“Dealmaker” TV shows

I was housesitting for my folks and, as is usual for me, had a lot of Star Trek, 30 Rock, etc. playing on Netflix on their DVR while doing other things. The DVR was a lot more aggressive than other Netflix clients I’ve used in terms of booting you off when it thinks you’re idle, though. So I’d come up from the laundry or the like and it’d be on cable TV, and I’d mostly ignore it because background noise is background noise. (I am a supremely lazy person.)

Anyway, my parents have a very extensive set of shows that they record during the day, so the TV would randomly change channels. That’s how I ended up seeing a show on… whatever the fuck network, where this guy was buying busted-ass old jalopies from sad old men.

What amazed me about this is that they’d do an extensive research piece showing just how unique and cool this car was, and it’d cut to the beefy protagonist talking about how much he wanted this car, and then it’d immediately cut to him telling this sad old man it was worth shit and he’d buy it with his pocket change and a bent cigarette. They’d haggle back and forth, with occasional cuts to the beefy protagonist stressing how much he was messing his pants over the idea of having this car, as well as how he absolutely did not want to pay this man what it was worth.

Halfway through this one-way-mirror’d game of hardball, the DVR switched to prepare to record a rerun of the Daily Show. So I’ll never know how it ended. But for once I hope that Smirky McBeefcake walked away without that tricked-out old husk, or at least a few thousand bucks lighter than he had expected.

Observations, diet, of

  • It’s amazing how much just the act of keeping a food journal discourages me from idle snacking
  • It’s amazing how much the body can get used to habitually overeating, to the point that it registers the lack of complete satiation as hunger
  • The temptation to lie is pretty intense, but I feel like even giving in once would derail the whole operation. Of course, I’m not going to give up if I do lie… but I should be able to go back and make myself tell the truth
  • I always forget how much nervous energy I end up having when I eat less
  • I’d like to say I feel wonderful and fresh and powerful, but mostly it’s an unfocused fretfulness that expresses itself in rambling blog comments and blog posts and IRC chatlogs and fruitless code experiments
  • Anger can be an effective motivator, but I don’t think it has much sustaining power
  • I am going to let myself take as long as I need and do whatever I have to in order to get momentum in this

215

Portland is cold right now, frigid. For Portland, that means around freezing. It rarely gets to the killing cold here that dries and scorches the flesh. 32 Fahrenheit is cold. 20 Fahrenheit is incredibly cold. 0 Fahrenheit is unbelievably, terrifyingly cold. A half inch of snow closes schools. An inch of snow closes many businesses. Six inches of snow, the few times I can recall such a thing happening, turns the city into a half-dead wonderland.

I am a sick person, when it comes down to it. It was cold enough today that I wore a sweater over my shirt; it was even so cold that I wore a jacket over that sweater, when I went outside. Except for a little while ago, where I took off the jacket and the sweater, and went and laid out on the grass, and closed my eyes and felt the cold seep into my bones, and thought about what it would be like to accept the cold and be the cold and die of the cold. It is 2:15 AM, I am 28 years old, and I feel as close to the grave as I have ever been.

I went inside and washed my limbs with cold water, then warm, then hot; I drank some warm lemon water; I drank a few fingers of bourbon. It is 2:15 AM, I am 28 years old, and I feel as alive now as I have in many years.

The dual mandate of game journalism

A good read. A brief remark about this:

far too long most game reviews have been, rather obnoxiously, attempts to rate games on a technical scorecard and come up with a numerical rating for them that looks scientific

Twenty years ago, if you picked up a magazine covering video games, it was written in the style of a consumer guide, not a media journal. Nintendo Power is analogous to Guitar World, not the New York Review of Books. Thus, you have puff pieces about upcoming products, a few pieces of interest to the audience (interviews, stories, cartoons), and reviews intended to be used as a guide whether to buy a product. That's where you get the rubrics and the 100-point scales from. It's also where you get certain expectations of objectivity. Consumer product reviews are expected to be written by disinterested individuals based on observable criteria.

This isn't the case with media/entertainment journalism, and never has been. Nobody read Pauline Kael expecting to read a careful description of the acting, cinematography, and choice of setting. Nor did they expect her to carefully excise any sign of her political opinions, aesthetic preferences, or even personal assessment of the director, actors, and so forth. The idea that a critic would be prevented by ethical considerations from even discussing the work of an artist they knew personally is absurd. Roger Ebert knew, liked, and even made a damn movie with Russ Meyer. He refrained from writing starred reviews of Meyer's films from then on, but he didn't stop writing about them — hell, he even wrote about his own movie.

In the last decade or so, there's been an increased effort to establish a true criticism for games. John Teti's Gameological Society, of late folded into the AV Club, has done an excellent job of this. On the other hand, they'd be virtually useless to me if I was trying to figure out what new games I might be interested in playing. I can still see the benefit of high-quality, consumer-focused reviewing sites for that purpose. Games are consumer products with fairly objective qualities of interest to players; they are also a form of media open to interrogation, interpretation, and criticism; they also can be narrative works worthy of close reading and analysis. Games journalism will only really be fully developed when all of those facets are accounted for.

Spelunking… into HELL (Warning: spooky as fuck)

(I wrote this about a year ago. It is presented here without further commentary or explanation, in hopes that it may be of interest.)

​​It was a normal afternoon. I opened Steam, hoping to play some Alpha Protocol, but for some reason all my games were missing. The gray Steam interface was mottled red, like it was stained with old blood. The buttons looked weathered and cracked. I tried to look at my friends list, but a dialogue box popped up that said "YOU ARE ALONE".

Only one game was in my list: Spelunky. This unnerved me, but I'm a big fan of Spelunky, so I decided to play it anyway.

I started the game. For some reason, the opening scene where the spelunker is traveling across the desert was using the original graphics from the freeware version. The spelunker seemed upset and constantly looked back over his shoulder, as if something was chasing him. In the distance, a dark, hyper-realistic cloud front was approaching, and lightning crackled as the spelunker took refuge in the hidden temple.

Having already completed the mandatory tutorial section, I moved on directly to the entrance to the mines. Just before entering, the little spelunker looked at me with an uneasy expression, as if to ask whether I was really sure about all this. Undaunted, I pressed SPACE to enter the caves.

Once I was in the game, the graphics seemed normal and everything was normal for a normal playthrough of the game, which was normal. I ran around and collected gold bars and even found two bomb boxes on the first half of the first level! "Jackpot," I thought. I started to feel better about the weird stuff I had witnessed earlier.

I found the damsel in a corner of the dungeon and hopped up to rescue her as normal. But, for some reason, she started fleeing from me as I approached. I had to bonk her in the head with the whip to pick her up. As soon as I did, the level fogged up as if a ghost was approaching, and the spelunker disappeared into the mist.

The mist stayed for four minutes, and once it had cleared, there was nothing left of the damsel but a skeleton. The spelunker's face and vest were covered in gore, and hyper-realistic blood dripped from him everywhere he walked.
"That can't be right," I thought. "Is this a hacked game???"

The next level was a spider level. These can be difficult to beat, but I'm good at avoiding the big spiders and it can be very lucrative to fight them off. So I thought this would be okay. The spelunker was still covered in blood, which covered anything he picked up. I found a big spider and adeptly flung a bomb into the web underneath it. But, for some reason, when it exploded, the big spider didn't die. It ran at me with astonishing speed and then the fog came up again. The fog stayed for exactly 11 minutes and 6 seconds. (By the way, 11 minutes and 6 seconds is 666 seconds.)

When the fog cleared, my spelunker had been replaced with a horrific abomination, the genesis of which must have been collaborated in the deepest haunts of hell's stygian abyss. Only the grinning, bloody head remained, mounted on the spider's body. Each of the spider's hyper-realistic pedipalps was dripping with blood.

The rest of the mines was easy with this abhorrent avatar of destruction. Its mighty spider legs smashed through rocks without a thought, and shopkeepers and damsels alike were nothing but a nourishing meal, punctuated by that blood splatter you see when you sacrifice something to Kali.

When I completed level 1-4, instead of the tunnel leading to the jungle, I found myself in an inky black ebony dark abyss, except with a lot of blood. The tunnel man was there, but he had been horribly changed. His skin was pale and white, like the vampires in the Restless Dead levels. Instead of asking me for items to continue his tunnel, he said: "I was trying to dig a tunnel to Hell, but I got stuck. Would you mind giving me… your SOUL?"

I screamed and vomited and ejaculated all at the same time as I noticed that the little box indicating what he was asking for had a picture of my decapitated head, dead and rotting with a look of pure terror engraved on its features.

Then I exited the game and went and found some MLP clopfic and jerked off to it, THE END

(… fine, fine, here's the context.)

OCaml and me

I have a few recurring test projects I do with new languages and environments. One of them is to put together the rudiments of a simulation featuring characters who get AI ticks, have characteristics and statuses, can be described in text, etc. Usually this gets far enough that I can task one character to chase another one around in circles, and then it's time to move on.

This weekend I did the first few strokes of this project in OCaml, a language that's interested me for a decade or so. In the last few years, the quality of documentation has improved a lot (check out the sweet website), it's picked up some industry support (notably Jane Street), and a nascent English-speaking community (OCaml's principal development has always been in French) resulting from the recently enlarged profile of statically-typed functional languages.

OCaml resembles Haskell in a number of ways. It's a direct descendant of ML, which Haskell was heavily influenced by. Both languages use a form of Hindley-Milner type inference, and the syntax generally feels similar.

Unlike Haskell, though, OCaml is strict (versus Haskell's laziness) and impure (functions can have side effects and contain imperative code; no IO monad necessary). It permits mutable variables, arrays, strings, and maps, all explicitly declared. It even has a neat object-oriented programming facility built in as a first-class participant in the type system and which works seamlessly with functional code. It's explicitly a multi-paradigmatic language, which appeals to me a great deal. The community still strongly encourages writing pure functional code, but in general I've found them to be less fanatical on the topic than Haskellers. There's also less of a math/PLT focus in the community, and idiomatic OCaml is less terse and symbolic than Haskell.

What I worked up is here. Once I've spent a bit more time fleshing it out, I'll write more about it. For this project, I'm trying out Batteries, which is one of several competing alternative standard libraries for OCaml. (What it means to have alternative standard libraries, and why such a thing has happened, is a subject for yet another post to come.) On other projects, and on the OCaml exercises at Exercism, I've been using Core from Jane Street. Core is also what's covered by the book Real World OCaml, which has been a fantastic resource.

Learning OCaml has been an exciting process so far. Ruby is very dear to me, and I've done a lot of work I'm proud of with it, but I think it's good for a programmer to stay flexible on the tools they use. OCaml provides a number of strong contrasts to Ruby (compiled, functional, statically typed) while retaining elements that I appreciate (object oriented features, a multiparadigmatic approach). I can imagine using it for future projects where the type system would come in handy, where I need high performance, or where I'm looking to deliver a compiled binary. And sometimes it's just fun.

To change your life, and the Lathe of Heaven

Ultimately it's an escapist fantasy, I think, to think of using the lever one likes best to lift the world. I wonder if carpenters see all problems in terms of beams and joists, and if their native metaphors for life involve grain, polish, well-formed and stable wholes from different parts. We programmers are well-trained to see ourselves as modern magi, and it filters through to the books we read, the movies we watch, the games we play.

What if you really could change the world by writing code? I'm not talking about a disruptive game-changing startup, or a platform for helping people communicate, or something that coordinates aid for sick orphans on the other side of the world. This is rawer, less metaphorical. What if changing your life was a matter of changing some variables, or pulling out one defective subroutine and writing a better one?

The holodeck, the Matrix, the Metaverse, Charles Stross' Laundry novels, the very concept of the 'singularity', and all of the many other fictions that involve a technological refitting of the laws of reality — for good and for bad — these all deeply appeal to the inborn prejudices of the programmer and the engineer.

One of my favorite authors wrote a book about changing the world. It's not really my favorite book by this author. It kind of loses focus near the end, and it's full of a lot of the kind of little hobby-horses and self-aware inclusions in which writers sometimes indulge. It also kind of feels a little bit too much like Philip K. Dick for a writer who by that time had already developed a remarkably unique voice.

The author is Ursula K. Le Guin; the book is The Lathe of Heaven. If you haven't read The Dispossessed, or The Left Hand of Darkness, or Lavinia, or the Earthsea books, there are few ways you could better spend your time right now than jumping up, going to a bookstore, and buying any or all of those books and reading as many of them as you can.

Then you might read The Lathe of Heaven. It's a pretty good book. It starts off as a nice, tight little sci-fi morality fable. The main character, George Orr, takes drugs to keep him from dreaming. Sent to the equivalent of court-ordered rehab under threat of involuntary commitment, he comes under the care (and control) of a psychiatrist and sleep researcher named William Haber. It turns out that when Orr dreams about something, it happens. This isn't just the power of foresight — it can change the past, leaving only Orr to remember that things were once different.

Haber, conveniently, has developed a machine that allows him to manipulate a person's dreams. Obviously, he decides to use the machine with Orr to reshape the world. His first changes are small, and precise. As his directives for Orr's unconscious power become more grandiose, they also begin to take effect in unpredictable and terrifying ways. A dream of a world with no racism results in everyone's skin being matte gray. Overpopulation is solved by a worldwide plague that exterminates six sevenths of the world's population. Before long, Haber is essentially the ruler of the world, overseeing things from the new world capital of Portland, Oregon (really).

The first half of the book wouldn't feel too out of place in a '50s SF compilation, and the second half is a little bit too trippy for the setup but not nearly weird enough to justify itself. It's no Dhalgren. But it's dwelt in my head ever since I read it.

What if we really could change the world, but only through the medium of our own imperfect minds and creations? Not a malevolent genie in a bottle, or a monkey's paw, but just our own inability to understand what we have made and how to use it?

Maybe we can reprogram reality, but would we know how to use it afterwards?