The Laboratorium
July 2010

Limbo I give it 5 stars


Wikipedia calls it a cinematic platformer, but I think “artisinal platformer” might be a better name for this very small genre. Limbo is obviously a Prince of Persia descendant—the clearest expression of that DNA is the hanging-from a ledge mechanic, in which pushing “A” climbs up and pushing down drops down—but its clear inspiration is Another World. Both are essentially tile-free: you move through a landscape in which the platforms are seamlessly integrated into the scenery. Both are set in wordless, malevolent landscapes. And both are essentially puzzle games in the Dragon’s Lair mold: in moments of crisis, survival depends on executing a precise sequence of movements.

Another World (or Out of This World, for my fellow Americans) was a brilliant, haunting game. I can’t tell you how happy it makes me that modern game developers are adding their own twists to its ideas. Limbo, which follows a young boy through a smoking black-and-white landscape of giant spiders, sharp spinning objects, and brain slugs, is an especially worthy tribute. The controls are precise; the graphics and sound perfectly integrated to create a mood of loss and dread. The game works through the implications of its mechanics methodically: gaming elements, like the aforementioned giant spiders, or the seemingly omnipresent bear traps, appear often enough that you build on your knowledge of how they work, but not so often that the puzzles become repetitive. (It’s very much like Braid in that respect.)

Even though the puzzles can be tricky and the timing unforgiving, the game is always fair: you never need to start running before you see the large thing that will kill you if you don’t. Also, as in Another World, you frequently go through a adventure only to circle back to someplace you’ve already been—invariably, something has changed in the interim, something that opens up a new possibility. I was also quite impressed with the balance between linear and lateral thinking. Whenever I got stuck, it was because I was making an unwarranted assumption about how my surroundings worked, an assumption that was clearly contradicted by something I already knew about how, say, swinging pipes worked, but was temporarily forgetting.

The Danes who made this game should be quite proud of themselves. Dare I say that the game itself strikes me as quite Danish, perhaps in a slightly Lars van Trier-esque way?

Domain Registrars Can’t Be Completely Asleep at the Switch


There’s an interesting decision out of the Southern District of New York on the responsibilities domain-name registrars have towards their customers. It’s common for their contracts to disclaim all liability for mishandling domains, but the court held that such disclaimers don’t work where the registrar was so careless that its actions amount to gross negligence. In this case, Register.com mistakenly transferred the Baidu.com domain to the “Iranian Cyber Army.” How carless was Register.com? Here’s how the court summarized Baidu’s allegations:

Although the Intruder gave the Rep an incorrect response to the security question, the Rep nonetheless proceeded with processing the Intruder’s request to change Baidu’s email address;

When the Intruder sent the Rep a bogus security code, the Rep did not notice that it was the wrong code, apparently because the Rep did not even bother to check it against the original security code;

When the Intruder gave “antiwahabi2008@gmail.com” as the proposed new email address, the Rep failed to question the legitimacy of the email address, which contained an unusual and unlikely user name and the domain name of a Baidu competitor instead of the Baidu domain name; and

Register then provided the Intruder with Baidu’s user name, enabling the Intruder to change the password and hack into Baidu’s account to re-route traffic to the wrong web site.

Yep. If proven, that sounds like gross negligence to me.

Also of note: this opinion was issued by Denny Chin, United States Circuit Judge, sitting by designation.

GBS: Dan Clancy from Google Books to YouTube


Publishers Weekly reports that Dan Clancy, who has run the Google Books program and been its tireless public face, will be working for YouTube. My understanding is that Clancy will remain involved with the policy and legal aspects of Google Books.

UPDATE: Via ResourceShelf, the official Google statement:

Google engineering director Dan Clancy is taking responsibility for YouTube engineering. In the coming months, he will continue to be involved in key technology and business issues for Google Books. Engineering director James Crawford will continue to oversee engineering for Google Editions, the Google Books Library Project and the Google Books Partner Program.

GBS: Google Books in Israel?


There is a brief story in Globes Online that Google Books is launching in Israel, which appears to mean that Google has struck its first partner agreement with an Israeli publisher. The article is slightly confusing, perhaps due to translation issues, so I am not completely certain what this means for the Israeli version of the Google Books service itself.

UPDATE: More from Ha’aretz.

GBS: First Digital Humanities Grants Announced


Today, Google officially announced its first Digital Humanities Research Awards. It’s giving a total of $479,000 to fund twelve projects that will use the Google Books corpus for computational research projects in the humanities. Inside Higher Ed describes one:

One winning project, called “Reframing the Victorians,” seeks to test the anecdotal yet venerated thesis that well-heeled Britons living in the middle third of the 19th century were especially optimistic — a view advanced by the scholar Walter Houghton in an influential 1957 book, The Victorian Frame of Mind. Houghton had based his thesis on an observation of the recurrence of words such as “light,” “sunlight,” and “hope.” But his sample was limited by his ability to catalog these sunny allusions. Google’s robots, which will be able to cover a much broader range of authors in much less time, will be able to explore the hypothesis more thoroughly, say Dan Cohen and Fred Gibbs, the George Mason University professors who won the grant.

Cohen and Gibbs plan to test another anecdotal thesis — that the Victorian era marked a decline in religiosity in the United Kingdom — by writing a program that tracks references to Biblical themes and passages in Victorian literature at a scale that would be impossible for even the most patient human scholars to achieve.

“Because this Google research program can provide word frequencies by year and country, we can finally and truly test these and other fundamental claims that have been at the heart of Victorian studies for generations,” the researchers wrote in their proposal.

Epic Fail


Someone should write a Green Bag article about the use of “fail” in law review articles. Many authors respond to other scholars with phrases such as “Professor X fails to consider that …” or “This argument fails because …” It’s a bit of a tic; I personally find it a little off-putting.

GBS: Final Version of Samuelson’s Future of Books in Cyberspace


Pamela Samuelson’s Google Books Search and the Future of Books in Cyberspace (previously discussed here) has been published in the Minnesota Law Review. This is the definitive version of one of the most important academic articles on the settlement.

GBS: Macbeth without the Prince


Something’s notably missing from the fight over the Google Books settlement: rival infringement lawsuits. Many of the objections and opt-outs argue that the proposed settlement lets Google off far too lightly—but no one has stepped up to actually try their own luck by suing Google. True, the court seems disinclined to complicate the litigation while it ponders the settlement, so filing suit might be futile for the time being. But still, no one else is even threatening to take the fight to Google.

My sense is that this absence improves the settlement’s prospects. It signals (even if only subliminally) that the class action sharks don’t think Google is a juicy enough target to be worth fighting for a piece of it. And that, in turn, could undermine objectors’ arguments that the settlement seriously undervalues copyright owners’ present claims against Google.

As always, comments more than welcome.