Angry Robot

peak performance success

When is the last time you turned on your personal neon “Doughnut” sign?

Thanks, Scott. In fact, more often than not, I need to be demotivated.

Things that have been

Things that have been caught in my head:

appeal to readers #1

Does anyone want to help me do this? I have a real weakness for chatbots – I can talk to them for hours – and I would like to indulge it by installing a “sankbot” on this site somewhere. [The instructions are for Mac OS X, but I need to know how to install the software on a remote Linux server. I really don’t know much about command-line stuff, which I imagine I would need to know to do it.] I’d appreciate any help.

Apparently the ALICE bot can be networked, so it can perform little searches for you, and so forth. It also has some voice plugins. It still needs work, as does any AI system at the moment, obviously. But then again, confusing it is half of the fun. Give it a whirl.

WTO memo

Yikes… along the lines of what I was saying yesterday about brands, here’s a fantastic leaked memo satire about the WTO trying to sell its brand to teens:

59% of teens reported that they would consider purchasing WTO product if associated with friendly talking frog.

(via David Chess)

A pedestrian hit me and went under my car.

There’s something mildy cruel about it, but one of the funniest things I’ve ever found on the web is this list of quotes from accident reports. If you’ve ever written one, you know how hard they are to write. Shortly after a traumatic experience, and under a great deal of stress, the accident participant is forced to write a description of a complex and terrifying event in such a way as to avoid personal blame. My favorites are the ones that sound psychotically logical: “the pedestrian had no idea which direction to go, so I ran over him.” Or “when I could not avoid a collision, I stepped on the gas and crashed into the other car.”

There’s plenty more where that came from.

obey giant, brands

I found an Obey Giant t-shirt for $5 while I was in the States last week and have already happily confused people with it. Basically, the whole Obey Giant thing is a bit of a joke:

Because people are not used to seeing advertisements or propaganda for which the product or motive is not obvious, frequent and novel encounters with the sticker provoke thought and possible frustration, nevertheless revitalizing the viewer’s perception and attention to detail. (from the Obey Giant Manifesto)

Did some thinking about appropriation of ‘brand-speak’ by artists and real people, and I think it might be a good idea. Who knows. Obviously the shining example is “culture jamming” and adbusters, and the main criticism is that a strategy of symbolic protest can only be so effective in the real world. Then again, Naomi Klein and her posse tend to point to brand as the Achilles’ heel of capitalism. I think this is closer to the truth. Symbolic deflation of a brand can cause actual financial pain to a corporation, since brand is the only place they invest nowadays. Partway down in this article, the Obey Giant creator Shepard Fairey describes something similar about OK Soda:

Coke test-marketed OK Soda in Providence and Boston, and they had a whole bunch of stickers and teasers about the soda before any was even made. I took one of their illustrations and changed it so instead of “OK” it said “AG” for Andre the Giant. I started putting up my stickers and posters simultaneously. People got confused as to which one came first.

That sort of thing can work. Another issue is whether people (and artists) should start thinking of themselves as <a href=″>brands. Seems to me that webloggers are already well on their way, with personal designs, catchphrases, and merchandising. Even if it comes across a bit self-absorbed, I think this sort of funky behaviour is really a good thing, if only because it gets you thinking about brands, and how brands “think of themselves.” And Pepsi don’t give a fuck about anyone except Pepsi.

the Mack

The Mack movie poster

Hey, babe.

robots to prince

I have a thing for giant robots. Possibly, it’s caused by some childhood dream-memory. I did watch Robotech as a kid, but it feels a little deeper-rooted than that. Does operating a giant robot recreate the feeling of towering over one’s toys as a child? Who cares – what I was trying to say is this: my interest in giant robots is such that the mere mention of giant-robot-related stage antics in a CD review warranted a wholesale dropping-of-everything-I’m procrastinating and an immediate search for mp3s by the band in question. Although I have yet to unearth any mp3s (fuck you very much, RIAA), I did discover that founding member Warren Defever was also in a band called “Elvis Hitler.” I also found that the Mac version of Limewire works surprisingly well. I didn’t find any His Name is Alive – go figure – but I downloaded “Pussy Control” by Prince, which rekindled my interest in that small, funky man.

chopsticks, MA

Printed on chopstick sleeve obtained from the Green Peapod restaurant in Watertown, MA:

Welcome to Chinese Restaurant.
Please try your Nice Chinese Food With Chopsticks the traditional and typical of Chinese glonous history and cultural.

The joy of mistranslation. This reminded me that there is a restaurant near where I live in Toronto called simply, “Chinese Restaurant.” Must go there sometime.

your t-bird is ready

Hey now… Redesign. I feel like I’m beaming proudly after installing a new muffler in my shiny muscle car. Not that there’s anything muscular about this page (although there is a racing motif, I suppose), but I do find something car-culturish about blogging… we don’t just drive these pages, we want ‘em to look good, too.


My personal theory about wine is that I’m better off not learning too much about it, or I may no longer be able to enjoy some of the cheap trash I like to drink now. In other words, I can’t afford to be a wine connoisseur.

The first counter-argument that comes up is, “there are plenty of good, cheap wines. You don’t have to pay a ton to get a good wine.” Well, that’s true, hypothetical opponent. Thank you. The problem is, if I had the facilities to judge a really hot-roddin’ expensive wine, wouldn’t I be tempted to? At the moment, there’s absolutely no reason for me to drop $300, or even $30, … hell, even $12, for a bottle of wine. And I’m happy with that. Also, there’s something about wine snobs that makes me think, welcome to your Carlsberg years. (Er, if Carlsberg was a wine… Whew. Why do I find that slogan so terrifying?)

Anyway, why stop with wine? If I avoid learning too much about any given discipline, I will be perfectly content consuming affordable products of inferior quality. That magazine they give away in movie theatres, for instance, could replace Film Comment. I could pick up used Ratt singles at a fraction of the cost of obscure indie rock imports.

But, I think the most exciting option is to manufacture a personal aesthetic that makes up reasons for liking cheaper stuff. Plonkism, maybe? “Mmm… excellent vinegar burst. Old lamb aftertaste. 10 stars.” It’s not just blissful ignorance, it’s aggressive anti-knowledge.

Isn’t this really the best, and cheapest, way to live? It’s certainly not the easiest.

Okay, maybe not the best, either.

The A.I. Game (The Beast)

This was originally published on Joystick 101 but has since gone offline.

Like thousands of others, I’ve gotten hooked lately on the bizarre web promotion for Spielberg’s new film A.I. Essentially, it’s a web-based multiplayer game. Such a simple description, however, belies many of this game’s interesting characteristics. So, I thought I’d try to spell out what makes this game unlike any other I’ve played.

Now, I’d like to apologize in advance for analyzing this game before it’s finished. It feels a bit like doing an autopsy on someone who ain’t dead yet. There is still, I assume, a month or so before this game will end, but that’s in fact why I wanted to write about it now. If you haven’t heard about it yet, and it sounds interesting to you, there’s still time to join in and play.

Okay, begin at the beginning: it seems that some observant folks noticed some odd details in the AI trailer. For example, one of the credits was “Sentient Machine Therapist: Jeanine Salla.” A google search for Jeanine Salla pulled up some websites that were from the year 2142, such as a homepage for the Chan family, and the site of the university that Salla apparently works for. Exploring the websites that are linked to from these sites expands the story a bit at a time. Puzzles of various sorts are encountered; when solved, they generally grant access to a previously unseen page or site, which in turn continues the story. The story concerns the murder of a man called Evan Chan, and it involves artificial intelligences of various forms. The main theme appears to be slavery—robots and AIs are still considered property; there’s an ‘underground railroad’ that frees escaped robots. At this point in the game, it seems that the AIs and their supporters are gaining the upper hand in this futuristic civil war. As one of them says, “Moore’s Law will put us up against the wall first.”

That said, I’d like to focus on the formal elements of this game, and specifically those that distinguish it from other games. I have a feeling we’ll see more games like this (Majestic?). It’s also interesting to take a game such as this one, which feels so different from what we tend to mean when we say ‘game,’ as it helps us forget about FPSs and RTSs and RPGs for a moment and realize how broad the concept of “game” can be.

1. web-based

Of course, there are many types of ‘web-based games’ (links to newgrounds, However, this game is much more fundamentally based on the web The story is told through the process of surfing. To qualify further:

1.1 content is fictional and dissimulative: Everything that is on the many sites created for this game is, of course, fiction. It is important to stress that the sites are also dissimulative, that is, feigning to be real sites. It’s almost like a parody without the intent to amuse. This is what distinguishes the game from some of the works of hypertext fiction that have gone before it. There are no pages announcing that “this is a work of fiction,” and in fact, some of the sites could easily be misconstrued as real at first glance (

1.2 Content is decentralized: There is no homepage or gateway to this story. The content is spread across many websites (link like crazy). Interestingly, the most effective entry point is a site made by the players themselves (

The end result is that playing this game feels like surfing the web, except with way more drama than usual. You’re still clicking links, checking out pages, going from site to site, but there’s a murder mystery to be solved this time.

2. Not just the web

The bulk of the game happens on the web, but the most dramatic events seem to happen offline. Email, faxes and phones all play a part in this game. For example, the A.I. trailer also included an encoded phone number, which when called, presented a mysterious message from ‘mother.’ Players have been able to enter characters’ passwords into fictional voicemail and uncover new information. A.I.s have even called players at home.

Most dramatic, however, were three real-life “rallies” held by the “Anti-Robot Militia” in New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles. Players were given a date and address, and attended what appear to have been clever theatre pieces. The ‘rallies’ themselves had puzzles, the solutions to which required real-time collaboration between players at the event and those at home in front of their computers.

3 Episodic release

The content is updated weekly. Some things are added, others are taken away. Emails are sent out; increasingly, sites are hacked by rampant AIs. With a complex, ongoing narrative like this one, the disadvantage of episodic release is that the later you start playing, the harder it is to follow and/or catch up. The advantage is a heightened sense of urgency, I think, since the game can’t be paused. Once again, the episodic release feels natural for a web-based game, since most real sites change with time as well.

4 “distributed biological problem-solving”

Many of the puzzles in this game are fiendishly difficult. For example, messages have been hidden in the html source of some pages. Anyone could uncover this, of course, but given that this game has so many websites, it’s unreasonable to expect solitary players to do so. In fact, it’s safe to say that it’s impossible for an isolated individual to play the game from start to finish. Thus, fan sites (club) have served as a meeting ground for game players, who collaborate by sharing new developments and results. Problem solving tasks are organized and shared out amongst the players. The whole scene reminds me of the eclectic mix of cryptanalysts assembled by the British government during WWII: in order to break the Nazi Enigma cipher, the talents of mathematicians, linguists, classicists and and chess masters were called upon. In this game, some puzzles require knowledge of code, others of poetry (one involved T.S. Eliot’s The Wasteland).

5 strong interaction between authors and players

Presumably, there is a set story arc to this game that will end with the release of the film. The weekly updates generally involve puzzles to be solved before new story content can be consumed. Since the puzzles require group collaboration, but the size and effectiveness of the group is an unpredictable variable, we can assume the work of the authors of the game is quite frequently based on how well the players perform. For example, if a puzzle turns out to be much too hard for the players, the authors must find an alternative means to provide the story update that the puzzle’s solution would have granted. Otherwise, there is a risk of the story never being completed. The experimental nature of this game adds to this as well; many of the techniques they are trying haven’t been done in this context before. At one of the ARM “rallies,” a piece of paper was found floating in the toilet. Unfortunately, it had soaked too long before being discovered, and the print on it was illegible. I would assume the authors had to find a different way of transmitting that information to the players. Thus, the game has an element of improv to it.

It is worth noting that the game authors have deliberately blurred the lines between themselves and the players. In few cases, game pages link to fan pages without breaking the dissimulation: Jeanine Salla’s paper on ‘Multi-person social problem-solving arrays considered as a form of “artificial intelligence“’ links to the cloudmakers page, the Center for Robotic Freedom urges you to help fight for A.I. rights by visiting the spherewatch page. In fact, the easiest way for game authors to control the story delivery would be for them to surreptitiously join the fan clubs, posting solutions to puzzles when the real players were having trouble.

It would be interesting to think about ways to fold some of these characteristics back into more traditional videogame models. For example, this sort of multiplayer game makes Quake 3 and even Tribes 2 look hopelessly primitive. What if multiplayer games were narrativized a little more? If their levels were more like single-player levels, that required a great degree of collaboration to conquer? Or, imagine a more open-ended, multiplayer world. Depending on choices made by the players, the designers “improvise” what part of the story or world is opened up next. And also, perhaps there is a small market for text-based games like this one. (consider the “play novels” of Japan.) If developers could spend less time worrying about camera movement and cinematics, and more time thinking about story, they might come up with something interesting. Finally, what if games had many more ‘modes’ than usual? What if they were as decentralized as this one? Part of a game could be a FPS, another part more puzzle-oriented, and yet another more strategy-based – depending on what the story called for.

That’s what I like about experiments like this campaign: it makes us all rethink what we mean by ‘game.’ This industry is obviously still very young, so it’s always a shame when we form preconceptions about what games can and can’t be. Even if the experiments don’t succeed, they have shown us new directions. This experiment, though, I would consider a success. I hope that when it’s all over, it’s creators step out of the shadows and take the credit they are due.

"like vomiting backwards"

the gravity-defying drink.

It probably never saw much distribution outside of Canada, but this now-dead beverage was as innovative as it was disgusting. Somehow, those rascals at Clearly Canadian figured out a way to suspend little balls in their drink, Orbitz. They made use of some sort of emulsifying agent in order to achieve the effect, apparently not stopping once to think about taste or sensation. Few dared to drink Orbitz. My friend Mark did, and called it “like vomiting backwards.” Reviews from some site called bevnet say:

Black Currant Berry Orbitz would be a half decent beverage — if it weren’t for the balls.

The balls, on the other hand, don’t really have any taste. It makes the beverage almost impossible to enjoy. We suggest straining out the balls if you are daring enough to try this beverage.

Blueberry Melon Strawberry: The liquid part of the beverage has a barely acceptable berry-like flavor. The addition of the balls, however, make this a completely unpalatable beverage.

Pineapple Banana Cherry Coconut : This beverage is atrocious. It slightly resembles a Pina Coloda, but it has a drowned out taste. We really couldn’t taste the cherry and banana flavors. The white and red balls don’t have much flavor. We would never drink this beverage again.

And lastly:

Raspberry Citrus: Atrocious. That sums it up. This flavor tastes absolutely horrible. In the words of an anonymous BevNET Staff member, “It tastes like water that came out of a vase used for flowers….the balls make it even worse.” The only difference is that Orbitz has sugar. This beverage makes us sick. Simply a fad (well, maybe not a fad, since that implies that someone actually likes this) that will die out.

Die out is right. Orbitz is no more, although the name lives on, now as the website through which airlines flip the bird at trustbusters everywhere. Thankfully, the beverage scientists at Clearly Canadian continue to innovate, with questionable beverage advancements such as water branding (Reebok Fitness Water) and “super-oxygenated water.”

Let me just say, if anyone wants to start a “bring back the balls” campaign, I for one will sign it.

layout issues

I’d appreciate any comments about this layout, especially those that have to do with how it displays in specific browsers. My use of CSS positioning seems to mean that each browser has its own special way of displaying the page, more so than usual. In IE 5/Mac, for example, the menu on the left stays fixed as it should, but the “link-ness” of each link goes scrolling off into the horizon with the page, which it shouldn’t. Damn.


Excellent article by John Hockenberry in this month’s Wired (no link yet) about people with disabilities and the brain/body/machine relationship they are profoundly more aware of than most of us. The article makes reference to a fascinating experiment in which a patient with “locked-in syndrome,” who can’t move his body at all, but whose mind is active, has an implant put into his brain and is able to control a cursor with his thoughts. This is exciting stuff for anyone into man-machine interfaces. Perhaps eXistenZ isn’t so far off.

dusty vials

Korean neighbourhood. That’s where I live, “The Korean Business District.” At the counter, I grabbed a vial of Renshenfengwangjiang Ginseng and Royal Jelly beverage, and the store owners laughed at me. The vial was dusty. They laughed again when I asked for a straw. Is this the equivalent of the hot dogs at Mac’s, that spin perenially, untouched by human hands? Is there something I don’t know about Renshenfengwangjiang? Should I not have been consuming it all these years?

fucking AI

Well, I’ve built my soapbox, so now I’ll use it.

It’s a bit of a shame when Stanley Kubrick spends decades working on a project, then dies, and Steven Spielberg can step in, spend a few months on it, and churn out a spineless, diseased whelp of a film, who only looks like its real daddy in the most hauntingly pathetic way.

I’m a Kubrick fanatic. So there are many things about AI that bother me. Oddly, I quite enjoyed watching it – for some reason trying to pry the Kuby bits from the Spielie schlock was an enjoyable thing to do while eating popcorn. But the more I think about it, the more I hate it. This is a movie that should’ve been buried with Stanley. Conversely, come to think of it, now would be a good time for Kuby to rise from the grave and reclaim it, maybe taking time to feast on Spielberg’s deliciously light-tasting brain.

The biggest problems, as I see it, are a) the framing devices, and b) the theme of “love.” In the first case, we know it is Spielie who does the framing, as both Saving Private Ryan and Schindler’s List have frames. Also, the last time Kuby did a voice-of-god-style narration was The Killing, almost 50 years ago. Both framing scenes at the beginning are unnecessary at best, harmful at worst (would it not be better to discover the effects of global climate change gradually, over the course of the film?). But the worst, of course, is really the end frame. Now at first I thought that had Kubrick done this film, it would have ended with little David trapped underwater by his oh-so-human desires. But then again, we know Kuby is predisposed towards violent time cuts, and here’s a great chance – the human-emotional-feedback loop could continue for thousands of years, since it’s a robot we’re talking about, becoming eventually yet another artifact to be dug up by the descendants of our toasters and web-surfing fridges. If this kid wanted to become real so badly, what would he think in a world where ‘real’ humans were an archaic memory? Apparently, this was the ‘weak’ part of the script where Kuby really needed Steven’s ‘help.’ The ‘help’ consisted of some semi-comprehensible inanity, whereby a real human is dredged up by the expository speech-bots and paraded around to make the dumb kid happy. (Sorry, but wasn’t the real mom hanging out in a virtual house? Or did the fancy, possibly Apple-designed future robots actually build a replica house for David and the meat puppet to hang out in? The pointlessness of it all. She threw him out, for fuck’s sake, that’s not even a happy ending anyway!)

And then there’s that thing called love. When did love become the ultimate goal of AI designers? Do we really think only humans can love? Maybe I’m a heartless post-romantic, but I thought it was our intellect, not our ability to miss our mommies, that separated us from the beasts. Interesting to note that the ‘love’ theme is missing from Aldiss’ story. The thing that makes David different in his version is the use of ‘synthetic flesh’. So, did Kubrick read the story and think to himself, “he forgot about the love”? Um, probably not. We know who the big flapping heart is. But sadly, by making David the loving boy and the rest of the bots cold, inferior scraps of metal, Spielberg weakens the slavery theme that Kubrick clearly wanted to explore.

There were many more moments when a glimmer of cold hard Kuby shone through for an second, only to be lost again under the waves of sentimentalism that wound up drowning this poor, poor movie. But I guess that’s how Spielberg pays the bills. Until I see notarized photos of Kubrick handing him the deed to A.I., though, I’m going to be suspicious of this particular transaction. Someone wanted to recoup their development costs. I hope they’re happy.

The preceding rant contained spoilers.


Presumably, now’s the time to explain why I decided to start this blog. To justify the creation of yet another blog. Okay then: unbridled narcissism. Inflated sense of own self-worth. Desperate attempt at membership in dynamic, elitist weblog community.

Honestly, I will try and keep the navel-gazing to a minimum. I started Bloggus Caesari a few weeks ago, and although that, in a way, is a blog, I somehow felt I was missing some important part of the weblog recipe… wonder what it could be?

Another test.

Another test.


I am now testing the blog mechanism.