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Monthly Archives: May 2010
Robotic “Dog” from USC Shows Impressive Pathfinding Over Unfamiliar Terrain… and Makes Us Think It’s Alive

Filed under Found on the Web

This is described as a prototype robotic dog – but let’s get this out of the way right at the start. The shape and texture of its robotic body makes it look like a huge beetle, which seems a bit creepy.

That impression fades, though, as you watch it move. Its four legs are constructed like a dog’s legs and its movement is captivating. As the robot explores rough and unfamiliar terrain it applies its experience of similar situations and tries to find its way, sometimes slipping and recovering. Those moments are the ones that really make it seem alive and you find yourself cheering it on.

In fact the way it pauses and thinks about what to do next give the impression of awareness. It’s very interesting to watch and quite a technical achievement – just imagine yourself trying to train a machine to behave this way. Its interactions with a changing environment are especially, well, awesome.

But like most who’ve viewed the demonstration I find myself thinking less about how smart these researchers are, and more about the way we react to the machine in motion and why we perceive it as an autonomous creature. I like the idea of something like this, with Roomba-like instructions to explore and patrol, making way for me on the stairs and showing up next to my bed in the morning.

[tags]robotics, robot, motion, quadruped, dog, bug, usc, bring me my coffee[/tags]

“Choice of the Dragon” game – and its Downloadable Engine

Filed under Found on the Web, Web Development

I just had some fun playing through a text adventure game called Choice of the Dragon (try it!).

It was created with a system called Choicescript. Choicescript games are free to play on the web, but are also available as iPhone and Android apps. There’s (so far) one more game called Choice of Broadsides.

In a lot of ways these resemble what I’ve done with Thrilling Tales of the Downright Unusual – in fact the basic differences are owed to the two facts that I’m simultaneously developing for the web and for print, and I’m illustrating my story nodes. As it stands the Choicescript games don’t support illustrations but it wouldn’t take much custom Javascript (and/or php) in the page template to fix that. Choicescript allows you to set variables depending on the player’s actions and one of those variables could easily be the URL of an illustration. A little document.write, and you’re there.

If you’re interested in playing with Choicescript – some user-created games get hosted on the choiceofgames site – you can start out with the blog.

[tags]text adventure, game engine, choice of games, choice of the dragon, choice of broadsides, roll your own[/tags]

A Clockwork Eye from the Secret Laboratory

Filed under Thrilling Tales of the Downright Unusual, Works in Progress

Clockwork iris animation

Click the image to see it animate!

I’ve been working on this mechanism – well, it’s a 3D model, so it’s not a real mechanism – for the past few days. In ways that are known only to my Kickstarter backers, this is a part of the next stage at my Thrilling Tales of the Downright Unusual web site.

It’s unusually steampunkish for me but that makes sense because this object is just the eye of a mechanical character who’s much older than anything else in Retropolis. A character who was built in the earliest days of the Mad Science we know and love. I added an eyebrow as a backplate for the band drive – and after much agony I figured out how to set the objects up in 3DS Max so that the whole thing animates when you turn its drive wheel.

The iris mechanism here is based on a real, working design that was featured at Boing Boing a few days back. The original forum thread (with many revisions!) is here. My version is based on one of the earliest of them – I wanted to start with something simple before I got all baroque about it. Which I felt was likely.

Anyway what this means is that I’m working maniacally on some new stuff for the Thrilling Tales site. And now… to that I shall return.

“Sculptris” – Donationware 3D Sculpting

Filed under Computer Graphics


Tomas Pettersson’s DonationWare Sculptris has come a long way since we first heard about it several months ago. The 3D sculpting application produces results a lot like what you get from the basic features of HelluvaLottaMoneyWare programs like ZBrush and Mudbox, but it’s a hobby project that’s supported by voluntary donations. The video above is a user video by Syntax Error. (Part two is here.)

You can start out with a simple sphere, as we see in this example, or you can import an existing .obj file. I’m still blundering around with it but I’m always curious about ways in which to combine these organic modeling tools with rigid, streamlined shapes for ever more interesting rockets and whatnot. I especially like how well its "Reduce" brush brings down the resolution of an area I’ve been mucking about with.

I did convince the program to hide under its blanket at one point… but overall it seems pretty neat. Try it out!

Go Hero adds “Dan Dare” and “The Shadow” Action Figures to its Line Up

Filed under Found on the Web

Go Hero's The Shadow and Dan Dare action figuresNow that Go Hero’s Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon action figures are out in the wild, they’re about to be joined by the lantern-jawed British spaceman Dan Dare and the, well, lantern-nosed pulp crimefighter, The Shadow.

Each of these 1:6 scale figures is now available for pre-order (the photos are from prototypes).

Not content just to fight crime and patrol the spaceways, Go Hero is also working on the incredible BAT BOY from the late lamented Weekly World News.

I’m also curious about the Atomodel, a 1:6 scale blank action figure. It’s got over 30 points of articulation and offers you a blank maquette on which to work – so if you’re dreaming up a new steampunk Star Wars, or, well, whatever, this could be just the thing for you. There’s even a version with an integrated MP3 player for those all-important pew-pew effects.

[tags]go hero, collector, action figure, toys, dan dare, the shadow, pulp, comics, atomodel, blank action figure, maquette, armature, nerd it yourself[/tags]

“Thrilling Tales” Kickstarter Update and the Fall of a Mighty Monitor

Filed under Thrilling Tales of the Downright Unusual

Mostly because my Kickstarter update has scrolled off the front page of my blog and, well, I just can’t have that… here it is again.

You don’t get much historical perspective here since the image updates while the pledges roll in… but let’s see. My last Kickstarter update here was six days ago. At that time we’d raised almost 20% of the goal – while today we’re at 32%. That’s almost a third of the way, in 22% of the time.

That’s great progress!

As I predicted, though, the traffic at the Thrilling Tales site is tapering off since its incoming links have begun to grow stale. I figure that’ll continue and I’m sure it’ll affect the rate of new pledges.

This is happening alongside my discovery that the eyestrain I’ve been noticing lately has a cause: my Once-Mighty Monitor has entered a new phase in its long, slow decline. A phase in which focus has become a relative thing.

Since a monitor of mine has got to have unusually good specs (contrast, color fidelity, sharpness), I’m now cheering on the Kickstarter project with a whole new level of enthusiasm. Though I hadn’t exactly factored in the cost of a new Mighty Monitor when I launched at Kickstarter.

So: life, lemons, check. Next?

[tags]thrilling tales of the downright unusual, kickstarter, fundraising, illustration, art, raygun gothic, interactive fiction[/tags]

Stalking Made Me Who I Am

Filed under Can't Stop Thinking

Reuben SmithSometimes, when I see the increasingly litigious ways we deal with one another, I think about the things we’ve lost. Oh, I don’t mean disputes over property lines or breach of contract or any of that. I’m thinking about the way we now use law to set our personal boundaries and criminalize bad behavior.

It’s not that I don’t despise things like sexual harassment. In fact that’s one I especially dislike. Sexual harassment is the sort of thing that makes a thinking man angry. I mean, a few overgrown infants make the rest of us look pretty bad by association, just because we share the same kind of plumbing.

But as we’ve relied more and more on labelling behavior, and on laws to regulate it once it’s labelled, and on punishments for it once it’s regulated, we’ve lost some of the skills that people need just to deal with each other in groups. Skills that we actually used to have.

A lot of bad behavior is more unfortunate than it is criminal. Once upon a time we’d have dealt with it through deflection… or by hauling the offender out behind the tobacconist’s and knocking out one of his teeth.

Case in point: stalking. Once upon a time some forms of stalking were not only permitted. They were necessary. I wouldn’t be here typing this if my grandfather hadn’t stalked my grandmother. And there wasn’t a creepy thing about it.

My grandfather – who, later in life, appeared in the terrifying photograph above – first saw my grandmother on the Vaudeville stage. She would have been about sixteen at the time, right about the time her photo below was taken.

This was the musical comedy act of Noodles and Elsie Fagan. My grandmother Blanche and her sister were each part of their parents’ act. Family legend has it that Grandmother even managed the act from the age of eleven because everyone agreed she was the most sensible one of the bunch.

So when Reuben Smith saw her on that stage she’d have been singing, lit romantically by the stage lights. And that did him in. The moment he saw her he decided that this was the girl for him.

Blanche Fagan, 1922But what to do? In that day and age you wouldn’t get anywhere by approaching a young woman and introducing yourself. You’d do more harm than good. An action that forward was an implied insult: by acting improperly, you’d be suggesting that she was improper and that, as they say, would be Game Over. Out behind the tobacconist’s for some quick dental surgery, bub.

One of the interesting things about what my grandfather did do was that it’s closely paralleled in Robert A. Heinlein’s Time Enough For Love, in an episode set at about the same time. Lazarus Long, in that story, travels back in time to meet his own family. And he does just what my grandfather decided to do on the night he saw my grandmother on Vaudeville and followed her all the way from the stage door to her front door. In the dark of night. Stealthily, I bet.

Grandfather started to hang out in her neighborhood. He started shopping there; he ate his meals in the neighborhood restaurants; he hung out there long enough to make some friends, and once he was a fixture in the neighborhood, someone introduced him to my grandmother. The rest, if not history, is my history. And – probably because of the way things turned out – even that bit of stalking under the streetlights doesn’t seem sinister. It seems charming.

I’m fascinated by the fact that Heinlein had his character adopt the same strategy because it suggests that my grandfather wasn’t the only one. I really wonder if someone Heinlein knew in the 1920’s hadn’t told him a family story a lot like mine.

Chances are that if my grandfather tried this clever plan today he’d end up in jail, and as a result there would be no me to tell his story.

Now one reaction you might have to this tale is that in a repressed and rigid society people are forced to deceive and scheme in order to lead a normal life. I think that’s absolutely true. But after half a century in a less repressed and rigid society I haven’t noticed that people have given up deception and scheming. So, I say, phooey.

And when I think about those stiffer, more formal days I also think that when we hand over our personal relationships – even the unpleasant ones – to the law… well, we’re formalizing those things in a different, impersonal way. Society hasn’t abandoned its rules and manners. It’s just delegated them. How weird is that?

[tags]stalking, society, mating rituals, law, robert a. heinlein, time enough for love[/tags]

“Premake” Trailer for “The Empire Strikes Back”, Circa 1950

Filed under Found on the Web

YouTube user whoiseyevan presents this re-imagined "premake" trailer for The Empire Strikes Back as a 1950 movie serial. Warning: if you think about that for too long you’ll fall into a self-referential quantum singularity. But great fun – I’d much rather watch this than the actual movie.

But wait! There’s more! whoiseyevan’s channel also streams other premake trailers for thrill-packed movies like Ghost Busters with Bela Lugosi and Bob Hope, or Raiders of the Lost Ark with Charlton Heston and Peter Lorre. We’ll just have to wait for Connie Willis’ Remake to come true before we can see the whole thing.

Kickstarter Names My Thrilling Tales Fundraiser Their “Project of the Day”!

Filed under Thrilling Tales of the Downright Unusual, Works in Progress

Fundraiser for Thrilling Tales of the Downright UnusualHey, what a great surprise!

As I prowled through the Thrilling Tales stats this morning I found that Kickstarter has named my fundraiser their Project of the Day!

That’s wonderful news for all sorts of reasons. The Thrilling Tales fundraiser has gotten off to a good start in its first nine days – we’ve got nearly 20% of the target amount pledged and plenty of time, at that rate, to meet the goal.

Of course I’m a worrier, so I’m thinking grimly ahead. As far as I know, this week saw the last of the big site links to the Thrilling Tales site and so I expect my traffic there to taper off over the next couple of weeks. Naturally I don’t know about every incoming link, so something big could still be on the horizon. But, like I said, I’m a worrier and so I figure that the huge boost in traffic I’ve seen at the site has already peaked. That’ll make it harder in the coming weeks to get more excited eyeballs looking at the Thrilling Tales, buying books, and pledging to the Kickstarter drive.

But the news has been pretty good to date. The site’s had over 60,000 pageviews, for example, and the trailer has been viewed over 4,500 times (!).

That hasn’t converted to a lot of sales or support since these are mainly casual browsers looking at the Title-O-Tron, or even reading the first story… but then moving on. Most of my brain expected that – the whole idea behind a project like this is to offer free content as a way to draw in lots of visitors, and people who are happy to find things for free don’t necessarily become people who want to support those things. Like I said, most of my brain expected that. It’s currently explaining the facts of life to the rest of my brain, which was more optimistic. It’s a goofy, romantic thing.

So anyway it’s great to be featured by Kickstarter – the fundraiser is going to make a big difference to the next phase at Thrilling Tales of the Downright Unusual… so long as we reach the goal. I’d cross my fingers but I’ve found from experience that’d make it really hard for me to type this.

Five Words That Should Never Appear Together

Filed under Hodgepodge


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