Photograph of a statue of a mounted, armored man holding an axe, and looking at a steeple in the near distance.

A year and a half ago I enjoyed my first overseas adventure, traveling to Denmark with my partner and a few close friends. I wrote a bit, while there, about the country’s friendly accessibility to Anglophonic monoglots like myself. Since returning, I’ve shared the tale of my encounter with the red thing under Aarhus. Today, inspired by a lovely printed-and-bound photo album our traveling companions recently gifted us, I’d like to describe two more events from the trip, both of them times I found myself troubled by something I struggled to recognize. One happened right after we landed in Cophenhagen, the other shortly before we returned home.

The moment I arrived, I felt a stressful confusion, and I wasn’t sure why. By “arrived” I mean a very particular moment: after passing through the nowhere-land of the airport, and then riding half-asleep (I don’t sleep on flights, no matter how long or dark) on the tram to our target station under Copenhagen, and at last emerging up, up into daylight far from home. Immediately I felt a thrilling collision of comfortable recognition with jarring novelty, something I expect any veteran international traveler takes in stride but felt entirely new to me. I found myself in the heart of a new city, expressing its embrace of me in myriad citylike ways with which I easily resonate — but also surrounding me with street signs all the wrong shape, and city buses covered in writing I couldn’t read, and statues of valkyries and armored dudes with war-axes, and myriad other ways of telling me that I had at long last made a foreigner of myself.

All this I recognized within moments! Nothing subtle about it, and I did my best to shake off my sleep-deprived jet lag to drink it all in (and get my phone synched up enough so its map would work). As I stood blinking and busily categorizing everything around me into buckets labeled familiar and foreign, I had the nagging sense that something that belonged in the latter bin eluded me. As I picked my way towards our AirBnB, I struggled to recognize what about the environment felt so subtly strange, other than all the obvious stuff. Once I’d crossed enough of the city’s wide intersections, the answer struck me — and not literally, thankfully. Bicycles! Copenhagen hummed with bicycles, like no place I’d ever seen before.

Now, I’ve visited and even lived in American cities that call themselves cyclist-friendly, and used to ride around town myself in years long gone by, so the sight of a few bikes hugging the curb doesn’t itself elicit surprise. And in my first few minutes in Denmark, the cyclists I saw, taken individually, were not engaged in any particularly un-bicycley activity. So it took my sleepy and overwhelmed senses a few extra turns to realize what a difference in degree surrounded me, compared to any pedal-powered display I’d ever seen stateside — outside of a road race, perhaps.

Where some American cities have anemic little bike lanes that cars share begrudgingly at best, bikes held equal esteem with cars in Copenhagen — and the road-sharing went in two directions. Bikes queued up at red lights, layers-deep within their wide, dedicated lanes, or directly amongst the cars when necessary. I didn’t see a single cyclist ignore a light, something I could never say about a day in bike-laden Boston. Furthermore, I don’t recall seeing any cyclists wearing American-style bike helmets, which suggested to me that they didn’t grimly expect to be flattened at any moment by a carelessly flung-open car door. Just a wholly different world, all within this single aspect of city life.

During my days in Cophenhagen, I remained a dedicated pedestrian, just like back home. But I did spend the whole time in perpetual mild marvel over this facet alone, once I knew to see it.

And then, after two weeks in Denmark, I felt a stressful confusion, and I wasn’t sure why. Day by day, even as I continued having a great time seeing and learning so much, I could once again feel something unwelcome creeping in, ratcheting up a sense of uncertain irritation. I don’t know what triggered my understanding this time, and I don’t think it came all at once with a sudden camera-pullback as with the bicycle hordes, but it arrived anyway.

It dawned on me that the Danish-language signage, whose illegibility so enthralled me upon arrival, had slowly transformed from a delightful novelty to a source of constant, low-level mental stress that I’d unwittingly let accrue for several days. Danish uses the same alphabet as English, of course — along with a few diacritical-trimmed letter-variants — so even though I consciously knew that I couldn’t read most of the signs that always surrounded me in my urban wandering, the automatic parsing processes in my brain would always try anyway, only to get flummoxed again and again.

Having quite recently read Daniel Dennett’s Consciousness Explained, with its metaphor of mind as a gaggle of daemons in a computer system, I can’t help but imagine my language-parsing process — chorded into the looping braid of sensory inputs and processors that make up my sense of self — suddenly spewing out errors and warnings all over the place after decades of quiet operation. What was happening?! Nothing made sense anymore! But as just one voice in my personal pandemonium, its complaints went easily ignored, until after many days… er, my hard drive filled up with log-files, I guess? My own failure to extend Dennett’s metaphor notwithstanding, I do believe that here lay the source of my invisibly accumulating confusion.

Happily, this realization came not long before the flight home, where I could massage my language-jangled neocortex by staring at the curt but soothing English of baggage carousel signs in Logan Airport for as long as I wanted. I ended up feeling good about my ability to self-diagnose and treat these little travel-novice syndromes as they happened, and hope to get in more first-hand practice in the not-too-distant future.

Close-up photo of an inscription on a gravestone reading 'TAK FOR ALT'.

Share or reply to this post on Twitter!

In September 2016, I wrote a list of promises to myself should Trump thread the needle and win that year’s election. I figure that I owe myself a check-in.

We now enter our first full winter under the Trump presidency, and I fear that — after an exhausting year of resistance, with occasional moments of bright success — it’ll feel very dark and cold for a while. A thick mass of Trump-enabled cruelty seems likely take smothering hold soon, including but not limited to the “tax bill” that torpedos much of the Fairey-tinted hope of life under Obama, shredding American support for nationwide health, education, and opportunity in order to further enrich the already-richest. I know I need to light a candle against it. I have to live through this, and help my loved ones through too.

Well then, according to the rubric laid down by my naive, pre-election self, how’s my footing? Taking it point by point:

“I will stay calm.” I did need to hire help with this part, very soon after the election. There came a day just before Christmas of last year where I felt things spinning away from me, and I called the first therapist from the little list of those accepting my wife’s insurance. Happily, he worked a three-minute walk from my office, and we met that day.

So, yes, the wryly reported spike in therapist traffic due explicitly to Trump-driven anxiety was real, dear reader, and I was part of it. Happily, I can report that the therapy helped. A year later, I continue my visits, the frequency gradually decreasing from weekly to every month or two.

“I will accept my feeling sad and scared. Corollary: I will accept my friends and family feeling sad and scared, too.” When I wrote that two Septembers ago, I recalled how angry I felt during the majority of George W. Bush’s presidency. I vividly recalled walking down the street listening to his voice in a news podcast, not noticing the stream of foul language I emitted until some minutes in.

Somehow, though, I figured that fear, not anger, would rule my emotions during a Trump presidency. Bush was a fool who made one disastrous decision after another, but at least he had a moral compass, and he tried his best to be president; Trump, meanwhile, is a transparent sociopath who adores nothing more than stirring up chaos and drama to keep the spotlight on himself.

And I did feel scared, on election night. I will always remember how my wife and I held each other in the darkness, shivering, for a long time. But then the sun came up. And since then? I’ve mostly felt some mix of angry, sad, and disgusted. Sometimes with a frisson of genuine disbelief: How can this be happening. How did we get here, when things seemed to be going so well.

Weirdly, I just can’t work up anything like sustained fear over any of the things Trump’s world gives us to fear. Even the increasing prospect of nuclear war just makes me angry at how the evil men who’ve hijacked this train gaily shovel all our national potential into the furnace just to keep themselves toasty-warm, forgetting their mission to move us all forward. I hate them, and I hate all this.

So: A category error, on my part. Do I accept it? Well, I suppose so. I’ll hardly deny my friends’ right to feel angry, let alone my own.

“Internal resistance: I will not give in to despair or nihilism.” This has been harder than merely staying calm, and my head does dip under the inky waves now and again. Sometimes I say things in public I regret. Just yesterday a friend said “Stay strong” to me in a text chat, one hundred percent unironically, because I had been typing up such a dark streak. I get myself into situations where I need to be told that.

I have only recently admitted to myself that Twitter has become poisonous. I still need it, I haven’t bailed on it, but I try not to take long attention-focused pulls of it any more. Furthermore, I actively avoid all Twitter users, even ones I used to adore, who have succumbed completely into the comfortable all-is-lost nihilism that sings to me, too. They represent a personal danger more subtle than that of the neo-nazis lately and more famously insinuating across the same network.

“External resistance: I will seek out movements keeping American hope alive.” Well, I had hoped the Obamas would emerge as resistance leaders, but of course they’ve gone in their own direction, and I can hardly blame them.

I don’t really feel like I have any political leader right now, though I have increasing admiration for my state’s outspoken Senator Whitehouse, and I’ve recently subscribed to the Washington Post, which changed his slogan at the beginning of the Trump presidency to overtly stake out its mission in a new, gloomier era. They help.

I have written about engaging in modest “earn-to-give” philanthropy, and I do continue with this tack, though it all feels rather passive.

“I will keep doing what I love.” In this respect, I have found the most success. Since the beginning of the year, I’ve redefined and greatly improved my attitude towards my self-employment day-job, delivering the best work I can for my two core clients, and actively investing time and attention into improving my management processes.

In the meantime, the non-profit I preside over ends its first calendar year having met most of its goals, including running its first — and quite successful — program-specific fundraiser. Having established itself, IFTF enters 2018 holding new second-order public-service goals which I quite honestly look forward to helping it achieve.

IFTF began during the sunset of the Obama era, and at the time I wondered if it represented a waste of energy; why expect support for a new digital arts organization now when one should really focus on, say, defending civil rights? But today, I recognize that cofounding IFTF will likely remain one of the best things I’ll have ever done. I helped create a protective bastion for creative energy just as a long darkness settled in all around. That’s important, very important and good, and my continuing to serve it gives me a lot of the light I need to keep going.

Share or reply to this post on Twitter!

The cover of this book.

This book took me twenty years to read! I bought it while living in my very first post-graduation apartment in Bangor, Maine, probably from the wonderful giant borg-cube Borders out by the mall. I would start to get into it again and again over the years, but never made it very far. This most recent and at-last successful sortie required this blog to exist, I reckon. I hadn’t thought about Consciousness Explained since starting to record my reading in public three years ago, but then its author tweeted about it — surprised to find the 1991 publication heading a new best-books list — and set my course.

So, does it explain consciousness? Well, not really, no! Rather, it provides a novel lens for thinking about how the mind might work — in humans, animals, and constructed intelligences yet to come. Dennett introduces his multiple-drafts model, in which consciousness arises when the output-flows of various lower-level neurological processes, analagous to daemons in a computer system, exist in sufficient number and variety that they chord. These mental data-streams flow and resonate into each others’ inputs, creating feedback loops of such wonderful twistiness that — though no fault of their own — build an enormously complex super-process that can reflect upon itself.

I’ve run into this notion before in books written after this one, most notably 2007’s I am a Strange Loop, by Dennett’s cognitive-philosophy colleague Douglas Hofstadter. Consciousness Explained does not glory as much in the concepts of self-reference and feedback as Hofstadter’s work; under Dennett’s theory, the self is less a hall of mirrors than a “center of narrative gravity”, and boy do I love that idea.

Under the multiple-drafts model, consciousness is an ongoing narrative under constant revision based on a pandemonium (to use the author’s own preferred word) of low-level sensory and cognitive processors. We creatures who possess consciousness also possess a notion of self in the sense that a physical object has a center of gravity. In one sense, a fiction: the gravity of a body isn’t really all mashed down into a single point within itself. But we can treat it that way anyway for convenience’s sake, and the math all works just the same, and thus we can do physics. Likewise, I can act as if “I” am concentrated within a single point of observation — my soul, my pineal gland, whatever — and it’s true enough to let me enjoy its benefits and get on with my life.

Alongside these novel ideas, Consciousness Explained spends the bulk of its energy tearing down other theories. For every assertion this book makes about multiple-drafts theory, it makes many more attacking every reigning (as of 1991) or “common-sense” notion of consciousness, to the point where the whole thick book seems mostly an act of demolition against the set of assumptions that Dennett derisively calls the “Cartesian Theater” — the comfortable notion that consciousness works something like a deliberately constructed film that somehow observes itself (or is observed by a separate “self”). The book made me receptive to the multiple-drafts model of consciousness as a beautifully fragile emergence from many overlapping and otherwise dissonant mental subprocesses, but I ended my read feeling unsatisfied, witness more to the author blasting away at rival hypotheses — however convincingly — than exploring the implications of his own.

I did have some hesitancy going into this, since wouldn’t everything be terribly out of date? But, no, of course not. While Dennett writing in 1991 had access only to research published before then, it was still all new to me as a layperson, and I found the book’s many summaries of past experiments quite fascinating in their own right (and apart from Dennett’s invocation of them as either supporting evidence towards his own theory, or misleading paths away from it). Moreover, despite a quater-century of global scientific advancement, the true nature of consciousness remains a mystery without a consensus explanation. Laboratory-reproducible illusions such as the color phi phenomenon, oft-referred to by this book, still see their experimental subjects report physically impossible observations today, with no tidy reason as to why.

Earlier this year, in fact, I read (again via the author’s Twitter feed) a 2017 paper by Dennett attacking the popular cognitive-philosophy notion of qualia. It amused me, then, to only a little later discover his 1991 book having an entire chapter titled “Qualia Disqualified”, engaging in more or less the same battles — only with the philosophy-journal articles of the late 1980s, rather than those of today. I’ve brought this up with a couple of friends, a psychologist and a philosopher married to one another, and they assure me: Oh, this is quite normal for any sort of discourse in these fields. And — ha! — just now reviewing my 2015 post about Dennett’s Freedom Evolves, I see myself making the very same somewhat exasperated observations there, about both that book and Hofstadter’s later works. I referred in that article to my not having read Consciousness Explained yet, and seemed to assume that it somehow stood apart in this regard. Sorry to disappoint, past-self…

Dennett himself admits, in the book’s closing chapter, that he could do no more than introduce multiple-drafts theory. It falls to me, I suppose, to see if it has developed further in the intervening years. In the meantime, I have already found it a valuable way to view certain phenomena around me, increasing my appreciation for the ways that a single apparent stream of order can emerge from many chaotic processes. I’m glad I finally read this.

Share or reply to this post on Twitter!

The 'Water Works' property card from the board game Monopoly.

Twitter’s made three swift and mutually unrelated policy changes, two of them quite alarming, in only the last few days. For years, after incidents like these would happen now and again, I would nod along with all the voices warning about the dangers of treating privately owned, profit-seeking Twitter like a public utility, and then I’d slide right back into pretending otherwise. Lately, though, I fear that the increasing frequency of these sudden modifications to its policy or technology has forced this comfortable fiction to come to an end. I still want to use Twitter, and I’m not sure what ought to happen next.

To review this past week: after Twitter suddenly removed the service’s single most definitional attribute by doubling tweets’ allowed length, it verified the account of the American white nationalist who organized the murderously hateful Charlottesville march last summer. Twitter seemed to express genuine surprise at the furious pushback to the latter, and declared a temporary moratorium on further account verification. They end up looking so clueless that Randall Munroe drew an uncharacteristically headline-tied XKCD about it.

And then, after all that, the service tripled the maximum size of users’ on-screen names. Surely the least consequential Twitter-fiat of the week, and some have reason to praise it. However, its following the others so closely in time, paired with its completely unheralded deployment, made the new policy also feel capricious. Despite its arguable benefit, the change lands like a non-sequitur response to a week already heavy with criticism for Twitter, and for me held the strongest recent evocation of @actioncookbook’s joke from early last year.

(This dates to the time Twitter changed, overnight, its iconic star-shaped “favorites” into heart-shaped “likes”. People in my circle now mutter “timeline goes sideways” as shorthand for Twitter once again confounding us with its new and exciting decisions.)

What I wish for Twitter — though I really have no idea how it might get there, from its present position — is more bureaucracy, something to force at least a little bit of drag on the company’s ability to enact surprise fundamental transformations or profound policy actions based on the private decisions of a few people. I don’t want to shut it down; I just want to slow it down!

In my fantasies I envision a committee-laden standards body with all the request-for-comment periods, public mailing lists, PDF-archived meeting minutes, and other intentional communication-tangles that act as brakes on powerful organizations’ ability to otherwise act too quickly. Twitter could volunteer to burden itself in exactly this way, setting up, I don’t know, maybe a separate nonprofit organization that it defers to as its own diversely populated steering committee. It could at the very least make a show of broad public representation within its decision-making.

Or something. Anything! Right now, and very lately, Twitter has acted like just another technology start-up offering a cool fun service and feeling no scruples at all about unfettered experimentation with it, seeking freshly profitable angles while wholly heedless to the undeniability that this service acts — like it or not — as a vitally important communication layer for our global civilization. We-the-users can no longer pretend that Twitter is as neutral a utility as water or electricity, and as such I feel sudden hunger that, somehow, Twitter’s corporate owners must also stop pretending.

Share or reply to this post on Twitter!

Tommy Lee Jones as a sheriff, holding a newspaper, offering side-eye to some target off-camera.

Gif-darmoks allow the insertion by reference of “reaction gifs” into spoken conversation, text-only correspondence, or other contexts that do not lend themselves to the direct and immediate display of internet-searchable images. They accomplish this with creativity and panache, unexpectedly injecting a bit of mythologically-tinted metaphor into the conversation, as they borrow their structure and purpose from the celebrated Star Trek episode whence they get their name.

To deploy a gif-darmok when the image of a well-known reaction gif overwhelms you, simply state a literal description of that gif using a carefully minimalist syntax reminiscent of that spoken by the aliens in “Darmok”. Looking at a list of quotes from that episode we see that the general template goes “[Person], [momentary attribute of that person]”. Sokath, his eyes uncovered, for example, or Zinda, his face black, his eyes red. But we see plenty of variation, too: the subject may be two people, or a river or mountain rather than a person. It might describe (in just a few words) the place where the person stands, and what they see.

Allow me to present three examples that I have used recently, along with a literal gloss of my intended meaning for each:

I see reaction gifs — and their kissing cousins, emoji — as a novel but richly meaningful, accessible, and legitimate way to express oneself through sharing pointers to common cultural references, and I cannot resist attempting to back-port them into spoken language through the mechanism that “Darmok” demonstrated a quarter-century ago. I also love the fun and challenge of creating and interpreting gif-darmoks, and the way that — by their nature — they elevate their subjects from anonymous dancing loops to named people within a single moment that bespeaks a larger epic, each one a proper-noun myth-hero bearing our culture forward.

Share or reply to this post on Twitter!

Cover art of Universal Paperclips

Spent the first half of the week in Raleigh to attend All Things Open. This year marked its fifth iteration, and the first one I attended, alongside some 3,499 colleagues in the software business. With a stated theme of “open source in the enterprise”, it seems to have a particular focus on “devops” — the software-engineering sub-discipline focusing more on integration and deployment of code than its development per se — but its broad spread of tracks did its best to cover a full spectrum of software-related specializations.

All of which is to say I felt a little out of my depth, because I identify professionally as a freelancer, avoiding any title more specific than “engineer” (or “hacker”, but only among kindred spirits). I answer directly to clients who don’t really care how I deliver my magic, so long as it happens. While this situation works well enough for me day-to-day, it carries the compounding danger that I too will stop caring how I do what I do. And that is why from time to time I frogmarch myself onto a train or plane that’ll take me to a great big conference like this, marinating me in ideas and practices that the whole world of software-crafting talks about outside of my tiny bubble.

I had a good time! I learned a lot, met some great people, and I have a lot of new ideas to unpack and process, which will lead to plenty of project-specific followup work for myself. For now, though, I can share three major takeaways, based on themes that ran through the whole confernece.

To bring something new to the table in any business means, today, to also get into the software-development business. At least two speakers directly referenced a 2011 Marc Andreesen op-ed titled “Why Software is Eating the World”. The column sits behind a Wall Street Journal paywall, but I gather the gist of it anyway: running any modern business means running software, and businesses that don’t wish to float passively through their respective markets must actively develop their own software, even if their ultimate service or product has nothing to do with software per se.

My BS-detection instincts would have me push back against this concept as self-congratulatory hogwash arising from any large gathering of software creators. But: who are my clients? Currently I work with a Boston-area travel company that — through me — has written its own reservation system, in order to give itself a competitive edge, and I also assist an international publisher that continues to maintain a thoroughly custom and vastly complex account management system.

In fact, each client I’ve worked with over my ten-year freelance career is a business or organization that wished to distinguish itself within its market by doing things its competitors couldn’t, and that literally means commissioning the creation of new, in-house software, which it then subsequently owns and maintains indefinitely. So… yeah! I’d never thought of any of this the way Andreesen phrased it, but I can hardly deny it.

Tech giants have begun sharing a dizzying array of free-ish public APIs. Want your own natural-language-processing instance of IBM’s Watson? You got it. Want to write something that lets you send queries directly to Amazon’s in-house image-recognition AI and receive responses back in plain English? Knock yourself out. Two talks I attended oh-so-casually referred to these particular services as if it’s the most natural thing in the world to base the core of your program’s functionality not on any locally installed library but some bit of well-documented hand-wavium way up in the cloud, operated and made free-as-in-beerly available by one benevolent capitalist overlord or another.

Now that I describe it in writing, it reminds me of a central plot point from a recent William Gibson novel. This involved a seemingly impossible web service that ran out of China, and none of the European protagonists felt more than mild curiosity about how it worked, much less who paid for it or why. I find it fascinating and maybe a little nerve-wracking and I should really set some time aside to explore this unexpectedly real-life landscape for myself.

On personal computers, the browser “won” a long time ago. Even though All Things Open did not have any explicit topical restriction to web software, I did not see a single scrap of support for or discussion about public-facing applications that ran natively on any common operating system. I did attend many interesting talks on internal tools and processes, but in every case, these ultimately served the creation and maintenance of web-based software.

In retrospect, I think I would have expected at least a little representation for, I don’t know, at least iOS or Android development tools, and maybe Windows — but, no. With the sole exception of video games, the web is the default target platform for all software. If you make (non-game) software today, and you don’t specify otherwise, others can be safe to assume that it runs on the web.

This does not represent any shockingly fresh revelation, of course! Every Perl-specific conference I’ve attended has focused on either web apps or obscure internal tools, but these sorts of creations seem endemic to that programming language so I didn’t give it much thought. But it’s not just Perl, it’s everything. And it seems so natural to me that I didn’t stop to think about it until the flight home.

(I did also learn about software specific to small devices — wearables, Raspberry Pi experiments, and so on — but I class these less as “applications” than as the soft side of very hardware-specific projects.)

Share or reply to this post on Twitter!

Turned on to this first collection of Howard Chaykin’s indie comic from the mid 1980s by Warren Ellis’s Orbital Operations newsletter — a weekly periodical which you might enjoy subscribing to, I should aside, if you enjoy reading this blog. Ellis named American Flagg! as a personally formative comic, and with that in mind one definitely can read it as a direct progenitor of Ellis’s own Transmetropolitan, following the adventures of a cranky man and his pretty-lady sidekicks pushing back against a searingly corrupt science-fictional America.

I loved, loved Chaykin’s use of the full page in this book, over and over. I wrote last month of my appreciation for creative page layouts and panel shapes in the webcomic Drop-Out, and I re-apply that praise here, multiplied a hundredfold. Nearly every page serves as a fresh lesson in what a comics artist can do with a rectangular sheet besides laying down a grid of lesser rectangles to lawnmower through.

Chaykin seems especially drawn to the technique of repetition, punching in a lot of little near-identical images side-by-side for a variety of purposes, here emphasizing a tiny change in detail over time or over subject, there literally depicting a bank of TV monitors all showing the same leering face in duplicate. Despite its very nature, the technique doesn’t feel overused here, but rather fits in quite nicely with the setting’s particular sort of worn-out electronic dystopia, a world suffering from terminal phosphor burn-in.*

And the text effects! Chaykin makes it a living thing within the artwork. There’s a bit where a bad guy reminds Flagg of a hands-off bribe by winking at him, with the sound effect WINK!. This offends Flagg, who glares back with silent fury as he makes a snap decision to invalidate their agreement, and this generates the text NO! in big red letters with Flagg’s burning eye in the O. (This doubles as a full-stop to a row of Chaykin-style film-strip panels to its left reading STATUS QUO repeatedly.) This sort of thing happens all throughout the collection and I love it.

The art within those layouts and among that text is pretty good, with plenty of features that can’t escape seeming archaic today. Chaykin shades everything with Very Eighties Stippling — hand-rendered dot-fields poked into every fold of skin or dark corner. I didn’t realize how deeply this technique bespeaks a very specific time-and-place within American comics until seeing it again here. (It makes me think of a big cache of late-80s fanzines I somehow obtained in college, their Xeroxed content all from kids trying to better understand the weird indie comics they loved by slavishly imitating them, and: stippling, everywhere.) The coloring, flat and garish, often seems to disagree with the shading, and this too may look familiar to any modern comics reader perusing older work.

Chaykin also shows here a strange hesitancy to draw any internal structures of womens’ mouths. That may sound like a strange thing for me to pick out, and indeed it took me several pages before I noticed how it bothered me. All his male characters get detailed teeth and tongues when they speak, but all his women tend to have only blank white fields between their (invariably lushly drawn) lips. I recognize that’s a known visual trope suggesting glamour, especially in older comics, but it still looks kinda weird. By the same token, though, I note that all the men wear pointed dress-shoes with their suspendered trousers cinched up to their ribcages, so from where I stand it’s hard to tell whether all this involves intentional callbacks to visual styles already considered vintage in the 1980s.

If the story of American Flagg! didn’t necessarily make much of an impression on me, it may be due to the overabundance of fallen-America comics that came in its wake, including Transmetropolitan and The Dark Knight Returns. Beyond that, so much feels a bit rushed, and I feel unsure how much comes from Chaykin’s practicing an admirable level of self-restraint against over-exposition, and how much comes from the artist’s drive to draw his own American dystopia overcoming any patience for fully fleshing out all its ideas. I picked up the book expecting some good ol’ Regan-era social critque, and it talks a good talk, with its main character serving in a corporate-owned nationalized army protecting a shopping mall in the middle of a ceaseless terrorist uprising. But we end up seeing so little of the world beyond the speaking-role characters and their immediate surroundings that none of that background really gets a chance to define itself properly.

Ellis warned that much the book would seem problematic to a modern audience, and even the collection’s contemporary preface, written by Michael Moorcock, winced parenthetically at its sexism. I lowered my expectation-goggles accordingly. For all that, though, the story struck me with its unrelenting sex-positivity, even if within its narrow band of male-fantasy heteronormativity. Ladies young and old fling themselves at Flagg — himself a retired porn star — and he tends to cheerfully and immediately agree to every such proposal, making no larger fuss than if someone offered him half their sandwich. Nobody acts particularly suave in these exchanges, and one gets the impression Flagg goes along with it out more out of politeness than anything else. Other clues in the text suggest that Chaykin meant in part to portray this promiscuity as widespread and symptomatic of a decadent culture, Brave New World-style, but the consistent lack of regrets shown by all parties (combined with the ill-defined background) just make this whole aspect just seem far more optimistic than ironic or dreadful.

Honestly, I felt truly uncomfortable only during a scene that established the titular hero’s no-bullshit creds with the reader by having him assault a nosy reporter and beat him unconscious. I can imagine that such fantasies had a certain appeal to readers in the depths of the Reagan years that don’t at all resemble the heart palpitations they bring to one teetering within Trump’s reality. This is not the fault of the comic book.

* Now that I write this out, I also think of Chris Ware’s work in Jimmy Corrigan starting in the 1990s — using very much the same trick to describe his characters’ static, pathetic worlds, and also very much informed by a 20th century culture delivered to everyone at 25 frames per second.

Share or reply to this post on Twitter!

Cover art of Universal Paperclips

A friend dropped Frank Lantz’s Universal Paperclips into my lap early Monday afternoon, and it remained my principal occupation until bedtime. An “idle game” in the mode of Candy Box!, it begins with a trivial and soothingly repetitive task presented in a minimal, Times New Roman-on-white UI. Bit by bit a whole world starts to open up around you, and over several hours of play Paperclips tells a surprisingly rich and satisfying interactive science-fiction story. It won my complete engagement up through its definitive full-stop of an ending, and I can easily count it among the best story-driven video games I have played in recent memory.

I hadn’t played any games of its genre prior to Monday, with the exception of Drowning in Problems, a short and dour little meditation by Markus “Notch” Persson. Where that game used the conventions of candyboxlikes to paint life as a brief and busy but ultimately purposeless grind, Paperclips employs them to stage-set the tidily austere workspace for its player-character, an artificially intelligent mind in a box.

This AI comes into the world with nothing except its desire to make paperclips — and the knowledge that making paperclips pleases its human supervisors, who reward its initial good performance with a few simple upgrades. In time, of course, the slowly growing intelligence starts to invent its own upgrades, bringing new paperclip production and sales strategies to bear, and thrilling its squishily flesh-bound overlords with untold riches as it steers them into office-supply market dominance. As the machine’s creativity snowballs, things get steadily more interesting, and then they get weird. And then they keep going.

I played through the whole story from start to finish on my first try, taking a little over eight hours. I acknowledge that I may suffer from survivor’s bias, here; friends have reported getting stuck in narrative dead-ends, often from apparently misallocating their resources prior to reaching a key plot point, leaving them no clear way to advance. Others have suggested that the game always gives you a way to back out of trouble, but I don’t have first-hand experience here. Instead, allow me to share some low-spoiler strategy tips based on my own single playthrough.

  • Block out a full day to play, at least if your brain works anything like mine. You can play Paperclips while listening to music or watching low-demand TV or the like, but those who share my susceptibility towards addictive behavior won’t want to play while trying to perform real-life work, or spending time with your family, or anything else that might reasonably ask your full attention. Plan to lock yourself into the box with the AI for one full work-day. Trust that it will let you go when it’s done with you.*

  • Remember your goal: more paperclips. The game tries to guide you in this direction from the outset by tying “trust” — the stat that lets you buy basic upgrades — to raw paperclip production, rather than maximizing profits. Money, facilities, and other resources should have utility to you only insofar as they further along your paperclip-production agenda.

    From time to time you will have clear shorter-term goals that may encourage you to shift your focus on building hardware or raising capital, and do feel free to pursue these as needed. If you have nothing otherwise in front of you, return to your default stance of bending that wire.

    More to the point, remember that the player-character is an AI who burst into existence with only a single driving directive, and turns that directive into the immutable foundation of all the self-complexity it subsquently builds, and that directive is make paperclips. This game rewards role-playing.

  • Favor memory over processors. Having more processors will fill your energy tanks (“operations” and “creativity”) faster, but even with fewer processors they will still recharge at all. Lacking memory, though, will lock you out of completing projects that let you earn trust or other goodies that help you grow. For most of the game I invested in memory over processors at a rate of about 2 to 1, and I didn’t regret it.

    (That said, learning how to rock the quantum processors, once you have them, can temporarily goose your operations enough to buy projects you couldn’t otherwise afford… but mastering this technique I leave as an exercise to the reader.)

Finally: if you build projects involving music, consider turning your speakers on. (And if you’re curious about that music, follow the pointer in the game’s end-credits.)

If I can narrow my view of 2017 to only the short and polished interactive stories that it has given us, then I find this a year to celebrate. Night in the Woods arrived with the spring, and Universal Paperclips comes attached to autumn†. If you have the attention and interest to spare, then I strongly recommend giving this work a look.

* This may hang on a choice you can make at the end of the game, which (if I read it correctly) presents “Wrap it up, or launch New Game Plus?” in a diegetic fashion. After over eight hours of enjoyable but exhausting play I craved rest, and easily chose the former. I’ve yet to hear from anyone who chose the latter.

† I feel obliged to also mention The Annual Interactive Fiction Competition, whose 23rd year kicked off last week, and whose trove of 79 games is certain to contain some amazing gems as well. But I organize the contest, so in all honesty I have no idea which ones they might be, so you’ll just have to play and judge them yourself. Alas.

Share or reply to this post on Twitter!

I have removed all the Disqus-based comments sections from Fogknife, only six weeks after starting the experiment. I wrote at the time that I’d keep them up through December at least, but not only have I grown disillusioned with the idea, I’ve since envisioned and applied an alternate approach to ✨social engagement✨ that I already like a lot better.

Please understand that I do value and appreciate the Disqus comments that I did receive, which in their entirety comprised my friend Doug shouting “First!” on the post where I announced the availability of Disqus comments. However, last month I got the idea to adjust the scope of my experiment to allow the addition of the Reply to this post on Twitter! hyperlinks currently visible on a few recent posts.

I’ll see how those links feel for the remainder of the year, instead. If I find myself really enjoying them, I may add Twitter-based back-links as a permanent Plerd feature. But in the meantime, I just felt bad about how crowded my posts looked with all that complicated Disqus-branded stuff lounging across a fat stripe of vertical space — all of it utterly inert, despite Doug’s best efforts. The humbly sized Twitter links, conversely, look exactly as I want them to, and do just what they say they do. And they do it all off-site, and I have to admit to myself I just like that better.

And here I must pause to genuflect in the direction of feeling just as complicated about Twitter, lately, as every other inveterate Twitter user I know. At a local event recently, I reprised a talk about blogging that I first wrote in 2015, and all but tripped over my own tongue when I encountered my own scripted line “I love Twitter!” Well… a lot can happen in two years, I suppose. I have a small pile of half-written ruminations exploring this more, and I hope to finish one someday soon.

A couple of weeks ago, I made like Marissa Meyer and designed myself a Fogknife logo. It replaces the found-art drawing of a physical fog knife by one “K. Sullivan” that I used on this blog’s rechristening announcement, and which I subsequently used as a default image for social-media metadata.

While I feel prepared to perform any rhetorical gymnastics necessary to defend the first instance under Fair Use, seeing Sullivan’s drawing (often automatically and painfully cropped) in Twitter or Facebook card-style summary-links made me wince. And since I quite deliberately added greater metadata support to my blog software recently, I felt reminded of my appropriative sin more than ever. So, I did this instead.

I created the logo using the same technique I used to design the IFComp logo, which is to say: I opened up Pixelmator, amused myself for a while by pushing letters around in a big square, and then added a single color to the square and called it a day. I still think it looks kind of cool, and so I judge it not half bad and leave it as it is.

Share or reply to this post on Twitter!

Cover of The Weirdness, a novel by Jeremy P. Bushnell

I read this 2014 novel by Jeremy P. Bushnell as a tiny act of defiance against myself, and can report that I showed myself up. Normally, I don’t want to let myself enjoy comedy created prior to the Trump Singularity. I feel driven to wear hairshirts for enabling that event, so denying myself “pre-war comedy” feels natural. My unfortunate friends have had to hear me hold forth more than once how SNL’s glorious David S. Pumpkins skit was the last funny thing visible to us before we chose to fork into the darker timeline, and we deserve to have lost its light forever. Requiescat ay papi.

Cover-copy cliché as it sounds, I did in fact burst out laughing again and again at the The Weirdness, more or less as intended — and certainly more than I expected. Its delightfully absurd story of a drifting writer careening among sorcerers, secret societies, and sandwich artists after the Devil tasks him to fetch a MacGuffin brings to mind a streamlined Robert Anton Wilson, replacing self-indulgent excess with gleeful briskness. I read it quite quickly and had a great time!

Prior to reading The Weirdness I felt sure that I lacked the willpower to enjoy any purely prose-based comedy created on the far side of that awful event, so I feel relieved and maybe a little emboldened to discover otherwise. My encountering a familiar name in another, newer book a couple of months ago helped encourage me to give this one a try, authored as it is by another personal acquaintance from common creative circles. I expect that my personal genre of “stories published by people I know” will only grow as the years go on, and it shall behoove me to get into the habit of enjoying it all.

Share or reply to this post on Twitter!

Previous post: Constrained and meaningful role-play in Prey