Photograph of a cloudless blue sky.

“71-365 Blue sky” by kmardahl is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

I happen to have woken up in New York City today, and eighteen years is a significant personal anniversary in my society, so I may as well write down my memories now. I don’t expect them to contain any great objective significance or insight; it just feels right to share them today, here, where I have not before.

Not a habitual TV watcher, I believe I learned of the attacks while listening to WBUR as I got ready for work, in my little Somerville apartment. By the time I’d switched to my car’s radio, driving down Highland Avenue, I recall Tom Ashbrook’s calm public-radio voice bluntly stating “America is under attack.” I recall the skies through my windshield as cloudlessly blue, just as they were 200 miles away in New York.

The office presented a surreal, dreamlike scene. I worked in the Boston branch of a significant publishing house, with as many New York connections as any other worldwide business, and the people there didn’t know what to do or how to act. A general sense of confused paralysis had taken over. The company’s president in California, not a cruel person, sent us an all-hands email early in the morning that he did expect us to work as usual.

I don’t remember getting any work done, but I certainly did stay tuned to boston.com, which continued to work unlike all the utterly clogged national news websites. Through the company’s internal mailing list I also learned of a text-transcription news feed about the ongoing situation, and kept a window open to that. Local news websites in 2001 did not typically feature multimedia, so I did not see or hear any video of the disaster, and I think I benefitted from this. I would successfully avoid video exposure for many years thereafter, until enough time had passed for clips to start showing up in unrelated movies and such, used for the same sort scene-setting shorthand as the Zapruder film.

The company mailing list remained lit up all day, as were other lists I belonged to, in those pre-Facebook days: multiple lists used by different Boston-area friend-circles, and another for fans of an obscure board-game company. Everyone just reaching out, however they could. Checking in and telling uncertain jokes. I recall the first post on the day’s news to that board-game list, subject line “The bombs”, reflecting how much misinformation spread, so quickly. The message’s author making an effort to stay on-topic by sharing their plans to bring some games with them if they had to relocate to a shelter.

My best friend in the office, Erik, maintained a hopeful mood on the mailing list all morning, insisting that the towers still stood. It did not take long for the truth became clear and undeniable, and he sank into a profound sadness, and said he was going home, and he went home. I think we all did. I don’t quite remember how I felt; not sad, but just carried along.

That evening I had to go out on some errand. On my route home I walked past a throng of high school kids by the Davis Square subway stop, having an impromptu rally. A smiling girl wearing sparkling eye-makeup waved large American flag with both hands and I will remember her forever, she my mental anchor for the whole day. The boys in the group yelped at shouted for passing traffic to holler back at them. One called me out as I trudged past them: “You, in the Open Source backpack!” I raised my arms and went “wooo”.

Another boy in the group shouted “Raghead!” at a car. I also heard a young guy say “Let’s go kill some Arabs!” to his friend, out by the Star Market. Finally, as I got home, some very young kids took their excess of uncomfortable energy out on strangers. One pointed to the sky and shouted “Hey look!”, then with his other hand threw a paper twist of cap-gun powder at my feet, where it snapped loudly. They laughed as I flinched and kept walking.

I had not been hassled like that by the local kids before, and it would not happen again. We were all breathing strange air and I gave them a pass. (And do they even sell those little novelty bang-powder packets any more? I recall them as somewhat common when I was a kid, and this was the last time I’d ever encountered one. How bizarre they seem in retrospect.)

My parents called before I went to bed. They never approved of my living in what they considered a big, dangerous city like Boston, and the day’s events made them more worried than ever for my safety. I did my best to reassure them that I was fine, that everything was normal. My mother asked if I knew about the jet fighters that she heard were deployed in the city’s defense. “Can you see the planes?” she asked. I looked out over the skyline, and said I didn’t see any planes at all.

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Photograph of people gathered at, and strolling past, a Parisian café at dusk.

“Paris sidewalk scene at night” by tbeckeryvr is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0

Before actually arriving in Paris, I dreamed about all the work I’d get done there. In the weeks leading up to the trip, I’d heard in detail from Francophilic friends, a variety of travel guides, and various other sources about the unique atmosphere of the Parisian open-air café. As a lifelong aficionado of American coffee shops, I pictured myself sitting hour hours at a sidewalk table with my laptop, a cup of strong coffee near at hand, and letting the atmosphere of a new city inspire and permeate my work. It sounded heavenly — and, of course, was entirely bogus, the product of my own foreign preconceptions.

By my second day there, once I felt reasonably synched up enough with the local time zone to get some work done, I realized that while had indeed seen those cafés lining most every street — just as promised — I had not noticed a single open laptop in any of them. Under ordinary circumstances this detail would have escaped my notice, I’ve no doubt, but I’d cranked up my sensitivity to avoiding ugly-American tourist stereotypical behaviors to such as degree that this discrepancy between assumption and reality penetrated even my jet-lagged perception.

So — in the safety of my little hotel room, far too European-cozy to work at length from — I performed a little research. Quickly I found the article “My Favorite Working Cafés in Paris” by Anne Elder, which opens thus:

Working at a café goes totally against French nature. Cafés are for socializing, for relaxing, for having apéritifs after a long day of work. For dipping croissants in café crèmes so the crumbs don’t get stuck to your sweater. Cafés, historically, are the antithesis of work.

This certainly jibed with my observations! Further research taught me the purposes of and the protocols for proper customer behavior at one of these sidewalk establishments. In a nutshell: if its tables have no cutlery, then just seat yourself, face the street, and sit quietly. Eventually, a waiter will approach. Say “Merci” when the drink arrives, then enjoy it as slowly as possible while doing absolutely nothing “productive”. Feel free to chat, if you happen to have brought a conversational partner, and otherwise sit in quiet contemplation of the urban scene around you, watching the people go by.

I am pleased to say that I did participate in this very Parisian ritual once during my two weeks in the city, at a randomly chosen café in the first arrondissement. I felt treated like any of the establishment’s native customers, albeit with the patient server kindly switching into English as soon as she heard the grubby accent of my “Bonjour”. When have I last felt so completely welcome by a foreign place, and so rewarded for putting a soupçon of assimilatory effort in? Emotions well up, just recalling the experience now, despite its utter (and utterly intentional) uneventfulness.

So, yes, I did get rather little work done in Paris, compared to my expectations. I breathed in the air, I’m afraid. I arrived determined not to stand out unpleasantly, a foreigner but not a tourist, and it seems I succeeded well enough to learn a half-lesson: I learned to participate in languid part of the French attitude towards life, but without staying long enough to comprehend how these people manage to get things done just the same.

But I have since returned to the United States, so I shall set aside this highly un-American apology to myself and come to the business of offering three suggestions, in order of decreasing impressiveness, for places in the city I did discover as laptop-appropriate. (Please do consider them an addendum to the lists in Elder’s article, if you wish.)

I found The American Library in Paris through a tip-off from my librarian spouse and traveling partner. A true oasis for any Anglophone in the City of Light who wants to sit ensconced in their mother tongue for a few hours — and who can get to the seventh arrondissement without too much trouble. (That’s the one with the Eiffel Tower in it.) Friends, I learned to ride the bus in order to get there.

Working at the library requires the purchase of a permanent membership or a visitor’s pass; the latter costs 10€ per day, or 30€ for a week. I gladly took the latter option, and made the library my daytime base of operations for the length of my stay in Paris. I found the space comfortable, the staff kind, and the vending machine in the lobby to serve the best vending-machine coffee I’ve ever tasted, because France.

Before discovering the American Library, though, I made use of the rather more visible Anticafé, a business located variously around the city. Besides explicitly welcoming laptop-toters, it features an intriguingly inverted business model: you pay a flat fee of 5€ per hour to stay, and during this time the staff will make all the hot or cold drinks you may desire. You can also make use of a kitchenette out back to fix yourself some snacks, like toast or simple salads.

The Louvre-neighborhood Anticafé let me take my first gulping breaths of internet after several days away, while seated at a bright, sidewalk-facing window, and this buoyed me. I stopped visiting Anticafé once I worked up the nerve to ride the ligne 72 bus from the hotel to the library (board at the front, press one of the red buttons request a stop, then exit out the middle only), but I feel thankful to have discovered it early in my stay.

And, both last and least, you can always fail over to Starbucks. I came across Starbucksen at around the same frequency as I would in any American city of significant size, which is to say that no major square went unblighted by one or two. The inside of every Parisian Starbucks looked like the inside of any other Starbucks I’d seen, including its population of my fellow sad laptop-hunchbacks. Its coffee tasted exactly the same too.

But I don’t list Starbucks here just to bad-mouth it: it’s good to have a fail-over, when in a foreign place. Not speaking the local language carries a heightened baseline of stress — even if you can get by with English plus basic host-language politesse. Sometimes you just want to slip back into your comfort zone, or something close enough to it, even if it seems to run against the spirit of your journey. And sometimes you don’t want to travel more than one block to get there.

To that end, I willingly entered a Starbucks in Paris at least twice, over the course of my trip. Maybe as many as three times. I state this with neither pride nor defiance, but in memory of the fleeting but valuable relief they brought me, with their watery café Americano and their free wifi, before resuming my role as foreigner under the Gallic sun.

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Logo of the 2019 IFComp.The Annual Interactive Fiction Competition celebrates its 25th year in 2019, and for the third year running it offers the Colossal Fund, a special cash prize pool that gets shared among the authors of the top two-thirds of the year’s IFComp entries. It seems I’ve never promoted this here on Fogknife, even though the Fund began life during my own IFComp organizational tenure — so allow me to correct that! The Fund has proven one of the most popular changes to IFComp that I helped introduce, and I’m excited to see it pushing new boundaries this year under its current leadership.

The first two Colossal Fund instances handily met their respective funding goals, so this year IFComp organizer Jacqueline Ashwell has set it to $10,000, the largest so far. From now until mid-November, anyone can donate to the Fund through that blue PayPal button on the IFComp prize page. The Fund is managed by IFTF, an American charitable nonprofit, so all contributions are tax-deductible where allowed by law. Those who do contribute will see their name (or, if desired, an anonymous placeholder) enshrined on the Fund’s annual honor roll. IFTF retains any contributions beyond the maximum, and so far has always applied them directly to the following year’s Colossal Fund.

One subtle feature I especially like about Colossal Fund is the group effort involved at every level, and not just in the obvious facet of the many generous hands that build up the Fund every year. As IFComp organizer in 2017, I had the privilege of presence for the Fund’s inception, and so I know how Nick Montfort suggested the name in 2017, as a nod to Colossal Cave — whose iconic treasures get referenced in the names of the Fund’s donor-rankings. (And so we have “platinum bar” donors, “jade figurine” donors, and so on.) Andrew Plotkin led the design of its mechanics, including the graceful curve that determines which IFComp place-finisher gets how large of a portion, a system inspired by Etienne Vouga’s single-handedly setting up the Colossal Fund’s unnamed predecessor as a special IFComp prize in 2015.

I am a fan of that curve: each step away from first place getts a progressively smaller share, but only a little, step by step. This gently downward slope aims to avoid any hard feelings about losing a lot of money due to a one-place difference in IFComp’s final ordering, where entries sometimes end up separated by a hundredth of a point in judges’ collective opinion. And we intentionally kept the minimum payouts above ten dollars, just large enough to serve as a palpable token of recognition.

Speaking of judges: the competition always needs judges. Why not make some plans to join this year as a judge? The only requirement is that you play at least five of the mumble-umpteen games which will launch at https://ifcomp.org on October 1, submitting your ratings through that website by November 15. You can find everything you need to know about the competition, its processes, and its history at that website (built, I will aside, largely by myself around 2014, and maintained since by a small team of excellent volunteers).

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I write three days into a ten-day stay in Paris — my first visit to this city, and only my second time outside the Anglosphere. I accompany my partner, also a first-timer, and one quite focused on her mission to taste all her favorite gustatory delights at the source. I have already joined her for some of these adventures, but today I explore on my own — and take some time to describe a few first impressions as well.

Paris loves motorcycles, and every kind of motorist drives with a boundless joie de vivre. Paris rumbles at all hours from the roars and growls of motorcycles of every description, driven by people themselves of every size and shape. It brought to mind the wonderful short film Croissant de Triomphe, and make me realize how its pairing of Mickey Mouse with a talking motor scooter was not random; two-wheelers are clearly as iconic to the city as any landmark depicted in that cartoon. I did not know this before visiting!

Before getting my feet on the Parisian pavement, my first impression of the city came from within the cab that carried us from the distant airport to our hotel in the 1st arrondissement. I would not say that I feared for my life, per se; in fact, I probably napped a bit, during the highway portion of this journey. But I couldn’t help but notice that as the cab tumbled and clawed its way up ramps and across lanes, no other driver expressed the outraged astonishment at getting “cut off” that I would have expected in the States. Once we arrived in the city, the cab bore down on every pedestrian and cyclist, rolling with enthusiastic impatience right up to every crosswalk, and I could tell the local piétons as those who did not bat an eye at this behavior. I have in the days since done my best to emulate their calmness, and so far have been struck dead by zero joyful motorists.

If a city hides its skyline, does it truly have one? For a while I thought that the city had no skyline in the modern sense, the whole of Paris a round and flat crepe whose Eiffel Tower gains all the more grandeur for its being the only actual tall thing in the land. Certainly I saw nothing taller around it as the plane descended, and my touring so far by foot and my Metro has encountered only block after long of long, ancient buildings lining every street with a uniform five-story profile. But then last night, wandering the Tuileries by dusk, I happened to gaze west-north-west towards the Egyptian obelisk at the Place de la Concorde, and I saw the Arc de Triomphe in the distance and beyond that — a skyline! Real, modern skyscrapers, in many shapes, but none familiar; they did not announce their city in the way of the ancient monuments they stood behind.

And when I walked towards them, strange things happened. Through some magic of the local geography that I cannot possibly comprehend, the Arc and everything beyond vanished. I did not watch them become obscured by other features, or gradually but visibly drop under a sudden elevation change; they simply exited my awareness, and by the time I stood close enough to see the obelisk’s enigmatic hieroglyphs, no trace of the skyline remained. And at that very moment the Eiffel Tower, once again the dominating the horizon, started to sparkle through its 9 PM light show, as if laughing with gentle delight at my gawping confusion.

This explained why I hadn’t seen any of those distant buildings when I’d visited the same square during the heat of the day before, walking in from another direction. But it didn’t explain the mechanics behind this amazing and unnerving city-scale optical illusion. I cannot say how much intention lies behind Paris’s camouflaging of its vertical aspect, but it strikes me as in-character for this place, somehow. Of course it admits skyscrapers as a modern necessity, but it chooses not to center them, or to have re-centered itself around them in the modern era. Paris wants you, the visitor, to think of it as ancient, and expansive, and to leave the impression of glittering glass-and-steel towers for other cities.

Immersion makes French surprisingly readable, to an Anglophone. When I visited Denmark a few years ago, being surrounded by a the text of a foreign language made from a familiar alphabet started to weigh heavily on my psyche after a couple of weeks. I expected this to happen again in Paris, and maybe I still will hit that breaking point before my return in one more week. But for now, I find my bath in written French surprisingly comfortable. Danish felt like a language made of Teflon, seldom if ever offering any way to for my poor monoglot mind to break into the meaning of any sign or plaque or other public-textual expression. French feels wonderfully porous by comparison. A memorial wants to tell me en Français that an event involving the Revolution or the Vichy government happened here, or that a certain gate is closed at night, or that pedestrians are advised that the traffic here can get especially joyful, and in most every case I get the gist.

In the process, and through no conscious effort on my part, I have found myself picking up words both written and spoken for the first time in my life. Unlike my time in Denmark, where I was too shy to even try saying “hello” in the local language, I have been speaking a little more confidently here, even if just playing with a handful of basic politisse — opening every transaction with “Bonjour!” and closing with “Merci!”. I’ve added bonsoir! and excusez-moi! to my repertoire, after hearing some locals say these things to each other. It feels really great, even if limited to just interjections. (And, inevitably, it reminds me more than a little of the best parts of Heaven’s Vault.)

I know that coming back to the United States and not having to think about language like this will come as a great relief; I am not a naturally adventurous person, and have no wish to stay outside my comfort zone too long. But while my partner busies herself cataloguing cheeses, I feel glad that I — along for the ride — can better myself a little bit rather than just count the hours until the flight home.

This article was also posted to the “travel” section of Indieweb.xyz.

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Photograph of Donald and Melania Trump, both grinning at the camera. Melania is cradling a baby whose parents died before its eyes in the El Paso mass shooting. Donald is making a thumbs-up gesture.

This post contains spoilers for “The Witch”.

Watching Antichrist a couple of months ago stoked a fresh appetite for modern horror films. An unusal choice for me, but I leaned in, requesting one poisoned Blu-Ray after another from my local library. I saw Antichrist’s follow-up Melancholia, and then Hereditary, The Witch, and the 2018 Suspiria remake. Every movie but the last could be crudely summarized as “A family is destroyed,” a commonality of plot I did not consciously seek, but which I found grimly satisfying just the same given the backdrop of our present reality. I want to focus on The Witch now, in part because it’s probably the most accessibile film of the bunch. Further, I feel particular resonance in its portrayal of a family mowed down in a border state by a laughing, capering evil — one resplendent in its power to do whatever it wants with those who cross into its home territory, and seeing children in particular as resources to either exploit or simply consume.

Notably, this home-viewing represented my second swing at the picture, several years after catching it in the theaters. I didn’t like it, at the time; it struck me as a well-shot series of ultimately meaningless scenes. The family succumbed one by one to a variety of misfortunes both weird and mundane, and then the final girl, apparently without anything better to do, surrenders her soul to Satan and floats away. Huh? I didn’t understand why so many of my friends loved the movie so much. But I watched it again on a hunch that I’d come better prepared to appreciate it, between my cinematic horizons expanding and the world itself changing during the intervening years. I proved myself right: The Witch felt far more coherent on re-watch — and even seemed to engage in conversation with other films I’ve seen recently.

I have one friend in particular, a true cineaste, who cherishes this movie. He expressed something like offense after I didn’t initially like it, and relished my tweeted news that I meant to give it another go. For him, the film summarizes to “The Devil rescues a young woman from Christianity.” A legitimate interpretation, and one that let the movie hit him where he lived, given his personal background. The movie carries enough subtlety and ambiguity to allow for this and other layered readings, I’m sure. I would imagine you could even make a case that nothing supernatural in the film happens at all, and the family tears itself asunder after a few bad-luck coincidences trigger a destructive spiral of paranoid mistrust, fueled by religious conviction. However, I felt entirely comfortable skimming along the movie’s surface, taking its events literally, and understanding a perfectly satisfying story from them.

The key scene for my second viewing comes near the start, as the family faces the reality of their exile for the first time. Led by the parents, holding hands and grinning with confidence, they face the forest together, then kneel to pray. The camera cuts to the family’s viewpoint of the tall, dark trees lining the clearing, all shadows behind, and the choral soundtrack ascends into a howling crescendo. I startled, not just from the sonic assault but because this image felt borrowed directly from Antichrist, and in particular its theme of nature — and the wild forest, in particular — as Satan’s church.

And here is the doomed family, praying at its doorstep! What I didn’t see in my first viewing seemed dead-obvious now: from that moment, their grim fate was sealed. The father doesn’t realize until the very end of the picture that he committed the mortal sin of pride by gladly accepting exile, rather than make any attempt to reconcile his philosophical disagreements with the rest of the colony. He couldn’t see until far too late that God is the community, and to leave the embrace of the latter means to leave sight of the former. And so, with that early scene, the family happily blunders straight into the Adversary’s own place of worship, hilariously thinking they’ll homestead there. The true forest-dwellers lick their chops at the fat lambs that have stupidly, proudly wandered right into their den.

The rest of the movie, then, merely depicts the forest-coven playing with its food. After snatching the baby to rev its engines (and giving us another scene straight from Antichrist, characters wandering a forest desperately while an infant cries from an unknowable direction), the coven begins a campaign of harassing the parents and sabotaging their crops, building stress and distraction. From there, the monsters compromise the young twins through animal-whispering, then twist the older boy into a despair-bomb, sending him back home to detonate. Now they can just let things play out, at last claiming the final survivor as their own (with the twins’ fate left ambiguous). And all because dad simply refused even give the slightest glance downward to see the road to ruin he’d set everyone on.

Crucially, the father’s prideful embrace of exile seems the only evil act he commits. The moment we hear Ralph Ineson’s amazing voice speaking defiantly to the town council, we brace for subsequent scenes his family suffering under the blunt cruelty of a Puritain fanatic. But that doesn’t happen, not at all. Within the confines of their spartan existence, the father cares for his family tenderly — and they repsond in kind, to one another, even as things start to fall apart. I would have favored my friend’s take on the film if we saw any indication that the daughter wanted to flee, but as far as I can tell, no such sign appears. Similarly, I don’t buy that she harbors any secret ill will towards her parents or siblings. In our first real moments with her, she plays joyfully with her infant brother. If his subsequently becoming witch-stew fulfilled something in the recesses of her heart, then it’s too subtle for me to catch. None of the family either desires or deserves what happens — it’s just the consequences of a single, willful, enormous mistake.

In a retrospectively delicious irony, we learn that the father, uneasily aware of the older childrens’ incipient adulthood, considers negotiating with the colony he turned away from in order to get the kids — or at least the daughter — off the hook, letting them re-enter society. So she had an escape route anyway, through essentially no action of her own. Maybe that wasn’t enough escape for her, and she wanted to leave the company of humanity entirely, but I still can’t see the evidence for it. Ultimately, I did not see her laughter in the final scene as she sails aloft as that of a woman finally free. Rather, it brought to mind Winston Smith at the end of 1984, gazing with adoration at Big Brother, his mind bent around to love his destroyer. The family’s obliteration, and the Devil’s victory, was complete.


I will end with the observation, somewhat disconnected, that the Devil too is explicitly presented as a homesteader here, in colonial New England. The witches’ coven is as much as colony as the gated British town is. This too comes from a single point-of-view shot at the very start of the film: as the cart bearing the family leaves the English colony for the last time, a trio of Indians trudges across the road behind them: on-screen for just a moment, but center-framed. With passive curiosity, one of them looks over his shoulder, into the camera representing the exiles’ own gaze. It is the last truly human face anyone in the family will see.

That brief glance stuck with me, even though it doesn’t seem obviously close to the film’s plot. (In fact, it helped entice me to see The Witch a second time, since this same shot appears in the trailer that I saw before Hereditary.) It establishes that, yes, we are dealing with colonies here, and the colonies are treating with — and displacing — a native people. The film makes a minimal but unmissiable effort to show their presence. And it all suggests the question: was the Devil in the woods before the white men came? The witches we see all look as pale as the English colonists, which rather implies that Satan must have hitched a ride over on the first colony ships, and has since stayed busy in his own effort to rapaciously claim up land and fill it with his own people. An inevitable shadow cast by any human nation’s colonial efforts, perhaps: converting the land, corrupting the wilds, squeezing out the natives, and ultimately turning on itself.

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Photograph of a gumball machine.

“Treat time” by VO1GXG
is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

After playing a work-in-progress demonstration of a new, fan-made modernization of Cyan’s classic adventure game Riven, Zarf wrote this summary of his core criticism with VR as a game platform. I found it compelling and agreeable, putting into words many of my own heretofore half-formed reservations about VR. In particular, I nod along with the observation that one’s memories of a good immersive game already situate one within the game’s world, raising the question of what a VR setup could add to that. The answer, Zarf argues, is immediacy — albeit often like a lightning strike, a stunning shock that fades very quickly.

An immersive game played through the typical medium of a large, flat screen eases you into its world, he writes. If it succeeds at all in capturing your attention, then the finite rectangle in front of you becomes your sole focus, its borders fuzzing away, and its content the only thing you’ll recall later. (See also: watching a movie.) VR, on the other hand, grabs your head (literally!) and dunks you into its world from the very moment you switch it on. You gasp, bedazzled, as the experience hits you like a bucket of water: wow!

This works wonders on trade show floors, when you might have only a minute or two to try a game or gadget, making instant immersion entirely appropriate. But after that shock of entry wears off, it’s just a video game, and needs to win your attention — and stick in your memory — on its own merits. (This reminds me, too, of how the 3D-ness of every 3D movie I’ve seen seems to follow a similar arc. Gum, losing its flavor.)

To these observations, I would add another: games and other experiences that successfully bring your head and your hands into their world, and not just “you”, make for more meaningful VR interactions that last beyond those first moments. But then those games must at core be all about your head and hands; any game with more on its mind with have a tough time crafting a VR mode with any measure of stickiness.

A favorite example: one of the best games for PSVR is Tumble VR, which has you stack blocks. You stack different blocks under a variety of restrictions and circumstances, challenged to make a tall stack on one level, and then a wide and stable pyramid on the next. I doubt this would make for a compelling experience on a flat screen. But in VR? It feels great. Using the PlayStation’s wand-like Move controllers as hands, you snatch up blocks, and hold them close to your face to examine their weight and material. You gently rub them against other blocks to get a sense of their surface friction, and you make the most fine-tuned motions with the real muscles of your real wrists, trying to nudge the virtual blocks into just the right spaces. That’s the whole game, and I love it — and I remember playing it as an intensely physical experience.

Compare to Obduction, the latest full-sized immersive adventure game from Cyan. I can’t recall how long I waited in between my purchasing it for PS4 and its delayed PSVR support coming down the pipe — it may have taken a most of a year. When it finally did arrive, I felt mainly frustration at the unnatural controls, which relied on the teleport-to-move style employed by many VR games as proof against motion sickness. The most memorable interaction I had involved ringing someone’s doorbell over and over by pulling my right-hand Move controller’s trigger to extend my in-game hand’s index finger, then jabbing it forward repeatedly. Fun — but, alas, not an action central to the experience. I took off the helmet and proceeded to play “flat” Obduction all the way through as originally intended, and had a marvelous time that I today remember fondly.

I’ve already written about Rez in VR, where the helmet turns you into a digital basilisk, destroying targets by looking at them, and how that feels quite perfect. (I maintain that the original Rez was a VR-native game, published 15 years ahead of schedule.) I can also praise two games that make you feel present by playing with extreme scale: the mouse-warrior protagonist of Moss seems like she really is two inches tall and — this is key — six inches away from your face as she tumbles through miniature fantasy play-sets. Conversely, Here They Lie contains some amazing set-pieces involving titanically large figures glaring down at you from a mile away, in ways that caught my breath. The same game also has one of my favorite unexpected single VR moments ever: I came across a mirror and caught a glimpse of the player-character, surprised at the specificity of his appearance, all rumpled suit and receding hairline. I instinctively leaned in close to see better — and, of course, “my” reflection did exactly the same, with the same curious head-tilt too.

In all the cases, the VR games worked with my presence in the game-world as embodied, centering themselves specifically around the position and motion of my eyes and hands in space. In subtle but real ways, this is different from treating the player as a floating camera that can do stuff, the perfectly functional mode for standard game controls and so often a clumsy and distracting rig in VR. That, I think, summarizes the update I’d make to my own earlier article on PSVR. It’s not so much that the best, least gimmicky VR games “have presence”, but that they make you feel startlingly, bodily present — and that’s simply not the right approach for every sort of game. Disappointingly, this may include most games about immersive exploration, ones that primarily want to show you amazing vistas and wondrous machines. A familiar controller and nice big flat screen may remain their best home.

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A photograph of a balcony overlooking a street, decorated with several potted plants.

“Balcony garden” by katieharbath is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

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  1. Post, anywhere on the web, a reply that contains a hyperlink back to the Fogknife article you are replying to.

  2. Paste the URL of that reply into the “Suggest a new mention” box at the bottom of the relevant Fogknife article, then tap the “Submit suggestion” button.

A long-winded explanation with more options follows.

This blog welcomes direct responses to its articles, as well as public but indirect mentions of them, appending links and summaries to the relevant posts. (This post, for example, has a variety of public reaction attached.) It accomplishes this through technology known as Webmention, which works by letting the responder publish their response somewhere else on the web, and then letting Fogknife know about it, one way or another.

If you stand among the lucky few who already know how to post replies and send webmentions, great! Just do that, however you do it. When you want to post a reply (or a like, or a repost), any Fogknife article’s URL should work as a webmention target, and the right things will happen upon receipt.

Otherwise, you can comment via any of these methods:

Reply to the post on Twitter. Many posts on Fogknife end with a hyperlink reading “Share or reply to this post on Twitter”. This leads to the post’s “official” tweet, which links back in turn to Fogknife. If you “like”, retweet, or respond to this tweet on Twitter, then your activity will show up as a like, a repost, or a reply on the Fogknife article. (It may take a few hours to happen.)

This magic occurs by way of Bridgy, whose maintainers have my gratitude for their impressive and inspirational work.

Create a reply with Comment Parade. An experimental but nifty service by Christian Weiske that will host comments and send webmentions for you. Go to the main page, plug in the URL of the specific Fogknife article you’d like to reply to, and follow the prompts from there. (For this simple purpose, you may disregard the language about IndieAuth endpoints and logins.)

Publish a response anywhere you want, and then tell Fogknife about it. Every Fogknife article-page ends with a simple form labeled “Suggest a new mention”, comprising a single text-field. If you plug in the URL of a page anywhere on the public internet that itself contains a hyperlink to the Fogknife article in question, then Fogknife will create the appropriate webmention.

So, you can write something on your own blog, or on a service like Mastodon, or even just publish a stand-alone webpage that responds to the post, and then come back to the Fogknife post and share it. So long as it links to that post, the article should treat it as a comment.

Advanced technique: If you take this latter path, you may wish to try marking up your article with microformats that identify it specifically as a response to the Fogknife article, and not merely an article that happens to mention it. These microformats can also contain information about you, the response’s author, and a separate summary of your response (if it’s on the longer side).

This article by Aaron Parecki can teach you how that works. When you’re done, plug your page’s URL into the Fogknife article’s form, as described above.

And then if you find yourself intrigued by seeing all that Webmention magic at work, do feel free to follow the links at the end of Aaron’s article to dive deeper into the topic, as well as the wider world of the IndieWeb.

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Photograph of a small sticker reading 'Fogknife', attached to a Mac laptop cover.
This small but stately Fogknife sticker measures about 1½ inches in height and width.

I offer two ways to support my writing here. I reward any assistance with a self-adhesive token of my gratitude, per the attached figure.

Method 1: Donate at least $10 to a non-profit organization from the list below. Then send me, via email, proof of your donation — a photographed or forwarded receipt would do nicely — as well as your postal address. If the donation occurred within a month of the date of your email, then I will send you a handsome vinyl Fogknife sticker as soon as I can.

You can also donate $10 or more to a non-profit organization not on this list, and show me that receipt instead. So long as your generosity seems in-line with my own notions of what would make a better world — and I trust you can ascertain the general direction of my philosophy from this list, and indeed from what I write about on this blog — you’ll probably get a sticker. (Honestly, I’ll probably approve anything that isn’t outright antithetical to my beliefs.)

Method 2: Send me, via PayPal, $10 or more, and attach your postal address as a note. My email address for PayPal purposes is jmac@jmac.org. I will, on receipt, send you a fetching vinyl Fogknife sticker as soon as I can.

At the start of every month, I will donate 100% of the money collected in this fashion to one or more charities of my choice. Every time I do donate money through this route, I will list the recipients and the totals on Fogknife. (I will not name the original donors, except in extraordinary circumstances, and even then only with their permission.)

Choose this option only if you don’t care which charities receive your donation, and if you trust my own judgment in this regard. If you want to make sure the money goes to a particular recipient, please use the first method instead!

Notably, I will not donate any money collected this way to any non-profit organization on whose board I sit. (At this time, this list contains only one member, the Interactive Fiction Technology Foundation.) I would of course be thrilled and grateful if this appeal led you to donate money in that direction anyway, but I wish to make clear that this activity does not represent a sneaky fund-raising effort for any organization I help manage.

How do these donations help Fogknife? I find myself living in a civilization that has chosen to undertake an exploration of its own fragility. It experiments with authoritarian governance and environmental degradation, favoring short-term gains for a few over long-term growth for all.

This trend endagers my ability to write. The resource that I need the most to keep writing and maintaining this website is not money, but time and attention. If my societal freedoms erode too much, I will have to turn more of my attention towards the basic survival of myself and my family, and that will reduce or even eliminate the attention I have to spare for projects like Fogknife.

Supporting causes that can use your money to maintain democratic freedom, defend the climate, and resist authoritarian undermining therefore supports my work here. It may very well support your own work, too.


My inspiration for the first method of support comes from Francis Heaney, a prolific puzzle constructor who published a special collection of crosswords in January 2017 — and set as its cover-price a small donation to a politically progressive or pro-climate non-profit. He offered a list of suggestions, much as I do here. This began my own career as a personal-scale philanthropist, as I wrote about at the time.

The second route offered here is more experimental. I’m not aware of any other writer or “content creator” who offers something like this, and I wanted to try it. It presents a variation of the appeal to donate to progressive charities that I have attached to my own open-source software projects since 2018. I found myself wondering if more people who like my work would actually donate to any of these causes if I made the process as easy as possible for them, acting with all due transparency.

I have no idea if it will work, or if it has downsides I can’t see right now. I recognize too that, as far as rewards go, a packet of original puzzles from professional constructors does not compare to a tiny sticker representing an obscure blog. If all this does turn out to be a bad idea — or an embarrassingly inert one — I’ll call it off, and modify this page appropriately. (If this page does not clearly state some variant of “Oops never mind” at the top amidst a lot of struck-out text, you may assume that it still means what it says.)

In any event, I have no qualms at all about passing through every penny I may attract this way. I have enough money already, and Fogknife is far too humble a publication to squeeze any personal profit from. If I can somehow turn it into a passive financial magnet — however modest — for causes I believe in, I’d rather see that happen.

If you’ve head this far, thank you for your support, or at least your consideration thereof. I will keep writing.

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Earlier this month I discovered News API, a service that provides just what its name implies: a handful of API endpoints that result in JSON-based summaries of current news stories from around the world. You can get a stream of new headlines, or search through all recent stories in its database, filtering on various criteria. Its documentation includes some example output.

Using the service requires an API key; one can obtain a free key that allows modestly rate-limited queries for personal or open-source-project use, which earns my attention and my respect for sure. The rather mysterious organization behind the service — its official website has no “About Us” page that I can find — does offer higher-throughput commercial-access plans with monthly pricing that starts in the low hundreds.

News API’s enigmatic nature (Who runs it, exactly? What else do they do, and what’s their overall mission?) prompts me to not assume its future availability as indefinite. But its tight focus, clear documentation, and friendliness towards open-source use encouraged me nonetheless to gamble a couple of afternoons writing the first version of Web::NewsAPI, a new code library that lets you work with News API via Perl. Its source is on GitHub, and I humbly offer the library for consideration as an addition to News API’s officially endorsed implementations.

I plan on using this new module with a near-future release of Brickfielder, my exercise timer. I have, since that program’s inception, had a notion of adding a multiple-sourced “on-board entertainment” system to it, and News API immediately struck me as an excellent resource for this questionable purpose. I look forward to completing and announcing this work later in the year.

This article was also posted to the “code” section of Indieweb.xyz.

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Photograph of a plate of uncooked sausages.
“Before cooking”by schlymay is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0

I came at this 2018 book by surgeon Arnold van de Laar expecting a popular-nonfiction health treatise, but instead found something far more akin to Patrick Smith’s Cockpit Confidential, which I loved. As with Smith’s book, Under the Knife comes from the pen of a professional who loves his craft, eager to share favorite stories and observations with an audience of curious laypeople. I found the author’s enthusiasm infectious and I loved this book too, even as I squirmed through much of its often bluntly succinct descriptions of human bodies’ failure states and the operations required to repair them.

While acknowledging from the outset that mortality surrounds a surgeon’s work on all sides, Under the Knife ends up a celebration of the human machine’s resilience, its determination to stay alive in the most severe circumstances. Over the author’s recounting of his favorite historically significant surgeries, he frequently mentions the ancient dictum of healing per secundam, where the doctor mere cleans up any acute mess and then allows the body to knit itself back together, because that is what bodies do.

And in this context, van de Laar makes clear that part of the surgeon’s job involves creating wounds, not shying from using that word repeatedly to describe the incisions and dissections that a modern surgeon performs in order to target a problem that might lay many layers deep. The author really gets across the intuitive inversion at play here, so easy to overlook in the age of modern, sterile medicine. Not even two centuries ago, any penetrating wound to the gut, whether by bayonet or scalpel, was almost invariably fatal. This made abdominal surgery, where a single operation might require myriad intentional wounds, quite impossible until relatively recently.

I got the impression that the author relished modern medicine’s allowing him, personally, to explore the wonders of the human abdomen, and then talk to the stitched up patient about it afterwards. The stories that he brings the most enthusiasm to in Under the Knife involve the belly-guts, and he especially loves to imagine himself in the operating theaters, ancient and modern, that he describes. He has particular fun envisioning the emergency surgery upon Pope John Paul II after his shooting, with one head surgeon after another barging his way into the OR until there are no fewer than six hands holding up the pope’s bowels and rooting around behind them to trace and repair the path torn by the assassin’s bullet.

Other “celebrity surgeries”, where the author mixes adds his own experience and intuition to the available historical record, make up some of the book’s other high points. He observes how a throat-wound on JFK’s body, long a favorite of conspiracy theorists as an impossible bullet-hole, was probably an intentional tracheotomy wound introduced by the first surgeon who received the dying president, and then mis-reported in the ensuing chaos. He brings us to the private chambers of Louis XIV during the operation on his anal fistula, marveling at the surgeon’s practiced genius and the Sun King’s bravery. He clutches his head at the disastrous treatment of Queen Caroline’s umbilical hernia, where confused and bickering doctors overlooked clues that should have been obvious even to a surgeon of antiquity, leading to the patient’s miserable death.

There are stories of humbler surgeries too, ones that made the historical annals due to the practitioner’s innovation rather than the fame of the patient. Through these tales, van de Laar does give us a tour us through human internal anatomy, even if often in the context of things going wrong. With obvious admiration he describes the gastrointestinal tract as a single, unbroken tube that runs from mouth to butt, with various specialized structures along the way, and I don’t think I’d ever heard it so described before. I also loved learning about how many bodily failures trace have a root cause in internal mechanisms optimized for a life on all fours. Standing upright may have seemed like a good idea at the time, but now all of Lucy’s descendants have to live with varicose veins, slipped discs, and hernias.

For all that, I finished the book feeling both smarter about the body and grateful to live in the era of modern medicine. It can feel rewarding and necessary to read, now and again, one subject-matter expert’s testament on how things do tend to improve when viewed on the long arc of history.

This article was also posted to the “books” section of Indieweb.xyz.

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