Lord of the Dice

Eric Goldberg and Greg Costikyan’s masterpiece is available online. Note that this is not the same as the original version published in Different Worlds (which used any number of any kind of dice) or the later D6 variant proposed by — if I recall correctly — one of the GURPS designers, but a D100-based version.

I’ve been redesigning ForeSight around a single D10 (well, one per player).

Avatar: shame about the typography

I have a theory: the reason the subtitles in Avatar are so unbelievably bad is that the special effects are actually no good, but the subtitles cleverly distract us so much we never realize that everything looks like papier mâché.

If nothing else, James Cameron has demonstrated that with today’s technology you can make any live action movie you damn well please for $200,000,000. I look forward to Consider Phlebas on HBO.

I think the criticisms I’ve read of Avatar (e.g. that it’s morally simplistic, that the aliens are “noble savages”, that virtually all the characters are one-dimensional) are superficially correct but actually bogus. Cameron is trying to make a $200,000,000 movie that earns a profit — if it’s a flop he may not get to do it again (alright he’d have to screw up a second time) — and he needs to introduce a genuinely original SF setting, establish audience expectations and prejudices, and then completely change them not once, but twice. You’re not going to do that with subtlety.

I can think of dozens of things that would make Avatar “better” — but every single one of them would blow it out to six hours or more. And I’m sure Cameron thought of all of them and then cut them all out.

Here are my criticisms of Avatar: the typography is terrible — both the word “AVATAR” in the credits and — more annoyingly — the subtitles. And what is it with the faux Celine Dion song? If you stop watching the movie before the credits roll count yourself lucky. Oh yeah, I didn’t care for the view of Pandora from space or the initial shuttle landing (the contrails were just a bit too perfect), and I think the alien fauna’s skins were sometimes a bit too plastic-looking. (And how come everything on the planet seems to have four eyes — two often vestigial — and six legs except for the The Na’vi?) Seriously, these are tiny, tiny nits — every other SF movie has far greater flaws and almost every one is far less ambitious.

2001 is — aside from being boring — almost flawless, but it makes no sense and has 10 minutes of nonsense at the end. Every Star Wars movie is morally simplistic, has one-dimensional characters, and stuff that makes “noble savages” look like Dostoyevsky — and Lucas never attempts a tiny fraction of what Cameron is doing here.

I’ll need to watch it again (in 3D!) to be sure, but I think it’s the best SF movie ever made. I wish Ridley Scott would give up sword and sandal movies and make Forever War or Metropolis.


Maxwell from Scribblenauts
Maxwell from Scribblenauts

Scribblenauts is the first DS game I’ve been excited about (or bought … or played) in a long time. In fact, the only DS game I’ve actually spent serious time playing up to this point has been Mario. And Mario on the DS the only Mario variant I haven’t finished (which says something — althought what, I’m not sure). Among the games I’ve bought and given up on pretty quickly are FFIV (the Gameboy Advanced version), FFIII, and Elite Beat Agents. (If you ever pondered the fact that Final Fantasy games are essentially bad stories wrapped around a spreadsheet with wonderful cut scenes, playing the Old School games rubs your face in it by leaving out the cut scenes.)

The way I see it, Scribblenauts is a game that uses reasonably modern computer horsepower (the DS is as powerful as mid 90s desktop computer) to handle conceptual space instead of aesthetics or storyline. The graphics are cute but unremarkable (nothing a 1980s computer couldn’t handle with a bit of optimization) and the storyline is non-existent. What the game has is a huge library of “things” each of which has physical and conceptual attributes. E.g. pirates like parrots; hippies become upset if you kill animals; tigers are nastier than lions are nastier than wolves; beavers chew through trees.

A Scribblenauts level is simply an arrangement of things in a landscape, a goal (get to the “starite”), and some restrictions (don’t upset the hippies). You simply summon anything you want out of  thin air by naming it (more-or-less — some things have bee deliberately or accidentally omitted from the database — but the variety of things you can pick is amazing).

One of the cleverest aspects of the game is that you’re encouraged to replay levels to find alternate solutions. Every level has at least three distinct solutions — and again the conceptual framework provides a nice implementation of “distinct”. As far as I can tell, there’s a one-to-many relationship between concepts (e.g. ‘long, flexible connector’), concrete implementations (e.g. ‘chain’ vs. ‘rope’), and terms (e.g. ‘candy’ vs. ‘lolly’). A new solution must employ a different concepts rather than different implementations or terms (you do get credited, for example, with coming up with a new word for the same “thing”, but using it to create an alternative solution to a level won’t get you credit for finding a truly new solution).

Similarly clever is the fact that the achievements you are awarded can be conceptual as well — e.g. you get achievements for thinking of variations on a theme, achievements for thinking of entirely new object domains, achievements for avoiding object domains (e.g. weapons). What we have here is a game that’s (generally) non-violent and clever instead of violent and stupid, and addictive and enjoyable for (pretty much) all ages. Thoroughly recommended.

Oh, and black holes are just incredibly handy sometimes.

Post Script

For a rather different take on Scribblenauts here’s Zero Punctuation. (Note that while he rails against it, he seems to have played a heck of  a lot of it.) I have to say that I agree that the movement physics suck dead dogs’ … well let’s not go there, children may be reading. And combining such a broad set of concepts and relationships with an actual plot is a Very Good (and obvious) Idea — but I think that implying it’s not “fun” is harsh (and manifestly untrue).

Oh, and pterodactyls are way better than helicopters.

Post Post Script

And here’s the really sad thing about Nintendo DS games. Even the best ones aren’t that compelling. I played Scribblenauts for about four hours after getting it, and then a couple of hours the next day, and I haven’t turned on the DS since. That makes Scribblenauts (for me) the second most compelling game on the DS after Mario (which is just another Mario game).

Frankly, if you don’t think Zelda is genius incarnate, Nintendo platforms are always disappointing (I gave up on the Wii’s Zelda even faster than the Nintendo 64’s). I gave up trying to find Chinatown Wars for the DS and got it for the iPhone — at least I carry my iPhone around.

Revenge of the NURBS

I recently learned about the existence of MoI (Moment of Inspiration) thanks to discussion on Cheetah 3d’s forums. I’m normally not much interested in Windows-only software, but for MoI I’m willing to make an exception. MoI is for NURBS modeling what Silo is for polygon/subdiv modeling. It doesn’t suck. It’s written by Michael Gibson — who apparently was the original developer of Rhino (the reigning NURBS modeler) — but this time he designed for tablet users (i.e. think single mouse button) from the get go, and the result is nothing less than a 3d doodle pad that just works.

A classic 50's style rocket
A classic 50's style rocket

This is the first model I created with MoI. So this is me learning to use the program. It’s a very simple model, but it’s also a model I’ve never been able to satisfactorily complete in any 3d modeling program ever. Note that I chopped it in half just so I could show off the interior. There’s no shortcuts or compromises. E.g. if I did this using subdiv modeling I wouldn’t have fins with a real airfoil cross-section and sharp edges. Chances are the shape of the fins wouldn’t be quite right either since you just end up pushing edges around until the curve looks “close enough”.

Where the fin meets the fuselage
Where the fin meets the fuselage

And look at the beautiful and precise way the fins join onto the fuselage. (You may notice that the control spline does not match the geometry in this picture — that’s just a consequence of my mesh approximation preferences which can be dialed up as far as you’re willing to live with.)

Cabin interior detail
Cabin interior detail

This is a close-up of the cabin cross-section. I want to show how the window openings are actually modeled. I made all the rotational symmetry five-fold simply because I could.

A little more cross-section detail.
A little more cross-section detail.

I actually took a bit of a shortcut in modeling the interior of the rocket nozzle, but that’s simply because by that point I’d already decided to buy a copy of MoI and I wasn’t going to put more work into the model since I was using a save disabled trial version.

Playing around with MoI has been amazingly liberating. Instead of messing with subdiv for hard edged models because working with NURBS is just too painful, I now have a tool for creating hard edged models (like spaceships) when I want to, and I can use subdiv modeling for what it’s best at — organic stuff. I can’t wait for my license to show up.

The Wire

I used to pay for HBO but I found its scheduling infuriating and ended up never watching much on it (even The Sopranos despite it being, at the time, one of my favorite shows). So, I come to The Wire very late.

My favorite books are either fiction with a lot of informative content, or non-fiction written in a great narrative style. So, some of my favorite books include Shelby Foote’s The Civil War: A Narrative and David Simon’s Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets. The former is a work of art, but the latter is simply fascinating, especially if you’ve ever been a lover of crime fiction.

Only on HBO?

Much has been said of The Wire being (a) the greatest TV show ever made, and (b) something that could only be done (in the US, anyway) by HBO. It’s worth noting that Homicide: Life on the Streets (based on Simon’s book) was actually very similar in both theme and quality to The Wire lacking only in the bad language and explicit sex department. (And even on network TV it managed to have a bisexual detective who had sex in a coffin.) The big difference (format-wise) between Homicide and The Wire was that Homicide largely retained episodic foreground plots (in addition to large arcs) as a method for drawing viewers along, but that was more a consequence of the evolution of TV as a medium (TV viewers have been taught to follow arc plots, slowly, over the last 25-odd years) and subject matter (homicides vs. narcotics, at least initially) than network limitation.

Both Homicide and The Wire required viewers to pay attention. A single chance remark in one episode might have major ramifications a season later.

Even with strong competition from Homicide, I would agree that The Wire is the best TV show I have ever seen. It seems to me that the chief “advantage” of being an HBO show (aside from HBO’s lack of creative interference and willingness to green-light a show with mediocre ratings) is bad language and explicit sex, neither of which make The Wire a better show than Homicide. The Wire’s big advantages are that it simply deals with broader subject matter and has taken the “training wheels” of episodic foreground plot out of the format, allowing more time to deal with minutiae. Heroes, on NBC, does the same thing, but just happens to be infantile (if, briefly, enjoyable).

The Cops. The Crooks. The Big Rich.

As an aside, it’s always depressing to me that — at least for drama — the crime-driven story dominates television so thoroughly, and that the best TV shows ever made have almost all been cop/lawyer shows:

  • The Wire
  • The Sopranos
  • Homicide: Life on the Streets
  • Murder One (first season)
  • Hill Street Blues

There are a few other shows that might contend for greatness that don’t quite fit the crime drama mould … but they’re generally just very good Soap Operas (e.g. thirtysomething or ER). I guess there’s always the new Battlestar Galactica.

Why Watch the Wire?

It’s very rare for writers (and The Wire is fundamentally a literary work) to grapple with how the modern world really works. Stories tend to center on characters, generally a small number of characters, and it follows that the actual way in which things happen has to be compressed into something that is apparent to those characters. A typical episode of Law & Order, for example, focuses on perhaps seven people (the two cops, the two prosecutors, the DA, the defendant, and the defendant’s lawyer) and has them do everything of significance in the case, from interviewing key witnesses to figuring out obscure logical flaws in the defendant’s alibi.

Almost anything in the modern world is done by an army of characters who often don’t know or have anything directly to do one another. The Devil is in the details, and the details are often minor characters who perform vital tasks and are composited, merged, or ignored in the interest of brevity, clarity, and pace. Oh, and don’t forget we need to make the heroes look good.

Anyone who has seen the movie South Pacific but who has not read Michener’s book will probably be amazed to discover that the book was a grimly detailed procedural account of the amphibious invasion of a fictional Pacific island during WWII, told by attempting to perform a “vertical slice” of the action. Reading the book, we see how decisions made at the highest levels of command lead, for example, to decisions as to how many and what type of bandages to provision, and, ultimately, to whether individual soldiers live or die on the beach.

Similarly, in Richard Powers’s (in my opinion) finest novel, Gain, the author performs stunning tour-de-force — I’d call it the written equivalent of a “frozen pan” (as in “The Matrix”) or the cgi zoom-out at the beginning of the movie “Contact” — when, towards the end of the story, someone in a hospital room takes out a disposable camera and he suddenly shifts and describes how that camera was manufactured — from the way the paper for the box is chosen so as to print the special ink that all products of that brand use to the camera being discovered, forgotten, days later by an orderly and thrown in a waste basket.

The Wire is, pretty much, nothing less ambitious than an attempt to depict such an instantaneous cross-section of a modern US city in decline. I imagine that watching it all at once (which I will do when the final season ships on DVD) will be quite something, although if you wait until you can see all five at once, it may be shattering. It’s not a pretty picture, but it’s a picture very much worth looking at.