The Laboratorium
March 2007

Intuition I give it 3 stars


Probably not the intended effect, but reading this has made me very glad that I’m not a biomedical research scientist. Also, the Harvard Square place-name-dropping bothered me from the very first paragraph. Still, few other novels take scientists this seriously.

Two Plot Ideas… Crazy … But So Crazy … They Just Might Work


Stonepunk

If cyberpunk is dystopian futuristic sci-fi based on computer and network technologies, and steampunk is dystopian futuristic sci-fi transplanted to an alternate Victorian age with modern-equivalent technologies based on the steam engine, and clockpunk is dystopian futuristic sci-fi transplanted to an alternate Renaissance age with modern-equivalent technologies based on clockwork, then stonepunk is … well, you get the picture. Imagine the assassins, flying machines, robots, and decadents of cyberpunk, in a setting where the highly advanced technology consists of stone wheels and rope. For a real challenge, make the technology handaxes. That’s not a bad one, actually. One day, a bunch of bad guys show up with sharp stones and establish dictatorial rule over all known civilization (i.e. the tribe and its two neighbors). Our heroes must make a perilous journey across the world, from the forest to the gorge, as they race against time to reverse engineer the previously-unimaginable fabrication technology behind this new superweapon.

The idea generalizes. You can think of the defining attribute of steampunk and related genres as being a deliberate projection back in time of a particular kind of science fiction. (There are other interpretations, and also lots of steam-, clock-, and whatnot-punk that don’t fit this reading.) But how about taking not just other time periods but other genres? Hard sci-fi offers lots of possibilities. Take the meticulous working-out of relativistic-speeds space combat, and imagine treating classical wooden-ships naval warfare in that tone. The conversation on the quarterdeck is all about the precise trigonometry of closing angles, and reloading intervals; reports come up from belowdecks that hull capacity is at 12%, and with one more hit, captain, B deck will be open to fluid! (Or, in the reverse, one could write about starships the way Patrick O’Brian wrote about sailing ships.)

The Recreation of the American Republic, or, If Thomas Jefferson Were Alive, He’d Be Two Hundred and Sixty Two

Someone develops the technology to raise the dead in new bodies, and for reasons that can easily be invented, decides to bring back to life the major Founding Fathers. They’re now stuck in 21st-century American; hijinks ensue. Franklin is the first to really adjust (he did want to be dropped in a barrel of Madeira and brought back when technology would permit, after all), and immediately sets of wheeling, dealing, whoring, and inventing. Jefferson is profoundly uncomfortable, and while he can be charming in conversation, when left alone he goes back to moping about what seems to him a hideously industrialized world out of touch with its virtuous agricultural roots. Eventually, though, Washington and Madison talk him into shouldering his burden and teaming up with his old enemy Hamilton to track down a shadowy figure who is somehow using the revived Framers to bring down the United States. The Jefferson-Hamilton team, mismatched and distrustful of each other, must nonetheless use their very different intelligences and skills to prevent the resurrection of a zombie army of evil invincible redcoats. In the shocking surprise ending, Hamilton must redeem his honor by defeating the revived Burr in a rematch in of their duel in a much-changed Weehawken, while Jefferson, across the river in a deserted basement of the old original Federal Hall in New York, must talk a fanatical Patrick Henry into releasing the kidnapped Franklin, whom Henry has been forcing to develop the advanced resurrection technology necessary. Anachronistic, silly, and a total page-turner.

Can I Just Ask?


Who takes a pair of three-year-olds on the train in the quiet car? That’s just cruel to them, to everyone nearby, or—as in the present case—both.

Also cruel: telling them that it’s just two more stops, but forgetting about Newark and Newark Airport.

What’s Up, Duck


As my spring break draws to a close, so too does the time allotted for tinkering with this site. Some guys have cars up on blocks; I tinker with my computer and my web site. I also apologize for any bizarre glitches you may have seen. I don’t have a production server and a test server, so I pretty much test changes by putting them on the site and squinting to make sure everything looks right. Some changes of note:

  • Lots of layout tweaks. The typography should be somewhat better; I’m using a more sensible line width and line height, and something that might even be mistaken for a standard grid. Behind the scenes, it’s all divs and CSS now, with no tables.
  • The archives are now accessible directly through the left sidebar. The right sidebar links now have an archive.
  • I’ve added an Atom feed for the right sidebar linkblog (“Mindless Link Propagation”) so you can pick up my short link posts in your feed reader. Under the hood, all feeds on the site are now Atom feeds; the old feeds have been redirected to the new ones.
  • I’ve set up a new category of reviews interleaved with ordinary blog entries. These show up with titles hyperlinked to someplace you can acquire or learn more about the item in question, and with my rating from one to five stars. (I also have an icon for zero stars, but I’m not sure what it would take to get me to use it.)
  • The left sidebar now has a “recent comments” section. All the cool bloggers were doing it. Several years ago.
  • I’ve cleaned up the URL scheme I use for archives. The old system had one very annoying property that made every new post a roll of the dice with history itself on the line. No more. The past is safe again.
  • I’ve removed file extensions (e.g. “.html”) pretty much throughout the site, and changed the site from being www.laboratorium.net to just laboratorium.net (without the sextupleu in front). These are both to do with decrufting the URLs I generate to make them easier to read and less likely to break in the future.
  • I’ve added a print-specific stylesheet, which omits the left and right sidebars to create a printer-friendly version when you use your browser’s print command.

And yes, this is how I like to spend my leisure time.

Glasshouse I give it 5 stars


I’ll make it up to Stross with this one; Glasshouse is strange and brilliant, and it got me started on this whole Strossian jag. I went into it cold, with no plot synopsis or other idea of what to expect, and I recommend experiencing it that way. You’ll see why. Highly recommended for those who, like me, enjoy head-trippy sci-fi.

The Atrocity Archives I give it 3 stars


A supernatural spy thriller from Charlie Stross ought to be entertaining, but this is Tim Powers country, and Declare covered this ground much more effectively. I’d hoped that the humorous IT angle would work, but it doesn’t; Stross doesn’t let his bureaucrats really be bureaucrats. Saved from mediocrity by one remarkably effective set piece.

Some Telephone Company


I just got off the phone with another phone company that couldn’t transfer me from one department to another. This was an actual situation where they’d have turned off my service if I didn’t talk to the right person, so I went through with calling the other number. Is it some kind of institutional perversity that phone companies uniformly have terrible internal phone systems?

Why Can’t the English Learn How to Speak?


And why can’t very smart legal academics get their Internet architecture arguments right? Solum and Chung’s generally quite good paper The Layers Principle: Internet Architecture and Law (draft online here; the published version is 79 Notre Dame L. Rev. 815 (2004)) is a cogent (albeit unnecessarily long) explanation of layering principles in the design of the Internet, sensible Internet regulation, and law in general. Modularity is good, layering is a smart and general form of modularity, and they provide reasonable arguments for why law should try to cut with the grain and focus on one layer at a time, rather than against the grain by trying to affect one layer by tinkering with another. But in the process of trying to distinguish layering from the end-to-end (or “stupid network with smart endpoints”) principle, they write:

Conceptually, the layer separation does not follow from the end-to-end principle, because the end-to-end principle doesn’t tell us to separate the TCP, IP, and physical layers, whereas the end-to-end principle does follow from the separation of the application layer form the lower network layers.

Wrong. The core claim here is that you need a layering principle to distinguish TCP, IP, and physical layers, and that end-to-end just won’t suffice. Watch closely as I disprove the claim by counterexample:

The physical level—the actual wires and wireless links that connect computers in a network—is hardware; everything else is software. You have to distinguish the physical layer from everything else; they’re just made of different stuff. That’s something like a law of nature.

That brings us to the IP layer. Having one common packetized routing protocol is a fundamental design decision of the Internet. IP is what makes it the Inter-net; it’s the lingua franca that different networks speak to enable packets to flow freely among them. That decision doesn’t involve a layering principle so much as a universality principle. One could have networks with all sorts of different packet-routing protocols; the decision to standardize on IP involves a decision to make packet routing the same everywhere.

IP is sufficient to get a lossy, non-ordered, unacknowledged stream of datagrams from point A to point B anywhere on a connected network, passing through points E, I, O, U, and sometimes Y along the way. Since many applications would like in-order delivery, guarantees that no datagrams have been dropped, and/or acknowledgment that the datagrams have gotten through, the question then arises of where to implement these “transport” functions.

One could put those functions in the network. The routers in the middle could perform reordering and guarantee delivery at each hop. But the end-to-end principle says not to do this. The end-to-end principle says you should shove these transport functions into the endpoints: computers A and B, rather than the vowels in between. That way, if A wants guaranteed delivery, it can ask B for acknowledgments and retransmit if a packet never gets through. This is where TCP comes in. But note that since IP is “spoken” at every node in the network, whereas these transmission features are only relevant to the endpoints, of course you need a new layer for them. The layering of TCP over IP therefore flows from the end-to-end principle every bit as much as vice-versa.

The point here is that there is a fundamental distinction between layering in the set of protocols spoken within the network, and layering in the set of protocols spoken over the network by the endpoints. The latter are layered on top of the former in consequence of the end-to-end principle. Crossing between network-level and endpoint-level layers creates serious transparency problems and leads to the kind of regulatory trouble that Solum and Chung worry about. But layer-crossing purely within the network-level layers can be more readily justified by technical exigencies. And layering within the endpoints is often simply a matter of engineering convenience; A and B layer on top of TCP for most applications but are likely to switch to UDP for their gaming.

This point is made, in a somewhat different context, by Michael Walfish et al in Middleboxes No Longer Considered Harmful:

Note that this last claim satisfies network-level layering but allows violations of higher-level equivalents, e.g., an explicitly addressed firewall that looks at application payloads upholds the rules just given but flouts application-level layering. In general, this paper claims that DOA improves on the status quo by restoring network-level layering but does not insist that intermediaries adhere to higher-level layering. Why not? Higher-level layers define how to organize host software, and one can imagine splitting host software among boxes using exotic decompositions. Defining both higher-level layering and an architecture that respects these higher layers is a problem that requires care and one we have left to future work. In the meantime, we believe that hosts invoking intermediaries should decide how best to split functions between them and their intermediaries.

Thus, Solum and Chung are correct that the separation of application from TCP (and thus from all lower-level protocols) is not required by end-to-end and must be explained as an instance of layering. But there is little regulatory significance in the distinction between application and TCP layers. I’m not aware of any government proposals to regulate the contents of the TCP implementation on anyone’s desktop or laptop computer. When they worry about layer-crossing, they’re really concerned with network intermediaries (who should only be speaking IP and lower-level protocols) sneaking a peek at the contents of the higher-level protocols (that should only be seen by the endpoints).

Their examples are good. Their general point is good. But in their zeal to emphasize the important work that layering does, they go a step too far. It’s not layering per se that matters for policy purposes; it’s the interaction of layering with ubiquitous intermediaries. It’s important and useful to recognize that intermediary censorship involves layer crossing. But that doesn’t mean that all forms of layer crossing raise the same issues. By emphasizing layering qua layering, Solum and Chung put too far aside the critical distinction between layers that intermediaries are expected to work with and layers that they should ordinarily leave alone.

This has been my rant for the day, although Aislinn informs me that it’s better to rant about many small things than about one big thing. She is willing to concede, however, that I may be a ranting specialist while she’s more of a ranting general practitioner.

The Most Provocative Sentence I Have Read Today


Any device too specialized to run the full Internet suite can be assumed to be too specialized to be treated as a fully general platform for unknown applications.

That is from David Clark et. al, Addressing Reality: An Architectural Response to Real-World Demands on the Evolving Internet, and yes, it is italicized in the original. They meant for it to jump out. Those twenty-eight words are the clearest and most succinct link I have seen between the power of the general-purpose Internet and the power of the general-purpose computer. I am not sure the statement is entirely correct, but it would explain a lot. The application of this assertion to the cell-phone ecosystem, with special attention to the iPhone, is left as an exercise for the reader. And query whether the converse is true.

Ruling the Waves I give it 3 stars


Not bad on the whole. The argument is perhaps a little unnuanced, but that may be inevitable when trying to write a book with a thesis as cross-technological as hers is: that that new technologies are at first curiosities for tinkerers, then chaotic opportunities for pirates and creators alike, and finally profitable in a way that leads entrepreneurs to welcome the stability that government can provide. The historical anecdotes are reasonably fun and interesting, although for my money not detailed enough when it comes to the legal, technological, and business specifics. Oh, and don’t forget to check up on any facts you might want to cite from herein.

How Not to Market


Actual conversation from a few minutes ago;

Phone: Ring.

Me: Hello?

Phone: <pause>

Me: Hello?

Phone: Hi, I’m with [my cell phone company] and I’d like to discuss whether you’re on the best plan for you.

Me: Okay …

Phone: Our records show that you’re getting [whatever it is that I’m getting]. Now, we can continue that for another two years if you get a new …

Me: Actually, what I’d like to discuss with you is what kind of a deal you could give me if my wife were to switch to you and we would get a joint plan.

Phone: That would be our [whatever its name is] plan. I can’t help you with that, that’s a different department.

Me: Well, can you transfer me there?

Phone: No, but I can give you the number. <Reads number>

Eh. You call me up, you call me up, I tell you that I’m interested in getting you a whole additional customer, and you can’t find someone who can make that kind of sale? It’s a sad day when a well-honed direct-sales marketing machine isn’t hungry for business. All of the annoyance, none of the value.

92 Iowa L. Rev. (forthcoming 2007)


My article The Structure of Search Engine Law has been accepted by the Iowa Law Review and will most likely appear in print sometime in the fall. I’ve had good interactions with the editors there so far and am looking forward to working with them to ready the piece for publication. I’m also happy to be publishing with a journal whose author’s agreement is consistent with good open access principles.

The whole law review submission process has been quite interesting. Aislinn is still angry at the “punk-ass kid” (her term) from an unnamed law review who called at 1:30 in the morning.

UPDATE: Yes, JG, I did mean volume 93. Volume 92 is the current volume.

No Rock is an Island


Harvard Business School professor Debora L. Spar writes, on page 33 of her book Ruling the Waves:

Henry [The Navigator] returned from Africa eager to crusade again, and to capture the nearby island of Gibraltar. But his father refused permission …

Well, if I were King of Portugal and my son came to me seeking to conquer the island of Gibraltar, I’d refuse permission, too, at least until he’d done his homework. There is a Gibraltar Island, but it’s on Lake Erie; to the best of my knowledge, the promontory at the southern end of Spain is not and has never been an island. The book has a good reputation, is widely cited, and has been on my to-read list for years, but I always worry when I see this kind of failed reality check.

The American Frugal Housewife Good Common Wedding Cake


From Lydia Maria Child, The American Frugal Housewife, p. 72:

Good common wedding cake may be made thus: Four pounds of flour, three pounds of butter, three pounds of sugar, four pounds of currants, two pounds of raisins, twenty-four eggs, half a pint of brandy, or lemon-brandy, one ounce of mace, and three nutmegs. A little molasses makes it dark colored, which is desirable. Half a pound of citron improves it; but it is not necessary. To be baked two hours and a half, or three hours. After the oven is cleared, it is well to shut the door for eight or ten minutes, to let the violence of the heat subside, before cake or bread is put in.

To make icing for your wedding cake, beat the whites of eggs to an entire froth, and to each egg add five teaspoonfuls of sifted loaf sugar, gradually; beat it a great while. Put it on when your cake is hot, or cold, as is most convenient. It will dry in a warm room, a short distance from a gentle fire, or in a warm oven.

Repeat after me: four pounds of currants?

From the Awesome Files: CC Learn


Creative Commons is launching a new division called “CC Learn.” I’m not sure what I think of the name, but the mission is wonderful. They’ll work with educational material for people of all ages. As with their original licenses and Science Commons, the goal will be to supply the necessary tools for interoperability among those who want to share ideas. That would include legal licenses, common interchange formats, and an awful lot of publicity for the sharing principle. The new project will work with everything from textbooks to self-study quiz questions to try-this-at-home experiments to do with your kids. It’s a great idea, and kudos to the CC people for bringing their unique organizational talents to the collaborative effort on this important project.

Sound good to you? Got an interest in education and open access? Want to help out in a big way? CC is looking to hire an executive director for CC Learn. If you or someone you know would be perfect for the job and would like to work with a great group of people, have them get in touch with CC.

Word of the Day: Moley


I found the following in the OED:

Moley, n: A potato in which razor blades are embedded, used as a weapon.

It provided the following usage example, from the Spectator, in 1959:

I suppose if I go on criticising him I shall end up by having the boys with the moleys call on me one dark night.

Who knew?

virusupload?


When I travel, I regularly see WiFi hot spots with names like “Free Public WiFi.” I’m fairly certain that these are some sort of phishing attempt. Most of the time (though not always), they’re computer-to-computer networks, which is already a bad sign. Sometimes, they’re targeted to particular plausible providers—e.g., “Airline Name WiFi” on a plane. But the strangest hot spot name, and one that I keep on coming across, is “virusupload.”

Who logs on to a wireless network with the name virusupload? Is this a phishing attempt aimed at the particularly stupid, something with an entirely different sinister purpose, or just a poorly-chosen name for something innocent?

The Principal Objects of My Dream Last Night


Next-generation video standards, Cameroon, and Metafilter.

My subconscious sure can be arbitrary (and dorky).

Update from the Food ICU


With five people at a restaurant in the East Bay, you can put together a pretty impressive array of dishes:

  • Fried polenta with gorgonzola and honey
  • Cannelloni beans with bread crumbs and olive oil
  • Sauteed rapini
  • Potato gnocchi with braised pork ragu
  • Pizza margherita with mild anchovies
  • Nettle pizza
  • Meatballs with all sorts of tasty stuff ground in, including pine nuts
  • A bottle of Slovenian red wine with alleged “blueberry” notes
  • Pink grapefruit ice milk with rosemary (!) granita
  • Bittersweet chocolate tartlet with hazelnut gelato and fleur de sel
  • Rose-water panna cotta

The last was the real revelation, a standout even from the other remarkable items set before us. K. called it “angel veal,” which was exactly right.

Pizzaiolo is at 5008 Telegraph in Oakland and comes with the highest recommendation I can give.

Tautologies are Tautologically True


William Langewiesche writes, on page 61 of The Outlaw Sea,

The [water] molecules are heavy, weighing collectively about one metric ton per cubic meter … .

About?

Some Travel Observations (with Occasional Related Questions)


Is Yogi Berra writing for Google Maps? At one point, the directions to the airport read “Take the fork.”

There was a large Catholic school kids’ orchestra in line at the security checkpoint. Are music stands “club-like objects?”

I haven’t flown in a while, so I wasn’t completely up on the new rules. I remembered not to bring nail scissors, but forgot about the no-liquids rule. I got the pockets-emptying drill mostly right, but didn’t take the laptop out of its bag, thereby triggering the Dread Bag Check. The security screeners were very nice about the whole business.

PHL is hands-down the least unpleasant airport I have had to spend significant time in. The Catholic school group played a lunchtime concert at the main food court (there are, sensibly, smaller ones at places along the terminal.) I had a Thai-ish chicken salad for lunch that was actually good. The art is actually interesting—right now, they’ve got a display of geometric sculptures by Robinson Friedland. And the restrooms have large light panels that simulate daylight, making the interiors feel all natural and healthy. All of which raises a very important pair of questions. From what other city did Philadelphia steal an airport, and when are they going to come claim it back?

The in-flight film was announced as “Royal Casino.” Was the flight attendant a native French speaker?

And when did they start advertising airline-branded credit cards over the PA system? I feel bad for the poor flight attendant forced to read the remarkably long script.

Yes, I am on the road. I’ll be at the Berkeley conference on DRM and consumer rights Friday and Saturday.

Superstar Externalities


Berri, Schmidt, and Brook’s The Wages of Wins is a fairly entertaining romp through professional sports through the eyes of statistically-savvy economists. Their model for basketball productivity is particularly elegant; rather than simply regress various statistics (shots taken, rebounds, etc.) against wins or points scored, they take a step back and create an abstract source-draing model that accounts for the finite set of ways in which a team can gain or lose possession of the ball. A little judicious rounding, and the result is an easy-to-compute, intuitive equation that predicts 95% of total team points.

But that’s not what I want to mention. The authors, describing previous work of Hausman and Leonard, explain that the data clearly show that superstar players such as Michael Jordan raise television ratings, merchandise sales, and gate attendance. (Interestingly, stars have a much larger effect on attendance on the road than at home; more people turn out to see the local schlubs play against the Bulls than against other schlubs.) Hausman and Leonard calculated that in 1991—-92, having Jordan in the NBA was worth $53.2 million in revenue for teams other than the Bulls. Compare that figure with Jordan’s $3.25 million paycheck for the season, and the NBA got quite a bargain.

Don’t cry for Jordan, though. Even in 2004, a year into his third and so-far final retirement, he was still the highest-paid “player” in basketball, thanks to his endorsement contracts.

Scholarly Honor


I received an email with the subject line We cannot accept “The Structure of Search Engine Law”. At first, I thought that my scholarship must have touched quite a nerve. I expected a demand for satisfaction, to be followed by pistols at dawn, or perhaps a freestyle rap battle.

But no, it was just another law review rejection notice.

Some Economic Observations About Proselytization


Signaling is important. The people who knock on your door on a rainy day are more committed than the ones who go around on a nice day. Pamphlets shoved under your windshield wiper show particular laziness. But what is being signaled may vary, too. If the religion is one that requires its members to go out knocking on doors, the same is likely in store for you if you convert.

The supply of potential converts is probably fairly stable. Some people are happy in their religion or lack thereof; others are not. Proselytization may be a race to find the ones who are questioning in their faith but haven’t taken many affirmative steps yet. Given the vast number of possible choices of possible new religions, one may be stuck in this state for some time. The first knock on the door will be taken as a sign. This phenomenon leads to wasteful racing behavior.

This last observation would suggest that if you aren’t in the market for a conversion experience, you should note that fact prominently so they’ll pass your house by. But, then again, given the nature of the task, the door-to-door teams may be rationally disinclined to ignore prominent religious symbols and ring the doorbell anyway. After all, many people in the relevant state of mind will be afraid to admit to themselves that they are, and therefore will be reluctant to remove symbols posted in an earlier attitude of confidence.

Extensive proselytization is a labor-intensive activity. Religions and sects that have large numbers of adherents relative to their wealth should be expected to engage in it more. Expect a shift to more capital-intensive forms of recruitment as wealth grows. Billboards and TV commercials are one technique; the Catholic approach of funding schools is another.

Dump On


What’s an instrument played in a classical big band?

The zoot flute!

Faith-Based Architecture


Because the builders [of Gothic cathedrals] aspired to model their structures on divine order, they assumed that as long as they did not deviate from a strict geometric proportionality, their buildings would inevitably be stable and sound. They reasoned that because divine order was geometrically proportional and it was manifestly stable and enduring, the same would be true for any similarly designed structure. The reason, they thought, so many structural failures occurred in Gothic cathedrals was that the builders had deviated from strict geometric proportionality. Even worse, some designers assumed that the cure for a work in progress that was showing signs of distress was simply to keep building until geometric regularity was achieved, at which point the entire structure would magically stabilize.

—Robert A. Scott, The Gothic Enterprise, pp. 125—-26

Good Blog Names: A Recurring Laboratorium Feature


For an airline security screener with a complicated emotional life: Unintended Baggage.

For an anonymous pair of snarky cynics: Bitch and Moan.

2008’s Winning Slogan


Overheard …

Financial responsibility and sexual license. I’d vote for a politician who had that as a slogan.

Do Not Dig Here


Writing that last entry reminded me of the incredibly evocative phrases that a team of experts came up with to describe the semantic content of the “Keep away!” messages needed for long-term nuclear waste disposal sites. When you think about the fact that whatever markers we construct will need to last 10,000 years and still be intelligible to whoever comes across them in year 9,999, the difficulty of the task comes into focus. They summarized the overall message in these terms:

  • This place is a message…and part of a system of messages…pay attention to it!
  • Sending this message was important to us. We considered ourselves to be a powerful culture.
  • This place is not a place of honor…no highly esteemed deed is commemorated here…nothing valued is here.
  • What is here is dangerous and repulsive to us. This message is a warning about danger.
  • The danger is in a particular location…it increases toward a center…the center of danger is here…of a particular size and shape, and below us.
  • The danger is still present, in your time, as it was in ours.
  • The danger is to the body, and it can kill.
  • The form of the danger is an emanation of energy.
  • The danger is unleashed only if you substantially disturb this place physically. This place is best shunned and left uninhabited.

This is frightening, apocalyptic poetry. I have run across few pieces of writing more powerful; the first three lines are particularly striking. (I thought I had posted it here before, but I can’t now find it, so I may not have.)

The expert report itself is online, but be warned, the link goes to a 43 megabyte PDF; you can read much of it elsewhere. It’s compelling reading; these people thought very carefully about what is both a disturbing subject and also a fascinating design problem. (It’s also something of a testament to the Internet that I was able to track down the original report in about five minutes; I’d never before seen it in its entirety.)

UPDATE: My memory sucks. Here’s my 24 April 2004 post on the report. Tt looks as though I found the entire report the last time around, too.

Do Not Digg Here


I see that Digg’s application for a trademark registration on DIGG is being opposed by Lucasarts, who released a computer game entitled The Dig in 1995. I found out from Marty Schwimmer, who found out from Techdirt, who found out from WebProNews, who found out from Digg.

The opposition is, as many have noted, silly. (It’s also a gleaming example of the problems with the incontestability rule, but that’s an issue for another day.) Lucasarts has done next to nothing with The Dig in the last decade, and the fact that so few of those commenting on the affair have heard of it is a fine indication of just how few people would be confused by the DIGG mark. The marks, while textually similar, apply to such dissimilar goods (“computers and stuff” is about the extent of the commonality), that the confusing similarity is all in the mind of Lucasarts’s overzealous trademark attorneys.

I don’t buy, as some have, that this is simply an attempt by Lucasarts to gain publicity for the game in the hopes of doing something with the property. You see, I have a critical point of personal knowledge here that the above-linked notables don’t: I’ve actually played the game, and it sucked.

The year was 1995, and adventure games were in decline. Talkies had kept the genre going a little longer, but the writing was on the wall. FPS games, RTS games, sports games, and consoles were all gaining ground, and they were pretty much eating adventure games for lunch. The Dig was a too-late attempt to do a high-production value sci-fi epic, and from the news that leaked out through the gaming press, its ambitions led to all sorts of production troubles. It shipped late and with all the indicia of being well over budget.

Still, I played it. Why? Because that’s what I did. I played adventure games. Particularly LucasArts ones. They’d had an amazing run of success, and particularly after the brilliant Day of the Tentacle, my hopes were high. And then dashed. I knew from the moment I noticed that the box was shimmery that something was wrong, a feeling the actual game did nothing to dispel.

The plot was an alien-artifact/first-contact/space-madness pastiche. Had the makers of 2001 or Carl Sagan (author of Contact) wanted to sue, they might just have had a colorable claim of copyright infringement. They say that Orson Scott Card wrote the dialogue, and while I didn’t believe it at the time, in light of some of his more recent books, I’m prepared to admit it was possible. The puzzles were all fairly easy, some of them nonsensical, and none satisfying. The whole thing went by quickly and unhappily.

My sense of things was that most players agreed with me. This was early on in the Web, mind you, so there wasn’t the kind of aggregated online feedback we have now. It came out, it sat on shelves for the minimum socially acceptable interval, and then it sank out of sight like a stone. Perhaps I’m wrong and the sales figures really were good. But I doubt it. I’m honestly surprised that Lucasarts bothered to continue filing the paperwork with the Trademark Office to keep their registration on THE DIG active.

Perhaps there’s simply no one at the company now who remembers the game and how awful it was, how embarrassing for the company, and what a turkey in the marketplace. It’s possible. They made a few more fine adventure games up through 2000, but they also made a long series of games under the Star Wars license, some of which were excellent, but many of which were truly atrocious. For far too many years, I’d check their web site excitedly every year around E3 to see the announcement of new titles, only to end up like Charlie Brown as the football was yanked away yet again. I even applied for a job as a programmer there when I was graduating from college. I’m glad they circular-filed my resume; the disillusionment of doing an interview and learning that their next big project was Star Wars: Moisture Vaporator. My point is that that kind of corporate soul extraction tends to be associated with some personnel turnover.

I mean really, Lucasarts, what are you thinking? You cannot possibly want people to remember The Dig, can you? You should have buried it in the desert, like those E.T. Atari cartridges. But I guess it’s kind of an Eternal Sunshine problem: if you erase all your memories of The Dig, sooner or later you’ll forget just why it is you were trying so hard to forget about it.