The Laboratorium
July 2007

The Simpsons Movie I give it 4 stars


This movie contains: * 10% meta-humor about turning the TV show into a movie; * 20% gorgeously polished yet still charmingly crude animation; * 5% getting away with jokes they could never have done on TV; * 25% stuff that happens at a movie pace and on epic scale; and * 50% hilarious goodness that could have come straight from the show.

Best Sentence I Have Read Today


[S]oftware processes are not (yet) as skilled at negotiation as Venetian oligarchs were.

—from Miranda Mowbray and Dieter Gollmann, Electing the Doge of Venice: Analysis of a 13th Century Protocol

Watching Clothes Spin


Dana Stevens

For all I know, [Catherine Zeta-Jones] may be a wonderful wife, a loving mother, and a great humanitarian, but watching clothes spin at the laundromat is more compelling than watching her on the big screen. Your average load of laundry boasts an array of colors and textures, and it occasionally moves in unexpected ways as you stare through the front-loader window.

Personally, I find her slightly robotic nature creepy, almost as though there’s something deeply inhuman about her. The only movie in which I’ve thought she was well-cast is High Fidelity, where her character is beautiful (naturally) but utterly self-absorbed and more than a little mean. Not that she necessarily is either in person, but her acting style positively exudes them. She’s among the reasons I don’t have a T-mobile phone.

Then the Terrorists Have Won


New York Times:

This year’s Tour has lost at least two teams, the winners of four stages and the overall leader. But organizers have so far said the event would not be canceled. Doing so, said Patrice Clerc, the president of the company that organizes the Tour, would mean victory for the riders who violate the rules.

Um, no. Victory for the riders who violate the rules would be … winning the Tour de France. It’s not like they doped up with the goal of canceling the event and ruining it for everyone else.

Pondering Potter


The Harry Potter book is too good for me not to continue rattling on about its many qualities. So, as a bit of a format experiment, I’ve created a special short-term blog: Pondering Potter. There, I’ll be posting regular essays and thoughts about the books until, well, until I get tired of it.

This should go without saying, but emphasizing it couldn’t hurt: SPOILERS GALORE. Read at your own risk.

Cheating: Gaining Advantage in Videogames I give it 3 stars


As a lawyer who studies games and gaming, I’m very interested in the analogy between the rules of a game and a system of laws. It’s a wonderful analogy because it’s both clearly useful and obviously flawed. On the one hand, we speak casually about using law to “level the playing field” and Justice Roberts famously compared judges to umpires. On the other, people who say that the legal system is a game usually mean something quite cynical by it.

Sometimes, both kinds of rules apply to the same conduct. A baseball player who clubs another player with the bat to avoid being tagged out is violating both the rules of baseball and the law. Especially in these situations, it’s important to figure out exactly how binding the rules of a game are. Are they so sacrosanct that breaking the rules should be against the law, too? Are they so flimsy that the formal “rules” of a game never matter? Something in between? Or something else entirely?

But perhaps focusing on the logical system of rules as such is unhelpful. We really care about the dual concept: the set of behaviors that are permissible moves within a given system. From the rules, one can derive the behaviors, and vice versa. That’s a recognizably Realist point about law; what matters is not the law on the books, but what legal actors will do. Mia Consalvo’s Cheating makes a similar move on the game side. She asks what players mean when they say that given behavior is or isn’t cheating and thus builds up an extensional profile of cheating in videogames.

I’m not giving away too much of the punch line to say that she pretty thoroughly demonstrates that cheating is a flexible and contested concept. It has real force: players will refuse to read strategy guides or use bots because “that would be cheating.” But at the same time, its meaning is unfixed. One man’s cheating is another’s expert play. Through a mixture of ethnographic interviews and historical survey, Consalvo pretty much destroys any hope of deriving a meaningful notion of cheating behavior by looking at a computer game in isolation from its player community. But since “cheating” (i.e. “impermissible behavior”) is the dual concept to “rules,” that means that a game’s ruleset is also fundamentally a construction of its player community. We can’t say what the rules are without looking at the game’s “paratext”: the strategy guides, discussion boards, marketing materials, reviews, and word-of-mouth buzz that surround the “text” of the game itself.

Consalvo deploys the idea of “gaming capital” (by analogy to cultural capital) to explain what gamers are doing as they share information about how to play games better. You have gaming capital when you are recognized as a skillful, knowledgeable player. Magazine, strategy guides, and FAQs create hierarchies of specialized expertise in which the circulation of game-specific knowledge helps define who is recognized as a good gamer and who is not. Those patterns of circulation are central to defining what is and is not cheating in the context of a particular game, its paratext, its players, and their communities.

I think this is all exactly right, and while I’m no expert in the sociology, it seems to me a very helpful use of the theory. Still, I regret two things. The first is that the book is slight, not just in its size but also in its ambitions. T.L. Taylor’s Play Between Worlds has substantially fewer words but is much richer in its understandings of player communities. Almost every page of Play Between Worlds has some sharp observation or a well-chosen detail about what particular players have done. Cheating manages to stay abstract most of the time, and I think it could have benefited from being more specific here and there. The occasional close readings—e.g. of Nintendo Power’s tips—are some of the most satisfying parts of the book, because they really make the theory pay off. They never, however, go into as much depth as I’d have liked, nor are there enough.

An example: The Konami Code isn’t just “one of the best-known secrets in gaming”; it’s one of the great bits of video game culture. Consalvo mentions it to make a point about the layout of Nintendo Power, but it’s actually a great example by itself of the paratextual construction of cheating. Konami put the code in game after game, which created a piece of gaming capital that linked its games and created a kind of shared cheat across all of them. Its very fame—and the clear intentionality of its appearance in multiple games—legitimized it as something less cheat-y than other cheat codes. And that dialog between Konami and players has spawned a piece of enduring folklore that plays with the relationship between gaming and cheating. Consalvo’s theoretical apparatus would suffice to make wonderful hay here, but she doesn’t.

My other concern is that her narrative leaves out a lot of significant history. Game companies played a much bigger role in constructing the paratext of cheats and hints than she acknowledges. Major adventure games, from Infocom through Sierra and beyond, often had official hint books, which used invisible ink or multi-color printing to allow gamers who bought the books to read only the hints appropriate to their situation. That era largely predated the era of third-party strategy guides she describes, but she says nothing about it. (Significantly, even noncommercial adventure games often had similarly official hints; text adventures to this day often come with built-in hint systems.)

The transition to third-party guides not only eliminated these direct hints, it also largely killed off what had been a thriving tradition of extensive game manuals. (Or perhaps that tradition did itself in, to save a few dollars in manufacturing costs, and third-party guides filled the void it left behind.) A shift from having a detailed manual at your fingertips to needing to look to external sources for the same information seems like the sort of shift in gaming capital that Consalvo ought to be all over. For example, an official manual provides implicit guidance about what is innocent information (anything in the manual) and what is illicit (anything else). If you get your detailed bestiary from a strategy guide, the line is less clear, and suddenly buying a guide and flipping to the cheat codes is a more ambiguous act than it used to be. And so on.

Again, it’s not that Consalvo’s theory is wrong or unhelpful. It’s just that the book could do so much more with the theory than it does. It is, perhaps, its bad fortune to dwell in the shadow of the profound book that it could have been.

Two Timewasters


I’ve lost enough noodling time to two casual games recently that I’m not going to say precisely how much. For similar reasons, I feel a bit of regret recommending them. As much as I believe in your autonomy to make your own choices about what games you play, they’re addictive enough that they pose a serious challenge to that self-same autonomy. YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED.

First, there is Get Hostile, an online implementation of Sid Sackson’s classic boardgame Acquire. The game is nominally about building corporate empires by buying stock in growing companies at just the right time, but the ruleset has the beautiful mix of simplicity and abstraction that was Sackson’s hallmark. Acquire has many good properties that tend to indicate good games: * Players can’t act destructively. You may be able to thwart other players’ plans, but you can never take away anything that is theirs. (This one keeps games moving forward and makes losing more palatable.) * Some basic tactics are obvious (e.g. it’s a good idea to trade in stock if you get back something worth more than what you give up) at the same time as others are counterintuitive (e.g. owning big companies is valuable, but trying to buy stock in them directly can be ruinously expensive). * There’s enough luck to give newer players a fighting chance, but not so much that skillful play feels pointless. The online version adds to this list one great feature: bots. Having AI opponents available (and they’re none too shabby) means that you can rip through a game in four minutes. That transforms it from a fun social board game into a fun online casual game.

Second, there’s Oasis. Imagine Civilization compressed into five minutes, crossed with the tile-flipping fun of Seafarers of Catan. You have 85 turns to prepare your empire for a barbarian attack; each turn allows you to make one mouse click. Since the map is 10x10, that’s not even long enough to explore the whole thing, and the name of the game is making tough choices about where to allocate those scare clicks. Exploring to find the cities of your empire? Building roads to connect them and increase their population? Mining for advanced technologies? Searching for the barbarians so you know where to make your defense? It’s almost impossible to win without doing them all, and at the higher difficulties, the tradeoffs get brutal. Doing something now rather than five clicks from now can be the difference between success and failure.

Once again, it’s the perfect polish of the ruleset that makes for a compelling game. Even where the exact formulae are secret, the game world behaves predictably. You know the risks you’re taking when you make a given choice; you know what sorts of things you might find if you explore another square. That allows for a lot of stepping back and using logic to save a few precious clicks (e.g., if the mountains are here and that’s the oasis, the cairn must be here.)

And now back to work. I’m also not going to disclose how many times I played these games while drafting this post.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows I give it 5 stars


One way of reading the Harry Potter series is that it is about how to be moral. Harry and his friends learn to recognize what is good in uncertain times, to act selflessly even at great personal risk, and to cultivate all of the classical virtues. Another reading is that the Harry Potter books are about how to be mortal. Harry and his friends learn about the terrible finality of death, the dangers of embracing it, and the equal dangers of denying it. These two themes are the backbone of this seventh and final volume, and the result is a profoundly satisfying book, whose action-packed plot resonates in all the right ways. It’s exactly the conclusion the series has been building towards; Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows is the natural completion to one of the great fantasy epics of all time.

More than this, I’m not going to say—except that I do hope that J.K. Rowling’s next project is The Tales of Beedle the Bard.

This One’s for Frank


If you search on Google for “bourne ultimatum,” the top result is an ad for a contest tied to the movie. For a while, Google didn’t disclose that these Bourne-themed results were ads. (They show up on a different-color background, but it took a while before they were marked as being a “Google Promotion.”)

Is there a danger that search engines will be unfairly biased? Could search engines be bribed? How should we think about the kind of trust that users place in search engines?

Four words: “Bus drivers eat free.”

What Kind of Stupid Security Is This?


Your login ID must contain at least one numeric or special character. Please enter a valid login ID.

Let the record reflect that my password consists of randomly chosen numbers and letters (of mixed case) and is over twice as long as their minimum. I fail to see how adding a number to my login ID—which standard security practice treats as public knowledge—improves matters.

Everything You Need to Know About Public Health


Atul Gawande’s Better describes a bunch of public-health campaigns. In two cases, some people refused to participate because they mistakenly thought the treatment would cause infertility. One group consisted of rural Muslim villagers in India. And the other?

Members of the nursing staff of the Brigham and Women’s Hospital.

And on a Related Note


“Hamilton Pork” would be a great name for a Jersey City barbeque joint.

Neighborhoods with Personalities


Aislinn observed today that the list of Jersey City neighborhoods sounds like the cast of characters from a pirate epic.

  • Harsimus Cove is the villain. The name has the same metrical structure as good old Optimus Prime, but the “har” has darker overtones.
  • Paulus Hook, we decided after some discussion, is probably Captain James Hook’s brother, who took losing a hand with more equanimity and devoted his life to good, rather than evil.
  • Hamilton Park is the merchant whose treasure was stolen by Captain Cove, setting the plot in train.
  • Lord Newport and his wife, Lady Pavonia, are mixed up in it somehow.

The Evolutionary Brain Glitch That Makes Terrorism Fail


Go read this Bruce Schneier essay, which explains and interprets a paper from International Security. Here’s a boiled-down version:

  1. Terrorists have specific goals.
  2. Killing civilians is a means to those goals.
  3. Correspondent inference bias leads people to the incorrect belief that killing civilians is the goal, rather than a means to one.
  4. Ergo, terrorists’ stated goals are just lies that shouldn’t be taken seriously. Because people think that terrorists want to kill civilians, they ignore the terrorists’ actual goals.
  5. Result: terrorists don’t achieve their actual goals.

It explains so much. Everyone is wrong about everything.

UPDATE: Steven’s suggestion on how to phrase #4 is much better.

Confusin’ on a Prayer


[I]t doesn’t make a difference if we make it or not.

[W]e’ll make it, I swear.

—pre-chorus and chorus of Livin’ on a Prayer, respectively

The Changeable Moods of the Throat


As whatever bug has attacked my upper respiratory tract enters day eight, I continue to be amazed at the variety of ways in which one’s throat can be sore. In chronological order, I’ve experienced: * A rawness, as after speaking too long too loudly. * A lumpiness, as though there were an actual frog nestled in it. * A dull squeezing pain, which became so intense when I swallowed that I would grind my teeth. * A closing-off kind of feeling, as though my uvula and throat were so swollen that the one was about to completely plug the other. * A burned sensation, like you get from repeated acid reflux or vomiting. * A worn-out-ness, not so much a feeling of pain or discomfort as a sense that my throat could really use a break.

Things are okay at the moment. I had a fair amount of water ice (the etymologically inexplicable Philadelphia-area name for Italian ice) after a late lunch, which has taken care of the dryness and numbed the rest of the pain away. I’m still quite conscious that I have a throat, which is not ordinarily something you think about on a minute-to-minute basis. But it beats a lot of the other sensations. I would think that these varieties of throat pain would be diagnostically useful, but writing this post has made me acutely aware of how hard it is to translate those varieties into a controlled vocabulary. No one I’ve talked to has offered any good explanation of why a sore throat moves from one kind of sore to another.

Medical science, your work is not yet done. John Q. Public is here, and he’d complain, except that, well, he has a sore throat.

Universal Music Prepares to Shoot Itself in the Foot It Has Inserted in the Mouth of the iTunes Gift Horse


Setting itself up for a beautiful pratfall, Universal Music has decided not to renew its long-term iTunes contract. This move by itself is no big deal, as Universal albums will still be available for the time being. It does leave Universal free, however, to pull its catalog at any time. The idea would be to ink a deal with another online music store on more generous terms, breaking the monotony of 99-cent pricing and somehow giving Universal more control over things.

Universal is the first major label to consider jumping from the iTunes ship this seriously, but it’s hardly alone in contemplating the move. The majors have been upset with Apple’s hegemony in the online music market, and they hate hate hate being forced to do business on Apple’s terms. As Apple’s market position grows, they fear losing what little leverage they possess. Understandably, they’re looking around the dancehall for better partners. Unfortunately for the majors, but fortunately for the rest of us, there’s a very good reason why they’re getting pushed around by Apple.

It’s all about the brands, not the bands. Recording labels have cruddy brands. Think of your favorite musician. What label are his or her albums recorded on? Which company owns the rights to that music? Pretty much the only times you even hear about what record label an artist is with are when they first get signed to the label, and then later when they start feuding with the label.

If all Universal music disappeared from iTunes tomorrow, what songs would be missing? The consuming public has almost no idea. That those songs could no longer be found would be annoying to them, but very few people indeed would link up the disappearance with Universal’s snit fit. (This sword has two edges; I have no idea which EMI music on iTunes is available for DRM-free download, either.) So sure, Universal could flee the party in tears. But the iTunes party would go on, much as it has.

And how many people do you think would sign up for a new music service, with a new payment model and a new DRM system, just so they could get their hands on Universal Music tracks? The very name is a cruel joke. A major label striking out on its own is liable to find out how un-major it is in the scheme of things. Now, if the majors all struck out together, now that might be a crippling blow to iTunes. But it’d also be an open-and-shut antitrust violation. I’d say that would be a deterrent, but thuggery and cartelization are nothing new in the recording industry.

Bring it on, Universal. The sooner you destroy yourself, the better for us all.

Hyphens and Addresses


I just saw the following inscrutable instruction on Verizon’s web site:

If your account number does not include a hyphen, please do not utilize the 2nd Address line.

Wow. Talk about your broken database systems.

Little Miss Sunshine I give it 4 stars


A profoundly dysfunctional family takes a road-trip in a dying VW bus so that the daughter can compete in a beauty pageant, and the resulting movie is a wonderfully understated black comedy. This is what They mean when They talk about “character-driven humor”; almost all of the laughs come when one of the six main characters either tips over into misanthropy or papers over it, each in his or her own distinctive way. The acting is uniformly superb, particularly Steve Carell as a Proust scholar on suicide watch and Abigail Breslin as an entirely convincing nine-year-old. I also loved the well-modulated cinematography, which features lots of well-chosen tracking shots and an elegant palette.