All posts by Stephen

About Stephen

The LOLTrek guy. Science lecturer, robotics researcher, award-winning interactive fiction author, Disasterpiece Theatre and WhatTheCast podcaster, and occasional programmer. My Google Profile+

Liza Loves Animals On the Internet

Misty has been haunting Pinterest ever since she discovered that it would serve her a never-ending stream of Doctor Who-related content. A while back she thought, what if I showed our animal-obsessed daughter the Pinterest board that has nothing but animals on it?

The answer: Liza becomes so enamored of Pinterest that her gasps of excitement suck all of the oxygen out of the room.

The best part is that I shot this video some twenty minutes after Liza first started looking at animals on Pinterest. This is her after she’s calmed down.

Have a Powerful Day!

Yesterday I tweeted a link to Rhett Allain’s fun article comparing name-brand batteries to dollar-store batteries. Rhett covers numerically approximating integrals, energy, energy density, and cost per joule of energy. As a bonus, his commenters taught me about eneloop batteries. My take-away from his article: if you’re going to use disposable batteries and you’re buying from a local store rather than Amazon, it’s worth buying the name-brand ones to minimize waste since all of the batteries he tested had roughly the same cost per joule1.

(Added later: it turns out Rhett was comparing name-brand alkaline batteries to dollar store “heavy duty” zinc chloride batteries. That doesn’t invalidate the results, but it doesn’t answer whether or not the dollar store alkalines would be better or worse than name brand ones.)

Shortly after I tweeted the link, I got a reply from the Rayovac twitter account.

[blackbirdpie url=”http://twitter.com/rayovac/status/161858095348322304″]

This amused me to no end: I’d posted a link to a nice analysis of battery lifetimes, complete with data and plots, and the Rayovac twitter account’s reply claimed their batteries’ awesomeness (without any data) and linked to coupons. A friend of mine and I laughed about this spamming on Twitter. Big mistake: Rayovac wasn’t about to let that stand.

[blackbirdpie url=”http://twitter.com/rayovac/status/161882457241698305″]

Well. I’ve learned my lesson. Links to coupons and unsubstantiated claims of battery lifetime in response to an article with actual battery lifetime data is absolutely not spam.

Also, “Have a Powerful day!” is how I’m going to say goodbye from now on.

1There are a number of possible refinements to Rhett’s quick-and-dirty Mythbusters-level analysis, including measuring a ton of batteries’ characteristics to get a better average measurement, that might alter the final result, but that’s just me being nit-picky. And physicists are never nit-picky.

Three New Space Quest Fan Games

Growing up, I loved the Sierra On-Line video games. They were the first adventure games I played that had graphics. Oh, the graphics they had! Sixteen colors! (Assuming you had an IBM PCjr or a Tandy 1000, like me.) And the music! Blippy bloopy music! Plus instant-death and read-the-designer’s-mind puzzles!

Look, it was the ’80s. We took what we could get.

They had several series, but my favorite by far was Space Quest. The early games had a serious science fiction setting contrasted with a bumbling protagonist named Roger Wilco who, like Inspector Clouseau, managed to succeed despite himself. If you want an idea of what the early Space Quest games were like, read through this “Let’s Play” transcript from Space Quest I.

Space Quest 1 and the washing machine puzzleI blazed through Space Quest I…until I snuck on board the evil Sariens’ spaceship. I hit a point where I was skulking in a laundry room when a Sarien came in and shot me. I hid in the washing machine, only to have the Sarien turn on the washing machine. I assumed that that killed me, since the game was as full of instant-death moments as a deep-fried turducken is of cholesterol, so I reloaded and tried to find another solution.

I failed. I failed so hard that I scraped together my allowance and bought the hint book. Imagine my surprise when I read the clues for this puzzle to find out that hiding in the washing machine didn’t kill me, it magically dressed me in a Sarien uniform.

Even today I remember how stupid I felt.

Despite that moment of dumbness, I kept going and ended up being a fan of the Space Quest series. Now, nearly two decades since the last Space Quest game was released, there is not one, not two, but three fan-made sequels. In one month. This is akin to finding a twenty-dollar bill in the couch and pulling it out to find two thousand-dollar bills taped to the twenty.

Space Quest 2: Vohaul's Revenge Remake screenshotThe first is a remake of Space Quest II: Vohaul’s Revenge. The creators have replaced the original game’s text parser (which was fiddly at the best of times) with the icon-based interface Sierra used in its later adventures, updated the graphics, and added voice acting. I loved SQ2 when I was wee, which means that it’s probably a terrible game that you should never play. Nevertheless, if you play only one SQ2, this remake should be it.

Space Quest: Vohaul Strikes Back screenshotThe second is Vohaul Strikes Back. It’s an entirely new game in the Space Quest universe that’s set after the official series ended. By all accounts it’s somewhat self-referential but still playable even if you’re not already a fan of the series, and has a lot of the humor you’d expect from a Space Quest sequel.

Space Quest: Incinerations screenshotThe final one is Space Quest: Incinerations. This is the one that I find the most intriguing. For one, all of the graphics look like rotoscoped CG characters. For another, the scope of the game is much larger and more epic than the others — it’s Space Quest on a more truly interstellar scale. It also appears to fit tightly into the Space Quest universe, with many plot elements from earlier games making an appearance.

Richard Cobbett reviewed all three games for Rock, Paper Shotgun if you’d like to learn more — and I know you do. Me? I’m going to be playing Incinerations this weekend.

This SOPA/PIPA Protest Thing is Way Overrated

If you paid attention to the internet at all yesterday, you probably saw people complaining about the proposed US bills SOPA and PIPA. The Stop Online Piracy Act and the Protect Intellectual Property Act are designed to help content creators fight piracy.

Oh, sure, there’s been a lot of whining from the usual suspects about how it will stifle free speech and be used as a club by the entertainment industry. Sure, the bills are worded so broadly that they could be used for all kinds of nasty things. And perhaps content creators from Hollywood editors to authors have said that SOPA and PIPA are like fighting piracy by burning all of your boats.

That’s all balderdash, as my Disasterpiece Theatre co-hosts and I are here to show you. While you were doing silly protests and calling congresspersons and writing letters, we recorded an episode that demonstrated how SOPA and PIPA have no effect on content creators.

So there.

Three Very Small Exoplanets

NASA’s Kepler spacecraft, which is looking for planets outside our solar system, has found three of the smallest exoplanets yet. They’re all smaller than Earth — their radii are 0.78, 0.73 and 0.57 times that of Earth’s — and the smallest is about the size of Mars.

Kepler Tiny Exoplanet Artist's RenditionThey’re very close to their star, too close to be good candidates for life because liquid water can’t exist on them, and their star is a red dwarf. But what makes them special is that they are so small.

The techniques we use for finding exoplanets work best with large, massive planets, as I’ve mentioned before. It’s only been recently that we’ve been able to find planets of around Earth’s size, and especially those that are likely to be rocky, terrestrial planets like Earth. The three that Kepler’s found fall into that small-rocky territory. That’s crucial — we’ve mainly found gas giants, which made astronomers wonder if our solar system was an unusual one because it has so many rocky planets in it. As we find more rocky planets, we learn more about how solar systems form and help us understand if life here on Earth is a fluke or likely to be repeated across the galaxy.

Scientific America has a good discussion of why Kepler was able to find these three planets, if you’d like to know more. What’s really exciting is that Kepler may be able to discover planets as small as our Moon, and given the firehose of data coming out of Kepler, there are likely many more discoveries where these three came from.

Two Articles About Publishers

One, SF author Charlie Stross discusses publishers’ insistence on locking ebooks with DRM.

The corporate drive for DRM is motivated by the fear of ebook piracy. But aside from piracy, the biggest ebook-related threat to the Big Six is called Amazon.com. Until 2008, ebooks were a tiny market segment, under 1% and easily overlooked; but in 2009 ebook sales began to rise exponentially, and ebooks now account for over 20% of all fiction sales. In some areas ebooks are up to 40% of the market and rising rapidly. (I am not making that last figure up: I’m speaking from my own sales figures.) And Amazon have got 80% of the ebook retail market….

As ebook sales mushroom, the Big Six’s insistence on DRM has proven to be a hideous mistake. Rather than reducing piracy[*], it has locked customers in Amazon’s walled garden, which in turn increases Amazon’s leverage over publishers. And unlike pirated copies (which don’t automatically represent lost sales) Amazon is a direct revenue threat because Amazon are have no qualms about squeezing their suppliers — or trying to poach authors for their “direct” publishing channel by offering initially favourable terms.

Two, Jane at Dear Author talks about how publishers are disconnected from actual readers.

[W]hat publishers believe customers should do and how publishers believe they think doesn’t actually matter. It’s what customers do and what customers believe that should be the guideposts. Aside from how wrongly I think [Hachette CEO Armand] Noury views the reader (and this isn’t a surprise because readers aren’t his customers) readers, even those who are willing to buy new Kindles every new product cycle or new iPads aren’t looking at lending as a financial break. Instead, they are looking at trying to get a return on their dollar spent. Free books or low cost access to books increases discoverability. It isn’t about “helping” the pocket book of the reader. (Digital library lending and library lending, in general, sometimes invokes the corporate citizenship concept and the moral responsibility that publishers and those in the publishing ecosystem may have to support the library and I think that is a separate issue. I want to acknowledge that publishers have the right to make a business decision, even a bad one).

Books are simply one of many entertainment option that readers have at their fingertips. It is foolish to think that readers wouldn’t want immediate access to books as they have immediate access to movies, music, and video games. The big problem that publishers have here is not anticipating the moves of the readers. Publishing does not stand alone in a separate silo. Instead, readers’ expectations toward access and price of content is influenced heavily by other entertainment options. Thus if every other entertainment option that is at a reader’s disposal offers digital downloads, publishing needs to offer digital downloads. If every other entertainment option that is at a reader’s disposal offers some type of subscription access to unlimited content, publishing needs to offer that.

Every mass market entertainment industry has had to re-learn the lessons that previous mass market entertainment industries learned. Book publishers have had more of a grace period because their product wasn’t inherently digital until recently. As soon as music was converted to bits and put on CDs, consumers were able to pull those bits back off the CD. The same thing happened with movies when they went to DVDs. Now that books are available as .mobi and .epub files, publishers have moved into the houses next to the music and movie industries.

The publishers are in a battle for their lives with Amazon, and Amazon is cleverly positioning themselves as fighting for the reader and for the author — see their current royalties offer of 70% of net if you publish your book through their Digital Text Platform. The publishers aren’t used to selling books to readers, they’re used to selling books to retailers, and so don’t necessarily think of readers as someone whom they need to win over. That goes double for people who read books on Kindles or iPads.

I don’t particularly want Amazon to win this war. If they lock up publishing in any meaningful way (which, as Charlie points out, publishers are helping them do by insisting on DRM that means an ebook bought from Amazon can only be read through Amazon), I expect them to do what Wal-Mart and other large retailers have done and start driving up prices and lowering royalties. But if publishers can’t evolve faster, it seems likely that Amazon will come out on top.

cover to Ready Player One, by Ernest Cline

Ready Player One Reinforces Some Bad Geek Outlooks

(This is a critical essay about Ready Player One by Ernest Cline and as such contains a lot of spoilers about the book.)

cover to Ready Player One, by Ernest ClineIn 2044, cheap energy has ended and climate change and wars wrack the world. Most people escape reality by spending their time in OASIS, a virtual reality created by a programmer named James Halliday. People shop, go to school, work and play games inside OASIS. When Halliday dies, his wealth and OASIS itself is left to whomever can solve his riddles and find the crystal egg hidden inside OASIS. Since Halliday grew up in the 1980s, all of the puzzles revolve around 1980s geek pop culture. Ready Player One may be set in 2044, but its real roots lie in the 1980s.

Enter Wade Watts. He’s a poor teenager who is obsessed with solving Halliday’s riddles. He’s spent his life as a “gunter”, an egg hunter who’s obsessively memorized every movie, TV show, comic, and video game that Halliday was enamored of. He manages to solve Halliday’s first puzzle, which gets his name on the leaderboard and sets off a frantic race for Halliday’s billions.

Ready Player One, by Ernest Cline, is part coming-of-age journey, part mystery. One of the characters explicitly compares Halliday’s quest (and thus the book itself) to the Atari 2600 Swordquest games such as Earthworld1, but the novel’s more literary antecedent is Ellen Raskin’s The Westing Game, with its reclusive and wealthy businessman who, upon his death, wills his fortune to whomever can solve his word puzzles. The book is full of geek tropes. Beyond the obvious and ever-present references to 1980s nerd media there’s the theme of lone gunters like Wade, who love OASIS and the freedom it (supposedly) provides, versus the evil megacorporation I.O.I., which has hired an untold number of gamers and 1980s scholars in an effort to gain control of OASIS. There are geek conversations like “Who would win if Mechagodzilla fought Ultraman? Wouldn’t that be cool!” turned into actual events in the book.

The cavalcade of 1980s references are used for color and as the key to solving puzzles, but they’re never explored in any depth. It’s as if Cline is saying, “Hey, remember how cool that thing from your childhood was? Yeah, it was really cool.”2 It’s fun to see geek culture references blenderized and re-mixed in the same way that modern culture is blended together online, mashing up TV shows, movies, and memes3, but there’s little more to the references than that.

The book focuses on Wade’s quest to solve Halliday’s puzzle and become owner of OASIS. Along the way he meets other gunters, like his friend Aech and his rival and eventual love interest Art3mis, and they grow apart and together as in any 80s teen film. Ready Player One alternates between action, geek banter among friends, and large info-dumps that slow the book’s pace. It’s at its best when it’s slinging nostalgic references as fast as it can, like how OASIS only costs twenty-five cents for a lifetime account — “it’s the greatest videogame ever created, and it only costs a quarter” as the book tells us.

I’m square in Ready Player One‘s demographic crosshairs, as I’m a geek who grew up in the 1980s playing videogames, watching science fiction movies, and playing Dungeons and Dragons. Even now I spend my spare time writing text adventures, a videogame genre that rose to prominence around 1981 and was commercially dead by the decade’s end. Given my history, it’s no surprise that I recognized the riddles that referred to the old D&D module “Tomb of Horrors” and to Zork. It’s also no surprise that I found the book so engaging, at least at first. Unfortunately, by the end I was not nearly as fond of Ready Player One.

One thing that I didn’t enjoy is the uncritical nostalgia that forms the core of the book. It celebrates obsessive geek trivia knowledge, the kind that is like a drunkard’s walk through Wikipedia. James Halliday, who created OASIS, uses his wealth and humanity’s desperation to encourage people to obsess about a decade that is more than half a century gone, and to do so without understanding the context in which that decade’s pop culture was created. As Halliday’s business partner Ogden Morrow said after Halliday’s death, “Jim always wanted everyone to share his obsessions, to love the same things he loved. I think this contest is his way of giving the entire world an incentive to do just that.” The book celebrates that obsessive love, and it is the kind of love that admits no growth and no change, that refuses to let go of the past.

That’s minor next to the book’s big problem: the book’s ending act, to use an 80s metaphor, has several after school special moments crammed in it, complete with giant flashing moral statements. However, those moral statements are simplistic and misguided, and are uneasily wedded to a John Hughes teen coming-of-age story.

Take Wade’s friend Aech. When we first meet Aech we’re told that his avatar was a “tall, broad-shouldered Caucasian male with dark hair and brown eyes”. Given that Aech’s avatar is the only one whose racial characteristics are described, it’s no shock that, when Wade meets Aech outside of OASIS, he turns out to be female, African American, and gay. Aech’s mom taught her to pass4 online as a white male because it made life easier. When she came out to her mom, her mom threw Aech out of the house. Wade’s response to learning this is a more convoluted version of the plaintive cry, “But I don’t see race!”

As we continued to talk, going through the motions of getting to know each other, I realized that we already did know each other, as well as any two people could. We’d known each other for years, in the most intimate way possible. We’d connected on a purely mental level. I understood her, trusted her, and loved her as a dear friend. None of that had changed, or could be changed by anything as inconsequential as her gender, or skin color, or sexual orientation.

This erases key components of who Aech is. Racism is clearly alive and well given Aech’s mom’s advice to her. In fact, it’s undoubtedly worse in the US of 2044 since times are so bad and unrest leads to greater racial tensions as people fight to keep what little they have. Homosexuality is still contentious, given how Aech’s mom threw her out of the house for being gay and how “fag” is still an insult:

I-r0k flipped [Aech] the bird. “If you two fags already knew about the Swordquest contest, how come I’ve never once heard you mention it?”

Aech’s gender, race and sexuality and how she’s reacted to them are key parts of who she is. They have to be, if she is to be human and not a two-dimensional construct. Ready Player One‘s approach to this is to minimize those aspects of Aech. She’s the only person of color and only homosexual in the entire book, making her stand in for all gay or non-white geeks. And the message the book has for gay or non-white geeks is the same one nerd culture typically broadcasts: pretend to be white, straight and male and we’ll get along just fine.

Then there’s the ongoing theme that what really matters is the real world. At various points in the book Wade sounds vaguely ashamed of how he’s spent his young life, talking about how he’s unhealthily obsessive about Halliday’s quest. Ogden Morrow, Halliday’s former partner, agrees.

But years later, Morrow wrote in his autobiography that he’d left GSS because…he felt that OASIS had evolved into something horrible. “It had become a self-imposed prison for humanity,” he wrote. “A pleasant place for the world to hide from its problems while human civilization slowly collapses, primarily due to neglect.”

You’d think that Halliday, who always had problems relating to people and spent the ending years of his life building and playing OASIS, wouldn’t agree, but he does. His parting advice to Wade, after Wade has finished Halliday’s quest, is as subtle as Helen Hunt’s famous scene from Desperate Lives.

“I created the OASIS because I never felt at home in the real world….I was afraid, for all of my life. Right up until I knew it was ending. That was when I realized, as terrifying and painful as reality can be, it’s also the only place where you can find true happiness. Because reality is real.”

The problem is, the rest of the novel contradicts that. Early on Wade says that he’s obsessed with 80s pop culture to an unhealthy degree, but it turns out to be exactly what he needs to win the girl and get all the money at the end.

Standing there, under the bleak fluorescents of my tiny one-room apartment, there was no escaping the truth. In real life, I was nothing but an antisocial hermit. A recluse. A pale-skinned pop culture-obsessed geek. An agoraphobic shut-in, with no real friends, family, or genuine human contact. I was just another sad, lost, lonely soul, wasting his life on a glorified videogame.

But not in OASIS. In there, I was the great Parzival. World-famous gunter and international celebrity. People asked for my autograph. I had a fan club. Several, actually…. I was paid to endorse products. People admired and looked up to me.

And Wade doesn’t have any real epiphany that he should make the world better. His girlfriend/geek crush object Art3mis wants to spend money to tackle world hunger, fix the environment, and solve the energy crisis. By the end of the book Wade agrees, kind of sort of, but it never goes beyond that. Wade begins the novel completely broke both in real life and in OASIS, living in a giant maze of stacked trailer homes in Oklahoma City and being unable to go anywhere in OASIS other than the educational world of Ludus. By the end he’s rich, has killer equipment with which to play OASIS, and has even been flown about the post cheap energy world in a private jet. You never get the sense that Wade remembers how bad off the world is, or is driven to make it better. It’s as if Katniss won the Hunger Games and wholeheartedly embraced her new celebrity life, uninterested in making her District’s life better. That kind of leveling up is fine for a CRPG, but it’s heartless in a world as broken as that of Ready Player One. And no matter how much Halliday says that the real world matters, his actions don’t line up with his words. He decided to give all of his money away in an online competition instead of using it to improve the real world. In terms of computer billionaires, he is more Steve Jobs than Bill Gates.

If Ready Player One had stuck with geek in-jokes and references tied to an action plot about Wade leveling up and hacking the Gibson5, it’d be a decent piece of fluff. As it stands, it celebrates the self-referential, inward-looking nature of geek culture while reinforcing some of its more blinkered views of the world and the people in it.

1I played this game when I was young but never made any progress in it. The game gave clues that referenced a page and panel in the included comic book, and we were supposed to find a word in that panel. It wasn’t until I read the Wikipedia article on the games that I realized that I was supposed to look for the words hidden in the background instead of what the characters in the comic book were saying. Don’t I feel dumb.

2I can imagine an alternate universe version of this book that plays with the connection between the latchkey kid generation of the 1980s and their consumption and love of that era’s media, one that deconstructs references to Thundercats and War Games. Ready Player One is not that book, not that it has to be.

3See, for example Doctor Who as a steampunk My Little Pony.

4With all that implies.

5Yes, that’s a 1990s geek reference. I am large, I contain decades.

Science Experiments for Unimpressed Kids: Surface Tension

A while back, Eli and Liza excitedly talked about water striders. “They walk on water, dad!”

As a scientist, I never miss a teachable opportunity. “You know why water striders can walk on water?” I asked them. “It’s because of surface tension. I’ll show you!”

How to Demonstrate Surface Tension

This easy and fun experiment will be sure to captivate absolutely no one.

Equipment

  • Glass of water
  • Needle
  • A piece of toilet paper
  • One or more kids who will be unimpressed by your experiment
  1. Tear off an amount of toilet paper that’s small enough to fit in the glass but large enough for the needle to rest on it.
  2. After you make sure your fingers and the needle are dry, place the needle on the toilet paper.
  3. When the kids ask why you’ve taken toilet paper out of the bathroom, explain that you’re going to use it to make a needle float.
  4. Place the toilet paper and needle on top of the water.
  5. Tell the kids, “Watch! Watch what happens when the toilet paper sinks.”
  6. Wait for the toilet paper to sink.
  7. Keep waiting.
  8. When the unimpressed kids wander off, tell them, “Don’t go anywhere! It’s about to happen!”
  9. Poke at the toilet paper to try to make it sink.
  10. Poke some more, until the needle sinks and you realize that you’ve splashed water on the needle, ruining the experiment.
  11. Say to the kids, “No, it’ll work, I swear. Just let me try again.” Ignore them rolling their eyes.
  12. Dry off the needle. Repeat steps 1 through 4.
  13. This time, be more careful when you poke the toilet paper and make it sink.
  14. With the needle floating on the water, excitedly say, “Kids! Come look! The water’s surface tension is holding it up.”
  15. Start to explain that the liquid is made up of molecules that are like small magnets and pull towards each other, which lets them hold up the needle. Stop when you realize the kids aren’t listening.
  16. Instead say, “If you look carefully at the water you can see where the top of the water is being pushed down by how the lights reflect off of it.”
  17. When you move the glass to better catch the light, slosh the water so that the needle sinks.
  18. Give up and let the kids wander away.

Flash Mob Fandom

For a few months now I’ve been doing the Disasterpiece Theatre podcast with Alex, where we come up with terrible ideas for Hollywood movies. We’ve had some guests on the podcast, like Colin Ferguson, but none quite like Misha Collins. He’s one of the stars of the TV show Supernatural and has a reputation for toying with his own fanbase.

During our taping he lived up to that reputation. When asked to pitch a movie version of Supernatural, he said,

“Honestly, I’m just gonna answer this quickly to get it over with. Uh, basically it’s gonna be a gay porn incest story…”

He also attached Kermit the Frog as the director.

To a large extent he pitched this because some segments of Supernatural fandom are into Wincest, in which the show’s main protagonists, who are brothers, are romantically involved. Given that, would you believe that Supernatural fandom enjoyed this?

Graph of traffic due to the Disasterpiece Theatre Misha Collins episode

Those giant bars on the left represent the traffic sent to the blog thanks to the episode being mentioned on the fandom triumvirate of Twitter, Tumblr, and, er, tLivejournal. You’ll note that the traffic to the left is hard to see in the shadow of Misha’s fandom.

So there you have it. For anyone looking for an instant hit in traffic, all you have to do is have Misha Collins talk about incest on your podcast.