Providence’s Free Play Bar Arcade, curled around a knot of nightclubs within a murky block behind the city’s Performing Arts Center, has created one of the finest implementations of a classic-games-focused video arcade — with or without an alcoholic component — that I’ve had the pleasure to visit in person.

Two young men playing 'Dance Dance Revolution', side-by-side.
Two competitors in a Dance Dance Revolution tournament. They were very good.

Its name evokes its unusual business model: for a flat cover charge of ten dollars (or five dollars on nights preceding weekdays), you have the run of the place, with all the normally coin-operated machines set to free-play mode. Of course the arcade encourages you to supplement your visit through a visit to its full bar, but it doesn’t press the issue. Indeed, it will almost certainly take you quite a while to even see the bar, on your first entrance; the games greet you immediately, and there are so many games. I didn’t feel like I’d adequately explored the space until I had a chance to visit it twice, covering perhaps five hours.

I’ve come away from my visits deeply impressed not just in Free Play’s curatorial taste in selecting, acquiring, and maintaining high-quality arcade games from throughout the 1980s and 1990s, but in its use of the space, which I read as a repurposed nightclub. The video games, pinball tables, and skee-ball lanes arrange themselves into irregular avenues and neighborhoods across several open but unpredictably shaped rooms and alcoves. Surprisingly frequent ramps, stairs, and railings add an unexpected third dimension, making one’s passage among the games evoke a riotous electric garden-stroll through a mad scientist’s courtyard.

No arcade I’ve visited in the current century has so well realized my most ideal memories of how a video arcade from the medium’s golden era should look and feel. With its dim lighting and copious neon decoration, it really did give the impression of walking through my own memories — while offering many new discoveries, rather than merely trading in nostalgia. Allow me to list a few standout experiences from my two visits:

  • Encountering a four-player Warlords cabinet in pristine condition, and exploring both its four-player free-for-all and two-on-two modes with friends — neither of whom had seen it before, and both of whom understood and enjoyed it immediately.

  • Hearing my companions marvel at how bright the bullets of Asteroids, and finding myself unable to resist replying with paraphrased passages from Bogost and Montfort’s Racing the Beam regarding this very topic.

  • Stepping into an “environmental” Discs of Tron cabinet, one of my favorite and now all-but-forgotten arcade games of my youth, and probably getting further than the last time I played, even though that was surely more than 30 years ago.

  • Recording (from a polite distance) moments of a Dance Dance Revolution tournament in-progress throughout my first visit, complete with a striped-jersey referee and preternaturally skilled players waiting their turn with towels over their shoulders.

  • Sitting down for a Daytona USA race with two friends, with adjustable seats and force-feedback steering wheels as god intended, and feeling perhaps the most intense joy any video game has granted me this decade, albeit compressed into a few minutes.

A woman sits playing a 'cocktail'-style video game cabinet, upon which a couple of drinks have been set.
Amy plays a cocktail-style Dig-Dug cabinet, which supports both our beverages as well.

Free Play’s relationship with its adult beverages also impressed me. Most barcades of my experience put the bar first, true to their word. For example, I’d most recently visited Ground Kontrol in Portland, Oregon, which places an enormous, square bar in the literal center of its coin-operated activities. Free Play’s bar, tucked to one side, doesn’t hide itself, but it definitely puts the games first. I could see visiting the arcade with no plans to drink at all, and having a great time — perhaps moreso on a weeknight, with a thinner crowd.

But I did enjoy a couple of beers on both of my visits — choosing from a perfectly fine and rotating tap selection — and I enjoyed the extra affordances that Free Play offered as interfaces between drink and game. For one thing, many of the stand-up cabinets have little shelves tucked beside or between them, obviating the need to play one-handed (or to deputize a friend to hold your drink).

More impressively, though, Free Play’s management has gone out of its way to collect games in the “cocktail” form-factor, with the cabinet shaped like a small table and the screen embedded under a thick Plexiglass layer, aimed straight up. (The Warlords cabinet was among these.) Players sit on either side with access to comfortably waist-level controls, but more to the point, the game’s shape invites them to set their drinks right over the screen. These cocktail units held a ubiquitous presence in the hotel lounges of my childhood, and always charmed me, all the more for their utter vanishment after the Golden Age. To see so many gathered into one place — and to set my own grown-up drink on good ol’ Dig-Dug, at last? That felt very special.

I suppose I should here admit that, after one or two drinks, Free Play’s interesting layout does start to feel a little fraught. More than once, with beer in both hand and head, I took a vertiginous step into empty space, my foot landing hard a few inches beneath expectations due to a sudden downward shift in floor-level. Free Play does festoon its corridors with caution signs near all its stairs and risers, but given the sensory overload endemic to a proper video arcade, they fade into the background with even stone-sober sight. (Happily, I spilled neither my drink nor my person, nor witnessed anyone else having an obvious mishap.)

My friends and I found a little bit of friction with Free Play’s prominent soundtrack, as well. Like most every other “retro-arcade” I’ve visited, it feels compelled to fill its own aural space with cranked-up 1980s pop. One friend said it made him feel a bit uncomfortably time-warped to a junior-high dance. While that particular effect will occur only to visitors of a certain age, it carries the more universal outcome of muffling the games’ own sound effects. In this way alone, Free Play seems to wander “off-period”, as my historical-reenactment friends might say. San Junipero fantasies to one side, I do not recall any actual arcade or game-room of the 80s supplying contemporary musical accompaniment, other than what might drift in the front entrance via the mall’s PA system, or what have you. But what a slight thing for me to complain about — and, honestly, I kind of like the music anyway.

If you find yourself in Providence some evening (other than a Tuesday night, which the arcade takes off), do consider a visit to Free Play. If you appreciate video game history as much as I do, I think you’ll come away impressed and happy, too.

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An enormous, orange-tinged cloud looms over a green and tree-filled valley, blotting out a blue sky.
Photo by Josh Edelson/AFP/Getty images

I find myself often encountering a certain phrase in news articles about the climate that unerringly makes me feel a flash of bitterness. It usually reads something like “Scientists say it isn’t too late to avert the worst of climate change’s predicted effects, if the entire developed world acts literally right now.” I don’t know how much irony these stories expect me to apply as I read them. I do know that every headline has an understood lol, as if, and I can’t help but feel slightly trolled.

I also feel a bit like a patient who knows that the test results spell out something very bad, and yet the doctor for some reason won’t give it to me straight — launching into elaborate descriptions of experimental treatments, rather than telling me what I can realistically expect to happen next. I wish more news stories laid out for us the most-likely truth that they have so far contented to prevaricate around: short of a completely surprising miracle, absolutely nothing will prevent climate change from playing out in full, bringing global catastrophe with it. I want to see fewer words focused on ever-dimming hopes and more that turn a brave light instead on this aspect of the future that we and our descendants are all but inexorably bound towards.

While I may have no hope left for avoiding a heat-blighted future, I do reserve some for human civilization’s ability to survive it anyway. Unless the effects wrought by global warming happen with far more terrible suddenness than science seems to currently predict, then I feel hopeful that humanity will indeed change its carbon-outgassing habits — if only as a form a purely mechanical self-correcting behavior, rather than anything consciously preventative. Life will still become profoundly harder for all but the mega-wealthy, all in ways that will seem infuriatingly preventable in hindsight. But the behavioral adaptations forced upon us may end up enough to keep society knit together in a changed world.

Ten years ago I assumed that life would overall, on average continue to get only better for a typical earthling, year by year. I amend this today to thinking that it’ll get better in some ways but precipitously worse in others, at least for me and all my fellow denizens of the broadly middle wealth-band. We will have to do things we never would have assumed, for those in our economic strata: move inland, simplify our diets, give up recreational air travel. Maybe not have that second kid. (Or that first one.) I feel comfortable predicting that all these things will just become too expensive for anyone of non-extraordinary wealth to continue pursuing. And as populations measurable in millions cut back on carbon-expelling activities like gassing up the car or eating burgers regularly — and as the count of carbon-producing humans slows and maybe even reverses its growth — then I’d expect the rise in average global temperature to reach a maximum somewhere below a civilization-killing degree.

This destination will be, in many ways, a harder world. I have no illusions about this. I looked into my hot cup at the coffee shop today, and wondered about the chances that I’d need to kick my addiction someday for simple reasons of personal economics, once the stuff gets too expensive to drink so casually. I expect that coffee plants will likely, and within my lifetime, lose their commodity status over a lack of arable and uncontested land, as well as a lack of people willing to perform farm labor in increasingly dangerous conditions. And I expect this will not effect only coffee plants.

But I hope — and I don’t think naively — that the great big messy project of humanity will carry on, with both the will and the means to keep dragging its history into this uphill future. I predict that we’ll manage to keep relatively cheap internet access, god help us all, and so I continue working on my passions to help bring about a more equitable web, and to support and preserve digital art, because we’re still gonna need both. And, at least as importantly, I will take Roy Scranton’s advice to maintain my personal study of the humanities in the face of looming disaster, making of myself a better capillary for moving culture forward.

If I can keep pursuing this work with neither optimism nor irony, then I hope the news media can adopt a similar stance by helping us document and prepare for the future we’ve locked ourselves into, rather than the wishful and heartbreakingly normal futures no longer in our reach.

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A video-game screenshot showing a box containing items labeled 'Cat', 'Radioactive material', and 'Poison gas'. A young woman, labeled 'Phi', is saying: 'Oh man... this again?'
You said it, Phi, not me.

I concluded my thoughts on the amazing Nine Hours, Nine Persons, Nine Doors by noting that I’d started its sequel, Virtue’s Last Reward, but had found it relatively uncompelling. A couple of friends subsequently encouraged me to push past its slow start, and it did grow on me, enough that I ate through the whole thing — all 40-odd hours of it. I leave the experience mostly interested in how a sequel can misunderstand what made its predecessor great, and the entertaining but entirely lopsided failure than can result.

I’ll catalogue the good parts first. As with Nine Hours, this game originally targeted the Nintendo DS, and received a modern-console edition last year within a collection titled The Nonary Games that adds interface improvements and fully voice-acted characters. Also like the previous game, one voice-actor’s performance really stood out for me: this time, Cindy Robinson’s portrayal of Zero III, the gleefully sadistic game-master who manifests as a holographic talking rabbit. Had I only read his lines as text on a DS, my mental voice for Zero would have sounded like a generic giggling maniac. This newer edition brings him to life through a woman who freely rips up and down an amazing and delightful comic range, and in key moments elbow-drops into lights-out terror. So good.

I also enjoyed the room-escape sequences, once I accepted their greater concern with math puzzles and password hunts than Nine Hours’ various challenges. One must also allow this newer Nonary Games edition of Last Reward to not always hide the game’s roots within the Nintendo DS: many activities remain clearly optimized for a touch-screen, and a handful end up outright painful with a console controller. (I hereby give you both permission and encouragement to just look up the solution to the tangram puzzle the moment you see the damn thing.)

I ended up falling into a pattern of enjoying Last Reward the way I might watch a mildly interesting TV series. While not immediately obvious, the game’s structure encourages this episodic approach: unlike Nine Hours’ small and tightly tangled flowchart, Last Reward presents you at the outset with an enormous and perfectly symmetrical story-tree. It branches three times and then thrice more, resulting in a mid-game of 9 clear-cut episodes, and I felt comfortable getting through one per play-session. Each of those has a “good” and “bad” ending to find, and when you mix in the prologue and endgame material, you end up spending dozens of hours with this game.

While I did stick with it, I didn’t find Last Reward’s story anywhere near as interesting as I did its structure, let alone the story of its predecessor. Both games’ plots are complete nonsense, but Nine Hours embraced it by couching its absurdities within a framework of real but wonderfully obscure mid-twentieth century pseudoscience, laying them out with truly enthusiastic detail and endearing itself completely with me. The story of Last Reward, on the other hand, revolves around blandly pedestrian time travel and “quantum mechanics” hogwash that, I expect, most any adult consumer of modern popular entertainment has seen many, many times.

Nothing illustrates this better than the game’s embarrassingly drawn-out teasing of Schrödinger’s Cat, treating the thought experiment as a delicious mystery that the player-character strives to learn more about, rather than as a long-established facet of modern popular culture. The game seems to lampshade this laughable disconnect by having another character express confused surprise at the protagonist’s ignorance — and then proceeds to launch into a lengthy slideshow on the topic anyway. A pale shade, this, of Santa and Lotus holding forth in Nine Hours about psychic crystals and morphogenetic fields.

The game also suffers a mismatch in the stakes its characters face versus those presented to the player. Exploring about one and a half of the flow-tree’s nine main branches makes clear that the player can safely and quickly revisit any choice-point, taking the previously untraveled path without erasing progress made downstream. This means that the crucial choices that the characters agonize over — what combination of people to bring through which doors, and how to vote in the Prisoner’s Dilemma matchups that define the game-within-the-game — make no difference to the player at all, deserving very little of their attention, even though each of the nine iterations is distinctly (perhaps even wastefully) voice-acted and painstakingly illustrated with circles and arrows on the back of each one as characters argue about possible outcomes.

A video-game screenshot showing a hand reaching for someting, while a grinning, top-hat-wearing man labeled 'Dio' says 'Ahahahahahahahaha!'.
Like Dio, I feel like I made my own fun with this game.

And this carries, unfortunately, to story beats: certain turns of events do surprise and interest the first time they happen… but then they happen a second and a third time, I couldn’t escape a sinking feeling with the realization that six more iterations of each one awaited me.

A non-interactive movie about a person with supernatural deja-vu of this sort would start depicting it in short-hand as the audience catches on. Groundhog Day, for example, quite effectively expresses its protagonist’s subjective experience even though it limits its runtime to only two hours out of his own umpty-thousand. Last Reward, though, plays out each repetition in real time. Perhaps I would have felt less annoyed had I discovered sooner that I could enable a “Skip all” feature through the game’s options menu. Once I did — well into the final third of my mid-game slog — I fast-forwarded over the long plateaus between known-unique sections with no regrets.

In the end, Virtue’s Last Reward feels to me like its designers took the wrong lessons from what made Nine Hours, Nine Persons, Nine Doors great. “Players loved the flowchart you could jump around in order to influence other branches? Great: let’s not only make it three times larger, but overtly center both gameplay and the storyline on jumping all over it!” And sure, that might have worked, but it seems implemented here at cost of a compelling story or memorable characters, to say nothing of Nine Hours’ loopily original way of presenting both.

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This article was originally published, in modified form, at Opensource.com.

I am president and co-founder of the Interactive Fiction Technology Foundation (IFTF), a non-profit organization dedicated to the preservation and improvement of the technologies enabling the much-storied digital artform we call interactive fiction. OpenSource.com approached us earlier this year to suggest our writing an article about IFTF, the technologies and services it supports, and how it all intersects with open source. I find this a novel angle to the decades-long story I’ve grown quite used to telling, as IF has a history rather older than — but nonetheless quite enmeshed with — the modern FOSS movement. I hope you’ll enjoy my sharing it now.

Definitions and history

A screenshot of the game 'Counterfeit Monkey' by Emily Short
Starting a new game of Emily Short’s “Counterfeit Monkey”, running on the interpreter Lectrote: both open-source software.

By interactive fiction, I include any video game or digital artwork whose primary interaction with its human audience involves pushing text back and forth, one way or another. The term originates from the time in the 1980s when parser-driven text adventure games — epitomized in the United States by Zork, Hitchhiker’s Guide, and the rest of Infocom’s canon — defined home-computer entertainment. Its mainstream-commercial viability had guttered by the 1990s, allowing online hobbyist communities to pick up the banner and carry on the tradition, releasing both games and game-creation tools into the world as they went.

After a good quarter-century of work, criticism, and play, the term “interactive fiction” now embraces a broad and sparkling variety of work, from puzzle-laden text adventures to sprawling and introspective hypertexts. Regular online competitions and festivals provide a great place to peruse and play new work: the English-language IF world enjoys annual events including Spring Thing and IFComp, the latter a centerpiece of modern IF since 1995 — which also makes it the longest-lived continually running game-showcase event of its kind, in any genre. IFComp’s crop of judged-and-ranked entries from 2017 shows off the amazing diversity in form, style, and subject matter that text-based games can boast today.

(I specify “English-language” above because, as a perhaps inevitable effect of its focus on writing, IF communities do tend to self-segregate by language. There exist also annual IF events in French and Italian, for example, and I hear tell of at least one Chinese IF festival gearing up soon. Happily, these borders are porous: during the four years I myself managed IFComp, it welcomed English-translated work from all these international communities.)

Largely due to its focus on text, IF also presents some of the most accessible platforms for both play and authorship. Most anyone who can read digitally presented text — including users of assistive technology, such as text-to-speech software — can play the majority of IF work. Likewise, IF creation is open to all writers with a willingness to learn and work with the tools and techniques involved.

This brings us to examine IF’s long relationship with open source, which has long helped enable the art form’s ongoing and highly adaptive availability in the decades since its commercial heyday. Allow me to present an overview of contemporary open-source IF creation tools, and then move on to consider the ancient and sometimes curious tradition of IF works that share their source code as well.

The world of open-source IF tools

A screenshot of the Inform 7 IDE.
The Inform 7 IDE, loaded up with documentation and a sample project.

For creating traditional parser-driven IF — where the user types in commands to interact with the game’s world, such as GO NORTH or GET LAMP or PET THE CAT or ASK ZOE ABOUT QUANTUM MECHANICS — a number of development platforms exist, most of which are open-source. The early 1990s saw the emergence of several hacker-friendly parser-game development kits, and those still in use today include TADS, Alan, and Quest — all open, with the latter two bearing FOSS licenses.

But by far the most prominent of these is Inform, first released by Graham Nelson in 1993 and now maintained by a team Nelson continues to lead. Inform source is semi-open, in an unusual fashion: Inform 6, the previous major version of this system, makes its source available through the Artistic License. This has more immediate relevance than may be obvious, since the otherwise proprietary Inform 7 holds Inform 6 at its core, translating its remarkable natural-language syntax into its predecessor’s more C-like code before letting it compile the work down into machine code.

Inform games run on a virtual machine, a surviving relic of the Infocom era when that publisher targeted a VM so that it could write a single game that would subsequently run on Apple II, Commodore 64, Atari 800, and all the other flavors of home computer one might have back when people said things like “home computer”. There exist fewer popular operating systems today, but Inform’s virtual machines — either the relatively modern Glulx or the charmingly antique Z-machine, a reverse-engineered clone of Infocom’s historical VM — bring a similar benefit, letting Inform-created work run on any computer for which someone has created an Inform interpeter. Right now, popular cross-platform interpeters include desktop programs like Lectrote and Gargoyle, or browser-based ones like Quixe and Parchment — all of which are open-source.

If the pace of Inform’s development has slowed down in its maturity, it remains vital through an ever-active, many-handed, and transparent ecosystem — just like most any other popular open-source project. In Inform’s case, this includes the aforementioned interpreters, a collection of language extensions (usually written in a mix of Inform 6 and 7), and, of course, all the work created with it and subsequently shared with the world, sometimes with source included. I’ll return to that latter topic later in this article.

IF creation tools invented in the twenty-first century tend to explore player interactions outside of the traditional parser, generating hypertext-driven work that any modern web browser can load. Chief among these is Twine, originally developed by Chris Klimas in 2009, and under active development by many contributors today as a GNU-licensed open-source project. (In fact, Twine can trace its OSS lineage back to Tiddlywiki, the project from which Klimas initially derived it.)

Twine represents a sort of maximally open and accessible approach to IF development: beyond its own FOSS nature, it renders its output as self-contained websites, relying not on machine code requiring further specialized interpretation but the open and very well-exercised standards of good old HTML, CSS, and JavaScript. As a creative tool, Twine can match its own exposed complexity to the creator’s skill level. One can create simple but playable IF work with essentially no programming knowledge, and more sophisticated work for those bringing in more coding and design skill — including those developing these skills by way of making Twine games. Little wonder that Twine’s visibility and popularity in educational contexts has grown quite a bit in recent years.

Other noteworthy latter-day open-source IF development projects include the MIT-licensed Undum by Ian Millington, and ChoiceScript by Dan Fabulich and the Choice of Games team — both of which also take Twine’s tack of targeting the web browser as the gameplay platform. Looking beyond strict development systems like these, web-based IF gives us a rich and ever-churning ecosystem of open-source work, such as furkle’s collection of Twine-extending tools, or Liza Daly’s Windrift, a JavaScript framework purpose-built for her own IF games.

Programs, games, and game-programs

A screenshot of the opening of Harmonia by Liza Daly.
The opening of Liza Daly’s “Harmonia”, created with the Windrift open-source IF-creation framework.

Twine benefits from a standing IFTF program dedicated to its support, allowing the public to help fund its ongoing maintenance and development. IFTF also directly supports two long-time public services, IFComp and the IF Archive, both of which depend upon and contribute back into open software and technologies.

The Perl- and JavaScript-based application that runs the IFComp’s website has been a shared-source project since 2014, and one that reflects the stew of FOSS licenses used by its IF-specific sub-components, including the various code libraries that allow parser-driven competition entries to run in a web browser. The IF Archive — online since 1992, and an IFTF project since 2017 — is a set of mirrored repositories based entirely on ancient and stable internet standards, with a little open-source Python script taking care of its indexing.

Measured by mass, the bulk of the Archive lies in games, of course: years and years of games, reflecting decades of evolving game-design trends and IF tool development. So, at last, the fun part: let’s talk about open-source text games!

Lots of IF work shares its source code, and the community’s quick-start solution for finding it is simple: search the IFDB for the tag “source available”. (The IFDB is yet another long-running IF community service, in this case run privately by TADS creator Mike Roberts.) Those unshy about a rather more bare-bones interface may also wish to browse the /games/source directory of the IF Archive, which groups its content by development platform and written language, as well as a whole lot of work either too miscellaneous or too ancient to categorize floating at the top.

A little bit of random sampling of these code-sharing games will reveal an interesting dilemma: unlike the wider world of open-source software, the IF community lacks a generally agreed-upon way of licensing all the code that it generates. Unlike a software tool — including all the tools we use to build IF — an interactive fiction game is a work of art in the most literal sense, meaning that an open-source license intended for software would fit it no better than it would any other work of prose or poetry. But then again, an IF game is also a piece of software, and one that exhibits source-code patterns and techniques that its creator may quite legitimately wish to share with the world. What is an open-source-aware IF creator to do?

Some games address this by passing their code into the public domain, either through explicit license or — as in the case of the original, 42-year-old Adventure by Crowther and Woods — through community fiat. Some try to split the difference, rolling their own license that allows for free re-use of a game’s exposed business logic but forbids the creation of work derived specifically from its prose. This represents the tack I took when I opened up the source of my own game, The Warbler’s Nest. Lord knows how well that’d stand up in court, but I didn’t have any better ideas at the time.

Naturally, you can find work that refuses to overthink all this and just puts everything under a single common license anyway, and never mind the naysayers. A prominent example here is Emily Short’s epic Counterfeit Monkey, released in its entirety under a Creative Commons 4.0 license. CC frowns at its application to code, but one could make the argument that the strangely prose-like nature of Inform 7 source makes it at least a little more compatible with a CC license than a typical software project.

What now, adventurer?

If you have read this far and find yourself eager to start exploring the world of interactive fiction, open-source and otherwise, allow me to collect a few next-stop links for you:


Thanks to VM Brasseur for inviting me to write this article for Opensource.com and helping me to develop it, and to Jen Wike Huger for editing and facilitating its publication on that website.

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A cartoon of several characters from 'The Book of the New Sun', drawn in the style of 'Adventure Time'.
“Book of the New Sun ⨉ Adventure Time” by Tom Boyle. Used with permission of the artist.

I first heard about this four-book saga by Gene Wolfe a long time ago, when a friend became very excited upon discovering that the video game Castlevania: Symphony of the Night, which we both enjoyed, contained a sword named “Terminus Est”. This friend proceeded to recommend to me the referenced source material, a cherished SF epic from the early 1980s. Many years later, some unrelated friends happened to refer to the work passingly but positively in conversation, and so — hungry for some unfamiliar fiction — I at last read the whole thing earlier this year. I feel very glad that I did, though not without some reflective reservation.

The good parts first: The prose is magnificent. I hadn’t read any Wolfe before this, and I knew within ten pages I had entered the realm of a master. I relished every visit to this first-person account of young Severian, journeyman torturer and a wanderer of the dying Earth, and its measured language that so richly paints his journey through a strange and broken world. Things often dip into the deeply, deliciously weird, with tricks of time and perception threading through Severian’s single and flawed viewpoint, and written with enough deftness to inspire intrigue and interpretation rather than mere befuddlement.

Simply charming, too, is the framing provided by “Gene Wolfe”, a contemporary scholar of deep anti-history who has come into possession of Severian’s megayears-hence journals through means too mundane to bother relating, and who ends each of New Sun’s four constituent books with copious and entirely straight-faced “translator’s notes”. I realize in retrospect that certain especially jarring sequences in the narrative may reflect areas where the original text has gone missing, like a reverse-time Gilgamesh, leaving “Wolfe” with nothing to translate, and he has elected to simply skip over these lacunae. I love it.

In sum, the writing struck me as a refinement on New Wave SF as I understood it from the Dangerous Visions collections from a decade-plus prior, and in this regard I adored it. If you want to read a complex, layered fantasy full of strikingly haunting and puzzling mind-visuals that invite pleasantly passive rumination long after reading, then please do read this. I am, certainly, happy that I did, and I look forward to my continuing exploration of this and other Wolfe work. The Best of Gene Wolfe sits on my to-read queue now, and I right now eat my way through the back catalogue of Alzabo Soup, a podcast that started deep-reading New Sun last year.

Inevitably, I must now lay out my admonitions regarding this epic novel which, for all its expansive thought, has its feet planted in the early years of the Reagan administration.

First of all, the grown-up reader will have to look past the book’s apparent attunement for 12-year-old boys. Certainly, almost all the New Sun-inspired artwork you find focuses on Severian, the lonesome killer, wandering the land with his badass Vantablack cloak and a bizarre enormous sword slung over his shoulder, always brooding and also totally scoring with every hot chick he meets. We also learn, whether we want to or not, that Severian is a breast man. My Twitter timeline would have a field day mocking several passages in this book (written, my timeline would note, by a middle-aged man) where Severian cannot describe what a certain female characters do without noting the ever-changing position, velocities, and shape of their boobs and buttocks in that moment.

Granted, I think that Wolfe meant these passages to read as ridiculous as they seem: one of the women in question, we eventually learn, has reason to use a sort of super-science cosmetic that acts as a fairy-glamor. Horny and sad, young Severian falls under its effect so thoroughly that he has difficulty seeing her as anything other than a column of subcutaneous jiggles. The rather more complex older Severian, writing all this down years later, feels compelled to express his memories exactly this way, despite knowing better. Recalled as a single aspect of the book, I find this all as hilarious as I believe the author meant — but, when actually reading these passages, of which there are a great number, I found myself cringing more than a little.

Beyond these skin-deep hijinks, though, I had quite a bit of trouble with the book’s depiction, and perhaps even its treatment, of its women — to the point where for that reason alone I would honestly have deep reservations casually recommending this to a modern audience. The protagonist is, by any modern definition, a horrible misogynist, and lives in a terribly regressed society that not only normalizes his views but provides him with no more correct path to pursue. This makes for a hard road, sometimes, to follow him down.

To be clear, the dismal outlook of New Sun’s women, and the benighted view of its protagonist, feels appropriate to its gloomy setting. New Sun takes place in an unimaginably distant future, when humanity has long since left the cradle and spread across the stars. The Sun of its homeworld has nearly reached the end of its natural life, starting to swell and dim to a dull red. But countless people still live on Earth — “Urth”, now — and, long neglected by the cosmic society that has left them behind, they suffer in a medieval backwater, all filthy city-states ruled by autocrats and engaged in ceaseless war with their neighbors over increasingly scant resources. The main character, an itinerant torturer and executioner, can make a good living because, with civilization lacking the necessarily energy to organize any sense of justice other than the most blunt, almost all crimes have become capital offenses.

And, part and parcel with all this, any notion of gender equality has slid entirely out of sight, with the entirely male-dominated society holding women with about as much esteem as children. Men — the narrator included — see women as stunted and half-formed people of specific and limited utility, most of which departs with youth. Severian views older women with pity, and people of non-obvious gender with confusion and disgust. If any women exist on Urth to offer a different opinion, we don’t meet any; none of the several female characters with whom we become acquainted seek any escape from these societal confines, as far as Severian (and therefore we the readers) can see.

But then, all this does help to set up the sole, startling exception, appearing in one of the book’s most strange and graceful moments. Severian briefly meets a woman from the stars, one of several eccentric post-human Urth-hobbyists who continue to visit their ultimate homeworld, perhaps out of a sense of charitable responsibility. By her mere existence, she represents so much that has occurred far, far away from Urth, and the moment suddenly crystalizes the tragedy of everything that Severian’s world has lost. I believe that it represents a turning point for Severian too, reminiscent of Krishna zapping Arjuna on the battlefield; it shocks him out of his tiny, Urth-bound viewpoint and catalyzes him to embrace his destiny of somehow bringing the titular New Sun into reality, reviving his decaying world and rejoining it with the true, larger world-of-worlds.

And, if I may switch worlds myself for a moment: Inspired by my recent two-week visit to London, I followed my completion of New Sun with a re-read From Hell, a lengthy graphic novel from the 1990s by Alan Moore and Eddie Cambpell that offers a semi-fictional account of the Jack the Ripper slayings. Its point of view shifts in a continuous cycle between the murders’ perpetrator, its investigators, and its victims. Reading it, I felt struck by the similarity of social predicament for the women of Urth and those of Victorian England, and also for the deeply misogynistic bent of the core protagonist in the two stories — much more monstrously so, of course, in From Hell’s case.

But through its wandering lens, that book puts a far more sympathetic light on its women, far beyond their incidental role as vessels for male violence. The reader gains a thorough portrait of daily life for the Whitechapel prostitute, circa 1888, spending a great deal of time with them and their mundane labor at (as Moore puts it in his vast endnotes) one of the few career paths that their society allowed everyday women. The From Hell version of Jack, too, also concerns himself entirely with the role of women, conducting his brutal work as part of a mystic ritual to ensure the continuation of man’s dominion over all things female — a state he sees as unnatural, and which therefore requires maintenance through actions so profane that they unbalance reality.

And that sympathy, I think, explains why I found From Hell a much less cringey read than The Book of the New Sun when it comes to the two books’ relative treatment of their women — despite the bloody fate that befalls the street-walkers of Whitechapel. Both stories take place in worlds, one historic and one fantastic, that hold women as not just second-class citizens but as a lower form of life than men. But Moore and Campbell’s narrative defies its setting by making those same women protagonists, sharing equal footing with their aristocratic killer — and then giving that killer a motivation that has everything to do with cultural suppression. Wolfe, on the other hand, gives us only Severian’s blinkered viewpoint, and thus the women of Urth are little more than lost children or objects of passing desire, with no overt questioning why.

I can certainly imagine New Sun authored today, the very same story, but with far more light cast on the inner lives of its female characters. Today, a book that depicts culture-wide subjugation of a population without being to some degree specifically about that subjugation strikes a very discordant tone, inviting suspicion that it actually advocates this quality of its own grim setting. I do not think that New Sun does this, but I observe with interest the difference that a few decades have made in what we expect from our alternate worlds. I would therefore advise the prospective reader to journey into Urth’s twilit realm with as much awareness of its origins as anticipation for its destination.

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A visual-novel screenshot showing two anime-style characters, a young man and a young woman, standing in a walk-in freezer. The man is hugging himself against the cold. The woman looks pensive. A text box under them, labeled 'June', says: 'Have you heard the story about the crystallization of glycerin?'
Oh, you haven’t? Well, clear your schedule for the next half-hour, coz things are gonna get crystallized.

Nine Hours, Nine Persons, Nine Doors began life as a Nintendo DS cartridge in the late aughts, but I played it only a couple of months ago on Playstation 4 as part of the downloadable collection titled The Nonary Games. If I understand correctly, this more recent edition adds full voice acting (in both Japanese and English) and several player-friendly interface improvements, responding to critiques on the original version. In both editions, Nine Hours presents a Japanese-style visual novel in the puzzle-horror sub-genre epitomized by movies like Cube. Notably, it mixes in frequent room-escape sequences, at a pace and style reminiscent of how song breaks appear in staged musicals. The braided puzzle-and-narrative paths, in sum, tell a completely bonkers fantasy-horror story drawing heavily from early-to-mid 20th century pseudoscience topics pulled straight from Mysteries of the Unknown. I loved it.

I found the writing such a refreshing surprise, along several axes. The characters, while a rather trope-heavy anime menagerie on the surface, are so delightfully written and voice-acted — particularly the player-character, Junpei, with English-language speech provided by Evan Smith. I liked the funny and lightly self-deprecating Junpei even before the prologue had ended, when he has nobody to talk to other than himself, and he remains likable once he does meet and start interacting with the eight other characters. Junpei seems like exactly the sort of chap you’d want by your side while picking through a mad supervillain’s death-maze, and I felt lucky to get paired up with him. (And I know I am not alone in this, finding a Junpei Twitter bot as soon as I thought to look.)

Once the game got going, the interpersonal chemistry of whole, messy ensemble really worked for me. I did have initial reservations when one character dies gorily only minutes after the prologue, as a demonstration of the dramatic stakes. But as the sole irredeemably selfish jerk in the group, once he definitively removes himself the remaining characters bind together to compose a perfectly charming story within its otherwise unsettling genre. On the best-ending track, not only do none of Junpei’s companions die, but everyone’s developed a genuine friendship with one another — even the inevitable traitor(s) — by the time that they literally ride together into the sunset. The subtly humor-driven group dynamics in the face of horrifying circumstances reminded me of Joss Whedon’s best work.

A couple of the characters do take a little more effort to enjoy, particularly the painfully unsubtle virgin/whore dichotomy offered by the women named June and Lotus, respectively. June, the love interest, adheres to an anime-style naive-little-girl-in-an-adult-body archetype. If Junpei’s everpresent likability prevents conversations with her from sounding outright creepy, they still elicit more than a little eyerolling. (This includes the game’s most wince-inducing scene: a long, long conversation where June describes a waterlogged elevator in such a roundabout way that whoops ha ha it sounds a bit naughty! And it might have been at least kinda funny were it contained in merely four lines, rather than forty-four.) The far more mature Lotus, meanwhile, provides the inevitable fan service, spending the whole game nearly naked from the hips up — but she is so well written and acted, including just the right amount of lampshading in her dialogue about how she has the right to dress however she damn well pleases, that I feel a little self-conscious about calling her out about it!

The room-escape sequences managed to surprise me repeatedly, not so much with the quality of their (all rather arbitrary) puzzles but with their very smooth flow, assisted by the shifting sub-groups of characters that accompany Junpei as he explores the deadly ship. In particular, if you examine some object repeatedly, Junpei’s companions will start piping up with their own observations. If the object at hand plays a role in a puzzle, then these will serve as hints, initially oblique (“Huh, those holes are weird”), but growing more explicit if you keep hitting the “examine” button (“Hey, Junpei, I bet you could fit those pegs you picked up earlier into it!”). If the object lacks puzzle-nature, then you’ll instead receive dialogue that either brings a little extra character development, or at the very least acknowledges your flailing with some amusing banter. In all cases, this felt great, building the illusion that this varying group of characters really did work together to solve the puzzles, even though Junpei and I remained the only ones actually hitting the buttons.

I know enough about making adventure-game sausage to realize how much creative effort this must have involved, both by the game’s original designers and its later localization team, and I marvel at the payoff. I never once felt stuck, nor did I feel like I was “buying hints”, or switching to a separate easy-mode, or anything like that. For an overblown visual novel, Nine Hours manages to quietly demonstrate a master-class in adaptive game difficulty that feels completely natural.

(My thinking back on the puzzles also reminds me of the game’s glorious and completely unexpected nod to a specific scene from the original Crowther and Woods Adventure, as a way of signaling — whether or not you catch the specific reference — your approach towards the endgame. Gosh, that was good.)

The game’s love for moon-eyed twentieth-century legends of “unexplained phenomena”, epitomized to my American generation by the Mysteries of the Unknown book series (and its ubiquitous TV ads), will forever seal its story in my memory. At least as often as the click-to-advance visual novel flips into room-escape mode, one character or another will set aside their being trapped on a sinking and hazard-laden cruise liner to engage with Junpei in a deep and learnéd dialogue about some unusual scientific experiment. All these stories, as far as I can tell, come from real life — I remembered at least a couple of them, from my hungry teenaged reading — and exist among the accounts that proponents of supernatural phenomena hold up as proof of telepathy, or crystal intelligence, or what have you. Every character in Nine Hours is totally into this stuff, to the point that the game occasionally illustrates their pseudoscientific discourses with original, animated illustration.

These deep dives — and the different characters’ obsession with the topic — do manage to connect to the plot, as much as they seem like madcap non-sequitur at first. So, unexpectedly, the Nonary Games edition of Nine Hours presented me with an utterly delightful and excellently voice-acted filmstrip series that invited me to re-visit the pseudoscientific weird tales I luxuriated in as a kid. I experienced a welcome echo of these stories’ fun and seemingly depthless intrigue, even as my weary grown-up eyes force me to see the logical fissures that shoot through them, separating them from real science. Of course, that latter quality is just a side-effect of my age and experience; the world of Nine Hours accepts all these stories with an eager 12-year-old’s credulousness, and its wholly charming presentation allowed me to play along with its celebratory embrace through every last narrative branch.

Because it came in the same Nonary Games collection, I started playing the followup game called Virtue’s Last Reward. So far, alas, I have found it disappointingly bland. It seems devoid of Nine Hours’ myriad little rewards for thorough exploration, and all the characters — including the player-character — feel rather flat. (At least one character makes frequent real-world popular-culture references, quoting Captain Planet and such, which makes me think sourly of how one of the Katamari Damacy sequels would reference Seinfeld; in both cases, divorcing themselves a bit from their original games’ world-unto-themselves charm.) But never mind that; I enjoyed Nine Hours so much that I would generally recommend it, however one might find it packaged.

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Just after sunset on a beach. Several uncertain rectangular shapes loom in the near distance.
“Sunset” by victimiser13 (CC-BY-SA 2.0)

Years ago I wrote about my personal practices for Twitter hygiene. While I still agree with all the principles I advanced there, I admit that the list predates the well’s poisoning by the current American president, and all the distraction and despair carried in his wake. As such, I strive to add to that list a new principle of limiting my consumption of Twitter, which despite its tragically increased toxicity remains a crucial source of information and personal connection. After a year and a half of failed self-control strategies, I feel hopeful that I’ve found one that works for me.

This past Sunday, July 1, marks the first full day that I successfully applied this new rule: I allow myself to browse Twitter only between sunset and sunrise. I also allow myself write-only access to Twitter no matter the time, using tools like Wren or my own Alisio in order to make announcement-style posts (or, yes, the occasional non-sequitur). I have remained on this path over the subsequent two days, and feel bullish about staying on it for the rest of the month.

Twitter has provided an unwelcome source of anxiety since the 2016 election, but this awareness alone has done little to temper my use of it. In May of this year, for example — according to my Timing app — I spent just under 35 hours actively using Tweetbot on my Mac. A conservative estimate has me doubling that figure to account for all the time I spent swiping through Twitter on my phone, whether in hour-log couch sessions or little bites in the grocery store line. One finds it tempting to decry how this represents two full-time work-weeks of making myself miserable marbled all through everything else I did that month. But I know that the marbling itself has layers: I keep sipping the poison because it has so much good medicine mixed in, still. Even though I read newspapers more today than I did two years ago, Twitter remains a primary source of contact for countless friends, acquaintances, and other voices I respect.

And sometimes, yes, I just need to check that I’m not the only person seeing this shit.

All this has value to me. There’s too much baby in that bathwater to simply throw out. Sometimes, since the election, I would delete Tweetbot or locally block twitter.com’s website on a whim, and that’d feel good and cathartic for a little while. But the pressure to reconnect would inevitably build up so swiftly that I’d have to reset everything within hours, and I’d only end up feeling like a chump.

Modest goals, then. The deal I drew with myself on Sunday states that so long as the Sun cannot see my sin, then I can bathe my red-rimmed eyes in Twitter all I like. Come daybreak, though, I close Twitter on all my devices, and when I notice my fingers summoning it back I command them to go pull up the Washington Post or something instead. And unlike every other time in the last 18 months I’ve tried the cold-turkey Twitter, my fingers obey this redirection. The short period of my self-denial, and the knowledge that my own rules will let me cannonball back into that siren cesspit within a few hours, make this rule far easier to follow than all my previous attempts to stop marinating in Twitter all day long.

Furthermore, AND-gating my desire to check Twitter to the caveman-basic boolean of Is the sun up? somehow makes this a far more straightforward exercise than my past attempts, suggested by my therapist, to limit my access to specific clock-time windows. My need to connect, I suppose, remains so strong that it overwhelms even the simple higher-brain puzzle of determining whether or not the big hand and the little hand say that I can have another cookie. My brain’s design spec keeps the single-bit sun-up-or-not variable automatically updated throughout the day, letting me NOPE right out of Twitter with near-reflex speed the very moment my traitor fingertips once again try to slide it into my visual field.

This plan, of course, takes inspiration from various world religious and cultural traditions of diurnal dietary fasting during certain times of the year. So I lazily appropriate the vocabulary for this exercise as well, and I will also borrow these ancient observances’ calendar-bounding rule: rather than declare my daytime Twitter attachment as forever past, I state that my Twitter fast shall last the rest of July. Maybe I’ll make it all the way there and want to keep going, but I’ll leave that as an option to pursue at that time.

My hypothesis, my hope, is that I can extract the same volume of good stuff from Twitter in abbreviated daily visits as I would by sitting up to my waist in it all day long, but without the terrible cost of absorbing every piece of like-as-not awful news as it appears. This ever-unfolding disaster lulls me to just stare at my timeline, my finger sometimes making a scab-picking gesture on my phone screen while I beg for the next poisoned crumb. Let me instead consume the whole howling mix in a single, sour shot before bed, and let me rise into the next day refreshed and willing to help change the world, rather than battered over the hours into ineffective weariness by the ceaseless insults and assaults by the world’s worst elements.

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An aerial photograph of snow-capped Mount Hood near Portland, Oregon.
“Mt. Hood” by Peter Roome (CC BY-NC 2.0)

Against all good sense, I planned practically back-to-back trips for this month to London, England and then Portland, Oregon. The latter location — my first visit to a Pacific city since the early Obama administration — saw me attend the 2018 IndieWeb Summit, the core annual gathering for the eponymous movement striving to return the long-lost ideal of individually owned and deeply interconnected personal websites to the modern internet.

Spread over two calendar days, this eighth Summit presented its fifty or so attendees with a one-day conference/unconference hybrid followed by a hackathon. On that second day, I spent a little while kicking some of my own code around, chasing down a known bug. But I ended up too distracted by the day’s news to dive in too deeply. I instead used the last hours of the hackathon to gather my notes and thoughts about the first day, and that work became this blog post.

That first morning included keynotes from two of IndieWeb’s founding members, the operator and community manager of the commercial Micro.blog service, and the author of a science fiction novel that features a protagonist fighting global corruption and conspiracy using IndieWeb standards. There then followed a spate of lightning-talk presentations where attendees could share their own recent IndieWeb-based sites and contributions, and I ran through my own work.

In one keynote, Aaron Parecki declared 2018 as IndieWeb’s year of the reader, as he and Jonathan LaCour listed and demonstrated several projects seeking to reimagine and reinvigorate the idea of the news-reader app using web standards and IndieWeb concepts. I was especially struck by the notion of an interactive reader that invites and enables public inline responses to articles, using Micropub to post them to one’s own website and then Microsub to share them with other readers. I hadn’t before this presentation really understood the purpose of Micro[ps]ub, and this potential and powerful use of it struck me like a thunderbolt. I intend to have a look at Aaron’s own realization of these concepts, the now-in-beta Aperture, presently.

From there, I gave myself further homework to once again try grokking Micro.blog. I still don’t really get it, even though I have an account there which dutifully rebroadcasts all my Fogknife posts (and kindly passes replies back to Fogknife as webmentions that it can syndicate locally). My heart forever broken by social-media silos, I’m not really interested in using Micro.blog as yet another “Okay, I’m over here now” social network. I get the impression that it has potential for much deeper use than that, if I can only get my head around it.

On Tuesday afternoon I attended these unconference sessions:

Library implementations for IndieWeb. Jacky Alciné led an effort to check what open-source libraries (and free services with public APIs) exist that already implement various IndieWeb building blocks. You can see the resulting outline and whiteboard grid on the talk’s permanent wiki page.

I loved starting out the afternoon feeling like I’d helped build something useful — not at all my usual feeling when wrapping up an unconference session! Cheers to Jacky for setting up a simple group-task goal that a roomful of hackers could all fill in together.

Improving diversity of the IndieWeb. The demographic mix of IWS was not especially better than typical for an American tech conference, which is to say that more than half the attendees were like me: mid-career white guys with professional technology backgrounds. And so this inescapable round-table topic appeared, and I took a seat at it probably as much out of a sense of personal penance as a desire to help change anything.

Surprisingly, it felt like a productive meeting, and I (along with everyone else who showed up) left with at least one actionable item, as proposed by session organizer Jean MacDonald: this being to challenge myself to bring someone dwelling within a different demographic slot than myself to the next tech thing I attend.

The excellent and thorough notes on the meeting’s wiki page include my recommendation of VM Brasseur’s recent keynote to the 2018 Perl Conference, “The Importance of an Ecosystem”. This presentation uses an ecological metaphor to describe how a technological project’s community cannot just computer away all its problems: it must involve the focused and entirely human-driven work of community management.

At risk of jumping ahead a bit, I should note here that after the IWS sessions ended for the day, I continued on to Donut.js’s monthly meeting just a couple of blocks away. There I found a big, rowdy crowd of technically apt folks with an obviously younger average age than that found at IWS, with lots of women and people of color in attendance.

I don’t necessarily read this as evidence that IndieWeb is doing something wrong that Donut.js does better; I reckon that a lot of the difference comes down to topic. Younger hackers, I expect, tend not to share the same pangs for the re-Berners-Lee-ification of the web as a typical IndieWeb convert. They didn’t live the dream of the 90’s in the same way as one already an adult when the web first appeared, so they have less reason to hear IndieWeb’s call to remix the good parts of the early web back into the modern one by way of contemporary and standardized technologies.

As I would also expect that a younger tech-savvy audience would almost necessarily show more diversity along various axes than a middle-aged one, it does make me think about how much potential community growth exists by making more direct appeals to the younger cohort in one’s field, and how easily a roomful of graybeards can overlook that fact.

A Nonprofit for IndieWeb?! I pitched this session with something like an AMA in mind, where I’d bring in my experience co-founding IFTF and make my argument why I think that IndieWeb could benefit from a dedicated non-profit corporation. I babbled on this topic for a while before Aaron politely and astutely interrupted to suggest that we go around the room for introductions instead. This revealed that everyone present knew more about this topic than me, and I faded into the back row to let everyone else drive. The session ended up going in a direction rather different than the one I’d imagined, but also far from the argument for status-quo that I received in May from my blog post on this topic.

A pleasantly oblique success, really!

IndieWeb for Comics. Jamey Sharp, who co-created the webcomics reader/aggregator service Comic Rocket, wished to think out loud about creating a webcomics reader built entirely on web standards (including but not limited to good old RSS). I took notes for the wiki. And that was pretty much it!

Today I have set aside to explore Portland, and tomorrow I fly home clutching my laptop whose Omnifocus inbox overflows with lists of technologies to read more about. With luck and clear skies, I can make a dent in those while hunched in seat 19A, and I look forward to it.


One final note: as I continue to get more involved with IndieWeb, I really need to hash out my domain situation! IndieWeb encourages its memership to claim a single domain and use it as their personal stamp for everything they do on the internet. I, though, have two domains: my long-held personal catch-all domain of jmac.org, and fogknife.com, which I use exclusively for blogging. My use of both predates my involvement with IndieWeb.

I have noticed that, while I identified myself with jmac.org from the get-go, various other voices within IndieWeb have named my personal domain as fogknife.com when citing my work. And why wouldn’t they? It’s the domain I invite everyone to come look at and subscribe to, after all — the jmac.org website is mostly a static link-brochure and personal archive.

None of this matters a great deal; both domains clearly belong to me, with no confusion, should you land at either one. But I have never intended to present a split persona to the online world, so I should put some thought and muscle in the near future into resolving this.

This was also posted to IndieNews.

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A child looks up and weeps as her mother is patted down by an immigration officer.
Photograph by John Moore for Getty Images

When I lived in Maine in the 1990s and early 2000s, I felt proud of its senators Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe, two Republican women who epitomized the state’s independent streak in the national arena. They gained a reputation as bulwarks of moderate and considered conservatism against the encroaching tide of polarized and reactionary politics that had risen steadily since the Reagan administration. But they could not hold the waters back alone, and none of their colleagues stood with them, and so they fell.

According to her Wikipedia entry, Snowe cited hyperpartisanship for her decision to not seek re-election in 2012. (She is replaced by Angus King, an independent who usually caucuses with Democrats.) Her colleague Collins chose to stay, and last year she flared briefly in the national attention as one of only three Republican senators blocking any of the Trump agenda’s focus of wrecking all societal progress built under Obama, receiving more than one spontaneous hero’s welcome after voting against repealing the ACA. But then she voted in favor of the Trump tax bill, openly hurtful for all but the mega-wealthy it benefits. This week she has voiced her support for the Trump administration’s policy of tearing screaming children away from their refugee parents at the border, herding them by the hundreds into concentration camps, condemning them to lifelong psychological trauma in the name of American security.

The airport-hallway applause for Sen. Collins, I dare say, has stopped.

Snowe’s departure from the senate came after Maine elected the Republican Paul LePage as governor, whose political agenda centers on a policy of vetoing, unread, literally every bill that hits his desk — a nihilistic practice he promises to maintain until the legislature recognizes his own absurd demands. As a Maine resident, I would often hear the adage “As Maine goes, so goes the nation”, and it proved true here as well: LePage rode into office on a wave of statewide fear and hatred of immigrants several years before Trump did the same on a national scale. In both cases, Republican lawmakers and voters have shown a willingness to let both men wreck society all they want so long as they continue to pursue the anti-immigrant agenda that so many voters seem to support. LePage remains in the governor’s mansion today.

I don’t know how much further the Republican party can fall, but I do know that it has undeniably crossed a line from even nominal conservatism to the support of outright evil. At both party and individual levels, Republicans will reliably pay any price at all to maintain power in the short term, and they feel free to weaken or destroy any societal norms standing in their way without shame or apology in broad daylight. I therefore can see only two reasons why an American citizen in the summer of 2018 would continue to identify with the Republican party:

  • You have reason to believe that Republican affiliation will raise the fortunes of yourself and your immediate family in the present, and you don’t give a damn about anyone else. (Where “anyone else” includes the entirety of the future, including your own future-residing children.)

  • You delight in seeing punishment visited upon people different from yourself and your immediate family, regardless of whether you believe this abuse will help you personally.

I see the motivators here as a mix of broad better them than me satisfied cruelty with the more subtly poisonous zero-sum philosophy I allude to in the position statement that I have begun to my own public work. Every family torn apart at the border, every classroom massacred, every newsroom shuttered, every working-poor family going hungrier as new tariffs boost prices faster than wages, and — in the distance — the low roar of territorial and sectarian skirmishes around the world getting louder as climate change slowly turns soil into dust. To those subscribing to the zero-sum worldview, each of these elicits only a shrug, and perhaps even a feeling of triumph: More for us, then! As if we’re all just playing a game that must have a loser for every winner, rather than trying to build an ongoing story of human civilization while we all live on this rock flying through outer space together.

If you are an American citizen who identifies as Republican, all I can do is urge you to reflect upon your place in the global community you were born into — starting with the acceptance that you and yours do belong to the world, at least as much as to a nation — and realign your philosophy appropriately. Your political party is not your family, or where you live, or what you do for a living, or who you pray to. Blessed to live in a democracy, you can shift your political alignment with a word — if you speak that word with conviction, and then let that word resound and carry you through your future actions in the voting booth and beyond.

If, having thought it through, you still consider membership in the Republican party to best represent your beliefs, then you choose to stand in opposition to mankind’s survival beyond your own generation. And I say: to hell with you, and to anyone else taking up the après moi banner of ultimate selfishness. I will continue to do all I can to make sure that all your regressive, destructive work against the continuation of the human story is repaired and rebuilt. Your cruel and cavitary philosophies filled in and forgotten, except as an object lesson for the very future generations whose existence you today work to prevent.

The door remains open. Let go of your received wisdom, read a book, read a newspaper. Take a nice vacation and visit a faraway city, perhaps. Consider everything actually happening all around you, both nearby and at a distance, with as clear sight as you can manage. You can renounce the Republican name any time, and rejoin those working to build the future rather than tear it all down. But if you cannot, then I want to see all your efforts die in futility.

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Lately, some of my most positively received posts to Twitter have involved thoughts on work-communication etiquette I have learned or refined in recent memory. I shared three last month, so I shall reprise them here.

In phone conferences, use Jeopardy! timing rules. Like the guests on the well-regarded American quiz show, when someone asks a question to which you know the answer, wait until the asker finishes before buzzing in with your response.

Yes, even if you know exactly how the rest of the question’s gonna go based on the first few familiar words. Perhaps you feel you do everyone a favor with your efficiency. I am here to tell you that from the point of view of everyone else on the call, you are just interrupting people repeatedly, and you sound like an ass. (Further, when a man pulls this on a woman, he sounds like a sexist ass, to boot.)

This behavior also runs the counter-intuitive risk of making the meeting longer — or even delaying the whole project! By shutting down the question after hearing five words and assuming you know how the subsequent thirty-seven will go, any nuance, secondary queries, or other unforeseen parts of the question will likely remain unasked. The asker will get back to work with the answer you shoved at them, and it might end up leading them down a wholly wrong path because the question they were going to ask was two degrees different than the assumed one you answered. But they didn’t know that, and you didn’t have the patience to find out, and so here you all are again on another conference call about why the project’s late.

So, yeah. Please show a little patience, on those long calls!

Favor Thank you for your patience over Sorry I’m late. The former phrasing is no less true or polite than the latter, and it shines positive reflection onto both parties at the start of the conversation, rather than negative. An overt “You display virtuous patience, and I feel grateful” versus an implied “You radiate impatience, and I regret my involvement.”

Hanon Ondricek replied to my tweet on this topic with this cartoon by Yao Xiao which compellingly argues that this principle extends generally to all sorts of social situations where a display of gratitude can prove far more buoyant than a downer apology.

Avoid Why aren’t you using [X]?. Too often I see this formulation when a sincere newcomer asks a community why their code doesn’t work, and provides the non-working code for examination.

Yes, the use of a certain facet of the language in question — let’s call it X, here — might indeed represent the best solution, and we might do the newbie a favor to educate them. But packaging your advice as “Why aren’t you using X?” basically says “I know you haven’t learned about X yet, and I want to hear you admit your ignorance.” Or, worse: “Please explain to me why your code is bad and you are dumb?” In either case, it insults the learner for having the gall to ask questions, and can discourage them from seeking any further advice (or, indeed, continuing to use the technology).

Please consider couching your advice in more positive language, instead. For example, “Have you considered using X?” encourages a hopeful reply of “No, what’s that?” rather than a helpless “I don’t know what that is!” (with an unspoken “I guess I should have already known about X before coming here, and now I feel pretty stupid”).

Note that you don’t have to type out a reply in full, especially when helping with common newbie mistakes; there’s no sin in pasting an appropriate FAQ URL at the petitioner, when available. (And if no FAQ exists to link to, well… that’s on you to fix, perhaps?)

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