Monday, January 31, 2005

Bush-Bashing Thought of the Day

Mayor of Baghdad: "We will build a statue for Bush."

Well, of course. They'll need something to topple when they overthrow the hated Bush regime.

My new email account is all grown up

My new email account, activated around 1/1 this year, just (yesterday) received its first phishing scam email.

Weekend Movie Review

Texas Chainsaw Massacre (2003) - A pointless remake of a classic. As pointless remakes go, Dawn of the Dead was better overall. A couple of pieces of advice for horror movie-makers:
1) When the only thing your pointless remake has going for it is a higher budget for gory makeup effects than the original, it is not to your benefit to hide the gory makeup effects by setting everything in such dim lighting that you can't actually make out what you're looking at in the darkness. This tactic also fails to enhance action scenes of people running from homicidal maniacs. Particularly when one of the things that the film you're remaking is specifically renowned for is demonstrating that dark != scary, by setting much of the horrific action in full daylight.
2) At some point, the following conversation should have taken place (spoilers below, if you care for some reason):
SCREENWRITER: You know what would be really cool? Ok, Leatherface takes the Lead Generic Young Person and throws her in the furnace room where he does his nasty stuff, and she finds her friend, Generic Young Person #2, hanging from a meathook, but he's still alive, and they can't get him down, so he begs her to "end it", so she grabs a knife and stabs him to end his suffering. Wouldn't that be awesome?
VOICE OF REASON: But why would Leatherface, who is apparently competent enough that he's been killing people for some time now without getting caught, leave a victim wandering loose in a room where he's got knives lying around? Big knives which could be used against him as weapons?
SCREENWRITER: Well, he is insane, maybe he just forgot. Although, now that you mention it, we don't really want her to be able to fight back... But that's OK, we'll just have her leave the knife buried in the guy's stomach.
V. O. R.: So she's scared out of her wits, but she just abandons the one weapon she might be able to defend herself with, even slightly? Great, so this will be yet another horror movie that depends on its characters behaving like morons. Oh, and by the way, stomach? She ends his suffering by stabbing him in the stomach? All that would actually do is make him hurt worse, and maybe allow him to eventually bleed to death in slightly less time than it would have taken anyway.
SCREENWRITER: You're right, there are too many problems with this idea. Forget it.
V. O. R.: While I'm at it, there are six or eight other scenes I wanted to talk to you about...

Friday, January 28, 2005

Sound Business Practices (cont'd.)

Guess how much fun I’m having canceling my Earthlink account. Go on, guess.

At 1:30 PM: "Unfortunately, we can't access any of your account information right now to cancel it. We're doing some system upgrades. Try calling back in two to four hours."

At 3:30 PM: "We're doing system upgrades right now, so we can't access your account information. Try calling back in four or five hours. I'd give it five, to be safe."

Old Stuff

I like museums. All kinds of museums. There's just something about looking at actual artifacts of the past that can't be duplicated.

Thursday, January 27, 2005

Sounds Fun

I wish this game really existed:
A "Clue"-derived board game based on the Kennedy Assasination. While the premise was fine ("It was Oswald with a repeat-action bolt rifle in the Book Depository." "No! It was the CIA with Multiple-repeat weapons behind the Green Fence!"), making light of a presidential assasination was not well-received in the marketplace, and the product was quickly dropped by major distributors. (1993)

I can even see what the board looks like in my mind. I want it.
Based on a suggestion from this response to a linux-is-not-ready-for-the-desktop rant, this window should be added as either an installation or user configuration option in all operating systems. Posted by Hello

It occurs to me, also, that once the user selects the second option, the words "by clicking on the button" should immediately vanish from the dialog box itself, just to be consistent.

Tuesday, January 25, 2005

Weekend DVD Reviews

Watched a bunch of movies this weekend...

Leon the Professional - I had previously seen the US theatrical cut of this film, but not this version, which includes some scenes that American test audiences apparently found icky. Unfortunately, that meant losing some interesting character development, such as Leon's story of how he came to America. As for the movie itself: Great. Natalie Portman's performance in this film is breathtaking. The only other child-actor I can think of that's even remotely comparable was Jodie Foster. Portman does a phenomenal job portraying this character as simultaneously innocent and world-weary. And it's fundamentally interesting to see a small, intimate, character-driven film that includes big action setpieces and explosions...

Dawn of the Dead (2004) - Well, remaking a classic rarely bodes well. As many reviewers have noted, the first 10 minutes are not bad, right up to where the opening credits start (even though they make them fast, running zombies, for no good reason). The cleverest thing this remake adds is Andy, the guy on the roof of the gun store out past the parking lot and across the street from the mall. The mall group communicates with him by holding up signs, and at one point Ving Rhames plays chess with him this way, but of course there's no way to get to him through the teeming horde of thousands of zombies.

But, he also provides a perfect example of how this film drops the ball, in a sequence that feels like it was written piecemeal, with each piece building on the previous bit, but without thinking through the implications that each bit would have had for the previous bit. What happens: The mall group is reinforcing some shuttle busses to make a break for the marina so they can take a boat out to an island, and they plan to rescue Andy on the way. Ving holds up a sign for Andy that says "5 more days". Andy's response sign is "Hungry". OK, makes sense - he's holed up in a gun store instead of a mall, so he doesn't have any food. So they need to get some food over to him so that he will have his strength up for the escape. They strap some packs of food onto a dog they found and have been taking care of, lower him down among the zombies (who are only interested in human flesh, so they ignore the dog), and Andy whistles and gets the dog to come over to him. This works, but alas, in the process of getting the dog inside, Andy is bitten by a zombie, which he tells our heroes over the radio they included with the food. They decide not to tell him that means he's doomed.

At this point, the woman who had been caring for the dog unexpectedly takes off in a truck that some of the characters had arrived in earlier, plows her way through the zombie horde, ending up just outside Andy's Gun Shop, and goes in to rescue the dog. Which leads to my first question: Why didn't they do this in the first place? She is, naturally, attacked by Zombie Andy. To rescue her, some of the others go down to the garage or somewhere, where there is an entrance to the sewers. They follow the sewer line over to a manhole just outside Andy's Gun Shop, and come out to rescue the girl. Which leads to my second question: Why didn't they do this in the first place? Rescue accomplished, they run back through the sewer to the mall, where they have to bust through the door to get back in, meaning the zombies can get in now. They rush around, load up the busses, and take off for the marina. Which leads to my third question: If they were ready to go at a moment's notice, why were they even going to wait another five days in the first place?

Actually, even before all of those, my zeroth question was: Why didn't they drive the truck over to rescue Andy when the truck first arrived? At that point, early in the apocalypse, there weren't more than a few dozen zombies between the mall and the gun store. It would have been a piece of cake to drive over and pick him up. So, like so many horror movies, the plot requires the characters to behave stupidly.

The Village - Before starting this movie, I turned to Brenda and said: "OK, without having viewed an inch of this film, here is my prediction of what the 'big twist' will be," just so I couldn't cheat later. And yes, I was correct. This has been my experience with every one of M. Night Shyamalan's movies so far, so I wonder if those who consider him a master of the twist ending just haven't watched enough Twilight Zones or something. Not a bad movie, overall. I liked it better than Signs. I'm not really convinced by those who insist on seeing it as a political allegory. It might have been inspired by politics in some way, but it doesn't really work as an allegory, in that it doesn't map well to the real world. I will also say: For "Those We Do Not Speak Of", they sure do talk about them an awful lot.

Shaun of the Dead - Now this is a good zombie movie. The basic joke for the first half hour or so is, what if the end of the world came and no one noticed? Chock full o' references to other zombie movies, right from the start: The music that plays over the company logos and the beginning of the film is music from the original Dawn of the Dead. Once the zombie action starts going, it hits all the basics: People being gruesomely torn to bits, the loved-one-becomes-a-zombie scene, the interpersonal conflict, etc. The other basic joke is seeing Shaun sort of putting his life in order and resolving some relationships, set against the backdrop of a zombie uprising. Plus, in one of the DVD extras, Shaun explains, "Contrary to certain recent theories, zombies are, in fact, quite slow."

Friday, January 21, 2005

Inaugration Musing

I would like to propose an amendment to the Constitution, to change the wording of Article II, Section 1, clause 8, which currently reads:
Clause 8: Before he enter on the Execution of his Office, he shall take the following Oath or Affirmation:--"I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will faithfully execute the Office of President of the United States, and will to the best of my Ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States."

I would like to add the following wording to this clause:
When taking this Oath or Affirmation for the second, or any subsequent, time, he shall add at the end the following phrase:--"And this time, I mean it."

(Note that I left it open-ended, just in case the 22nd Amendment is ever repealed.)

Thursday, January 20, 2005

Do ya feel lucky, punk?

Clint Eastwood Threatens Michael Moore

At the National Board of Review awards dinner:
"Michael Moore and I actually have a lot in common - we both appreciate living in a country where there's free expression... But, Michael, if you ever show up at my front door with a camera - I'll kill you."

The audience erupted in laughter, and Eastwood grinned dangerously.

"I mean it," he added, provoking more guffaws.

Oh, please, Michael, find out if he's bluffing...

Wednesday, January 19, 2005

Another Golden Age?

Giant zeppelin flies maiden voyage in Japan

"Zeppelin Luftschifftechnik starting building the new airships in 1996, and the sale to Nippon Airship Corporation was its first commercial deal."

I love the Japanese people. Bless them and their love of airships. Sometimes, their complete insanity lines up neatly with my own.

"It's not a balloon, it's an airship!"

Tuesday, January 18, 2005

That's so crazy, it just might work!

Ohio considering 1 percent bed tax

"Gov. Bob Taft's administration may propose a 1 percent statewide bed tax to promote travel and tourism in Ohio..."

A tax. To promote travel and tourism.

Monday, January 17, 2005

Capitalism in Action

"Using a proprietary technology, the FOXBlocker works to filter out FOX News from your cable lineup."

Well, at $8.95, I guess this would be cheaper than buying enough sand to bury your head in.

Tuesday, January 11, 2005

Free Games, Part Two

On to my disagreements, which are less to do with the thesis than with the way the argument for it is presented...

The history of software into the mid-80s is a demonstration of the ineffectiveness of proprietary software development.

As described in this article, proprietary software development seems pretty effective to me, provided you understand that its goal is to be profitable. Granted, if you define the goal to be "creating innovative software", it's been ineffective, but the people doing it don't particularly have that goal, except as it contributes to their actual goal (profits).

I challenge anyone else who defends the status quo to show me some innovative new titles from the major developers.

Not that I'm interested in defending the status quo, but (and I haven't even played all of these myself):
Katamari Damacy (totally unique). World of Warcraft (innovative gameplay within existing genre). Missing (integrated internet research within adventure game). If I'm allowed to go back more than 12 months, I'd name pretty much any game designed by Sid Meier, Will Wright, or Peter Molyneux.

The vast majority of titles will be the near-identical members of narrowly defined "genres."

But the same statement can be made about movies, music, books, television, Broadway musicals, or any other entertainment medium. I don't see any reason to believe this is related in any way to the use of a closed-source development model. Furthermore, if you're defining "innovation" as creating a game that can't be classified into an existing "genre", you're defining innovation far too narrowly. Is it not possible to innovate within an existing genre? Weren't 2001 and Star Wars both "innovative" films, even though both are squarely in the SF genre?

And furthermore, just as a side note: "Innovative" != "Good". "Innovative" != "Fun". For example, Trespasser: Jurassic Park was highly innovative in its use of physics modeling (down to supposedly using physics modeling to generate sound effects) and behavior modeling (of the dinosaurs). It was also pretty much universally reviled as a horrible, horrible game. From pre-release interviews with the designers, it seems they were more focused on making it innovative than on making it fun, and it suffered. As did the people who played it.

If there were truly paradigms broken in Half-Life 2, Halo 2, and Doom 3, I'd love to hear about them.

If there were truly paradigms broken in Casablanca, The Godfather, and Gone With the Wind, I'd love to hear about them.

I picked those films just because they're numbers 2, 3, and 4 on the AFI "100 Years...100 Movies" list (skipping Citizen Kane for rhetorical purpose, since it arguably did break some paradigms).

Heck, if part of the point of the article is that these are all sequels, then what paradigms were broken in The Godfather, Part II, The Empire Strikes Back, or Dawn of the Dead, all sequels which are regarded as equal to or better than the originals? Sequels are not inherently inferior. They're often inferior in practice, but it isn't a reliable predictor of quality in games any more than it is in movies. The Grand Theft Auto series, for example, wasn't particularly interesting until GTA III, and each of the sequels since that one (GTA: Vice City and GTA: San Andreas) have gone even further with the innovative open-ended gameplay they introduced in III.

So, what does the author give as the lone example of an open-source game, to demonstrate how open-source fosters innovation? Vega Strike: "Daniel says he got his inspiration for Vega Strike from the DOS game Privateer, a game which those of with a bit more historical background will recognize as a descendent of Elite, the classic Firebird space trading and combat simulation." An "innovative" remake of a remake. The computer-gaming equivalent of Last Man Standing. The primary innovation cited by the author: The very fact that the game is open source ("But what's really innovative is that, unlike the previous games in the genre, Vega Strike allows fans to not only play the game, but get to help out with its ongoing development!") Sorry, but if your goal is to show how open source development fosters more innovation that closed development, you can't claim the open source model itself as an innovation. That's cheating.

And then, of course, there's this: "Doom is clearly one of those games we might describe as "innovative," or, at the very least, "influential."" And developed under a closed source model. It was only opened to the public later. And the long-term success of games like Doom, and Quake, and Half-Life, and Civilization II, and others, is at least partly due to the thriving "mod" communities that sprung up around them. Modding is only possible where the game is open to at least some degree, at least allowing new art/text assets (what Stallman called the "art/fiction", separable from the engine). The publishers have seen the value (to both themselves and their customers) in allowing this, and lately, there are many, many games with this level of modifiability build in, even when the code isn't open in a FSF sense.

Monday, January 10, 2005

Free Games, Part One

I have some things to say about this article, Hackers, Slackers, and Shackles. But it's a long bunch of things to say, so I'm splitting it in two. I'll post the rest in a day or so.

Before I say anything else, let me say that I mostly agree with the central argument of this article, that computer gaming as a whole would benefit from more open code. I've believed for some time in what Stallman is quoted as saying, that "A game scenario can be considered art/fiction rather than software. So it is okay to split the game into engine and scenario, then treat the engine as software and the scenario as art/fiction." In other words, open the engine, but protect the "content".

In fact, I've thought for a long time that the easiest way to "fix" the entire software-intellectual-property morass is as follows:

1) Repeal all copyright legislation passed since at least 1976, if not earlier.
2) Transfer functional computer software to patent law, rather than copyright.
3) Eliminate patents altogether.

Reasoning: In its original form, copyright law was pretty inoffensive, and in fact served largely as a set of limitations on what the copyright holder could do (e.g., you can't sue to prevent "fair use"). Returning to that would eliminate most of the current problems with IP.

From a libertarian perspective, I justify having copyright law of any sort as merely a sort of standardized license. What I mean is that from a free-trade perspective, I can justify "shrink-wrap licenses" - I, as a seller, have the right to refuse to sell to you unless you agree to the terms of my license. There is some benefit to having the terms of such a license be standardized from one product to another (avoiding confusion in the marketplace, for example), and as I said, early copyright law limited how restrictive that license was allowed to be.

Next, I know many people panic at the very thought of "software patents", but since step 3 in my plan is to do away with patents entirely, hopefully they will listen to my reasons for doing it this way.

Originally (simplifying a bit), copyrights were intended to apply to expressions of ideas (i.e., art), and patents to functional applications (i.e., machinery/processes). To me, a piece of software has more in common with functional machinery than with artistic expression. In fact, one of the basic tenets of computer science is that any software is theoretically reproducible in hardware - you could build a mechanical Microsoft Word device, if you really wanted to. It'd be big and ugly, but it could be done (and not to imply that the real MS Word isn't big and ugly).

The reason software is covered by copyright rather than patent law is that when the first cases reached court, the software companies wanted copyright protection, because it offered greater protections than patents. So they argued that since software code is, more or less, readable by humans, it is analogous to literary expression, which would be copyrightable, not patentable. The first judge to rule on this, not knowing any better, bought the argument. Well, software was an entirely new endeavor at that time, and there was really no guidance whatsoever in existing law. But we do know better now, and this should be fixed.

(There was, and is, also a body of case law saying that algorithms cannot be patented, and since all software is algorithmic, none can be patented. But then this would also imply that any mechanical device that can be reproduced algorithmically could not be patented, which means any machine that can be simulated in software, which probably means nearly any machine at all.)

Aside: As this Slashdot post suggests, the open source model probably doesn't work as well for "art" as for functional software. With code, there are objective criteria for deciding the merit of a given code change: Does it work? Does it avoid breaking anything else that used to work? Artistic expression is so subjective that every artist working on a project may have a different vision, and what usually happens (movies are a good example) is that either one person takes charge and wrests their own vision into being, or the result is a designed-by-committee monster, tending toward either blandness or overcomplexity, sometimes both. Of course, people are still free to use a Creative Commons license if they so choose.

And as for eliminating patents, this is simply because I find myself unable to come up with a libertarian justification for them. At most, if I'm a seller of something like a car, I might be allowed to have something like a "shrinkwrap license" prohibiting the buyer from reverse-engineering the car. But if you simply take some idea from the car and engineer your own implementation, I can't find any way to justify government intervention to prevent that.

Saturday, January 08, 2005

Report from CES

Dolby demos Dolby Digital Plus

"Dolby Digital Plus ... supports 13.1 channels."

Yes! Triskaidekaphonic sound! Finally!

Let me see, now... in addition to the subwoofer, the current max, 7.1, has 3 front, 4 rear. Perhaps this adds 3 right-side and 3 left-side speakers? Or maybe 3 front, 3 rear, 3 right, 3 left, and one more "top" speaker right in the middle of the ceiling? How about splitting the front/rear sets of speakers into "upper" and "lower", plus an extra one, say, under your chair?

Or perhaps just 12 evenly spaced around the listening area in a dodecahedron, plus one more you wear on your head like a hat, for, y'know, internal monologues and narrators and things like that.

Friday, January 07, 2005

Game Nostalgia

Somebody get this freakin’ duck away from me!

Plus: Not really nostalgic, but this card game seems like it would have real potential for a party game.

Wobbler had written an actual computer game like this once. It was called "Journey to Alpha Centauri". It was a screen with some dots on it. Because, he said, it happened in real time, which no-one had ever heard of until computers. He'd seen on TV that it took three thousand years to get to Alpha Centauri. He had written it so that if anyone kept their computer on for three thousand years, they'd be rewarded by a little dot appearing in the middle of the screen, and then a message saying, "Welcome to Alpha Centauri. Now go home."
(Terry Pratchett, Only You Can Save Mankind)

Fox News: A Double-Edged Sword

One can find both good and bad things there.

First, here's a Fox News article, called "Some See Real Danger in Computer Games" (because, I suppose, it was a catchier title than "Most See No Danger in Computer Games", or similar). We learn:
But critics say sometimes players can't turn off the virtual life and return to the real one.

"You don't eat meals, or you actually have people bring food to you," said Dr. David Greenfield of the Center for Internet Studies. "Or, you keep food stashed next to the computer because you literally do not want to get up from the computer."

Sounds terrible. It's a good thing this sort of behavior is confined to computer games, and not occurring in connection with other activities like watching football on TV, or anything...
The pastime can be so addictive for some that they have given EverQuest a sinister nickname — "EverCrack."

Um, no, they have given EverQuest a humorous nickname - "EverCrack." You see, the humor derives from the exaggeration of the compelling qualities of the game, by inflating them to the level of chemical dependency. It is patently absurd to compare the "addictiveness" of a computer game to that of crack cocaine, hence the humor.
In 2001, 21-year-old Shawn Woolley (search), a Wisconsin man who suffered from epilepsy, depression and schizoid personality disorder, moved back in with his mother and quit his job.

Not long afterward, he killed himself over a personal betrayal — in the EverQuest world.

Wait just a doggone minute: He was epileptic, depressed, schizoid, unemployed, and living with his mother, and you conclude that his suicide was caused by a damn computer game? Jesus christ on skis.

On the other hand, to restore one's faith in humanity, this other story gives me a warm fuzzy feeling: Hooker Tip Leads to Child Porn Bust.

Tuesday, January 04, 2005

Life, Monty Python Inch Closer

Judge creates disorder in the court

This Ohio judge, Dallas Powers, has several sexual harassment complaints filed against him. He hasn't presided in court since the complaints started coming out (though it's unclear from the story whether this is because of the complaints, or just because he’s only a part-time judge). Another judge had issued an order saying that county employees could leave the office if they felt threatened when Powers was there.

So Powers shows up at the court offices Monday, unexpectedly, with letters firing a bunch of people. And with his own order rescinding the order allowing people to leave the building when he was there. His order told them to stay in their offices and communicate with him through another employee.

So, another judge responded to all this by appointing himself presiding judge of the court, and issuing his own order barring Powers from the building through 2/24. On his way out the door, Powers recanted his firings from earlier in the day (I’m guessing he was allowed to do this to save face, rather than having those orders rescinded by the other judge).

And it struck me that this entire story was already done, thirty-odd years ago, as a Monty Python sketch (the whole thing is available here):

Call the next defendant. The Honourable Mr Justice Kilbraken. (a very elderly judge in full robes comes into the dock) If I may charge you m'lud, you are charged m'lud that on the fourteenth day of June 1970, at the Central Criminal Court, you did commit acts likely to cause a breach of the peace. How plead you m'lud, guilty or not guilty?

Judge Kilbraken
Not guilty. Case not proven. Court adjourned.

He hits the dock. Everyone gets up and starts walking out talking to each other.

No, no, no, no, no, no, no. (they all stop, go back and sit down again) No, you're in the dock, m'lud.

Judge Kilbraken
I'm a judge, m'lud.

So am I, m'lud, so watch it.


Call exhibit A.

Two court ushers carry in a thing with a sheet over it. They pull off the sheet to reveal a very sexy girl in a provocative pose.

Exhibit A m'lud, Miss Rita Thang, an artist's model, Swedish accordion teacher and cane-chair sales lady, was found guilty under the Rude Behaviour Act in the accused's court. The accused, m'lud, sentenced her to be taken from this place and brought round to his place.

Second Counsel
Objection, m'lud.

Judge Kilbraken
Objection sustained.

You shut up! Objection overruled.

The accused then commented on Miss Thang's bodily structure, made several not-at-all legal remarks on the subject of fun and then placed his robes over his head and began to emit low moans.

Have you anything to say in your defense?

Judge Kilbraken
I haven't had any for weeks.

Saturday, January 01, 2005

Happy New Year

Cable modem is up and running. Looks about twice as fast as the DSL was, so that's nice.

We barely escaped the record snowfall in Dayton to get to my parents' house for Christmas. We had planned on leaving on Thursday, but when they kept revising the predicted snowfall higher and higher all day Wednesday, we took off work early and quickly packed, and were on the road by 5:00 Wednesday. I wanted to get north of the path of the storm before it all came down. There were already about 5 inches of snow on the ground when we left, and I suspect if we'd waited another hour, we wouldn't have made it. We made it to the other side of Indianapolis after about 4 hours of driving, spent the night, and drove the rest of the way the next day.

When we got up there, we found out that a cousin of mine, Amanda, who's currently living in Chicago, wasn't going to be able to make it home (about 25 minutes away from Dayton) because of the storm, so she came up to my folks' house also. After the last-minute shopping so she'd have something to open, I think she may have ended up with more presents than anyone else. :-)

Highlights of the haul this year: A copy of Murray Rothbard's Man, Economy, and State. The Marx Brothers Silver Screen Collection. A whole mess of Homestar Runner stuff - the Strong Bad Emails DVD set, a Trogdor polo shirt, the series 2 figurines, and a plush The Cheat, which makes The Cheat noises when you kick it. I bought myself a couple of Tom Waits CDs, and a Michael Hedges CD.