Two weeks on, I still ponder how gray Folie’s Drop-Out affected me. I couched that earlier post in my own experiences with suicidal ideation — the most overt theme of that comic — but listening to a certain song during a walk last night helped shock me into realizing how I myself likely played a significant role in convincing a friend to stay alive. Of course I knew about this goal while actively pursuing it, but I hadn’t since let myself pause and reflect that it may have worked, let alone feel good about it. Drop-Out’s ending set me up to come to this conclusion for myself, at last, and the song catalyzed it into realization.

Before I say more about the song, I want to describe the six-part audio series S-Town. A tough listen that becomes quite emotionally demanding in places, it may stand as my single favorite modern work of its format. Entirely non-fiction, the series begins when a resident of a backwater Alabama town writes a radio reporter he admires with promises of a lurid true story of murder and political corruption, if he comes to visit. The reporter and his studio have never heard of this fellow, but they find the letter so engagingly written that they decide to gamble on it.

The promised story dissolves almost as soon as the reporter arrives and begins investigating. (For one thing, and if I recall correctly, the reporter found himself able to interview the supposed murder victim.) He still senses a story nearby, however, and gradually adjusts his focus onto the author of the letter that summoned him. The resulting series becomes an unlikely and absolutely riveting biography of someone I’d have never otherwise heard of, living somewhere I’d likely never otherwise care about. And, as presented, it all but wrenched my heart from my body. It’s very, very good.

The single part of S-Town I recall most clearly involves a beat when the show’s subject confesses to the reporter that he thinks often of suicide, and lately worries that he may actually carry through with it. And the reporter says, with no hesitation, “It is very important to me that you do not kill yourself.” That extremely deliberate phrasing stuck with me. It implements the “I-statement” phrasing I know about from management seminars and other advice-show experts, making a personal critique or request harder to reject by anchoring it to the speaker rather than the subject. All quite clinical and careful, but here delivered with ferocity, almost desperation. It struck me deep.

And only days after hearing that powerful demand within S-Town, I found myself in real-life straits that called for me to invoke it myself. Of course I remixed it for the situation, and my own version of it lasted longer than a single radio-edited moment. But it did sit in my conscious mind as I did what I could to help someone navigate through a very fraught personal period, and I know I must have used it as a template, or perhaps a mission-statement, for whatever I did say.

So the song I heard last night, bubbling up on my Spotify shuffle, was Illusion by VNV Nation. I first heard it earlier this year, only a little after all the above events had taken place.

To a first order of approximation, the song’s lyrics involve the speaker imploring the subject to stay — one of the oldest song-stories, surely. Listening more deeply, though, initial assumptions of a jilted lover begin to seem misplaced. The relationship between speaker and subject seems less romantic and more one of mentorship, an experienced voice addressing a young heart in pain. The song expresses deep sympathy, not just love, as its principal emotion. The speaker, in crisis, fears he’ll lose the subject not because she’ll leave him personally, but because she’ll leave “here”. Please don’t go. I want you to stay, begins the chorus — there are those I-statements again!

And given all that I had experienced so recently, I could only understand the “here” of the song’s lyrics as the world, the land of the living, and the hurting, and all those doing their best to help each other through it. Yes, it did flatten me. So last night I heard this many months after the night I felt safe and correct in sharing it with my troubled friend, adding very little further commentary. And I know better than to directly credit my words or this song’s words or the podcast’s words for the fact I can make plans to catch up with my friend this weekend. But I can take a moment to allow myself to acknowledge that I did okay for once, here.

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'Pile of Rocks' by Flickr user Golfshirt, CC-BY-NC-2.0

The core mode of ACE Team’s Rock of Ages 2: Bigger & Boulder plays like a delirious mix of Super Monkey Ball and Rampart, all presented within an animated and unapologetically full-throated Terry Gilliam audiovisual pastiche. Per its own subtitle, the same could be said about the game’s 2011 predecessor; this sequel serves primarily to amp up the absurd audiovisuals for current-generation game systems.

This sequel also gently astonishes me with its existence in the first place. I wouldn’t have imagined the first game — which I enjoyed in concept upon its release, then never heard nor thought about again — to have seen enough success to demand a post-Obama refresh. Clearly, my imagination proved as flat as one of the victims of this game’s smiling and eponymous lithospheres. Never one to complain about the world having more highly weird artwork for sale, I can only welcome it.

In Rock of Ages 2’s single-player campaign and its main two-player competitive mode, each player has the task of smashing down their opponent’s castle by rolling an enormous, grinning boulder through a twisting, obstacle-laden course — Monkey Ball-style — and then down a final ramp towards the target. The boulder has a health meter, reduced by running into obstacles or falling off the track, and enough damage will disintegrate the rock prematurely.

However, the game rewards limiting the caution you practice while bowling down the track. Both players — whether two humans, or a human and their competing AI — play out their turns simultaneously. While not racing against the clock per se, the player who practices too much care in picking their way around anti-boulder hazards ends up giving their opponent more time to set up and launch their own rocky assault on the player’s home castle.

The opponent’s castle takes several hits to breach, and after each such rolling sortie ends — whether through a direct hit or crumbling misadventure — the player switches to a defensive mode, placing appropriately silly items all over their opponent’s track to stymie them. Cow pastures slow boulders down, cannon damage them, spring-traps can fling them off the track entirely, and so on. Placing hazards costs resources, regained through patience or through placing special obstacles near the gold mines that dot every track. This phase does feature a timer, after which the player can leap back into boulder-rolling. Play alternates thus for both sides until one finally squishes the other.

I see that Wikipedia labels the Rock of Ages games as tower defense, and while they do borrow some cues from modern games of that genre — such as the animated “wind” indicating the path that they enemy will take — I don’t think this designation quite fits. The back-and-forth rhythm between building up defenses and then slamming through your opponent’s obstacles brought Atari’s memorably unlikely 1990 arcade experiment to mind before anything else. Arguably, all tower defense games trace their lineage from Rampart, so perhaps Rock of Ages chooses to draw water directly from that primordial well.

More to the point, though, the Rock of Ages games have no patience for the sort of tactical planning inherent to true tower defense games. The defensive controls may resemble those of a more thoughtful game, but in practice one just scatters obstacles across the enemy track in a few frantic gestures during the swift moments between rock-rolls. Granted, this activity does provide some space for strategy: I learned that coating the space in front of one’s castle with momentum-sapping cow pastures works well to limit damage wrought by the enemy boulder, for example, and that spring-traps work best when placed in chicanes, where they might bounce a careless opponent right off the track. Other than these sorts of overarching strategies, the defensive game proves as much an intentionally chaotic melee as the attack phase.

I feel unsure about how this works as a multiplayer game. Its Gilliam-homage animations — which start on the load screens and carry straight through the menus into the actual gameplay — suggest the game as best suited for single-couch competitions. If Rock of Ages 2 doesn’t aim to become anyone’s favorite game, it does vie to earn a place as this ridiculous thing to show your guests. In this respect, though, the core game mode suffers from how the defensive phase makes it just too complicated for a party game, unless the host has the patience to play a single-player round first to demonstrate. To its credit, Rock of Ages 2 does offer less complex play modes that work with no instruction at all, most notably a simple rolling race down a track laden with pre-arranged obstacles, where one can enjoy all the goofy animation with minimal brain-exertion.

Rock of Ages 2 inevitably offers online play as well, but (as of a week after its initial release) seems to have fallen on the dark side of the critical mass required to make quickplay with randos work. During one Eastern-time weeknight, I found no public online matches to join, and when I created one myself I had no takers after fifteen minutes of waiting. I don’t necessarily consider this a detriment, given the game’s clearly better suitedness for local play, but always find this sort of thing a little sad to see nonetheless.

If you try this game for any single reason, let it be the single-player story mode, which one must traverse anyway in order to unlock all the various maps, boulder-variants, and defensive goodies for use in multiplayer. I loved the pre-fight cartoons introducing each of your computer-controlled opponents, all historical or mythological figures hit with a silly-stick: Joan of Arc as a babbling zealot, Robert the Bruce as a giant with eye-lasers, Vincent van Gogh as a paint-vomiting anime monster. They set the mood for the subsequent gameplay quite effectively. If you fancy the opportunity to make an animated cut-out of Henry VIII scream like a baby moments before you pancake him with a house-sized boulder, then you may find Rock of Ages 2 a worthwhile purchase.

I originally wrote this review for the website, whose editors provided me with a review copy from the game’s publisher.

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After I shared it as an off-hand paragraph in a chatroom, my friend Marc has enjoyed retelling this story at his workplace, I learn. During a recent visit to his home, he demanded that I perform it for other guests. Allow me, then, to set down an expanded and canonical written telling of this story.

I have lived since the autumn of 2014 in Newport, Rhode Island, with my partner and our pets. (The pets have changed since our arrival; the partnership has not.) I don’t know if we will live here much longer. Newport has treated us kindly but feels inescapably like an in-between place, no place to settle. We may well relocate presently to Providence, accepting a longer commute in order to slot ourselves into the kind of denser urban culture we miss dearly.

I mention all this in a grasping attempt to find context for Newport’s role as a wedding venue. All summer long and into the autumn, people come to Newport to host and attend extravagant weddings, and then they all move on. Everyone deserves to celebrate major life events any way they want to, of course, and anywhere they choose! But from my vantage point of a reluctant townie, Newport tends to attract a very particular sort of wedding, the elaborately coordinated multi-stage affairs with carefully planned costuming amongst the celebrants and all that. The kind of weddings you see in movies about weddings.

This extends to the roving bachelorette parties whose presence on Newport’s coastal streets becomes ubiquitous on warm nights. I feel cautious in saying what I’m about to say, and take courage from the fact that I’m pretty sure that the effect is an intentional expression crafted by its participants, and it is this: They all look the same.

I suspect sometimes I have more than a touch of facial aphasia, but even allowing for that, every time I cross paths with a wandering knot of Newport bachelorettes, this particular and bizarre aspect always unnerves me. From my passing-on-the-sidewalk perspective, every member is a woman of the same apparent age, height, skin tone, body shape, hairstyle, and dress as every other. When they move about the town in flocks, they seem otherworldly to me — or perhaps artifacts from a low-budget video game, the same 3D model instanced into a clump and set to walking by a lazy algorithm.

Again, please don’t misunderstand me as looking down on them. Clearly I see only the effect these women in this particular situation, celebrating their friendship in this particular way, mean to give off. It does make an impression!

And I grant that I have surely also encountered more heterogenous bachelorette parties on Newport midsummer evenings, and indeed many bachelor parties as well, and all your mixed-gender parties of some proximity to a wedding. I assume they pass out of mind as quickly as I see them because their appearance does not startle me so much. (The bachelors, I reckon, tend towards not giving a fig how they themselves dress, and so look like any other bro-pack rolling down the street.) They are not part of this story! I will continue with the story.

One recent summer evening, as I waited for the light to change at the intersection of Thames Street and America’s Cup Avenue, I observed one of these bachelorette pods making its way through the crosswalk directly in front of my car. I cannot recall the particulars of the constituent women’s appearance, except for how they did epitomize the unsettling multiplicity I have described above.

And then, trailing them: one last young woman, whose pace identified her as part of the group but whose every other aspect set her apart. She wore drab clothes, had her hands in her pockets, and her dark hair lay in no particular shape. I couldn’t see her downcast eyes clearly, of course, but the whole of her presence and posture, set against the sparkling partygoers she stayed three paces behind, broadcast a clear desire to be anywhere but there.

And I sat up in my carseat, and I thought: My goodness, it is the protagonist!

That’s it, that’s the whole story.

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My first visit to a therapist as an adult happened only three years ago, hounded into the doctor’s office by suicidal fantasies. I felt in no danger of actually hurting myself, but I did feel subjected to an unwanted mindworm that seemed determined to dangle the possibility before me just the same, all day long, compounding an already stressful time. The therapist helped me dig through my mental attic, too long uncatalogued, and recognize the runaway film projector. I could acknowledge it, shelve and label it, and shut it off.

So I feel I know a little, even if only a little and entirely subjectively, about the desire to willfully remove one’s piece from the game board, to just stop playing. And once I had read far enough into gray Folie’s Drop-Out to understand what the title referred to, I recognized it as a place I’d visited myself, in my own way.

I didn’t know I would revisit it when I started reading this comic five months ago, spurred by Leon Arnott’s tweet-link to it, which captivated me with its depiction of one character’s emotion across three panels. I would proceed to read it from the start, past that first jolt of recognition and then across several sittings over several months. My most recent visit coincided — to my surprise — with the story’s conclusion, posted just last week.

(Yes, this means it wrapped up at the same time as Twin Peaks for me, and Twin Peaks also affected me strongly — but I started reading Drop-Out earlier, and so it comes first here.)

Drop-Out presents a structurally simple story of two young lovers on a road trip with a deeply troubling goal. It populates its world with funny animals, including its protagonists: Sugar, naive and broken, a butch and barrel-shaped opossum girl who wants to move past her pain by any means she can. Her girlfriend Lola, a wispy and agender four-eyed tentacle-creature who tucks their head-fronds under a knit cap, wants to save Sugar by feather-gentle and patient redirection, helping her achieve her goal without self-harm.

The story begins when, long marinating in self loathing about her bipolar disorder, and wracked with guilt about losing a loved one to suicide, Sugar discovers joy in the realization that nothing stops her from taking the same route. Practically glowing with electric purpose, Sugar asks Lola to join her on a terminally one-way road trip to the Grand Canyon.

Writing this now, I recall my horror and — I won’t lie — stunned fascination at this raw depiction of self-destructive manic energy. I don’t recall seeing a depiction of suicidal ideation in popular media quite like this, and at the beginning of a long story to boot. I suspected I bore witness to something frightfully real.

Lola agrees to ride along. They don’t say it out loud, but we know from the very start that Lola joins Sugar only to very, very gently guide her back from the edge even while driving towards it with her for days at 70 miles an hour. The fraught pleasure of reading Drop-Out comes through how subtly Folie brings out the characters’ thoughts and motivations, eschewing thought bubbles for dialog and highly emotive character expression. Sometimes whole episodes pass in silence.

And it all looks so good. In spite of the visual restrictions inherent in a story about two people mostly sitting in a car, Folie’s characters always evince a fluid, confident cartooning style that makes them feel so alive, every panel feeling like a real and distinct moment. (I especially loved Sugar’s design, all awkwardness with her Popeye arms and her large, ever-animated face full of crazily serrated teeth, resembling a Muppet come to life in the best possible sense.) The cartoonist clearly hand-lettered the whole work, and manually laid out the panel borders for each episode, making the entirety of every episode feel that much more organic and breathing.

If you don’t mind skipping straight ahead to peek at a climactic scene, look at episode 98, involving a boiling-over of emotion that leads to near-disaster. See how the panel shapes, the page layout, the use of exterior angles serves to build up and then release tension so effectively that you can almost hear it. So good! This happened to be the most recent strip up when I discovered Drop-Out, and it too helped sell me on taking the time to read the whole dang thing.

According to their Patreon page, the cartoonist is scarcely older than Drop-Out’s college-age characters, making me feel lucky to have caught Leon’s tweet to discover a master so early in their career. Even if the comic feels lumpy in places — I don’t mind admitting I may have paged a little faster through the characters’ text-heavy wee-hours contemplation about gender identity, for example — I have nothing but admiration for its honesty and its marvelous use of the medium. I very much look forward to more work from this talent.

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A woman embracing a piglet, in a still image from Upstream Color

Yesterday bailed on a new movie disappointingly incompatible with my head-hardware, so this evening rented Upstream Color from Amazon as a palate-cleanser. I last saw it in a theater during its original 2013 release. Out of mindless synchronicity I’ve run into a cluster of mentions of it across my Twitter timeline this past week, so it easily bubbled up as something I might like to watch again today. I made a good decision; I enjoy the movie least as much now as I did four years ago.

Upstream Color presents a very subtle science-fiction movie, much as the director’s earlier masterpiece Primer, but not at all with a twisting puzzle-story like that one. It does obscure its plot, with the through-line of its story occurring entirely outside of dialogue, but it also gives you everything you need to unfold it after a single viewing. Its final scenes, as an assist, loop back to its initial ones like one of the paper chains its damaged and haunted protagonists find themselves compelled to build. Having received it, you can unglue it, smooth it out, and read it straight through, albeit with a little effort. I had to retire to a bar with the friend I saw it with in 2013 in order to hash it out initially, but we did just fine.

It was my dear wife who kindly tolerated my choice of this evening’s entertainment, and then turned to me in bewilderment when the credits rolled. She accepted my rattled-off explanation, remembered from four years ago, as coherent — if obviously impossible in the real world. Which: granted. “The world, but half a degree cockeyed” makes for some of my very favorite fantasy, time and again.

So I remembered the central thread but I had forgotten other stuff. Somehow, I did entirely forget how the movie front-loads a not-insignificant amount of body horror. Everything I recalled about the movie, all the stuff I liked and the one bit I didn’t like so much, all happen long after the movie’s overtly squishiest scenes. I did have to apologize to my patient viewing partner tonight for promising a subtly disturbing movie, and then within minutes oh hello worms everywhere how do you do, would you like more worms and knives we have plenty. Sorry!

What I did recall of the film from my first viewing commences with the wonderfully wobbly and even slightly upsetting first-date scenes between the two protagonists, mashing towards one another for reasons as incomprehensible to them as to we who watch them. Their misaligned meet-cute on the subway brings to mind the fantastically weird romance between Frank Sinatra and Janet Leigh’s characters in The Manchurian Candidate — probably my single favorite film, and perhaps so surprising a reference point to find here that it erased all memory the preceding creepy-crawlies. (Really: sorry!!)

I have softened on the one element that didn’t sit well with me on my first viewing, a certain extreme course of action taken by the protagonists to achieve the story’s resolution. At first it seemed out of character, and really out of nowhere; a hard-to-swallow shortcut to simplify the protagonists’ situation and allow them to draw things to a close. On this rewatch, I see how the movie very clearly foreshadows it almost from the start, but more importantly I felt I could better see how the antagonists’ abusive selfishness brings such thorough and multi-layered damage to the main characters. I sympathized more with the fury the protagonists must feel when they have an inkling about its source. (And because this is a Shane Carruth movie, we don’t even see the fury, just the spaces around it, and that probably makes the outcome all the more shocking.) Arguably, the violence of their reprisal is at least somewhat misdirected and unfair, as well as monstrous. But it feels less objectionable to me, now.

Anyway, I don’t know if you’d like this movie, but I like it a lot.

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Flame Princess, from Adventure Time, a TV show that is very good but admittedly has nothing else to do with this blog post.

Some years ago, I watched an ancient silent movie that laboriously set up the old banana-peel gag. A careless slob tosses the peel from his snack over his shoulder and onto the pavement, and oh no, here comes the hero and his pursuers around the corner! The camera centers on the peel, and — everyone’s feet rush right past it. Nothing happens. I felt astonished: even before movies learned how to talk, they had already found the banana-peel joke tired enough to subvert.

If pressed to name the most worn trope of interactive fiction, I would choose “my crappy apartment”. This describes the output of a certain kind of young author very eager to use a new tool for building virtual worlds, and turning for inspiration to the multi-room, object-filled environment they know best. They then add a crust of easy humor through exaggeration of their bachelor pad’s most degraded aspects, putting extra implementation on the piles of dirty laundry, moldering dishes, and so on. And then they share it with the world! I’ve written this game, and like everyone else who has, I had no idea at the time that it joined a grand (if not exactly proud) tradition, one that continues to this day.

Similarly, I can’t know how cognizant of this trope John Baker felt when he released John’s Fire Witch in 1995. Certainly it begins in full crappy-apartment glory, with the unnamed protagonist exploring the unkempt dwelling of their good friend and drinking buddy, “John Baker”, who has mysteriously vanished. I took note of the awkward writing evidenced in some of the dross I examined while wading through his place, and chalked it up to authorial inexperience of both writing and of life in general. But then, in stages, this seems to become subverted as the game unfolds in directions made entirely unexpected by its own introduction.

I should pause to explain how I came to play this old and charming little adventure game which I hadn’t heard of prior to last month. Earlier in the summer, Brian Rushton wrote a fantastic year-by-year retrospective of the Annual Interactive Fiction Competition, a 22-year-old digital arts festival I’ve had the privilege to organize since 2014. Despite my own knowledge of IFComp’s history and origins, I learned a lot from Brian’s writeup of its first year. This included the first mention I’d ever read of John’s Fire Witch.

According to Brian, this game impressed the tiny IF community of 1995 with its ability to deliver a complete and satisfying text-game experience despite its playtime of only a few hours. This suggested an alternative to the trend within the community of sprawling epics that tried to recapture the spirit of the dearly missed text adventures of the 1980s by replicating their enormous size and jacked-up difficulty.

The release of Fire Witch sparked much discussion about the fresh potential for small games on the community’s online forums. This would eventually lead to Kevin Wilson hosting the first IFComp later that year, with its initial single rule that all entries must take no longer than two hours to complete. 22 years later, IFComp still carries this rule, albeit lightly modified (allowing games of any length, but requiring judges to consider only their first two hours at most). And I had no idea that its inspiration lay, in large part, with this one little text adventure from 1995 I knew nothing at all about.

And so, with the 2017 comp’s still weeks away, I certainly had a few hours to try Fire Witch for myself — and zero excuse not to, no matter how belatedly. So I did, and I really dug it! It holds up quite well today, distractingly dated only in minor aspects. It took me around four hours to get all the way through, and I enjoyed most every minute. (The rest of this post avoids spoilers, but if you want to play it for yourself before continuing, go for it. You’ll need a TADS interpeter for your operating system of choice to make it work, and also a notion of how to play traditional parser IF games.)

Back, then, to my own playthrough, and the crappy apartment with hidden depths. First comes the discovery that the domestic map serves merely as prologue — for John, of course, lives above a complex puzzle-dungeon. And I loved it! The dungeon makes no more or less sense than any other completely artificial space that trades away narrative coherence to deliver a lovely knot of interrelated room-and-object, lock-and-key puzzles within a neatly compact space. It’s got a transportation system to figure out, monsters to trick and trap, and a bunch of fiddly magic items to play with. Your only goal, clear from the outset, involves reaching the end, so you can face down the evil ice wizard. (A possible reference, this, to the film Big, surely the most successful mainstream movie to open with a scene about playing a text adventure game.)

The real surprise comes via the puzzle that gates the midgame from the end. A certain taskmaster presents you with reason to return to John’s apartment and see it with fresh eyes and new motivation, hunting for clues hidden in plain sight — and which, it turns out, account for many of the ill-fitting word choices I noted in my initial tour. Arguably, the author could have pulled the trick off a little more smoothly. I must still observe that this 1995 text adventure gave me the pleasure of re-exploring familiar spaces that I today associate with “Metroidvania” games, even though John’s Fire Witch predates half of that portmanteau by two years. Realizing this, I did think of that silent movie, with that banana peel.

The one part of the game for which I needed hints — but not for any reason the author likely intended — involved in the ice wizard’s inner sanctum, piled with “stolen treasures”. All of these play homage to other text adventure games, a mix of stuff from 1980s commercial work as well as Fire Witch’s post-Infocom contemporaries — which is to say, all around 25 years old at this point. I thought recognized a tarot card from Curses, but I had to search the web to see that an important-looking runestone hailed from The Lurking Horror, and needed to seek counsel from other long-time IF fans to identify a “cheez kee” as an item from one of the Unnkulia games. In any event, all these fully interactive items are red herrings, and probably accidentally so — there only to offer diagetic shout-outs to Fire Witch’s inspirations, both classic and (from its own frame of reference) recent. Perhaps a player of the mid-1990s would have recognized this fact immediately, but it sent my 21st-century attention down an unintentional rabbit-hole for quite a while.

Not at all a complaint, mind you! I find this a very interesting example of how a game element might have seemed self-evident upon its release, but has lost clarity since then due to nothing more than the inevitable passage of time.

IFDB suggests that John’s Fire Witch represents Baker’s only IF work. In-game text suggests that those who enjoy this game send the author six dollars, the price of his favorite soup-and-salad lunch at a restaurant in Columbus, Ohio, 1995. That’s around ten bucks today. The game also provides a clearly ancient email address, with a backup suggestion of finding him on Usenet — quite unlikely, today. Still, I shall try my luck at getting him his sawbuck. (And, Mr. Baker, if you are reading this and you haven’t heard from me yet — do get in touch. I’d love to buy you lunch.)

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As an experiment, I have enabled comments on this blog. Every post-specific webpage on Fogknife now ends with a Disqus-based comments section, and posts on the blog’s front page each conclude with a hyperlink to these comments. To the best of my knowledge, I’ve disabled all tracking and advertising stuff from it.

My comments policy also appears after every post:

I welcome all topical and respectful comments, via the comment-thingy below. You must log in to said thingy prior to commenting. I reserve the right to remove comments I find abusive or misplaced.

Absent surprising levels of disaster or disappointment, I plan to keep comments enabled through at least the end of the year. If they seem to bring enough goodness to the Fogknife experience to compensate for their cost in additional complexity, then I’ll likely keep them around after that.

I chose Disqus due to its conceptual simplicity, the friendly admin tools and thorough documentation it offers on its website, and its allowance for exporting all comments. Self-hosted Disqus alternatives do exist, and I would have chosen one had any offered the feature-set I desired for Fogknife. But none quite made the cut — and, no, I do not at this time wish to roll my own comments system.

For my fellow Plerd users, I wrote up a page on Plerd’s wiki about how to add Disqus support to one’s blog. It requires a few short paste-in additions to one of your template files. Once I figured it out, I felt pretty pleased at how simple an operation it is.

(Stupid confession: I wasted a lot of time not understanding why my comments sections weren’t appearing, because I forgot that I had Ricky Romero’s Shut Up extension installed in Safari — and I’d never whitelisted Fogknife for it, because why would I have?)

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Cover of Haunted Futures

This new short-story collection serves as the first fiction I’ve read, speculative or otherwise, published after 2016. Its editor, Salomé Jones, describes in its preface how she challenged writers to interpret the title “Haunted Futures” into short SF stories, then collected the cream here. And while many of the results are ghost stories, it is the specter of our current era that haunts every tale most thoroughly.

In the late 1990s I went through a Harlan Ellison phase, devouring not only his own stories but the seminal Dangerous Visions collections that he had edited decades before. I found them engrossing on multiple levels, but especially as documents of their own times — the late 1960s and early 70s — as recorded through the lens of SF. Ellison assisted the insight of all his future readers by penning a (usually lengthy and acerbic) introduction to every story, explaining why he chose it for the volume, and in the process overtly binding each story to the cultural context of its original authorship.

Even though Haunted Futures lacks these story-by-story introductions, the collection still brought those ancient books to mind. I wondered, while reading it, if I felt something like what a contemporary reader of Dangerous Visions would have — experiencing the stories as the fantasy-distilled fears and hopes and angers of the era I now find myself living through. That’s what this new book delivered for me, certainly. It doesn’t have much in the way of explicit bindings to the present; there’s a throwaway reference in one nasty little dystopia that transforms Mar-a-Lago into a literal whorehouse, for example. But every future described in this book lies steeped in flavors of extremely present uncertainties that I recognized intimately well.

I quite liked almost all of these stories, thoroughly enjoying most and skipping over only one, a lengthy X-Men pastiche not to my taste. I could recommend this collection to any reader of speculative fiction not averse to a good ghost story, and not afraid when the ghost wears the face of now.

An aside: due to an entirely unique set of circumstances, this book also gave me a lifetime-first shock of turning a page and unexpectedly finding a new story written by someone I know. In this case, a delightfully morbid tale of cosmic madness by Lynnea Glasser, whose interactive-fiction work I’ve had the pleasure of curating during my current tenure as IFComp’s organizer. So, that was cool.

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Total eclipse of the something-or-other

A couple of years have passed since my last post announcing updates to Plerd, the open-source software that powers this blog. That seems like the right pace, per Anil Dash’s ninth lesson. But all things come due, the sun and the moon dance on and I pushed up Plerd version 1.5 last night. What’s new?

  • Better documentation. While I continue to keep Plerd’s README updated with a complete usage summary, I’ve also started to add pages to its wiki about customizing templates, the single most flexible yet under-documented feature of this software.

    I’ve also reformatted the example config file for clarity. For my whole career I’ve always appreciated this style of “chatty” config file, with lines and lines of commentary, and it pleases me to have reason to add my own small contribution.

  • Social-media metatags. With a bit of additional blog-side configuration, services like Facebook, Twitter, and Slack can now present those ubiquitous little summary-cards of Plerd-based blog posts whenever they link to them. It adheres to both the Open Graph and Twitter Card standards.

    Interestingly, I didn’t know about these cards at all because I view Twitter through third-party clients (which don’t display them) and I seldom visit Facebook. I had wondered why Slack made tidy little preview-summaries of some webpages, but never for my own blogposts, though. My weekend research of this puzzle led to here.

  • Support for custom post attributes. You can now put anything you wish in any post’s metadata section, in key: value format, and then refer back to it from within post templates. This allows you to design templates that display all sorts of variable information beyond the handful of Plerd’s predefined post attributes.

    I added this feature for the blog of the nonprofit I help run. Despite Plerd’s original design goal of supporting only one author, a team can use it just fine through the use of custom post headers. In this case, I just add the header byline: Jason McIntosh to my own posts.

  • Estimated reading-time labels. You know, the labels that say “7-minute read” or whatever at the top of articles. I actually don’t know how I feel about these things; as of this writing, I haven’t added them to my own blog, even though I added support for them to its codebase.

    But, I saw them on a friend’s blog recently, and I thought I bet it would be fun to add this to Plerd and it was.

  • JSON Feed support. Plerd has quietly supported JSON Feed for a few months now. My motivation for adding it was the same as that for adding the reading-time labels, and when I tweeted about it I got a Daring Fireball link out of it, so time well spent as far as I’m concerned.

    According to my access logs as of a week ago, a single person reads Fogknife via JSON Feed, and I unironically salute this iconoclast. I do have more thoughts about this technology, and perhaps I’ll share them here, sometime. In the meantime, here is Fogknife’s JSON Feed link, available to all.

  • Support for older/newer-article links on every post. If you read Fogknife on the web, you’ve probably noticed these already.

There’s a passel of variously less interesting features and improvements beyond these, as listed in Plerd’s complete changelog. Enjoy!

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This has been a very rough week, hasn’t it.

It started with the Google manifesto and all its fallout exposing how my own professional field has yet to throw off its endemic sexism. Engineers far younger than I promoted ideas I ignorantly thought had fallen out of date decades ago, emboldened by a diseased culture lately less afraid to shine light on itself.

Then — after the initial raw terror had boiled away — the idiot president’s cavalier war-drumming left me with shameful anger at what feels like my completely compromised American citizenship. Things in this realm had started to feel manageable, if not normal, with the most decisive repulsion yet of Congress’s anti-healthcare activity, and reports that senior members of Congress regardless of party affiliation had started to openly ignore the president’s whining and ranting. As he clearly shows no proclivity to give any actionable instruction to his military or his government, on this nor any other topic, I feel returned to this coldly comforting belief — but quite shaken, just the same.

Friday and Saturday’s hate, violence and death in Charlottesville made me ashamed of pretty much all my outward defining features. Not just that I’m a white American, but specifically one of the countless who failed to stop Trump. The president, afraid to upset the white-supremacist bloc among his voters, made worse-than-useless statements about the violence from “all sides”. Some of my fellow white Americans brought their Trump campaign signs to the hate march, just to remind him who lifted him to power, and it worked. It worked on me, too. That woman’s blood is on Trump’s hands and my hands both.

I deserve Trump. We deserve Trump. All us Americans do. We could have headed him off last year, but we blew it. He and his cronies now enjoy the spoils of their victory, coasting for as long as they can on their unbelievable sweet luck, and not caring a whit who or what goes to hell under the wheels of their grift. That’s the truth of it. Everything that happens while they retain power, we deserve one hundred percent. Yes, all of us — but the more powerful and privileged of us take a proportionately larger share of the blame. We didn’t do enough. I didn’t do enough.

But here we are, and wars don’t stay won forever. I believe black lives matter. I believe even lazy but comfortable chuckleheads like me can make a difference. I take heart and boldness that the health-care came around because of the roar of the citizens, me among them, and if we had to royally screw the pooch to find our voices and discover that representative democracy isn’t some civics-lesson abstraction, so be it. Here we are, and we’re all moving forward together anyway.

This past week felt more like a stumble, like I got pulled by the hair for a while. I will get back on my feet. Please join me. I will help you up, too, if I can.

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