Friday, December 19, 2014

Friday Links!

From Jesse Leimkuehler, and this is an amazing story: The Rotting Underwater Ballroom of a Victorian Bernie Madoff.

From Ken Dean, and the technology here is fantastic: The Visual Trickery That Turns Hockey Rinks Into Lakes of Fire.

Okay, while I still find the idea that this could ever happen utterly remote, it's certainly interesting to read about: These Dreamers Are Actually Making Progress Building Elon’s Hyperloop.

From The Edwin Garcia Links Machine, and this is terrific: This fan-made Team Fortress 2 short has been a year in the making. Also, and holy cow, this is incredible: Molecular Cloud Barnard 68. Next, and this will blow your mind, it's WWII’s Strangest Battle: When Americans and Germans Fought Together. One more, and it's an explanation of a term we've all heard but may not all understand: The Fermi Paradox.

From Steven Davis, and this is a droll bit of detective work from a bygone era: How Jessica Mitford Exposed A $48m Scam From America’s Literary Establishment.

If you have fond memories of baseball trading cards, you'll want to read this: Sy Berger, Who Turned Baseball Heroes Into Brilliant Rectangles, Dies at 91.

From Chris Meyer, and this is quite brilliant: Abandoned Mercedes 300SL Found in Cuba Under a Banana Tree.

We can probably all use this: Fix Your Computer Hunch and Other Posture Problems in 30 Seconds.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Hatred (your e-mail)

Thoughtful e-mails from you guys, as always. I'm offering these, unedited, because they reflect a variety of reactions/responses.

First, from C. Lee:
You're right to point out that we as a society can swallow a great deal of violence so long as we're provided a reason, however thin, and it's legitimate to point out how open to abuse this is.

However, this is surely a case where the perfect is the enemy of the good. The distinction between violence committed for a reason and senseless violence is arguably a bedrock principle of any civilization. When we erase that distinction -- if we shrug like Pilate and say "What is truth?" -- then we may as well be living in Pol Pot's Cambodia.

That line is thin and hazy, but it's not one we can afford to be cynical about. Surely that line is what lies at the heart of the Senate intelligence report: Were the CIA's actions justified? If that line goes, then there's no reason to argue about the issue; if senseless violence is OK, then it just wouldn't matter whether torture occurred.

Steam is a publisher, and publishers are free to accept or decline material as they see fit. They don't have to offer a reason: "We regret that the enclosed material does not suit our needs." The people howling about censorship are being deliberately obtuse. As someone pointed out on Neogaf, your supermarket is not engaging in censorship because they don't carry the brand of milk you like. The developers of the game were free to distribute it on their own, just like every other game Steam declines to carry.

And if it's censorship people are worried about, well, we're about to reap the whirlwind now that Steam has reinstated the game. There's a presidential election coming up, and the likely Democratic candidate made a considerable nuisance of herself when it came to violence in games 15 years ago along with Lieberman and the like. Does anyone seriously believe Hillary Clinton wouldn't seize on this issue? And who could blame her if she did? I certainly wouldn't want to try to defend this game. 

Video games will have proven that they can't police themselves -- "little Johnny can download a genocide simulator to his PC!" The GOP candidate will likely condemn games as well to keep up. And so a self-appointed group of Congressional censors will take things in hand. Worried about censorship? We haven't seen anything yet.

As far as I'm concerned, Gabe Newell shrugged his shoulders and said "What is truth?" I think that far from avoiding a trap, he's rushed the entire industry into one.

Next, from Meg McReynolds: 
Keep in mind, too, there are differences between actual censorship and “choosing not to publish/buy/fund”. Censorship is a governmental function. There are parts of games that, at least in the US, are censored, yes – there are some depictions of children, for example, that if you put them in a game (or create them at all, really), it is considered a criminal act and you could be arrested.  There are other “standards” that are followed, but typically, those don’t rise to actual censorship. Those are a function of the market, “community standards”, the risk assessment of the publisher/producer. There are many things I could put in a game (or write, etc.) that would not get wide distribution necessarily, but I could create the game and put it out there by myself and not get arrested/governmentally sanctioned/etc. No one may buy it, play it, like it, let me advertise it anywhere, and it may be decried from all corners, but none of that is censorship. You can have a TV show and you say racist things on it, so the station takes the show off the air. That’s not censorship; that’s consequences for actions. Just because you legally can say racist things doesn’t mean you have to be provided a large platform to do so.

Now, there may be concerning implications of large distribution platforms declining to carry something. Just because it’s not the government doing the suppressing doesn’t mean it’s better (or worse, or a good idea or a bad idea). Sony pulling the opening/distribution of The Interview is not censorship; it is, however, deeply concerning. 

This is a common theme with art. There are many things out there that I find very troubling – torture pron is a great example. I also don’t like explicit depictions of war. I would be perfectly happy if the pron stopped getting published, but I see value in at least some explicit war movies, even if I don’t personally like them or want to see them. And maybe there’s value in the pron – who decides? Who decides where “pron” ends and mere violence begins? I don’t want the war movies to lose wide distribution because some people have problems with them, or think it’s not nice to show war. Art can be challenging, and should be sometimes. Maybe people didn’t like when Saving Private Ryan was on regular TV, but I see real value in wide exposure there.

I don’t have good answers here, either. I am happy when things I don’t like that are legal stop getting support/go out of fashion/don’t make money – I’m glad there seem to be fewer torture movies out there, for example. I’m frequently ok when the consequence for being racist on TV is that you lose your large platform to do so. But I worry that we may move too far away from things that are hard or ugly or sad, that distribution of potentially valuable expressions will become too small to have the impact they deserve. Where to draw the line? I’m not sure, and I’m reevaluating all the time.

I thought about what I wrote this morning, and realized a kind of philosophical distinction that gets made when it comes to content control in games: it's generally agreed that children need to be "protected". At a philosophical level, most people would agree with that statement. The devil, though, is in the details. What age limits define "children"? What are we protecting them from? How should that work, exactly?

A sweet spot for a large part of the population, I believe, is that we protect children and let adults see anything they want, because the value of unrestricted content, as a society, outweighs any possible negative consequences. 

Even then, though, we don't really do that. Viewing certain kinds of content can get an adult sent to prison. "Censor nothing" is very appealing at the whiteboard, but man, it gets very complicated very quickly. It's almost hopelessly unwieldy at the policy level. 

This seems to be one of the societal questions where there are no "best" answers, only 'bad" and "even worse" options.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014


Before I even get started here, let me make it very clear that I don't have an answer to the questions I'm going to raise. What I'm offering here are observations on things that seem curiously inconsistent.

There's a game on Greenlight called "Hatred". I'm not linking to it, and I'm not linking to the trailer, which, in my eyes, is reprehensible. It's not unfair, based on the trailer, to call this game an experience in virtual genocide. There are no fantasy trappings or "saving the world" plots here.

This game is made by Polish developers who may or may not be linked to far right-wing groups, depending on who you believe.

Hatred was taken down from Greenlight yesterday, without explanation, then put back up today following a statement by Gabe Newell saying (in part) "It turns out that it wasn’t a good decision".

Here's what bothers me about censorship discussions. We already have censorship. This cannot possibly be a "Should censorship exist in games?" discussion. There are already obvious limits on what can happen to children in games (I'm trying to word this in such a way that work filter sirens don't go off). There are obvious limits on how sex is portrayed.

So we already have an environment where children are "forbidden content", as well as realistic portrayals of sex. Why are these kinds of censorship allowed, but when anyone talks about restricting a realistic depiction of violence, everyone loses their minds?

I'm not saying I know where the limits should be, or if there should be limits at all--like I said, I'm not offering solutions here. I just find it baffling that any kind of censorship on ultra-violent games (and ultra-violent cinema as well) provokes howls of outrage, when censorship of sexual content garners barely a peep.

Another observation: we seem to be pretty comfortable with any kind of violence in games as long as it has a thin veneer of morality. Any kind of justification, no matter how flimsy, for the violence that will inevitably take place.

This is true at a larger, societal level as well. Want to exterminate an entire group of people? Propagandize them into something less than human. That's essential to overcoming the basic disgust any decent human being would feel. This has happened so many times throughout history that it's almost commonplace.

What's interesting about Hatred is that there's no pretension of morality. None. That thin line of humanity is obliterated. I don't credit the developers with this larger, philosophical intention--these guys have a strong whiff of dirtbag about them--but they did accidentally stumble onto a big question.

Also, what does it say about us that there are some people who are absolutely reveling in the fact that a game of this kind is being made?

Valve was in an impossible situation here. Just the fact that this game exists and was put onto Greenlight created a practical dilemma of enormous proportions. If you are willing to censor that kind of content on Steam, how do you police that? How do you draw up those guidelines? Where do you stop? That's a trap, and Gabe Newell was wise to sidestep it.

The sidestep, however, comes with its own trap.

Torture pron (again, trying to sidestep those work filters) is a bafflingly popular movie genre. I guarantee there are developers today sitting down and planning a PC game with that as the genre, because if Valve is unwilling to censor this game, it's not unreasonable to assume that they won't censor a game in this genre, either. That's going to put Valve in a very uncomfortable position.

Some might even say "agonizing."

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Sports Games

Two strong recommendations today.

First, I've been playing The Golf Club (PC version for me, but also available for Xbone and PS4) again, and it is much improved. The courses are beautiful, the animation is excellent, and there some course elements (like wind) that they have absolutely nailed. 

Putting is much better, although at times it still feels a bit stiff. Chipping is the one aspect of the game that still feels a bit clunky, but so much else has significantly improved.

Plus, there are now over 2,000 user-made courses available.

Oh, one more thing. Single play is available now, so you can play a round by yourself, and you can play it in less than 30 minutes.

If you enjoy golf games but haven't played one in a while, this is a very, very good choice.

We downloaded Super Mega Baseball (PS4, $19.99) today and it is absolutely fun. Bright, colorful graphics, strong animation and sound effects, and excellent control schemes all meld into a very strong game, particularly for under $20. Plus there's a season mode with player progression, which is impressive for a lower-profile title.

If you want a baseball game, but don't want the complexity of The Show, this is lighter far that is done extremely well.


After continuing to listen to tremendously enjoyable episodes of X Minus One, I don't know why someone isn't doing this today.

30-minute "radio" programs, delivered by podcast. One episode per month, $1.99 per episode. Production costs would be limited, tools to facilitate production are powerful and inexpensive, and there's definitely an audience for something like this.

I'll be getting an e-mail within fifteen minutes telling me that someone is actually already doing this. Well, good for them.

It's remarkable how evocative these programs can be, and I think a podcast could be very successful.

Second idea: why hasn't anyone made a documentary about someone who doesn't exist?

Create an imaginary life, then go back and interview people who should know this person, based on their background. Go to the college they supposedly went to and talk to their professors. Talk to some of the students. Get them to tell anecdotes about their relationship with this person.

A skilled interviewer would be able to elicit all kinds of false memories. It would be a treasure trove for a good director.

Monday, December 15, 2014

A Scenario (your answers)

DQ VB.NET Advisor Garret Rempel is really quite droll. Please see his analysis of "A Scenario" below.
Obviously the best case scenario for all involved would have been to:
1) Hang onto the UPS
2) Turn your body to shield the UPS from damage by taking the brunt of the collision with your spine
3) Fall awkwardly and push the UPS out of the way while being run over by the vehicle

In a capitalist society this result ensure maximum profit distribution in that:
1) The vendor for the UPS is not required to provide warranty on the UPS system which escaped damage
2) The vehicle owner's insurance company is able to increase rates due to an at-fault collision that caused no damage to the vehicle
3) Your hospital gains a reliable ongoing revenue stream from your injury due to ongoing lifelong treatment
4) Another uppity pedestrian learns a valuable lesson that the outdoors are the sole domain of motorized vehicles, and any 'biological' who dares to venture out of doors risks death and dismemberment

I have no quibbles with that analysis.

Also, from Nick Youngblood, and I believe this is quite a bit more "legally" than Rempel of the Bailey, a link that clearly explains the basic elements of a negligence case. In case you're just too lazy, there are five basic elements here: duty, breach of duty, cause in fact, proximate causes, and damages. 

In very basic terms, it must be established that the defendant owes a duty to the plaintiff, and here's a hypothetical:
In the example involving the defendant loading bags of grain onto a truck, and striking a child with one of the bags, the first question that must be resolved is whether the defendant owed a duty to the child. In other words, a court would need to decide whether the defendant and the child had a relationship such that the defendant was required to exercise reasonable care in handling the bags of grain near the child. If the loading dock were near a public place, such a public sidewalk, and the child was merely passing by, then the court may be more likely to find that the defendant owed a duty to the child. On the other hand, if the child were trespassing on private property and the defendant did not know that the child was present at the time of the accident, then the court would be less likely to find that the defendant owed a duty.

If you have an interest in this kind of legal situation, I highly recommend the link--it's quite readable and extremely clear.

Friday, December 12, 2014

Friday Links!

Leading off, from Eric Higgins-Freese, and what an incredible project: The First World War in 261 Weeks: Meet all the characters of the Great War. Here's a description:
Every week of the war a new character, introduced by the main events of that particular week. The series will run from 28 June 2014 (shooting at Sarajevo) till 28 June 2019 (Treaty of Versailles).


Don't click on the following link if you haven't read The Englishman's Daughter yet, but if you have, you'll want to see this: Solved: the riddle of executed First World War soldier Robert Digby.

From Jonathan Arnold, and this is an epic, epic piece about science fiction fonts: Alien | Typeset in the Future.

From Les Bowman, and this is an absolutely tremendous article (three parts): The man with the salmon plan: One biologist's radical dream for the Great Lakes came true when millions of salmon were brought in from the Pacific. The world's largest freshwater ecosystem has been a giant science experiment ever since.

From The Edwin Garcia Links Machine, and this is a fantastic interpretation of mythology: Kick his ass, baby, I got yo flower.

From Steven Davis, and this is fantastic: Sashimono Woodwork.

From Michael Gilbert, and these are some spectacular pictures of--fog: Dallas in the fog.

From Jim Bradley, and this was made by an animator at Dreamworks, mixing his son's antics with some very clever special effects wizardry.

From Chris Pencis, and I think I would enjoy living in Norway: Norway's cool in-ground bicycle lift for conquering steep hills.

From DQ Reader My Wife, and this will hopefully have meaning for Eli 13.4 someday: College hockey players undervalued in the NHL draft and here’s why.

These are all quite beautiful: The most stunning drone pictures of 2014.

From Steven Kreuch, here's a fascinating article about Coke's Freestyle machine: Dean Kamen Reinvents Coke's Soda Fountain.

From Tim Steffes, and this is sneaky clever: Playing With My Son: An experiment in forced nostalgia and questionable parenting.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

A Scenario

I bought a UPS at Fry's today for the new system. It was surprisingly heavy.

As I was carrying it through the parking lot, I saw the brake lights flash on a van directly to the right.

I have this strange thing I do when I'm driving or walking through parking lots where I imagine what I would do if things went bad (car X changing lanes into car Y, car pulling out into my path in a parking lot, etc.). I know--it's weird.

The van didn't pull out, and I walked past with no incident. It made me wonder, though, what would happen if the van did pull out toward me. The UPS was heavy enough where I couldn't have gotten out of the way in time to avoid being hit. My only option would have been to drop the UPS first.

So here's the puzzler scenario: if this had happened, and the UPS had been damaged, would the driver of the van have been liable for the damage? I would have dropped the UPS based on my belief that the van was going to hit me, and that dropping the UPS would allow me to move quickly enough to avoid the collision.

How do you sort through something like that?

Papers, Please (iPad)

That's right. Papers, Please, the dystopian paperwork simulator--and one of the most unnerving, claustrophobic games I've ever played--is coming to iPad on Friday. Papers, Please won just about every gaming award possible when it was released, and it deserved them all.

If you didn't play this game on the PC (shame on you), here's another chance, and it should work perfectly on the iPad.

Lucas Pope is one of the most interesting developers in gaming today. Return of the Obra Dinn, even in very early form, looks amazing, and even his Ludlum Dare entries, like The Sea Has No Claim, have a way of punching you in the gut, and I mean that in the very best way.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Eli 13.4

Eli 13.4 was in the mall store Brookstone earlier this week, and he happened to be wearing blue dress slacks, a white dress shirt, and a tie.

A woman walked up to him and said "Excuse me, sir, but if I buy more than a hundred dollars of merchandise, do I get free shipping?"

Eli looked at her and said, "Ma'am, I don't work here. I'm thirteen."

"Oh, dear!" she said. "I thought you were the manager."

I guess if I want to get a job at Brookstone someday, I better not piss him off.
Eli was dressing out today for his weekly session with the shooting coach.

If you've never seen a goalie as they dress out, they look quite silly. A padded goalie shirt, huge pants, black tights, and Eli wears crossed suspenders because he can't keep his pants up without them. He looks like a giraffe bandido.

"Well, you look entirely ridiculous," I said.

"Stay in school, kids!" he said, laughing and flashing the thumbs up.

Freestyle (your update)

Nick Youngblood sent in some fascinating information about the Freestyle machine:
Yesterday, thanks to your column, I couldn’t get the Freestyle off my mind, so I started trying to learn more about it. There was a quite in-depth discussion of the device on a forum that seemed to be dedicated to movie theater and fast food operators. I haven’t verified most of this, but here are a few of the more interesting things I learned.

The technology that makes the Freestyle possible was originally developed for use in chemotherapy machines, in order to precisely measure the relative amounts of various chemo drugs a patient received. This key piece of technology is what allows the concept of the Freestyle to work.

That technology is so precise that it allows the machine to use incredibly concentrated forms of syrup, way more concentrated than you’d find in a normal soda fountain. Thus you can offer over a hundred flavors in a small physical profile. I think this may actually be the source of people’s taste complaints for the following reason. Normal fountains have syrup bags for their various flavors. There’s a coke bag, a sprite bag, and so on. If I understand correctly, the Freestyle doesn’t use this system. Instead, it has a variety of cartridges that hold common components of many syrups, and mixes them on the fly. So when you’re ordering a Coke for example, you’re not getting coke syrup per se, you’re getting a mixture of the various ingredients the machine contains that is supposed to match or closely approximate pre-prepared Coke syrup. Another example. In canned and pre-mixed varieties, the cherry flavor used in cherry coke vs cherry soda is not actually the same. In the Freestyle, the same cherry flavoring is used for all applications of cherry. If this is true, the flavor problems with the machine may never be fixed, in which case they’re doomed (or we are).

Another factor that can influence flavor is that due to the way the spigot works, remnants of the drink ordered before yours will often make it into your drink. I don’t know why this is so, but reports are common of people receiving a little lime diet coke in their pineapple soda or what have you. 

Tuesday, December 09, 2014

Coca-Cola Freestyle

I'm sure you've seen one by now.

Coca-Cola Freestyle, the big red and white soda machine that can dispense over 125 combinations of Coke products/flavors. The first time I saw one, the concept blew me away. It was the greatest idea ever.

Then I tasted the soda.

Here's what every single drink that comes out of a Coca-Cola machine tastes like: ass. Every flavor and product have a distinctive "Freestyle" ass-taste. It's so bad that I've now started avoiding places I used to eat at frequently because they installed Freestyle machines.

Last week, I went to a restaurant I haven't eaten at in over six months because they have Freestyle machines now, and while I was having my snack, I saw a technician working on the Freestyle machine.

"Hey, do you mind if I ask you some questions about Freestyle?" I asked.

"Sure!" he said. Friendly type.

"I really like the idea of these machines in concept, but the flavor--"

"I won't drink anything that comes out of these machines," he said.

"That's what I was going to say," I said. "I'm glad it's not just me."

"It's not," he said. "I have people come up all the time and tell me they hate it. I don't like how it tastes, either. Something is off. They all taste wrong."

"You could line up ten drinks from five different soda fountains and five Freestyle machines, and I could pick out every one of the Freestyle drinks immediately," I said.

"I can, too," he said.

"So why are they pushing this so hard?" I asked.

"The executives are in love with the idea," he said. "And they spent a ton of money developing it. It's a good idea, but they need to tweak the flavor. The mix isn't right yet."

He talked for a while about some of the technological innovation in the machine, and it's a pretty amazing piece of tech. It standardizes flavor--the flavor of ass, unfortunately--to a much, much greater degree than was possible previously. Plus, if I understood the tech correctly, it would be possible for Coca-Cola to push software updates that would change the flavor profile/mix of every installed machine at the same time.

Here's what blows me away, though: wouldn't you think those executives would have actually tasted the soda? I don't see how anyone could taste what actually comes out of the machine and be satisfied. It's far less sweet, for one, and there's some kind of funky carbonation or something that creates a distinctive after-taste. How could they not notice that?

Sales of soft drinks have been dropping steadily for a while now, and guess what, Coca-Cola? This isn't going to help.

Monday, December 08, 2014

The Englishman's Daughter, Death, and Ants

I read a phenomenal book by Ben Macintyre (who's written many phenomenal books) last week titled The Englishman's Daughter: A True Story of Love and Betrayal in World War One. Here's a description:
In the first days of World War I four soldiers, left behind as the British army retreated through northern France under the first German onslaught, found themselves trapped on the wrong side of the Western Front, in a tiny village called Villeret. Just a few miles from the Somme, the village would be permanently inundated with German troops for the next four years, yet the villagers conspired to feed, clothe and protect the fugitives under the very noses of the invaders, absorbing the Englishmen into their homes and lives until they could pass for Picardy peasants. 

The leader of the band, Robert Digby, was a striking young man who fell in love with Claire Dessenne, the prettiest maid in the village. In November 1915, with the guns clearly audible from the battlefront, Claire gave birth to Digby's child, the jealous whispering began, and the conspiracy that had protected the soldiers for half the war started to unravel.

That's right: war, romance, and soap opera drama, all in one book. 

What struck me even more than the incredible story, though, was the story of WWI itself, which is the foundation that the story weaves through. I've read about WWI before, but everything I read was extraordinarily dry. 

This, though, is anything, but dry, and Macintyre includes some stunning works from that period, including this by poet/soldier Alan Seeger:
I have a rendezvous with Death   
At some disputed barricade,   
When Spring comes back with rustling shade   
And apple-blossoms fill the air—   
I have a rendezvous with Death
When Spring brings back blue days and fair.   
It may be he shall take my hand   
And lead me into his dark land   
And close my eyes and quench my breath—   
It may be I shall pass him still.
I have a rendezvous with Death   
On some scarred slope of battered hill,   
When Spring comes round again this year   
And the first meadow-flowers appear.   
God knows ‘twere better to be deep 
Pillowed in silk and scented down,   
Where love throbs out in blissful sleep,   
Pulse nigh to pulse, and breath to breath,   
Where hushed awakenings are dear...   
But I’ve a rendezvous with Death
At midnight in some flaming town,   
When Spring trips north again this year,   
And I to my pledged word am true,   
I shall not fail that rendezvous.

Read this slowly, aloud. It will shake you.

Seeger did indeed die during WWI--in 1916, at Belloy-en-Santerre.

The book does a tremendous job of describing the closeness of war, the suffocation, and I strongly encourage you to read it when you have time.

This ties in with a second story.

I'm swimming 5 days a week at the YMCA while our neighborhood pool is closed for "winter". It's a huge enclosed area with a big pool (8 lanes), and a second, smaller pool for classes like water aerobics. There's a class (frilly bathing caps and many over 70) going on while I swim, and when I got out of the water on Friday, they were all softly reciting "The Ants Go Marching" as they exercised. In combination with the pool acoustics, what emerged was a ghostly, very haunting version of the poem, like a shadow.

As I listened, I realized that "The Ants Go Marching" must be a sanitized version of a poem/song about war, and I guessed that it was WWI. I looked it up when I got home, and as it turns out, it's even older than that. It's from "When Johnny Comes Marching Home Again," which was written not during WWI but during the Civil War, in 1863.

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