Fri Feb 01 2013 10:13 Video Roundup: January 2013:
Gonna put one of these up every month, so as to avoid the big bolus of reviews that happened last time. There are only three films here, all from a Paul Williams retrospective at the Museum of the Moving Image.
- Phantom of the Paradise: A flop on its initial release, Phantom has seen a resurgence as a cult classic. A very uneven movie that does over-the-top comedy very well but everything else is kind of a mishmash taken from other films. Well, a lot of the comedy is also taken from other films: there's a great scene that uses the car-bomb scene from Touch of Evil by way of killing off the Beach Boys. But that scene is great because it doesn't just blindly reference another movie, It adds a layer of complexity onto the original (using a split screen to show an "onstage" view and a "backstage" view which are united by the explosion) that creates suspense even if you've seen the referent.
But for me, the character of Beef stole the show. Beef, the flaming metalhead, progenitor of both Rocky from Rocky Horror and Vyvyan from The Young Ones. Good times. Rocky Horror has better songs, though.
- The Muppet Movie: It's The Muppet Movie. We all know how it goes. People in the theater were pre-laughing when we saw Miss Piggy and Kermit in the restaurant, because we knew Steve Martin was gonna show up, and then he showed up and life was good.
- Ishtar: This film has a really bad reputation and a horribly low IMDB rating, but I was looking forward to it because I loved Elaine May's A New Leaf. And I was right to look forward to it! This is a great movie. It's really funny and the plot comes together nicely. It's not perfect, but it doesn't deserve a 3.9 rating.
To illustrate my point, I've brought back The MST3K-IMDB Effect for a return engagement. Here, the part of "a movie being (or not being) on MST3K" will be played by "a movie being (or not being) Ishtar."
That's right, Elaine May's MST3K-IMDB effect is 22.9 standard deviations, sixty percent higher than the previous highest MSTm of 14.1, which was itself highly suspect. It's not impossible that a director would hammer out three movies that cluster very tightly around an IMDB rating of 7.1, and then deliver a movie that's 23 standard deviations worse, but I'm not seeing it. Instead, I would rate Ishtar a little lower than A New Leaf. The Onion agrees.
So what explains the low rating? The obvious reason is sabotage. The movie cost too much to make, May took way too long to edit her films, and the studio head had some kind of feud with Warren Beatty which he took out on Ishtar in public. Once the movie had become a punchline (specifically, the punchline to the Far Side "Hell's video store" cartoon), it was too late to change anyone's mind.
But I have two other explanations. First, during the Reagan years, during Iran-Contra, the moviegoing public was probably not in the mood for Ishtar's ham-fisted satire of America's foreign policy. Let alone one that climaxes with two Americans firing rockets at a CIA gunship that's trying to take them out. But now it seems pretty light by comparison with real life.
Second, Ishtar is a film about idiots who are really bad at something creative. Any time you write an infrafictional work that's supposed to be bad (and the songs in Ishtar are hilariously bad), you're inviting people to skip a step and believe that you have written something simply bad. Spinal Tap are idiots, but they have good songs.
Anyway, Elaine May was actually at this showing, and she took a couple questions, but she seemed really shy so we didn't bombard her with our fandom. Especially because other people were bombarding her with their fandom, and we saw how awkward it was.
(1) Sat Feb 02 2013 14:40 Spacewar! The Interview:
Went to the museum last night not for a movie, but to meet Peter Samson and (via poor-quality videoconferencing) Steve Russell, for a conversation about the second video game ever made, Spacewar!.
I asked Russell the question that's been burning in my mind for years: why does Spacewar! have an exclamation mark in its name? His answer: "Once I got it working, I thought it deserved an exclamation point!" I also asked Russell if he considered any other names for the game. "Nope."
No one asked the obvious final question, so I got that one in too: what games are they playing now? Both Russell and Samson are fans of solitaire card games. Russell also said he likes the Android game Tiny Village.
Some other tidbits from the conversation, which I found especially interesting and/or which I don't think are on the net already:
- I knew this before, but it didn't really sink in. Spacewar! was released (through PDP user groups) in 1962. There would be no more computer games released until 1969. When the famous Rolling Stone article about Spacewar! came out, the game was ten years old, and it was still the most popular video game in the world, almost by default.
- Samson said the name of the program Expensive Planetarium was a "double irony": it's an obvious reference to Expensive Typewriter, but "planetariums really do cost a lot of money."
- Russell was asked his opinion on Asteroids. He said it was "a great solution to the problem of only one person in the bar who wants to put quarters in the machine."
- It took too much computing power to calculate the trajectories of Spacewar! missiles under gravity, so they were deemed "photon torpedoes" which wouldn't be affected by gravity. Was this a common idea from earlier sci-fi or did Spacewar! invent the term? I should have asked.
- Samson said he later worked on a computer system for a "three-letter agency." This was a system with eight screens; it sounded a lot like IBM's SAGE computer. The hardware was late so they threw in some software for free, including a port of Spacewar! which could play four games simultaneously on all eight screens, and which had random matchmaking, so you didn't know who you were playing with. According to Samson, the intended purpose of the computer system was not too far removed from playing Spacewar!.
Thu Feb 07 2013 13:14 Constellation Games Interview in Bookslut:
Hey folks, CG fan Jeanne Thornton interviewed me a couple months back, creating a text that has now been published on Bookslut. (There's also an interview with Saladin Ahmed in the same issue.) The interview ranges over the CG publication process, games as an art form, space exploration, and so on.
One thing the published interview doesn't include is a question about Tetsuo Milk, which Jeanne cut before submitting the interview because it was kind of inside-baseball. But hey, inside baseball is the whole point of News You Can Bruise, so with Jeanne's permission I've reproduced the original question and my answer here:
I would feel remiss in not asking you about Tetsuo Milk, a character whom you’ve said (in your really, really mind-blowingly extensive commentary on the novel) essentially ran away with the book. Tetsuo is a brilliant character, but also feels at times like a heterogeneous element. I like this effect a lot, but I’m curious as to where this guy came from, what you’re saying through him, and how you see him fitting into the overall mix.
Maybe this will help: Tetsuo Milk is the ET version of Ariel. His silly mistakes and misunderstandings are mirror images of the mistakes Ariel makes trying to understand the Constellation. We don't laugh because we're not the ones being misunderstood. When Tetsuo does it to us, it's funny.
Here's a spoiler-free example. One of Ariel's post-contact hobbies is posting reviews of alien computer games to his blog. There's one really important scene that reverses the roles: Tetsuo writes a review of a game Ariel worked on as a developer, Brilhantes Poneis 5.
Brilhantes is a stupid Farmville-type mobile game where you have a pet pony and do pointless tasks to earn coins to buy accessories for it. Tetsuo tackles the game from a post-scarcity Marxist perspective, putting a lot of work into understanding how a game's economy can work when the player is the employee of an animal. He gets a lot of it right (i.e. he recognizes that the game demeans both its players and its developers), but he's operating from completely the wrong framework.
That's the kind of mistake Ariel makes. He brings his human assumptions to everything, whether he realizes it or not, whether or not Tetsuo or someone else calls him on it.
(This is why there's a reference to "Tetsuo-like ideas" later in the interview; we shoulda cut that reference.)
Tue Feb 12 2013 08:26 Hire Aaron DeVore:
I don't often use the NYCB bully pulpit to tell you to hire someone (apart from myself), but folks, you should hire Aaron DeVore. He was effectively the maintainer of Beautiful Soup during the period when I wasn't working on it. He answered tons of questions on the mailing list and sent me bugfix patches. When I started work on Beautiful Soup 4, he gave me a lot of feedback that helped stabilize the API.
Aaron did all this while a college student in Portland, Oregon. Now he's about to graduate, and he's looking for a job. Send him an email and let him know what you've got going on.
Tue Feb 12 2013 14:43 What's New in "RESTful Web APIs":
We're ahead of schedule, which is good because we have a lot of work to do that isn't part of the book manuscript. Yesterday I sent out over forty copies of the manuscript to beta readers. That is too many beta readers, so at this point I must refuse anyone else who wants to be part of the beta, unless they have/had a hand in one of the standards we discuss, and they want to specifically critique our coverage of that standard.
With the beta closed I think it's a good time to go into a little detail about the structure of the book. My guiding principle was to write a book that will be as useful now as RESTful Web Services was in 2007. Like RWS, RESTful Web APIs has a main storyline that takes up most of the book. My inspiration for the main storyline were a few books that followed RWS, notably REST in Practice and Mike's Building Hypermedia APIs with HTML5 and Node.
RWS focused on the HTTP notion of a "resource", and despite the copious client-side code, this put the conceptual focus clearly on the server side, where the resource implementations live. RWA focuses on representations, and thus on hypermedia, on the interaction between client and server, which is where REST lives. The stuff you remember from RWS is still here, albeit rewritten in a pedagogically superior way. Web APIs work on the same principles as the Web, here's how HTTP works, here's what the Fielding constraints do, and so on. But the focus is always on the interaction, on the client and server manipulating each others' state by sending messages back and forth.
We've also benefited from a lot of tech work done by others. The IANA registry of link relations showed that state transitions don't have to be tied to a media type. The RFC that established that registry also showed how to define custom state transitions (extension relation types) without defining yet another media type to hold them.
Insights like these inform the new parts of RWA's main storyline. What makes your API different from every other RESTful API in existence? That's the only part you really need to buckle down and design. Everything else you can reuse, or at least copy.
In particular, you shouldn't have to design a custom media type. Your API probably isn't that different from other APIs, and a ton of hypermedia formats and protocols have been invented since 2007. We cover a few of the most promising ones in the book's main storyline. We cover even more of them afterwards, mostly in the big "Hypermedia Zoo" chapter. Here's the book-wide list:
- The HTTP headers
- URL lists
- JSON Home Documents
- Problem detail documents
- Web Intents
- GeoJSON (which is only a hypermedia format on a bizarre technicality!)
- Web host metadata documents
- CoRE Link Format
After the main storyline and the hypermedia zoo, RWA continues the RWS tradition of giving an API-centric view of the HTTP standard. We have a "crash course in advanced HTTP" chapter, some of which is an update of Chapter 8 from RWS. (Look-before-you-leap requests never caught on, but I still feel like I have to describe them in RWA because I have no other source to refer you to!) Appendix A is an updated version of Appendix B from RWS, with the addition of these exciting new status codes:
- 308 ("Permanent Redirect")
- 428 ("Precondition Required")
- 429 ("Too Many Requests")
- 431 ("Request Header Fields Too Large")
- 451 ("Unavailable For Legal Reasons")
- 511 ("Network Authentication Required")
Appendix B is an update of appendix C from RWS, with these API-licious new HTTP headers:
The amount of reused material in RWA is really small, because the main storyline is completely rewritten for 2013. And I haven't even mentioned our coverage of profiles, partly because I can't yet think of a way to talk about profiles at less length than what we say in the book.
Thu Feb 14 2013 13:04 Fundamental Indeed:
I could spend all day just posting games that Board Game Dadaist comes up with. I forbear, for the sake of you, my readers, but Adam Parrish and I will email each other when we find an especially good one. And I think you should know about the best game BGD ever came up with (found by Adam back in December):
Fantasy Fundamental Rails (2005)
Players divide themselves into two teams.
Wed Feb 20 2013 13:14 Welcome BoingBoing Readers:
If you're coming here from Cory Doctorow's review of Constellation Games, you might like to know about my web page for the book. The book was originally a serial, and I wrote chapter-by-chapter commentary as it was serialized. I also wrote four bonus stories set before, during, and after the novel, which I've released under CC-BY-SA. All that stuff is here.
You might also be interested to know that you get a DRM-free PDF version of the novel by buying direct from the publisher.
Now would also be a great time to mention that Constellation Games is eligible for this year's Hugo.
Fri Feb 22 2013 10:44 100 Years of Markov Chains:
Back in January I took a little trip to Boston and hung out with Kirk. Among other things, we attended an event at Harvard celebrating the 100th anniversary of the paper that kicked off the Markov chain craze. I only wish Adam had been there. I've held off on talking about the event because I've been waiting for Harvard to put the video of the talks online. But that's a sucker's game, and now I have something better!
See, the first talk, by Brian Hayes, covered the amazing history leading up to the publication of Markov's seminal paper. He's now turned his talk into an article in American Scientist. The first few pages of that article are a basic introduction to Markov chains; the history starts on page four. Basically, Markov was a cranky old man who liked picking fights.
Markov’s pugnacity extended beyond mathematics to politics and public life. When the Russian church excommunicated Leo Tolstoy, Markov asked that he be expelled also. (The request was granted.) In 1902, the leftist writer Maxim Gorky was elected to the Academy, but the election was vetoed by Tsar Nicholas II. In protest, Markov announced that he would refuse all future honors from the tsar... In 1913, when the tsar called for celebrations of 300 years of Romanov rule, Markov responded by organizing a symposium commemorating a different anniversary: the publication of Ars Conjectandi 200 years before.
As acts of political protest go, the well-timed symposium is pretty great. At that symposium Markov revealed the Markov chain, which he'd invented as a way to smack down the dumb theological arguments of rival mathematician Pavel Nekrasov. His paper wasn't called "Markov Chains: Future Basis for Art and Scientific Discovery, Named After Me, A. A. Markov." It was called called "An Example of Statistical Investigation of the Text 'Eugene Onegin' Concerning the Connection of Samples in Chains".
Markov had manually gone through the first 20,000 characters of Pushkin's "Eugene Onegin", looking at every pair of letters, writing down whether the letters were both vowels, both consonants, vowel-consonant, or consonant-vowel. Then he'd modelled the transitions between those four states with a Markov chain. The result disproved an assumption about the law of large numbers, an assumption crucial to Nekrasov's mathematical argument for free will. There's something about this mindset that always gets me--inventing the sledgehammer so you can use it to kill a fly.
The other two talks were a lot more technical. I was mostly able to follow them, but I don't think I got much out of them. Here's a summary of all three talks from someone else who was there. But I strongly recommend Hayes's article to anyone who reads this weblog.
(1) Thu Feb 28 2013 09:49 Ragtime Synchronicity:
"Bugs," said Krakowski. "In-tell-i-gence gathering devices. The
Constellation loves recording things. Now they're going to record
every conversation anyone ever has."
"I think you might be projecting a little."
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