic personified: a sentient inventory. This causes serious problems if you try to think about the species outside the context of the game—when your toilet clogs on Blobolonia, do you feed your friend a jellybean and turn them into a plunger? But within the game, it works great.

The Melnorme (Star Control II)

If you want vivid alien characterizations, Star Control II is your game. Unfortunately, most of those characterizations are based on asinine stereotypes. That's why the Melnorme win it for me. It would be easy to make "the trader race" greedy and sleazy—in fact, SC2 does this with the other "trader race", the Druuge. But the Melnorme are friendly cosmopolitans who're fun to talk to. And they occasionally drop ominous hints that are never followed up on anywhere in the game.

That said, there's nothing game-y about the Melnorme, they just happen to be in a game. Every race in SC2 could guest on Star Trek, and many of them have. So I'm not pushing this one very hard. At least they're not humanoid.

Honorable SC2 mentions: the Zoq-Fot-Pik, who are silly and fun; and the Orz, who are similar to but not as well-executed as...

The Endermen (Minecraft)

From another dimension rather than from outer space, but aliens nonetheless. The Roadside Picnic of video game aliens; the Endermen follow rules that make perfect sense... to them. Their random rearrangement of blocks and sudden fits of aggro bear a twisted resemblance to your own behavior in Minecraft. Like you, they are interlopers in the game world, and their behavior was designed to challenge your dominance of it.

Giygas (Earthbound)

I almost didn't count Giygas for the same reason I'm not counting the Meteor from Maniac Mansion: I already gave the "cool aliens that happen to be in a game" nod to Star Control 2. But the final battle of Earthbound does some interesting things with the game's generic JRPG battle system, so sure, I'll count it.

"Them" (The Legend of Zelda: Majora's Mask)/The Martians (Metal Slug 2)

These aliens are composed entirely of pop culture cliches. The interesting thing is not their design but the fact that they show up at all. These aliens aren't just from another planet: they're from another genre. The Martians show up and abruptly turn your tasteless WWII run-and-gun into a '50s saucer flick. And "They" show up in a Zelda game. Albeit a Zelda game that also features a time loop and travel to the moon.

When I asked on Twitter for peoples' favorite video game aliens, the only response I got (thanks, Laura!) was also in the vicinity of this category: Crypto from Destroy All Humans, which I haven't played but which looks just like the movie Mars Attacks!.

Board game bonus! The Loser (Cosmic Encounter)

Cosmic Encounter is all about embodying game mechanics into alien species, and the Loser is the best, because it forces you to have debates about what it means to "win" a game. Whatever chaos is happening due to the other players' equally unbalanced species choices, the Loser multiplies it. My absolute fave.

And there you go. Let me know of any you think I missed—this is a bizarrely underexplored field, though maybe I just think it's bizarrely underexplored because I spent a long time writing a novel about it. I mean, I also thought it was weird no one had explained how game titles work.

Image credits: Flickr user philosofia, DeviantArt user aeonpants, DeviantArt user dczanik, DeviantArt user EliteParanoid, SNK, Felicia Cano.

Handheld Device:

[Comments] (4) Constellation Games Author Commentary #22, "Nerfed": This chapter is bad news for Ariel but good news for me, because yesterday I got my box of author copies. That means those of you who ordered paperbacks should be getting them soon. This EXCLUSIVE SIDE COVER REVEAL shows the playtime synergies possible for those who shelled out for the Adamantium package with its USB key.

In a couple weeks I may do a special spoiler post so that those who've read the whole book can ask me questions about stuff that hasn't been serialized yet, rather than waiting until the appropriate chapter comes up in the serialization.

There's a solitary tweet in last week's microblog archive. Let's move on to the commentary:

I came into this chapter treating it like a chess problem. I had all the pieces on the board and the question was how Ariel would outsmart the BEA again, the way he did with Dana. I sat down and puzzled over this and had a long conversation with Beth trying to figure out how to get Ariel out of this scrape.

And after about forty-five minutes of being totally stumped I asked myself the obvious question: Why am I trying to get Ariel out of this?

At this point I knew how the book would end (it turns out I only knew how Part Two would end). I didn't have the plot planned out between now and then, but at some point I needed to break Ariel. This is the perfect time to start. He's stressed out from Sayable Spice work, shaken from his encounter with Her and the revelation of Curic's ambivalence. Let's just go for it.

So I destroyed Ariel's house. He tries all the clever gambits I thought of for him, and they don't work, and he loses. And that was the single best thing that ever happened to the book. From this point on the characters are developed enough that I can do whatever horrible things I want to them. They'll either figure something out and come out on top, or they'll lose, and either way it'll be interesting reading.

A lot of this week's commentary is me telling stories that are at best tangentially related to the chapter. But if that's good enough for big-name DVD commentaries, it's good enough for me:

Pretty chunky commentary this week, hope you enjoyed it. Be sure to tune in next week for chapter 23, when Jenny will say, "I don't masturbate to it."

Image credits: yours truly, the city of Austin, NASA/Ames, Wikimedia Commons user Hoshie.

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o Invasion: There are some rogue os in the Constellation Games acknowledgements. "N. K. Jemison" should refer to the Nebula and Hugo-nominated author N. K. Jemisin, not to a person who doesn't exist. And "Beth Lermon" is of course my friend Beth Lerman.

Surely these are far from the only typos in the book [I originally wrote "on the book"], but they're really bad, and deserve a special correction, and my apologies.

Hidden Treasures: There's a competition going on right now called "Hubble's Hidden Treasures", a competition to identify amazing but overlooked images within the Hubble Space Telescope's massive twenty-year data archive. I have no special expertise in image processing or astronomy, but I so coveted the prize of an iPad[0] that I thought I'd try my hand.

See, most people who enter this contest are taking pictures of nebulae and galaxies and setting up the colors to represent different wavelengths of light. Here's a nice example. These images have aesthetic value but are merely emblematic of Hubble's scientific value, which comes from the raw data. As long as we're playing that game, why not find aesthetic satisfaction in Hubble's glitches? My innovative thinking will surely net me the prize.

Just as an example, here's a super-washed-out image that could have the date and place of your punk show written in the middle of it. Lots of images have glitchy edges, and my original plan was to make a collage of the glitchy edges. But then I found the image to the right, which blew my stupid idea out of the water.

I call this ghostly image "hst_05909_01_wfpc2_fr418n18_pc", because that's its Hubble dataset ID, but if I were hanging it in an art gallery I'd call it "Cygnus", because that's the search I used to find it. Here it is big and zoomable. Here's a larger image (it's the full WFPC2 image--the one to your right comes from the Planetary Camera bit of the WFPC2) which I think makes it clear the feature you see is a photographic artifact and not a real thing in space.

I don't have anything more to say about hst_05909_01_wfpc2_fr418n18_pc; it's just a nice piece of abstract photography. The Hubble Legacy Archive is great stuff in general, though.

[0] Can the winner get 5 minutes of Hubble observation time or something contest-specific? Just trying to think outside the box here. The box labeled "box of iPads for use as contest prizes".

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