Sunday, December 5, 2010

Mark Twain sounds off

I'm currently writing up my talk from September at Paraflows, and digging into Mark Twain's observations on the technology of his day. He's probably the first author to be published on the absurdity of one-sided conversations. Alexis Madrigal, the Atlantic's tech editor, notes how Twain picked up on the oddity of "speech detached from its surroundings and social environment, existing fully only on the electrified line connecting two people."

In 1906 the New York Times recorded the old salt's reaction when shown the teleharmonium, my personal favorite when it comes to electromechanical musical instruments weighing 200 tons or more. Twain remarked that

"The trouble with these beautiful, novel things is that they interfere so with one's arrangements. Every time I see or hear a new wonder like this I have to postpone my death right off. I couldn't possibly leave the world until I have heard this again and again."

That's a pretty great summation of how exciting modern invention can be. Check out the rest of the account for some of his experiences cussing over the phone. (if you can access it, Times archive here)

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Games and Learning, part 2

Greetings, fellow vagabonds. I hope you'll excuse the absence, as I was off canvassing in Bucks County, PA, trying to salvage a few candidates for the Dems. So it goes.

 Anyway, as we were discussing last time, games can best educate when they put you in someone's shoes, and give you a better sense of the decisions they had to make, moreover of what their decision space was. You need to have the freedom to see all of the options available, and to take those paths as best you can. Historical simulation games are, almost by definition, also contrafactual alternate-history generating games. If you want to see figure out what was in Napoleon's head at Waterloo, then set up the table with a couple of friends (Or, the computer alone) and play it out.

The logo of the
 most famous war game
 fail of all time
But there are a few wrinkles involved. Particularly when it comes to wargames. Despite their attempt to include Clausewitzian concepts like "fog of war," a lot of wargames basically presume perfect command, control, communications, and intelligence. (This was part of the problem with Millenium Challenge 02, from what I gather.) When we play on computer, every epoch of war is translated into our modern information-centric model, where the commander has perfect knowledge of what's going on and perfect confidence that his troops will do what he says. This is because it's built into the interface to be responsive and transparent.

But any student of military history, (or indeed any warrior today) could tell you that reality is not necessarily so. You may issue orders that may or may not be interpreted correctly (rivers of ink have been spilled over whether Richard Ewell misinterpreted Robert E. Lee's command to "take the hill, if practicable.") I may be uninformed, but I haven't seen any really good way in games to model unreliable communications and signals intelligence, despite the fact that entire campaigns have turned on such things. And with a few exceptions, there seems to be little emphasis placed on lines of supply and communication, cutting of which is one of the main points of modern war.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Of dialog wheels and player-characterization

As part of the run-up and subsequent write-up of my talk on Mass Effect, I've been doing a lot of thinking on the relationship between gaming, narrative, and the status of the "player character." I just read a great post by Greg Rucka on Mass Effect 2, and it hits on so much of what I've been mulling over, and what's currently keeping the Mass Effect series from jumping the barrier between an excellent game and a great work.

First, consider the dialog-wheel. The dialog system is not just a handy way to handle choice structures on an xbox controller, it also expands your storytelling capacity. By selecting only the general gist of your response, and letting your fully voiced Shepard speak for him/herself, you get much more immersive conversations. Longer speeches and exchanges can be made, Shepard can reveal details about the world or his/her background that the player wasn't party to, or shoot an uncooperative criminal in the face. (It makes it a lot easier to be a jerk, as well.) You cede some of your direct control over the character in order to create a more interesting experience. So, while you can decide some of the parameters of Shepard's backstory and psych profile, and you can make the decisions that Shepard takes, there's a slight remove between you and "your" Shepard.

But, and this is what Rucka's analysis really brings out, once you cede any amount of control to the designer/storyteller "the onus is on the storyteller and not the player to fulfill the demands of the character’s journey." And I wish they did more towards that end. Shepard is, perhaps necessarily, the least-defined member of the Normandy's crew. Lots of people will have lots of impressions of what their Shepard will say and do. What the voice actors do is already amazing if you think about all the different variables they're juggling. So I can understand the lack of customized dialog for and reacting to the different choices and personalities you make. But that's not an excuse.

 Mass Effect drives me up the theoretical wall because there are so many things it does so well, it makes us wish it could do the rest, and finally give us something that we could put up on the mantelpiece and point to when asked about why we game. It raises so much potential, so many possibilities, sets our minds racing about the possible ethical quandaries we could be faced with until we realize sadly that, no, the game doesn't actually figure that in. A lot of issues that initially seemed very important were basically hand-waved once you're given a ship and bad guys to point it at. You get precious few chances to express what's really going on with your character.

Friday, October 8, 2010

Academic Flashback: Lovecraftian Media Theory

I didn't read a lot of "respectable" literature when I was younger, but I read a ton of mindbending science-fiction. The short stories of Philip K. Dick were a favorite in high school, and I started reading H.P. Lovecraft in eighth grade. I feel that labeling something with a genre is a lazy way to ignore a work's literary merits; I maintain that Kurt Vonnegut, William S. Burroughs, and certain works of Thomas Pynchon belong on Sci-Fi bookshelves. Looking back, I may try a little too hard to bring respectability to the things I loved, but who doesn't?

This essay was published in the most recent Monochrom anthology, and was the first thing I sent them after meeting them in 2007, a slightly modified version of a final paper for a media theory class with Thomas Y. Levin. Unfortunately, it's formatted in the book as a sort of fake-handwriting on crumpled paper, making it nigh-unreadable.  A couple of people had asked me to put this up after hearing I had written about media in Lovecraft's stories, so I figured I'd put it up here. It's a bit long for blog-reading, but if you're willing to wade through the academese, there's a couple of decent insights here and there...

Imperfect Vessels: The Treatment of Media in H.P. Lovecraft’s Cosmic Horror
“Kittler's book[Gramophone, Film, Typewriter] is great. I consider it a branch of occult media studies, or at least weird media studies, in the sense that I feel like if H.P. Lovecraft were writing media theory, he'd come up with something like this…”
    --found among the Microsound mailing list archives, Feb 6th, 2003

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Games and Learning, part 1

The late 1980s computer game Hidden Agenda at first glance, doesn't seem very interesting. The graphics are archaic by modern standards, the interface often confusing. The game always ends after a set amount of time.Yet within all those constraints lies a fascinating, endlessly replayable game. The basics of the story is thus: You are the president of a post-revolutionary Latin American country, that had just overthrown an unpopular dictator through a broad-front effort. Now, the task is to create a new order that balances the economic and political demands of the many domestic and foreign powers you are beholden to, without letting the country fall into civil war or worse, losing power. As you make difficult decisions, you often find your actions misrepresented by foreign press and your enemies bankrolled by one or the other Cold War powers. You often find your ambitious  farming co-ops ravaged by your own army. You will likely face at least one coup attempt during your term. Being re-elected is an ambiguous victory, since it often requires rigging the democracy you're trying to establish.

Hidden Agenda is a great game because it teaches players about the (regrettably limited) decision-space of Latin American leaders during the Cold War, not by lecturing them about their Anglo pretensions, but by letting them take on the role themselves. In fact, Foreign Service Officers from the US were sometimes asked to play the game before rotating to Latin America, to better understand the people they were working with. I don't think enough ostensibly "educational" games make use of this approach.

Saturday, October 2, 2010

I'm Commander Shepard, and this is my favorite blog on the Citadel.

Today at around 3pm in San Francisco I'm speaking on the issue of romance in narrative games; specifically, interspecies romance in the Mass Effect series. Yes, it's kind of a weird topic. But if it weren't, it would be out of place at Arse Elektronika, Monochrom's crazy celebration of sex, technology, and all the intersections thereof. This year's topic being "Space Racy," it seemed like the perfect topic. Mass Effect not only takes place out there in space, but games can best be understood critically as reactive spaces for action. There's some really interesting stuff in how Bioware constructs its romances, especially in Mass Effect 2. There's a lot to unpack, but hopefully I can cover it all in 45 minutes.

Anyway, if you're in the area, AE's "conference for brainy pervs" is happening at Parisoma, ostensibly at 3 but possibly later (people tend to run over time.) 

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Small Change we can believe in

I'm following the internet kerfuffle about Malcolm Gladwell's recent article in the New Yorker about what he considers the false promise of net-activism. It follows his standard model (one that I really enjoy, btw) of a)introducing an exceptional anecdote, followed by b) presenting a seemingly-plausible theory and then c) taking it apart by using some sort of social or behavioral science. In this case A is played by the civil rights movement, B is the optimistic outlook on social media as sold by Clay Shirky et al, and C is the sociology of movements. Gladwell is perfectly justified in pointing out that twitter does not make a revolution, but he overreaches at times.

I think there are a couple of useful takeaways from the article+discussion, most of which I assumed, perhaps wrongly, that people already knew:

1-Techno-utopianism, like any other utopianism, needs to be taken in very measured doses to be practically useful. Just because there's new potential for change doesn't mean it's guaranteed to turn out that way, especially if people naively assume the latter.
2-'lazy activism,' whether by donations, magazines, or new media, is no substitute for personal investment in a cause and face-to-face direct action, but can be useful when taken on its own terms. I've taken this as a given this ever since reading "Bowling Alone."

These things seem obvious to me, and maybe not enough to hang an article on, but they are valid points.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

by hand

If you're surrounded by things you don't understand and can't affect, you're going to feel unhappy, or at least less happy than you would be if otherwise. Most people would agree with this, and yet there's a tremendous amount of disconnection between people and the thousands of objects, systems, and and in/conveniences of everyday life. This isn't a new thing; the 60s counterculture and the subsequent "Back to the Land" movement testify to alienation over the past generation at least. But I think people are beginning to adopt a more pragmatic approach. Rather than chucking all of modern civilization out and starting from scratch, we're trying to make everything around us more transparent and open to modification. This is reflected strongly in how we look at food and cooking, but also in more technical realms.

Love on a Wire

This past Sunday, as part of Vienna's Paraflows Conference this year on digital reconceptions of mind and matter, my girlfriend and I gave a talk on the technology and strategies of long-distance relationships. That we were able to jointly give the talk despite the fact that she was in New York at the time is just one more indicator of the futuristic present in which we live.

I'm not going to reiterate the content of the talk here (that can wait for when we write the paper), but based on the comments we got, it presented a good balance of the technical, media-theoretical, and poetic dimensions, just as talk on Long-Distance Relationships ought to. Johannes Grenzfurthner, one of the organizers of the conference (and partner in a LDR himself)  thought it systematized neatly a lot of the observations and stresses he had experienced in his own relationship.

I think it went really well, considering the number of possible technical failures that can happen when you hook up speakers and a projector to carry a skype video call through a netbook. Kudos to the organizers who had apparently upgraded the bandwidth after a failure of that sort of thing last year.

If you're interested in the basic content of the talk, our outline is available at

Saturday, September 11, 2010

A post for today

I'm in Vienna, preparing for a talk on the technology of Long-Distance Relationships at the Paraflows conference (powered by monochrom). It's great brain-candy to go to a bunch of talks where interesting people present interesting things. Day One included talks by Heather Kelley and Kyle Machulis on new directions in game design (for one, using your own vital signs as game inputs--stuff like mindball, or taking your heartbeat as the meter for a rhythm game). It's very cool stuff, all stuff that I'm deeply interested in.

But given today's date and the attendant craziness we've been feeling as a country lately, I feel compelled to step a bit outside the normal run of topics. So, that post I'm cooking about games-that-teach will have to wait. Instead, I'm going to give you words from a man from long ago, words worth remembering. 

First, Here's his thoughts about discrimination against immigrants or believers in strange religions:

At one time I promoted five men for gallantry on the field of battle. Afterward in making some inquiries about them I found that two of them were Protestants, two Catholic, and one a Jew. One Protestant came from Germany and one was born in Ireland. I did not promote them because of their religion. It just happened that way. If all five of them had been Jews I would have promoted them, or if all five of them had been Protestants I would have promoted them; or if they had been Catholics. In that regiment I had a man born in Italy who distinguished himself by gallantry; there was another young fellow, a son of Polish parents, and another who came here when he was a child from Bohemia, who likewise distinguished themselves; and friends, I assure you, that I was incapable of considering any question whatever, but the worth of each individual as a fighting man. If he was a good fighting man, then I saw that Uncle Sam got the benefit of it. That is all.
I make the same appeal to our citizenship. I ask in our civic life that we in the same way pay heed only to the man's quality of citizenship, to repudiate as the worst enemy that we can have whoever tries to get us to discriminate for or against any man because of his creed or birthplace. [italics mine]

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

dictated but not signed

I was sitting in a bookstore, blizting through The Best Technology Writing 2010, and came upon Anne Trubeck's piece, "Handwriting is History." It's a searching, historically minded piece in the best way, one that recalls McLuhan's musings on the effects of alphabetical type, and Kittler's notions on the 'discourse network' of 1800 that prized handwriting as the ineffable expression of one's character. It also includes the requisite depiction of traditionalists as stuck in the mud. I'm not going to argue from a traditionalist viewpoint, but more one of neurodiversity.

Trubeck describes the desired goal of writing technologies as "cognitive automaticity," the ability to transmit ideas wholly formed from our brain to the page, so that we don't forget our poems about Kublai Khan's pleasure domes and so forth. But I'm not sure that's always the case.

Thursday, August 19, 2010


It's sometimes hard to describe my interests in a concise way, (though I have tried listing them in the past.) To put it plainly, I'm interested in the many ways that people relate to technology, both as individuals and within social structures, and the ways that they have done so in the past-- then, we might have an insight in to how we might in the future. 

It's easy to say that technology drives social change, but it's a much more interrelated, dynamic process. Things start to get really interesting when you're looking at the macro-structures behind inventions and their conditions of possibility, because you start to examine all of the non-material aspects behind technology. Sometimes all the materials are there to make something, but there's no economic means of support for research and development, or it's not conceivable given the mindset of the time.  I'm personally fascinated by the mental universes of people in the 1600s who were doing pioneering science, but in crazily magical ways (like Helmont or Newton, who did private alchemy experiments and believed that God that went bowling with comets.) In a more modern vein, Eleanor Saitta has a call for papers up that asks what ideas of the last few decades will be incomprehensible to future generations--an interesting question.

Or, you have situations like a war where both sides have pretty similar tech and forces, but one side completely wipes the floor with the other (my favorite examples are the 1940 Fall of France, or the 1895 Sino-Japanese War). Surprising results like that are really useful, because they show you things you otherwise wouldn't know. In both those cases, the (superior) ideas of the winning side were embodied in effective organizations, and that won wars. (In the science-fictional realm, Arthur C. Clarke's short story "Superiority" is a fantastic example of a materially superior force hamstrung by a dysfunctional organization and priorities.)

 I think that it's worth it to examine nearly-forgotten artifacts of past media and technology because they give us a ton more examples and case studies of socio-technological relations and forms of interaction than we'd have if we only paid attention to what exists today. Given the accelerating rate of technological change over the past 100 years, It's a dangerous trap to assume that anything about our era is 'normal' for the range of human existence or to project our own patterns too far into the future. That's where history comes in. By paying attention to weird strange things in our past, we're better protected against weird, catastrophic things in the future.

For more information:
Athanasius Kircher
Edward Tenner
Dead Media Archive

Saturday, July 31, 2010

Dispatch from Alsace

Greetings from Europe. I've been seeing a ton of World War II battlegrounds and fortifications, and reading a lot about the fall of France in 1940. I will be putting up observations, piece by piece, but for now I'll leave you with a quick thought:

If you want to know where Paul Virilio is coming from with all his talk about speed and warfare, read Marc Bloch's Strange Defeat. Bloch was an influential historian, one of the guys who developed the Annales style of long-duration social history. (His most famous work investigated the folk belief that the touch of the French King could cure scrofula--basically the first historical anthropology.) He was also a reservist mobilized into staff work during the second World War. He witnessed firsthand the failure of the French general staff to grasp the increased speed of land warfare, but more importantly the increased tempo of operations that came with radio. Every time they tried to fall back and establish a defensive line, the germans had raced beyond it. They were able to identify opportunities and support breakthroughs far faster than any of the pre-war planning had anticipated. The defeat was strange, surprising, and demoralizing, especially since germany had no real advantage in men or material.

Defeats like those are surprising, and as Claude Shannon would have you know, surprises are always informative.

 Strange Defeat was composed after Bloch was demobilized, while he was working with the resistance. Sadly, he didn't live to see its publication--the Nazis shot him a few weeks after D-Day. It's a short, interesting book, and well worth the read.

Monday, June 28, 2010

Seen in Cambodia, part 1

I'm currently off in seclusion in Kampot, grading papers and wrapping up my affairs in lovely Cambodia, but I thought I'd share this when I had a spare second. I noticed this chair when I went to the tailor for fitting (affordable tailored clothing is but one of the many wonderful things about this country). 

Check it out. What do you notice, besides that great dark wood that typifies Khmer furniture?

Yep--instead of the standard wicker or straw, this chair's seating is made out of old tennis racket strings. Totally cool and surprisingly comfortable.


Thursday, June 17, 2010

"No Impact Man" as seen from Cambodia

For the observant, browsing through the bootleg DVD shops here can be quite rewarding. Firstly, the covers were definitely designed by non-native speakers of English, because their hype quotes on the front of the box are sometimes ambivalent or downright negative about the film. My favorite was for "Step Up 2: The Streets," which proudly displayed the faint praise, "It's no Stomp the Yard, but it's alright!"

There are also curiosities of selection. While you're guaranteed to have the current blockbusters and popular tv show box sets, there are always certain unusual offerings, like 8-in-1 selections of Oscar winners from the 20s and 30s or 9/11 conspiracy documentaries. But more to the point, there are a ton of quality documentaries available, I reckon as the joint result of backpacker/NGO-worker demand and ease of supply (I'm guessing the maker of a movie about philosophers talking is maybe not as zealous about copyright infringement as the big studios. After all, for small players in the creative arts, obscurity is a far greater threat than piracy.) As a result of this, I got to watch the wonderfully entertaining documentary, No Impact Man.

I really liked it, and it spurred a couple of thoughts:

Monday, June 14, 2010


"Nietzsche's style can be taken to represent a brutally frank admission that today hardly anyone can offer more than scattered profound insights or single beautiful sentences--and his writings abound in both."
--Walter Kaufmann, (from chapter 2 of Nietzsche: Philosopher, Psychologist, Antichrist.)

Over the past two years or so I have been an apologist for Twitter, especially since the TwittIran news bath of summer 2009 and resulting backlash among sophisticated intellectual-types.

It is a easy thing to bash Twitter, Google Buzz and all other forms of status updates, probably too easy. I think the main problem is that most of the people who try to explain the usefulness of Twitter tend to focus on the wrong parts. Certainly, the point is to explain what you're doing and how your life is going, but there's an element of curatorial selection, of separating the worthy and interesting from the quotidian. This is the essence of what historians do with primary sources.

 A good tweet will certainly give basic details of what's going on in your life, but writing interesting tweets requires finding the sublime within the minute, similar to the best work produced by the Mass Observation movement of the late 1930s. Twitter is also a good place to put together an aphorism, which is a hobby of mine anyway. (Adam Flynn: Part-time Aphorist). This is a form that rewards terse, tight phrasing, which is in short supply these days.

Sunday, June 6, 2010



for it will soon be occupied



courtesy of the SPLENDID VAGABOND.