Year2005

The posters to nearly every single movie featured on MST3K

I would love to post a link to the amazing New Yorker article I just finished, but it’s not online.

So here’s a link to someone else complaining about the article’s e-absence.

Arcade Chicanery

     A few years ago I got way into arcade game restoration. Let me tell you, it really wooed the ladies. One of the most interesting aspects of that diversion into nerdery was the insight into the commercial end of the arcade industry that I gained. Nearly all ‘modern’ (ie post-JAMMA) games have vendor-configurable difficulty settings – so high scores and other such arcade accomplishments can be ambiguous.

     The video linked below, which I recently found via the Make Magazine blog shows the secrets of other bits of arcade machinery, including the tension adjustment on claw-grabber games, and the hidden coin harvesters on those ‘coin pusher’ machines. Sneaky! It’s realvideo (10 Minutes, 25 MB), but it’s worth it — just click here or on the image below for a direct link. The host of the video is Tim Hunkin, his site, which is packed with nerdy goodness, is here.

Awesome sunscreen billboard is a mosaic of pegs that form an image by casting shadows of different lengths.

The New York Times Magazine audio interview with Chris Ware

regarding his Sunday strips.

Hello World – Jason Shiga

     The work of Jason Shiga first came to my attention in 2003, when he won an Eisner award for “Talent most deserving of wider recognition.” A few months later, I read a write-up on his then-current interactive comic book, ‘Hello World,’ and immediately ordered it from the USS Catastrophe store, hoping for the best.

     ‘Hello World’ turned out to be a tour de force in the relatively uncrowded field of interactive sequential narrative. In concept, it’s a bit like a combination of the obsessive block diagramming of software development and the traditional comic book narrative. Put simply, it’s an ambitious, illustrated “Choose Your Own Adventure” story, complete with a self-contained inventory system. The pages of the book itself are cut into two halves – the upper half contains the narrative, the lower half displays your current inventory.

     It’s a bit difficult to explain the function of the book without actually experiencing it or seeing it in action, so I’ve provided a short video clip below. It’s a must-see, if only to truly appreciate the complexity of the book Mr. Shiga has put together.

Helloworld-2


(Download)

      Hello World thoroughly blew my mind – when you think about the planning that went into executing such an idea, it’s just insane. I’m not sure how understandable the video above is, so I’ve pasted the official description, from the Shigabooks site, below:

     “Hello World has two tiers that work independently of each other, not unlike the mix-n-match monster books of your childhood. Memory is stored in the bottom tier while the story takes place in the upper tier. The panels of the story are connected by a network of tubes. These tubes constantly dip in and out of the memory tier to determine what happens next in the story.”

     Those familiar with my interests are by now realizing that this discovery — comic books that are NERDIER than NORMAL comic books?! — ranks pretty high on my list of best shit ever. Obviously, I had to find some of his other work. What follows are summaries of two of the other noteworthy books I eventually tracked down, as well as a ‘highlight reel’ of the new work that Jason recently added to his redesigned Shigabooks website. First though, some perspective on the guy behind these comics. Here’s the bio from his website:

     “You could say that cartooning was in my blood. My father was an animator and worked on such shows as Obake no Q-taro and the legendary Bas Rankin Rudoph the Red Nosed Reindeer Christmas Special.”

     “My parents have always been supportive of my interests. In highschool, I drew comic strips for the school newspaper and started to take up animation as well.
In 1998, I graduated from Cal with a degree in… Pure Mathematics. Why? Well, ever since I was ten years old, I had always thought that math was the best subject because even if you’re locked in a room for 25 years with no books you can still study it.”

     “Currently, I work at the Oakland Public Library as a Library Aide and do freelance cartooning for magazines.”

Meanwhile

     ‘Meanwhile’ is another interactive comic book that is less work-intensive on the part of the reader, and generally a much more readable iteration of the same ‘Choose Your Own Adventure’ concept — a reversal in balance of plot and principle when compared with ‘Hello World.’

     In ‘Meanwhile,’ the paths the reader can follow are linked by pipes that extend between pages. Transitions from page to page are coordinated via tabs that extend beyond the edge of the page. If the reader follows a path to a tab, the page is turned and the reader continues on the newly-revealed page, starting from the tab. Confusing? The best way to get a feel for it is to experience it yourself, which is now possible online, as Jason has put together a Javascript version of the book here.

Meanwhile-2

     Like ‘Hello World,’ my first reaction to ‘Meanwhile’ was to marvel at the fact that someone was able to wrestle it all into a cohesive structure. The slightly-less-maniacally-detailed approach allows the plot to develop much more freely than in ‘Hello World.’ There’s a Mad scientist, a Time Machine, Secret Passwords, and Ice cream. All the good stuff. Shiga has actually isolated each panel, twist and turn contained in ‘Meanwhile’ and constructed a single ‘posterized’ version of the book, which he has exhibited at comic shows in the past. The finished product measures 5 feet by 5 feet, and can be seen here.

Fleep

     ‘Fleep’ isn’t an interactive comic, but it managed to capture my interest nonetheless. While it doesn’t turn sequential narrative on its ear in the same way many of Shiga’s other works attempt to, it does have elements of logic and puzzle-solving built into the relatively straight-forward narrative, which will appeal to many of the same readers that would be enthused by his other efforts. The story begins with the main character waking up locked in a windowless phone booth with no memory of the events landing him in said situation. The rest of the plot consists of this character trying to piece together the specifics of his predicament, based on clues in the phone booth, information obtained using the telephone, deduction, and math. Awesome.

     Fleep has been available online in its entirety for quite awhile, and made the rounds of notorious nerd-hives such as metafilter sometime last year (mefi discussion here).

     For those keeping score, the print version has the best production values of any of the books I’ve yet seen. Nice thick paper and better print quality than the interactive comics (Which I imagine are far more expensive to produce).

Fleep

Further Online Works

     I started piecing this entry together shortly after I originally ordered these books in early 2004. Research at the time seemed to indicate that Mr. Shiga had disappeared from the face of the earth shortly after winning the Eisner award. I emailed him in early 2005, asking about his next project and the availability of additional copies of “Hello World.” Here’s what he had to say:

     “I’m currently working on a new
choose your own adventure type comic. The gimmick this time is that you get
to choose from 7-20 branches at every node (by the way, you only get to make
3 choices before a crazed gunman shoots you in the stomach). This project
should be finished within a couple months. I won’t make it in time for this
APE but it should be available by the next one.”

     “As for obtaining a copy of
“Hello World”, you’re out of luck as usscatastrophe sold out recently. I’m not
selling any copies on my site because I get killed on the shipping. I will
be selling copies at APE so you should come down if you’re still in the area.

     About a month ago, Mr. Shiga emerged from e-exile and completely revamped his website, adding all sorts of new content and revealing that he’s been doing interactive comics for Nickelodeon Magazine in the interim (“I started working for Nickelodeon Magazine in 2003. It is an awesome responsibility knowing that my comics could potentially corrupt over a million children across the country. I do mostly double page interactive spreads which the kids seem to love.”). Some other highlights from the newly updated site, in relative order of recommendation, include:

  • Dead Lock‘ – An absolutely great autobiographical story, illustrated by a friend. A glimpse into how the mind that creates these works functions in the real world. The story comes from an entry on his circa-2003 livejournal. Awesome.
  • Bookhunter‘ a new longform strip about crime and libraries. Super good.
  • Description of ‘Theater Eroika’, a scrapped project involving an interactive narrative with panels printed on 5 rotating paper ‘wheels.’
  • Every Dog Has His Day‘ – a comic strip with panels that are randomly ordered based on punchcard-like cuts.
  • A few samples of his work for Nickelodeon are here.
  • Double Happiness,’ a book that won a Xeric award in 1999 is now also available online in its entirety.

     You can order copies of several works directly from Mr. Shiga via this order form.

Coding after midnight. Rockin to the dawn.

The Short Version:

     I wrote an application for OS X 10.3+ that rips the audio from DVD’s to your iTunes / iPod. I use it to listen to commentary tracks – it could concievably be used as a language-learning tool (Listening to the alternate language audio streams from familiar movies). You can download the application here. Feedback and / or donations (if you find it useful) are appreciated.

The Long Version (Nerd alert):

     I’ve always been a huge fan of DVD commentary tracks, primarily because I’m obsessed with all things “Behind the Scenes.” A few weeks ago I noted that lately I just don’t have the time to watch all the movies I’d like to see, let alone rewatch them with the commentary track. What I do have time for, however, is portable audio. Every so often I’ll hit a stretch in a project where I’m doing something relatively mechanical, and having narrative audio like This American Life to follow help make the time melt away. I duly filed the idea in the back of my brain.

     Roughly a week later, this tutorial popped up on Lifehacker. Basically, it details ripping the audio track from a DVD using command line options and Open Source video player VLC. This got me playing with VLC, but I was unable to find a command line option to switch the audio stream to grab (Though I did find some discussion of adding it as a feature). I posted this ask.metafilter thread looking for leads, and someone suggested MPlayer.

     After wrestling with getting fink up to date on my Mac, and then compiling MPlayer and LAME, I had the basics. I devised a command line program that will take the output of Mplayer and feed it in to LAME, resulting in an easily portable MP3.

     For some reason, I decided I would learn how to make this into an application for others to use. When I described this idea to my girlfriend, Sarah, she said:

     “You have completely lost your mind this time.”

     Which clearly means I’m on to something. So I set about learning the joys of Interface Builder and Applescript Studio during the wee hours of the past week or so. I now have what I think is a functional version of the application I set out to create. It will even take the MP3 it spits out and add it to a playlist in iTunes. You can download it here.

Nerd Central: UC Berkeley CS students can tell what you’re typing based on audio.

The comments predict spyware that moniters your Mic input. Imagine the hidden message possibilities for the music industry!

Video Games that break the fourth wall in interesting ways

     I’ve recently come across references to two video games that interacted with the player in a pretty unique way. I’ve never experienced either of these first hand, but I’m intrigued, and curious if other such examples exist.

     The first example I’ve seen referenced is 1993’s ‘X-Men’ for the Sega Genesis. I’ve read incomplete accounts of what exactly this ‘breaking of the fourth wall’ entailed in a few different places, but this is the most complete account I’ve found:

     “At the end of the level “Mojo’s Crunch,” you will be in a room surrounded by tv screens with Prof. X’s face on them. When the timer starts to run out, Prof. X will tell you to reset the computer. At this point press the RESET button on your Sega’s Genesis. You will see a screen that looks like binary code. After this fades out, You will then move on to the last level, Asteroid M.”

     AT least that’s the most coherent description I found of the goings-on. Anyone who grew up with the NES and it’s successors can relate to the horror of a mid-game resetting, which is why I was particularly enamored with this bit of ingenuity on the part of the developers.

     Ever vigilant in my efforts to be both nerdy AND thorough, I was curious how this oddity had been handled in the various Genesis emulators, so I did a bit of googling. It looks like it hasn’t been handled at all: “Sadly – emulators can’t emulate the soft reset function.”

     The other example of such weirdness involves a recurring character in the ‘Metal Gear Solid’ line of games – a character called ‘Psycho Mantis.’ From the wikipedia entry on Mr. Psycho Mantis:

     “When Solid Snake faces Mantis, Mantis demonstrates his psychic powers by breaking the fourth wall. In the pre-battle cut-scene, he activates the controller’s rumble feature, then reads the player’s memory card. Then, at the begining of the actual battle, Mantis yells “Blackout!” and causes the screen to go completely black except for the words Hideo (a reference to the director Hideo Kojima) in green all capital text in the top right corner of the screen, much like TV or VCR on-screen-displays. Many players mistook this to be a glitch in the game, while it was supposed to trick the player into thinking that he or someone else changed the TV or VCR input, as a slight attempt to throw the player off.

     The reading of the player’s memory card involves checking how often they’ve saved their game in reaching the battle with Mr. Mantis, and commenting on the relative wisdom or recklessness that this symbolizes. The card is also examined for specific game saves which are then commented on (“I can see into your mind. You like Castlevania, don’t you?”).

     According to various sources, the best method for defeating Mr. Matis involves configuring your memory card and controller connections, mid-game. Again, from the wikipedia entry:

     “The easiest way to defeat Psycho Mantis is to for the player to remove the memory card, plug the controller into the Player Two portal (which prevents The Parasite from predicting your battle moves) and equip both the FA-MAS and the Thermal Goggles (FA-MAS is useful for attacking Mantis with speed and power, while the Thermal Goggles prevent him from turning invisible on Snake [by detecting his body heat] and making Mantis unable to hide from your attacks). The battle should be a lot easier now, if not impossible to lose (on easier difficulties).”

     So, looking at this from a game design / programming perspective, we have the following: Leaving your controller in port 1 during the battle passes your button presses onto the logic code that controls Psycho Mantis — So he’s ‘reading your mind.’ The game will accept controls from the player 2 port without passing them on to the enemy’s artificial intelligence logic.

     This means that the designers assumed that the player would mentally extend the scope of the game they were playing to the physical space around them, based on nothing but subtle contextual hints.

     Crazy. And awesome.

Motorcyclists and Me

Scene: A few years ago, driving on I-96 towards Detroit.

     Motorcycle comes screaming up behind me on the left. Swerves into my lane, cutting me off in ridiculously-close, Hollywood-novelty style. Is that enough? No, that is not enough. Said motorcyclist proceeds to POP A WHEELIE, and stand on his back pegs. This pose is maintained for the better part of a minute. Doing 80. On the freeway. I thought I was being attacked by Ghost Rider or something.

Scene: A few days ago, driving on a main road in Ann Arbor.

     Motorcyclist swerves from behind me, presumably because I was moving too slowly for him. Upon passing me on the left, motorcyclist appears to jump off the bike proper and SIT ON HIS HANDLEBARS for several seconds, before remounting his motorcycle. How is that even possible?! Don’t you have to have your foot on a pedal or something?!

     So: for some reason, my mere presence on the road apparently compels motorcyclists to do ‘tricks.’ Needless to say, this is extremely weird. Is this some sort of “You got served!” thing that motorcyclists do? Like “I just passed you! Here’s a trick to remember me by! I served you!” Perhaps.

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