Skip to content

Monthly Archives: April 2009

“So​ ​You​ ​Think​ ​You​ ​Have​ ​a​ ​Power​ ​Law”

300px-long_tail1This article about the power law isn’t new, but it’s been making the rounds at Worio. I really wish I could write like this — it makes an interesting and important technical point and it does so with wit and enthusiasm.

Whenever I try to start writing something interesting about my research, I invariably decide it seems too much like work and I’d rather write about my favourite movies. Then I usually decide I’d rather just watch a movie instead of writing about one I’ve already seen. Except sometimes watching a movie seems too challenging, so I watch sitcoms.

I guess that’s why I’m not a science writer. Or a film critic. I’m just a man rewatching last week’s 30 Rock on his laptop.

(Though speaking of Worio, we got Lifehacker-ed on the weekend. Guess all that time we spent optimizing the tropical fish recommender wasn’t wasted.)

make us dance, fat man

the unmoving dance of shame, originally uploaded by Mister Wind-Up Bird.

Dan Deacon took over Richard’s on Richards last night and put on what may well be the show of the year (well, for me — I don’t go to all that many shows). Vancouver hipsters are legendarily reluctant to shake it at on the floor, but they were no match for Deacon’s infectiously dorky showmanship, which Wikipedia describes as "part stand-up act and part dance party". It didn’t hurt that he was backed by a 13-piece ensemble, including THREE drummers. (And to think, I was once impressed by Caribou’s two drummers.)

“Congratulations, mortal! In return for thy service, I grant thee the gift of Immortality!”

"Congratulations, mortal! In return for thy service, I grant thee the gift of Immortality!", originally uploaded by Mister Wind-Up Bird.

More than 10 years after I started playing Nethack — probably the deepest computer game evar — I finally beat it! That’s a 6,139,426-point Valkrie win right there, homeboy.

If you don’t know Nethack, you’re not alone — it’s a bit of a cult computer game. And like a lot of cults, it represents a fairly fundamental evolutionary offshoot from the main branch. In fact, I’d say it represents a gaming philosophy that’s radically different from what’s now the mainstream.

For one thing, the game has been in constant development for the past 20-odd years. It was started in 1987 as a spin-off of a game called Rogue, which was a crude Dungeons-and-Dragons type of adventure game, developed on UNIX computers using ASCII (text) characters in the place of graphics. In 1988, development was organized by a University of Pennsylvania philosophy professor with time on his hands, that’s when it started to take off. Since that time, the game has undergone countless revisions, as literally thousands of monsters, pieces of equipment and interactions have been added by the secretive DevTeam, essentially making it the product of a decades-long brainstorming session. For example, every potion in the game can be drunk, of course, but it can also be thrown at monsters, or the wall, or the floor — and monsters can and will throw it at you in a pinch (assuming they are intelligent and have arms). It can be boiled, frozen, diluted, or mixed with any other potion — and if it boils you might be affected by the vapour. You can dip your weapons, armour or any other item into it. It can be blessed or cursed. And every interaction has been considered and tested! If you try dipping a potion of acid into a fountain, it will bubble up and burn you instead of diluting. If you dip arrows into a potion of sickness, it will poison them, but if you dip them into a potion of polymorph, it might turn them into darts. A potion of gain level will normally raise your character’s level, but if it’s cursed, it will raise you a level of the dungeon, instead. Nethack likes puns.

One reason it can pull this off is that the graphics are incredibly basic. The screenshot above is Qt Nethack, which is pretty fancy-pants by Nethack standards. The default is just plain ASCII symbols: @ is you, < and > are stairs down and up. A d is a dog that you might be able to tame and even make a pet if you have food for it, but a D is a dragon: there are 18 different kinds, any of which will probably fuck you up if you’re not ready. And you know what? The game is just as engaging as any current-generation console game — more than most, in fact. Funny how the human minds works.

The other way Nethack diverges from current game dev practice is that it is painfully, heartstoppingly, masochistically unforgiving. Whenever you load a saved game, the first thing the program does is delete your saved file. If you die, you don’t go back to the last place you saved. You’re dead. Start over. And you will die lots, especially in the beginning part of the game, when most of the items in the dungeon are unknown and dangerous and plenty of the monsters are tougher than you.

Even worse, the game is fair. Which is to say, play balance has been so refined that death is rarely arbitrary. Most deaths are caused by greed, impatience and/or sloppiness. Sure there’s a point when death is inevitable a few turns away, but looking back, there’s always something you could have done differently if you were smarter or more careful. If you had used your wand of cold to fight the giant bees instead of your sword, you wouldn’t have been poisoned by their strength-depleting stings, which would have let you carry the cockatrice corpse down the stairs without falling on it and being turned to stone. (True story! Also, I’m a huge nerd!) Supposedly, the best Nethack players can win several games in a row without dying, but I died hundreds of deaths between discovering the game in the 1990s and beating it last weekend (and then there was the one time my high-level wizard managed to accidentally leave the dungeon without dying or winning).

All of this — the complexity, the lack of graphics, and the sheer unforgiving brutality — makes Nethack impenetrable and frustrating to most people and intensely interesting to a few. Probably explains why it’s a marginal cult game at best. (It doesn’t help that these days, the game’s mysteries are all just a Google search away.) I haven’t played it much lately — the game I won on Saturday I started over two years ago and played for a couple of hours every few months. But I will say, finally beating this sadistic bastard was a lot more satisfying than getting to the credit screen of any PS2 game.

Death Bed: The Bed That Eats (1977)

I’ve been on a big Patton Oswalt kick lately, and on his album Werewolves and Lollipops he talks about this movie at length. So, you know, go follow that link and listen to the bit. It’s hilarious.

And then doing a little research on the internet, I found that this movie has a whole elaborate history to it — beyond the incredible fact a movie about an eating bed was made at all. The first-time (and only-time) director George Barry started the movie in 1972 as a labour of love, finally finished it five years later, and then found nobody wanted to buy it. Period. Not even for the price of striking a print. He shelved it and went on with his life (I think he ran a used book store in Detroit), but unbeknownst to him, one of his development labs somehow pirated it, and it bounced around Europe for decades as a (very) minor underground phenom in the pre-internet. Finally, an astonished Barry found out about the cult it had attracted and give it a much-belated release on DVD in 2002.

So how is Death Bed: The Bed That Eats? Worth the wait? Well, first off, it clearly is a labour of love. Most luridly-titled horror flicks fail to deliver on the title’s promise (see Killdozer, The Brain That Wouldn’t Die, or every single movie ever released by the turd factory that is Troma), but not this one — this movie is clearly the work of a man who sought to tell the story of an eating bed. It eats gangsters, hippies, priests and orgies, not to mention flowers, fried chicken, cigars and suitcases, all of which sink into the bed’s “stomach” (a vat of coloured water), accompanied by hearty chomping and chewing sounds.

Weird enough, but that doesn’t even begin to get at just how balls-out bizarre this movie is. For one thing, the movie is narrated by the spirit of an pissed-off-sounding artist who lives behind a painting overlooking the bed. Also, the bed itself falls asleep (and snores), which just raises all kinds of questions. And in the movie’s strangest sequence, a man survives the death bed only to have the flesh eaten from his hands, but instead of, you know: screaming in agony, like you or I might be inclined to do, he just stares forlornly at the skeletal hands emerging from the sleeves of his blazer until his sister helps him out by breaking off the bones and throwing them into a fire!

Unfortunately, while Death Bed gets mad props for effort and originality, it’s easier to admire than to enjoy. It may have El Topo-to-Eraserhead levels of weirdness, but it has the technical proficiency (and budget) of Manos: The Hands of Fate. Half of it is shot in painfully bad day-for-night, and the entire (dubbed) cast acts like they’ve just had a big lunch and are looking for a place to take a nap. Though, hmmm, napping… sleeping… bed… maybe that’s the point?

Adventureland (2009)

adventurelandA notice to Generation Y: the 1980s were not cool. High school was not like John Hughes movies (except that the seemingly-cool chick usually really did end up with the jock or the rich kid in the end). Nobody wore their legwarmers and teased hair ironically– they were just kind of naive and dumb that way. And the only reason you think that the music was cool is because you listen to things that were never on the radio, anyway, unless maybe you lived in London or New York — it was all Phil Collins and Tom Cochrane and Milli Vanilli. And there was no internet, so even if you somehow heard about The Smiths or The Stone Roses on late-night CBC Radio, you had to go to a record store and special-order a record that *might* show up six weeks later. And don’t get me started on the TV.

Director Greg (Superbad) Mottola’s Adventureland, set in 1987, manages to nod to 80s nostalgia without wallowing in it, or making the era seem cooler than it was. Jesse Eisenberg is a kind of Jewish Michael Cera-type, a Renaissance studies grad who is unexpectedly forced to take a summer job at the titular amusement park. He finds a friend’s bag of joints is a ticket into the inner circles of carny society, including bitter nerd Martin Starr and sharp-tongued Kirsten Stewart, who is carrying on a self-loathing affair with married handyman Ryan Reynolds.

Adventureland is funny, but not uproariously so, and it’s not trying to be. It’s more Dazed and Confused than Superbad 2. Unfortunately, it also feels pretty slight, which makes it’s awkward (and I suspect unintended) tonal shifts all the more jarring. A subplot about Eisenberg’s dad’s alcoholism ends up going nowhere, and does so thuddingly. And Bill Hayder and Kristen Wiig appear as the park’s owners, doing such broad comedy that they seem to be living in a separate universe (it’s like an SNL sketch dropped into American Graffitti). But that said, I was really charmed with the movie. Sure the music sucked at the time, but even for a nostalgia-hater like myself, the pre-ironic 80s is a nice place to spend an hour and a half occassionally.