Eden

The Secret History of Science Fiction, edited by James Ptrick Kelly & John Kessel, Tachyon Publications, 2010
Eden, by Pablo Holmberg, Drawn & Quarterly, 2010

Yes, these comics sometimes veer into the extremely sappy, but they’re metafictional and wonderfully fabular throughout. Eden collects more than 100 simple four-panel strips featuring a diminutive, somewhat rabbit-like king, or at least, someone who wears a crown, in a magical land. An extremely insightful naïvite, of the sort that one hears in the occasional oracular pronunciation of a child, comes through at times. But these comics do not overlook death or other serious subjects. Holmberg, who writes and draws in Buenos Aires, has Eden and more available on his website, in Spanish. Odd that to learn about a Web comic, I had to go into my local comic store and buying a book, but it goes to show that book-based institutions have more than a retail function. And, it seems unlikely that Holmberg’s work would have appeared in translation without a publisher such as Drawn & Quarterly. Through such everyday efforts, we sometimes find the extraordinary.

Code is Beauty, Beauty Code

Beautiful CodeIn recent years, I’ve written a series of 1k (that is, exactly 1024 character) reviews on here. This ruse has helped me compose succinct (and possibly useful) notes about many things that I wouldn’t have otherwise written about. But some things that are worth reviewing, such as a documentary about interactive fiction, are really better treated in a bit more depth. Given my interest in the aesthetics of code, and in code that produces aesthetic output, a book entitled Beautiful Code: Leading Programmers Explain How They Think is certainly one of those things.

Beautiful Code is an edited collection of 33 articles by a well-known publisher of technical books. The articles deal with how programmers solved a variety of problems, some of them very general computational problems, others quite specific to particular systems and applications. Several of the authors discuss their own code. The book is part of the Theory in Practice series with Beautiful Data, Beautiful Architecture, and Beautiful Security.

Beautiful Code: Leading Programmers Explain How They Think. Edited By Andy Oram & Greg Wilson. O’Reilly Media, 2007.

Beautiful Code is a success in several ways. It widens the conversation about code and the innovative development of it beyond particular programming languages, which have often been silos for such discussion has taken place in the past. At least, book-length discussion of programming – in textbooks, in introductory and reference books, and in “tips and tricks” books – has often been language-specific. While encompassing many systems and code in many languages, the book doesn’t take the position that the programming language can be abstracted away, that knowing about data structures, algorithms and an arbitrary programming language allows on to say all that can be said about how to program.

The first article is a particularly excellent one. In it, Brian Kernighan discusses 30 lines of regular expression matching C code which Rob Pike wrote as an example in an hour or two. This concise article deals with how to solve the core of the regular expression problem elegantly and correctly, but it also touches on many other important aspects of code and programming. By suggesting a series of modifications, Kernighan shows that code is an element of future programs rather than simply a fixed solution. Kernighan mentions how the code takes advantage of C pointers and suggests converting it to Java to see how the result would be slower and would require a lengthier program. If you can only read one essay in Beautiful Code, be glad that the editors have placed this one in the front, allowing you to retrieve it in a constant-time operation.

I was also interested in how several of the essays dealt with the need to consider hardware specifics, something one might expect pure, beautiful code to avoid touching. There’s some hint of this specter in chapter 7, which discusses how Jon Bently’s official, “proven” algorithm for binary search has a bug when it’s implemented on most real systems. When the code finds a midpoint within the array by computing (low + high) / 2, the sum of low and high can, in very extreme cases, exceed the maximum integer value, giving a negative (and obviously wrong) result. Later chapters deal with more productive connections between hardware and code. In chapter 10, Henry S. Warren, Jr. delves into the amazing intricacies involved in efficiently computing the population count or sideways sum: the number of bits in a word, or an array of words, that are 1. The current best way of doing this for an array involves using a special circuit called a carry-save adder. Chapter 14, “How Elegant Code Evolves with Hardware: The Case of Gaussian Elimination,” explores the relationship of leading matrix algorithms to changing hardware architectures.

Several other articles interested me; I suspect that programming language researchers, professional programmers, and others will find that a good number of the selections are worthwhile.

But despite the title and some compelling discussion inside, this is really isn’t a book about “beautiful code.” There is almost nothing in it about beauty or what that concept means when applied to code. “Aesthetics” isn’t in the index. When beauty is mentioned, it seems obligatory and stands for whatever the author of a particular chapter values. This, for instance, by Travis E. Oliphant:

>”Iterators are a beautiful abstraction because they save valuable programmer attention in the implementation of a complicated algorithm.” (p. 318)

Could one say anything similar about paintings? Sunsets? Or even something that has an important functional aspect, like a building? “Frank Ghery’s Stata Center is a beautiful building because the layout of its hallways saves valuable programmer time.” That doesn’t sound quite right, does it? There are more reasonable-sounding, if not very elaborated, statements about code and beauty in the book, but some of those seem to express a very narrow perspective. For instance, Adam Kolawa writes:

>”In sum, I believe that beautiful code must be short, explicit, frugal, and written with consideration for reality.” (p. 266)

Michael Mateas and I have written about obfuscated code, a topic that isn’t mentioned at all in this book. While obfuscated programs are usually short, they are also the opposite of explicit, gratuitous rather than frugal, and written without any concern for “realities” like re-use, practicality, and legibility. An obfuscated program isn’t good programming practice – that’s part of the point. For reasons that Michael and I have written about, we consider the best examples of obfuscated code to be beautiful, and I suspect we’re not the only ones. They simply display a different kind of beauty, an aesthetic of complexity and extravagance that shows us things about programming and about the language in which the obfuscated code is written – things that technical essays don’t reveal. You may share this aesthetic and be willing to consider obfuscated code beautiful, if, for instance, you saw beauty in the exorbitant Ok Go video “This Too Shall Pass.”

A final disappointment: There are no articles on the creative, artistic use of code, on programming projects that are meant to create beautiful output – no music, poetry, story, or terrain generators, lightsynths, demos, intros, or Processing sketches. Certainly a book about beautiful code, even if it is targeted at the professional programmer, would benefit from investigating a program or two of this sort?

This isn’t to say that valuing conciseness and clarity is a bad idea, or that having a book about utilitarian programming practice, particularly a wide-ranging one with many interesting articles of great technical depth, is a problem. It just means that much work remains to be done on matters of beauty and code. Perhaps we’ll soon see a book that brings together the diversity and depth of technical discussion that’s displayed here with consideration of the nature of beauty, of what it means for code to be beautiful, and of how the workings, conception, code expression, and wider contexts of a program are all involved in its beauty.

The Secret History of Science Fiction

The Secret History of Science Fiction, edited by James Ptrick Kelly & John Kessel, Tachyon Publications, 2010
The Secret History of Science Fiction, edited by James Ptrick Kelly & John Kessel, Tachyon Publications, 2010

This book seeks to prove that science fiction cannot really be distinguished from mainstream literature, arguing this in the introduction and in quotes before each story. Whether it prevails or not, it offers stories by some of the usual suspects (powerful ones by Ursula K. LeGuin and Connie Willis) some liminal figures (Johnathan Letham, who presents a prison made of criminals) and others – e.g., Don DeLillo, in whose story two men orbit Earth during World War III. (In a beautiful scene, they begin saying whatever they feel like as they calibrate the lethal system to their voiceprints.) There are non-human primates: T. C. Boyle’s tale of a man whose primatologist wife leaves him and George Saunders’s “93990,” a deft critique of science. Carter Scholz’s “The Nine Billion Names of God” has its own take on that author Pierre Menard, created by Borges. (Was he a science fiction author?) Even the weakest stories in here are well-written and worthwhile; most go far beyond that, making for a truly great collection.

Wheel Make You Texts

Just posted at ebr (Electronic Book Review) is Whitney Anne Trettien’s article “Computers, Cut-ups, and Combinatory Volvelles.” (We already love computers and cut-ups, but be aware that volvelles are extremely cool.) Some illustrations are still to come, but the article’s text and references are now up … I believe in link early, link often.

The article is born of Trettien’s born-digital MIT Comparative Media Studies thesis “Computers, Cut-ups and Combinatory Volvelles: An Archaeology of Text-Generating Mechanisms,” a two-or-more-dimensional arrangement of reconfigurable texts. Like a conservative child reacting against his liberal parents, the ebr article is linear, but that should offer an helpful complement to the machinations of the thesis. The article reels back to long before the 20th century avant-garde to find recombinatory text machines and perspectives on reading that are relevant to the digital age. I highly recommend the ebr piece to those working with ergodic texts and operating today’s textual computer machines. It will hopefully serve as a nice gateway drug, too, interesting more readers in Trettien’s combinatory thesis.

Two to Read on ebr

That’s electronic book review, which does indeed host electronic reviews of good old books, but also offers up scholarly articles on digital literature, as it has been doing for a while. Two recent articles, in particular, are not to be missed by those interested e-lit.

First, Daniel Punday’s piece on how computer games could break the homogeneity of e-books, in which he describes the uniformity implicit in the e-book concept, in the idea of a modular library, and the disappointing implications of such restricted formats for digital, bookish innovation. Punday is more optimistic than I am about the possibility that gaming might lead us out of e-book thralldom, but whether or not he’s right about this potential solution, he points out an important and overlooked aspect of the e-book situation that we need to attend to – at least, for instance, by being willing to build e-books as individual iPhone apps when we want to do more than the standard formats can accomodate.

And, Maire-Laure Ryan’s discussion of how digital art engages with dysfunctionality extends the conversation beyond the playful forms of programming that Michael Mateas and I have discussed to broadly consider political, ludic, programmatic, and even inadvertent types of digital malfunctioning, or breakdown – or should we call it “dysfunctionality”? (Thank goodness that my creative work wasn’t cited in the section about that last category of brokenness, although I’ll admit that it could have been…) Ryan argues that the digital medium has proven better at producing anti-books than books (or, I suppose, e-books) and that creative dysfunction helps to make us “aware of the codes and processes (technological, linguistic, cultural and cognitive) that regulate our social and mental life.”

The Garden of Grand Forks: UND Writers Conference

I recently went from presenting at the prestigious and vibrant University of North Dakota Writers Conference to being on a panel at the massive Penny Arcade Expo in Boston.

First things first: The former was “Mind the Gap: Print, New Media, Art,” the 41st UND Writers Conference. Last year at UND the presenters included Charles Baxter and Chuck Klosterman; the year before, Russel Banks, my colleague Junot Díaz, Alice Fulton, and Salman Rushdie.

To provide some perspective, back in 1978 the lineup at this conference was John Ashbery, Amiri Baraka, William Burroughs, Ring Lardner, Tillie Olsen, and Eudora Welty.

This year I heard Art Spiegelman in conversation about his comic and New Yorker cover art, Frank X. Walker on his poems giving voice to the journey of York (who accompanied Lewis and Clark on their expedition as Clark’s slave), Cecelia Condit on her video art, and three of my fellow electronic literature writers, with their diverse approaches: Mark Amerika, Deena Larsen, and Stuart Moulthrop. I had to leave before I could hear slam poet Saul Williams, but I’m grateful for what I was able to experience of the conference. And I’m grateful that I was able to be on two panels, select a reel of music videos for the associated film festival, speak to a computer science class, and present several collaborative and individual projects to a sizable audience in the main room of UND’s student union:

  • Ad Verbum, my interactive fiction piece from 2000, inspired by the constrained writing of the Oulipo. Thanks again to the young interactor who volunteered to try collecting items in and escaping from the Sloppy Salon.
  • 2002: A Palindrome Story, by Nick Montfort and William Gillespie. I showed the Reifier interface and read from the very beginning and end.
  • Implementation by Nick Montfort and Scott Rettberg. I explained the project and read eight texts (stickers, mailing labels) from it.
  • Currency, by Roderick Coover (video) and Nick Montfort (text). I showed “Filip a Guinea: The Elephant and Castle.”
  • Taroko Gorge, the poetry generator I wrote in Taiwan.
  • My ongoing series of tiny perl poetry generators, ppg256.

The people in Grand Forks, ND were polite (I was told I shouldn’t be surprised about this) but also surprisingly receptive. It was certainly a different sort of crowd than I met at Banff, with many people from the community and even driving in from surrounding areas. I think they saw some of the pleasure in writing under constraint, some of the benefits of writing collaboratively, and some of the potential of computation, which I tried to show could be turned to literary ends.

Although I got to converse with Stuart and Deena on and off our panels, I came in too late for one of their readings and had to leave before I could hear the other one. I did get to hear Mark Amerika take us from his early writing in The Kafka Chronicles up through his Web work and recent moving image project, all of which are fresh and impressive. His video work is certainly impelled ahead by the work of Chris Marker, whose Sans Soleil Mark selected for the film festival. I should note that I also loved getting to watch Timecode, Stuart Moulthrop’s selection.

Thanks again to Crystal Alberts for inviting me and for her work on this very successful conference.

When I can manage, I’ll write a bit about the very different but also incredible Penny Arcade Expo East…

Utensils in a Landscape

Utensils in a Landscape, Chris Edwards, Stray Dog Editions, Vagabond Press, 2001
Utensils in a Landscape, Chris Edwards, Stray Dog Editions, Vagabond Press, 2001

Searching for something suitably disruptive in the landscape of Australia, where Jacket is rooted, I found this. The first poem is made from sometimes misquoted bits of The Book of Common Prayer and Burroughs’s “The Cut-Up Method …” With technical and abstract language, folklore, Mallarmé, and guy-on-guy action, the book offers all sorts of utensil viewing. And later, in “but me,” this reflection:

My project, which began in
one room of the abyss, soon spread toward a perimeter
you can imagine, should you be inclined to do so.

I usually prefer projects in which sources are altered sparingly and systematically – Craig Dworkin’s “Legion” is a brilliant example. These approximate centos work, though. The invented language weaves with the appropriated, making it seem that Edwards could have done it all with his pen – or all with his scissors.

A Note on the Word “Zork”

Yes, It’s a Nonsense Word

The lowdown on Zork‘s name, inasmuch as a lowdown has been provided in print, was given by authors Dave Lebling, Marc Blank, and Tim Anderson in 1979 in the article “Zork: A Computerized Fantasy Simulation Game,” Computer 12:4, 51-59 (April 1979):

The first version of Zork appeared in June 1977. Interestingly enough, it was never “announced” or “installed” for use, and the name was chosen because it was a widely used nonsense word, like “foobar.”

This is a clear explanation, but it raises the question of how this particular nonsense word came into wide use at MIT. It seems reasonable to pursue this question, and reasonable that there would be some discernable answer. After all, there’s a whole official document, RFC 3092, explaining the etymology of “foobar.” It could be interesting to know what sort of nonsense word “zork” is, since it’s quite a different thing, with very different resonances, to borrow a “nonsense” term from Edward Lear or Lewis Carroll as opposed to Hugo Ball or Tristan Tzara. “Zork,” of course, doesn’t seem to derive from either humorous English nonsense poetry or Dada; the possibilities for its origins are more complex.

Slouching from “Zorch”?

In the first part of “The History of Zork,” The New Zork Times 4:1 (Winter 1985), Tim Anderson adds to the earlier discussion and suggests a possible derivation for the word:

Zork, by the way, was never really named. “Zork” was a nonsense word floating around; it was usually a verb, as in “zork the fweep,” and may have been derived from “zorch.” (“Zorch” is another nonsense word implying total destruction.) We tended to name our programs with the word “zork” until they were ready to be installed on the system.

“Zorch” is listed in Peter R. Samson’s 1959 “TMRC Dictionary” – the dictionary of the Tech Model Railroad Club, an organization that was important in helping to begin and foster recreational computing. The term meant, at that time, “to attack with an inverse heat sink” – that is, to attack with a heat source – and is explained as “Another of David Sawyer’s sound effects, which I reinterpreted as a colorful variant of ‘scorch.'” It could also be imagined as a variant of “torch” – either way, the application of heat is suggested. This definition is consistent with the sense of “zorch” that Anderson gives, although a bit more specific. It is quite possible that “zork” does derive from “zorch,” as Anderson and others guess, but it is not clear why a word so derived would then be used as a placeholder program name. It’s also at least arguable that “zork” sounds less destructive than “zorch,” as the unintimidating back-formations “scork” and “tork” suggest. If that’s the case, why would a less intense term come to be used when the original term is more intense and very comical? While the “zorch” etymology might be right, it at least seems worthwhile to look to other possibilities.

Textbook Examples

“Zork” occurs occasionally, although rarely, as a proper name in various print sources in the decades leading up to 1977. Google Book Search reveals that some more nonsensical uses occur in some textbook examples in the 1970s. In Introduction to Experimental Psychology by Douglas W. Matheson, Richard Loren Bruce, and Kenneth L. Beauchamp (1970, 2nd. ed 1974) the meaningless “zork” model is introduced as a contrast to a medical model. “Zork” is also used as a fictional place name in Henry F. DeFrancesco’s 1975 Quantitative Analysis Methods for Substantive Analysts. There is some chance that the term was picked up from such a source. Zork explicitly pokes fun at the material nature of textbooks by including a “this space intentionally left blank” joke, which refers to a message sometimes printed on textbook’s blank pages to let readers know that they have not been left blank due to a printing error. Given this, it would be hard to rule out to possibility of the term “zork” coming from a textbook. Of course, the term could have appeared at MIT indirectly, in an example given in a lecture, on a problem set, or on a test, even if a book with the example in it was not assigned as a text. But there is nothing to strongly recommend this etymology, either. And while the former textbook example is clearly the more vivid, it is also much less likely to have been encountered by the Zork authors, [updated January 10] since they were involved with a computer science research group, Dynamic Modeling. MIT does not now have a department named psychology, but Course 9 (now Brain and Cognitive Sciences) was called Psychology from 1960-1985.

A Hastily Thrown-Together Bit of Zork, cover

There has been some speculation – specifically, in this mailing-list thread – that the term “zork” may come to MIT via John Brunner, whose poetry chapbook A Hastily Thrown-Together Bit of Zork was published in 1974. Although the sense of the word as it appears in the title is completely consistent with the MIT meaning of the term, it is not clear that this 24-page pamphlet, published by Square House Books in an edition of 200 (50 numbered and signed), had made it to MIT by the time Zork coalesced, beginning in 1977. Nevertheless, the idea of a science-fictional vector for the term is appealing.

How Brunner Happened upon “Zork”

A Hastily Thrown-Together Bit of Zork, page 2

On the unnumbered second page of A Hastily Thrown-Together Bit of Zork, Brunner notes that “the title resulted from Simon Joukes’s first encounter with a typewriter that didn’t speak Flemish.” According to this history of Dutch and Flemish fandom, Simon Joukes was active in Flemish fandom and was a part of the club Sfan, helping to publish Info-Sfan, which became SF Magazine.

A Belgian typewriter

Here is a Belgian typewriter, manufactured by Olivetti. (This blog post is the source for the image.) The letters are laid out just as they are on a French typewriter, in the AZERTY scheme. As you can see, if you’ve learned to type the word “WORK” on a typewriter like this, and someone then substitutes a British (or US) typewriter without your noticing, and you then try to type that word without looking at the keys, you’ll type “ZORK.” (Since the “W” and “Z” are switched in this layout, the same thing would happen to a British typist who uses to a Belgian typewriter without noticing how the keys are labeled.)

It’s particularly appealing that this etymology makes zork an altered form of, or an alternative to … work.

Another Science-Fiction “Zork”

Brunner’s use of “zork” in the title of his book was not the first appearance of the word in science fiction. The word made an appearance earlier in Lin Carter’s novel The Purloined Planet, published in 1969. It was used in the name of an important character … “Zork Arrgh.”

The Purloined Planet, page 109

It’s likely that Brunner at least glanced at the name of this key character. Lin Carter’s novel was published in a Belmont Double edition with “two complete science fiction novels.” The other was Brunner’s The Evil That Men Do.

The Purloined Planet, cover

While Simon Joukes may have typed out the word “Zork” and directly inspired Brunner’s 1974 title, the word may have rang out to Brunner as interesting and particulaly amusing because of Carter’s earlier use of it.

“Zork” and How She Is Spoke

There is some chance that people at MIT saw Brunner’s slim book of poems, but it seems far from certain. As of this writing, WorldCat lists only four university libraries in the United States that have this limited-edition book. MITSFS, the MIT Science Fiction Society, boasts the world’s largest open-stack library of science fiction and has 83 titles by Brunner in its catalog – but A Hastily Thrown-Together Bit of Zork is not among these. The Evil That Men Do / The Purloined Planet is in the collection, however.

Even when all of these additional leads are considered, it seems there is no strong conclusion to be drawn about the deeper etymology of the name of MIT’s, and Infocom’s, most famous text adventure. “Zork” might have been a corruption or further development of “zorch.” It may have entered the argot because of its use in an amusing curricular example, perhaps thanks to Quantitative Analysis Methods for Substantive Analysts or another textbook that hasn’t yet been ingested into Google Books. Or, science fiction may have been the vector for the word. If it was, though, it seems likely that it made its way into MIT speech not because of Brunner’s book of poems, but thanks to Zork Arrgh, a key character in 1969 novel by Lin Carter, one that was sitting on the shelves at MITSFS.

Perhaps more evidence will come to light, and the origins of the word “zork” as it was used at MIT in the late 1970s will become clear. Or, it may be that the origins of the word are lost forever – obliterated in a nook of a subculture’s linguistic history that has been irreversibly zorched.

A Casual Revolution

A Casual Revolution: Reinventing Video Games and Their Players, Jesper Juul, The MIT Press, 2010
A Casual Revolution: Reinventing Video Games and Their Players, Jesper Juul, The MIT Press, 2010

Juul’s latest, like his Half-Real, offers many insights, particular and general, while being succinct and clear stylistically. The book is not just about matching tile games, although there’s a good chapter on them and their genealogy. It’s about the moment in the history of videogaming where games overflow their “hardcore” niche and begin to appeal to everyone. Juul describes the stereotypes of casual and hardcore games and players; then he demonstrates, using data from many interviews, exactly how they’re wrong. An important, high-level innovation involves figuring out how to study both games and players – in this case, to understand what exactly is meant by “casual games” and how much of what we associate with that has to do with “causal” modes of play. There’s also an excellent analysis of the social space of play in front of the screen, in Guitar Hero and Wii games. A Casual Revolution will be valuable for academics and those in industry, and will help keep the sun shining on games.

Two Novels

This year I read, years after their publication in English, two truly awesome novels.

The Great Fire of LondonThe Great Fire of London: A Story with Interpolations and Bifurcations, by Jacques Roubaud (trans. Dominic Di Bernardi) is an incredible project. The interesting formal structure contributed less to the profound effect of the book than I had expected, perhaps because so much else is accomplished in so many other ways. Roubaud describes writing as destructive of memory, not in the sense that Plato’s Thales sees writing as leading to an atrophy of one’s capability to remember. Rather, writing about something we remember is an act that burns away our memory, leaving us only the text and the memory of writing. The project of the book was occasioned by a dream in which Roubaud realized that he had to write a novel called The Great Fire of London. He waited seventeen years, turning over the memory of this dream, before beginning to write this book, which, among other things, describes his inability to write that novel; states the author’s preferences for walking over running and his conception of himself as a walker and swimmer; describes some of his life with and his dealing with the death of his wife, Alix; and affirms that one can write in order to live. The book is transfixing, and unlike anything I have read up to the point. Roubaud, since he completed this book (it was published in 1989), has gone on to write five more volumes. The second of these is now available in English as The Loop.

The Savage Detectives The Savage Detectives, by Roberto Bolaño (trans. Natasha Wimmer) is quite different: about literary dynamics on a country-wide scale and beyond, and more about social interactions than memory, individual loss, and identity. The book traces the lives of some poets associated with the fictional literary movement “visceral realism.” The fairly short first and last sections of the book are narrated (and purportedly written, as diary entries) by an often surprised, often pedantic, often very sexually occupied poet, García Madero. The middle section provides a kaleidoscope of perspectives on literary and ordinary moments in life throughout the world, in an amazing change ringing of voices. The breadth of the book is incredible, as are the different experiences and viewpoints it offers:

Luis Sebastián Rosado, Mexico City DF, July 1976: The question burst from me as if of its own accord: have you slept with María? His reply (my god, what a sad, beautiful profile Luscious Skin had) was devastating. He said: I’ve slept with every poet in Mexico.

Amadeo Salvatierra, Mexico City DF, January 1976: And then one of them opened the bottle and poured forth some of the nectar of the gods into our respective glasses, the same ones we’d been drinking before, which some consider a sign of slovenliness and others the ultimate refinement, since when the glass is, shall we say, glazed with mezcal, the tequila is more at ease, like a naked woman in a fur coat.

Barbara Patterson, San Diego, California, October 1982: Then we would be quiet with the TV on, each of us absorbed in our own scrambled eggs, our pieces of lettuce, our tomato slices, and I would think what life lessons are you talking about, you poor bastard, you poor jerk, what poor lessons did you ever learn, you pathetic leech, you pathetic loser, you fucking asshole, if it weren’t for me you’d be sleeping under a bridge. But I didn’t say anything, I just looked at him, and that was all.

The final part reveals what happened immediately after the first, in which some characters flee north into the desert of Sonora. It is even more horrible that I had imagined, and is a suitable finish for a book that, as its title declares, is about scrutinizing the worst that the world has to offer.

Before & After Media (DAC at UCI)

Ian Bogost and I just gave a talk on platform studies at UC Irvine’s Center for Computer Games and Virtual Worlds. We talked about our book on the Atari VCS, Racing the Beam, and about the platform studies concept more generally. A nice crowd came out on the rainy Friday afternoon and engaged us in some good discussion afterwards. Although we’ve both talked about the book and platform studies in several different places, this was the first talk we’ve given together. I think it worked well, but I guess writing a book together is good preparation.

We’re giving another join talk at Digital Arts and Culture (“After Media”), which starts this evening and then runs for three days of panels (which include scholarly and artists’ talks) and more unlikely presentations in the evenings. Besides my paper with Ian on platform studies misconceptions, I have another co-authored paper with Alex Mitchell on interactive fiction development systems, a “solo” paper on minimal poetry generators (the ppg256 series), and a reading at the DAC Literary Arts Extravaganza. I’m looking forward to seeing a slew of digital media folks and to enjoying the program, the company, and the Southern California environment – even if it keeps raining.

Racing the Beam a Front Line Awards Finalist

An interesting development: The magazine Game Developer recently announced the finalists for the 2009 Front Line Awards, gathering “the year’s best game-making tools in the categories of programming, art, audio, game engine, middleware, and books.”

In the book category, the finalists are:

  • Game Coding Complete 3rd Edition by Mike McShaffry (Charles River Media)
  • Game Engine Architecture by Jason Gregory (AK Peters)
  • Mastering Unreal Technology Vol. 1 by Jason Busby, Zak Parrish, and Jeff Wilson (Sams Publishing)
  • Racing the Beam: The Atari Video Computer System by Nick Montfort and Ian Bogost (The MIT Press)
  • Real Time Cameras: A Guide for Game Designers and Developers by Mark Haigh-Hutchinson (Morgan Kaufmann)

In 2007, Pat Harrigan and Noah Wardrip-Fruin’s collection Second Persion was a finalist, so we’re not breaking any ground here for digital media studies or MIT Press. But it’s nice to be selected by the folks at Game Developer.

IF Author, Novelist Alan DeNiro

That’s an interview with Alan DeNiro now up at Grinding to Valhalla. DeNiro is author of the just-published Total Oblivion, More or Less, in which Minnesota, and then the rest of the US, is invaded by ancient European tribes. DeNiro also wrote and programmed one of the most unusual interactive fiction pieces of recent vintage, Deadline Enchanter. Or perhaps the word is “bizarre.” The game seems to not completely work, in a few different senses of “work,” but I was intrigued with it and found it to be oddly compelling, a refreshing experiment. Hopefully novel-readers will receive a similar wake-up slap from Total Oblivion, and, hopefully DeNiro won’t abandon interactive fiction now that he’s made it to print.

Lots Has Happened and Is Happening

Andrew Stern’s company Stumptown Game Machine released their Touch Pets Dogs, published by ngmoco for the iPhone. On this social network, everyone knows that you’re a virtual dog. Versions of it are in the top 10 free apps on the iPhone App Store now, and in the top 100 of pay apps.

Rover’s Day Out is the winner of the IF Comp. (Dogs everywhere!) The game is by Jack Welch and Ben Collins-Sussman. Broken Legs by Sarah Morayati took second, Snowquest by Eric Eve third. Congratulations to all authors! If you haven’t played the games yet, they’re still there waiting for you.

CYOA visualizations are the talk of the town: Mainly this extensive site that considers many books in the Choose-Your-Own-Adventure series, but also this PDF mapping Journey under the Sea.

People on the Interweb donated $25,000 to Jason Scott, the textfiles.com, BBS Documentary, and Get Lamp guy. Man, it’s so easy to get money on the Web. Maybe you could do it too, if you first spend years, in your spare time and without pay, saving BBS files, saving Geocities, documenting computer history, and generally amassing a larger archive of digital media history than almost every university in the world put together.

Truly “indie” artgames made the New York Times Magazine. Jason Roherer leads the charge, but many of the usual suspects are quoted in this look at how non-industrial gaming is augmenting and challenging games of the commercial sphere.

A new issue of Game Studies is out, with these articles: “The Character of Difference: Procedurality, Rhetoric, and Roleplaying Games,” “Moral Decision Making in Fallout,” “Cheesers, Pullers, and Glitchers: The Rhetoric of Sportsmanship and the Discourse of Online Sports Gamers,” and “World of Warcraft: Service or Space?” Game Studies is free to everyone! No page fees for authors! Peer reviewed! The future of academic publishing, already here, and about games!

JayIsGames hosts an IF contest and calls for interactive fiction authors to create escape-the-room games. The deadline for this Casual Gameplay Design Competition #7 is January 31. Z-code only, unfortunately for those of us wedded to Curveship, but that lets you use Inform 6 or 7.

&Now in Buffalo

I’m not up to a writeup of the recent &Now: A Conference of Innovative Writing and the Literary Arts, a festival/conference (“festerence,” as someone noted) which just shuffled through Buffalo. But while you are waiting for the deadpan article in Harper’s about the event, these should be worth about 3000 words.