Photograph of a University of Maine banner, attached to a street pole, set against a clear blue sky.

“University of Maine Flag” by jimmywayne is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

As a graduate of its Class of 1996, I call upon the University of Maine to rescind its hosting and support of the College Republicans. While the group may once have stood for legitimate conservative values within a liberal college campus, its more recent actions have demonstrated its descent into ethno-nationalism, cynically abusing the university’s “marketplace of ideas” to advance a regressive, destructive agenda. A progressively minded American university — and my own alma mater — has no business providing it a platform.

Maine has joined other cities and regions around the country in officially renaming the mid-October federal holiday from “Columbus Day” to “Indigenous Peoples’ Day”. UMaine’s College Republicans (UMCR) responded with an absurd post to its Facebook page, condemning pre-Columbian civilizations as “brutal societies” and suggesting that the existence of human-sacrifice rituals in ancient Mesoamerica validated the subsequent subjugation and near-eradication of Native American cultures by European colonists.

The university’s president and its dean of students responded swiftly through a campus-wide mailing list, stating that this hateful message did not reflect the university’s values. UMCR immediately followed up with another Facebook post describing how this rather lukewarm email “horrified” them, making them afraid for the safety of its membership, and threatening to “hold [the dean] personally responsible” if any of them were “attacked, bullied or intimated[sic]”. It concluded with an exhortation to call the president’s office directly and complain.

All this, of course, lies perfectly in keeping with the behavior of the national Republican party under Donald Trump. I imagine that UMCR sees their activity as “counterpunching”, as Trump’s allies tend to describe his entirely reactive political style. But those who live outside Trump’s personality cult call it nihilism, sowing chaos and discord for its own sake. And when aimed at fearing and hating immigrants or Americans of color, it reflects the very worst of the contemporary Republican agenda: nihilism in the service of white nationalism.

UMCR’s has dedicated its online presence to the grievance-based politics that defines Trumpism. Its homepage mentions no policy or goals, except for a “fight” against “socialism”. Aside from the Columbus Day content, its Facebook page features the expected wall of memes, alternating between heroic portraits of Trump and unflattering photos of Hillary Clinton — the party’s own Emmanuel Goldstein — all adorned with extremely suspect quotes. It fills its equally active Twitter and Instagram timelines with conspiracy theories and mockery aimed at Trump’s enemies, mixed in with micro-screeds against immigrants, the free press, transgender people, and every other recipient of its leader’s ire.

I attended UMaine during the ascendency of Newt Gingrich’s Republican party, a quarter century ago. Its “Contract with America” at least had the pretense of offering a forward-looking political agenda. Some of us may have disagreed with the direction of that agenda, but we had little reason to question the basic legitimacy of the Republicans as participants in American democracy. We also recognized that UMCR had as much right to presence on-campus as any other significant political group.

That vision of UMCR drowned in the same tide of white-nationalist rage that swept away the rest of the pre-2008 Republican party. Today’s UMCR has made abundantly clear that it has adopted the new party line eagerly. The organization I remember as a grudgingly accepted conservative bastion in a granola-hippie college campus has transformed into another factory of right-wing hate, burning white racial animosity as its fuel and expelling choking clouds of informational poison. As with the national party, it possesses no apparent goals other than societal wreckage in the service of Donald Trump and his angry base.

Here, meanwhile, is the first two paragraphs of UMaine’s mission statement, with emphasis added by me:

The University of Maine advances learning and discovery through excellence and innovation in undergraduate and graduate academic programs while addressing the complex challenges and opportunities of the 21st century through research-based knowledge.

Opportunity for all members of the University of Maine community is a cornerstone of our mission. The university welcomes students, research partners and collaborators into an atmosphere that honors the heritage and diversity of our state and nation.

With this mission in mind, I urge the University of Maine to give the College Republicans a fresh look — one based on its activity since the start of the Trump era, and continuing through its present statements implying support for indigenous genocide. I would hope for it to conclude that UMCR, through its willful and fear-driven misinformation, works only to confuse and corrupt the values of knowledge and diversity that UMaine makes its mission to instill in its students and promote in its wider community.

In their email, the president and dean extolled the virtues of countering speech with more speech. This view, certainly correct in the general case, does not preclude one from declining to actively offer resources to those speaking disagreeably — let alone harmfully. UMaine has no obligation to give an organization like UMCR a platform, not when it uses it to work directly and flagrantly against the university’s own goals and ideals.

I invite the individual members of UMaine’s College Republicans to re-examine their own choices, to look around at the broad, multi-hued, and many-voiced American society that has given them the freedoms and fortunes they enjoy, and question the wisdom of polluting it with regressive ideas. But until they do, I hope that that UMaine itself will invite that group to pursue those ideas elsewhere.

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Detail of an ancient Greek mosaic portrait of a person's face, cropped to show only their eyes.

This summer I developed presbyopia, or anyway had my genetically predestined presbyopia develop to the degree that compelled me to seek out and read the web pages that taught me the word “presbyopia”. With here-yesterday, gone-today suddenness, I have — forever, it seems — lost the ability to focus my eyes on any objects closer than the length of my arm. My visual world, once an unbroken bubble extending into the infinity of space, has developed a lacuna: a tiny sphere of uncertain blur immediately surrounding my own head.

I came to enter my symptoms into a search engine because I quite honestly had no idea that this happens to everyone, or at least everyone with typical eye-function who lives long enough. Apparently one usually becomes a candidate for the condition in one’s mid-thirties, with a near-certainty to obtain it before you turn fifty. At age 45, then, the near-focus fairy seems to have visited me right on schedule.

This happens as I adjust to exercising more than ever and shoring up my diet in a bid to — putting it frankly — do better than my father (and his own father) at dodging the heart disease that my family history predisposes me to. Insofar as I’ve responded to my own physical aging, it has taken this form: getting serious about resisting the inherited threats I’ve long expected. And that’s all fine.

In my zeal to sweat these dangers away, though, it seems I spent no time at all learning about various inevitable robberies of aging that visit nearly everyone who pass various milestones, once they’ve rolled on beyond the easy pavement of young adulthood. Presbyopia has stricken nearly every human who has survived to middle age, and yet it was news to me. Definitionally, the list of people who live with this condition include several friends of mine, who upon hearing my complaint rolled their already long-blighted eyes and advised me not to let pride delay getting some decent bifocals.

(I have not bought any bifocals yet. The last pair of glasses I purchased have the sorts of skinny frames quite fashionable in the early aughts. They let me achieve a poor-man’s bifocal effect by tilting my head up and peering beneath the lenses, since my uncorrected eyes can focus on objects as close as elbow-length. I recognize that I’ll want to do better than this, someday.)

I can grimly appreciate that while I strive to blunt and delay, with diet and exercise, the ever-increasing incline of age that otherwise saps the energy, flexibility, and mental acuity that burble in abundance through one’s first decades, there exists an irrestiable schedule listing one self-contained anatomical system after another that must succumb to accumulated entropy. Had I somehow pushed my resting heart rate down below 50 beats per minute, had I dropped all red meat and sugar from my plate years ago, my eye-lenses would still have flabbed out exactly as destiny decreed.

I can’t help but wonder what other unhappy events might lurk on this ordered checklist of personal systemic wrap-ups. Maybe I’ll actually look, sometime; surely this knowledge has existed more or less unchanged for centuries, maybe millenia, and I suppose it just doesn’t come up until one arrives at it personally because who wants to talk about that? More likely, though, I heard references to these events my whole life and didn’t pay much attention. That has changed: In the opening of his new essay collection Calypso, David Sedaris chooses to describe his current age by noting, with characteristic frankness, how his urinary “washer” has recently given up, permanently adding unwelcome complication to his bathroom visits. Last year I would have given an amused snort and forgotten the passage. This year it made me a little dizzy.

Two years ago I visited the RISD Museum for the first time, and I encountered one particular artifact from its permanent collection: a slab of ancient white marble, chiseled all over with Greek writing. The plaque affixed by it noted that it still retained a very few flecks of the red paint that originally tinted its beautiful lettering. Forgetting my place, I could not resist putting my face right up to it, eager to see the paint for myself. Within seconds, of course, a watchful docent had a hand on my shoulder, a surprising gesture that flash-froze the whole scene into my permanent memory.

And because of all that, that slab became my most recent — and therefore final — definitive memory of looking at anything close-up with my naked and unmodified eyes. I suppose I should take a philosophical view, making metaphorical my new obligation for far-sightedness, appreciating that I got to enjoy supplely youthful eyes for as long as I did. Wikipedia says that written references to presbyopia appear as far back as Aristotle, and I find that oddly comforting. I can treasure my memory of the carved letters, a memento from a time and place long ago, and the arcs of time it represents both personal and civilizational. If I have to put a little more distance between myself and the things I contemplate, so be it. I will trust that the paint is there.

Photographs in this post by the author.

Photographic detail of the tablet described in this post. Line after line of ancient Greek words carved into white stone.

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Photograph of an hourglass-style egg timer.

“sands of time 7Dii0937” by coldpenguin1952 is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

I have announced a lot of projects on this blog, and Sweat, the chatty workout timer that I first made public earlier this month, has become one of those rare projects that continues to grip my interest afterwards. The projects I love the most are those that lead me to start researching topics outside the strictly technological: how The Warbler’s Nest led me to study a certain folk-legend beyond the bare sketch I already knew, or how BumpySkies required a dive into the specifics of modern aircraft navigation. This week, Sweat joined this group by encouraging me to read the original journal article that first introduced the seven-minute workout to the world. This fired me up with indignant impatience for everything I didn’t know from years of using only third-order workout timers (based on newspaper articles based on that journal article). I feel more driven than ever to work on Sweat, bringing in more in-line with the workout’s original intent. But first, I want to fix the workout’s common name.

“The seven-minute workout” caught attention, and not for the wrong reasons, when the first mainstream news articles about it appeared — such as this New York Times piece, contemporary with the original ACSM’s Health & Fitness Journal article, that has served as my own go-to bookmark when I want to link to a primer on these exercises. Indeed, in the original article, authors Brett Klika and Chris Jordan cite the workout’s brevity as among its most attractive features. But, as I wrote years ago, “the seven-minute workout” is a terrible name, and recent work has given me both less patience for it and a suggestion for a sensible replacement.

Beyond its inherent hokeyness and ambiguity, “seven-minute” proves itself an unhelpfully misleading descriptor in light of the framework that Klika and Jordan propose, even given their design-emphasis on keeping things short. While it does indeed take seven minutes to run through one lap of their proposed workout, they unequivocally intend the exerciser to cycle through it more than once per workout session. Quoting the article:

Participants can repeat the 7-minute bout 2 to 3 times, depending on the amount of time they have. [ … ] Because most individuals may not be able to execute the program at an intensity significantly greater than 100% of their V˙O2max, following the established ACSM guidelines for high-intensity exercise of at least 20 minutes is recommended. This may require multiple repetitions (or circuits) of a multistation exercise circuit.

I found this shocking to read. For one thing, it puts the lie to literally every seven-minute workout timer I’ve ever tried, all of which declare you done after completing the twelfth drill. I don’t call any of them out for deceitful or inaccurate design, mind you; in retrospect they all clearly derive either from news articles touting this amazing new science-backed seven-minute workout routine, or from previous timers. That Times article from 2013 ends with “after seven minutes, you’re done,” and that misconception naturally percolated through all the future media and technologies that it wrought.

Certainly, Sweat counts itself among the misinformed, beginning life as yet another response to all the seven-minute-timer apps and videos that have jumping-jacked through the internet over the years. Reading the workout’s published origin drives me to pull Sweat out of this category, basing it more on first principles — and I want to begin with the name of thing it purports to implement. As the title of this post already spoiled, I intend to call it the Klika-Jordan workout from now on. (Non-alphabetical, yes, but it replicates the order of the authors’ names as they appear at the top of the Health & Fitness Journal article, and frankly I find it more pleasant to pronounce this way.)

As for what Klika and Jordan themselves call the workout — well, their article leaves that uncertain, actually. They do name their creation “HICT”, for “high-intensity circuit training” — but that describes the general class of a workout consisting of short, fast drills that exercise different major muscle groups in a cycle, while requiring no special equipment. The paper explicitly labels the twelve drills of the seven-minute workout as a “HICT sample program”, showing one possible way that a trainer could construct a HICT-based workout — and, perhaps inevitably, this example froze into immutable gospel as soon as the invention’s appeal hit mainstream news outlets.

And so, as a formal defintion, I might offer this:

The Klika-Jordan workout is a short but intense exercise routine described by Brett Kilka and Chris Jordan in the article “High-intensity circuit training using body weight: Maximum results with minimal investment”, published in ACSM’s Health & Fitness Journal, Volume 17, Issue 3. Specifically, it is the application of HICT described in the section “HICT sample program”, comprising twelve unique exercises to be performed in seven-minute bouts, with the whole circuit repeated up to three times.

I feel good about at last having a proper-sounding name for something I feel increasingly enthusiastic about — and which, I very recently learned, I haven’t spent half as much time with as I ought. So, this new term will go into all future discussion of Sweat, more of which I’m afraid you can expect so long as I dwell in this project’s honeymoon period.

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Photograph from an old magazine ad featuring muscleman-entrepreneur Charles Atlas in his leopard-pattern briefs, pointing at you the reader.
YOU won’t look like Charles Atlas from using Sweat, but I like to think he’d approve of it anyway

With pride and pleasure I announce Sweat, a new workout timer for Unix-ish operating systems. Sweat is a open-source program that escorts you through the pain of exercise — in particular, the effective but unpleasant intensity of the seven-minute workout — by reading aloud some mildly interesting novelties to distract you from your struggle. This includes cultural trivia, headline news, weather reports, and sad old jokes.

It is easy to install — as far as weird open-source command-line programs go, anyway — highly configurable, and simple to run. I have for the past several weeks used Sweat every day on macOS, running through all twelve of the seven-minute workout’s drills in a semi-random order. I aim to make sure that Sweat works on Linux as well (though it may require a bit more setup there).

Allow me to present an abbreviated demonstration of Sweat running on my own Mac. Watch as it guides you through the first four drills of the seven-minute workout, and with every drill opens up a new Wikipedia page and reads aloud its first paragraph, giving you something to think about while you struggle nearby. (Please do play this video with sound on!)

A few things to note, all demonstrated by this video:

  • You can control Sweat’s behavior through command-line options (such as --drill-count, seen here) as well as a separate configuration file. Sweat uses sensible defaults for everything, so you can use it right away before fine-tuning it suit your specific needs better.

  • In the “trivia mode” shown here, Sweat visits a randomly chosen Wikipedia article with its first drill, and then follows a random link from its current page for every drill thereafter. Pondering the connections between these articles gives your mind another thing to play with, distracting its attention away from your complaining body.

  • Sweat finishes up by reading the output of fortune, if available on your system. While lying on the floor and catching your breath after that last ab-crunch, enjoy a context-free joke (or probably-misattributed quote) that some Unix system administrator circa 1988 found profound enough to preserve forever.

  • Sweat doesn’t have to open the articles it reads in a web browser. It does this mainly to give you something vaguely interesting to look at while you grunt through your lunges. If you’d rather have Sweat keep itself to a terminal window but still read article text, it can.

Another short demonstration, this time showing off Sweat’s ability to fetch and read news and weather headlines from a variety of sources (and please accept my apologies for the by-definition extremely dated and political content herein):

  • All the headlines come courtesy of NewsAPI (and indeed, via my own NewsAPI programming library, which — now it can be told — I wrote with this nascent project in mind).

  • I use ad blockers, resulting in the large blank areas in my browser window after loading news sites. Admittedly, this behavior probably makes for a more appropriate environment for running Sweat without unrequested distraction.

  • Note the --no-chair command-line flag, which tells Sweat not to run any exercises requiring a chair; it will substitute another drills of the same kind, instead. This option can be useful when you’re in a hotel room or some other location without a stable chair to exercise with.

    Sweat offers a similar --no-jumping mode, as well, for when you might otherwise disturb downstairs neighbors.

  • Sweat provides you with a few seconds to switch sides in the middle of the side-plank drill — which appears in this demonstration thanks to a configuration-file change I made between these two clips.

    Furthermore, because of the side-plank drill’s peculiar timing, it reads a short, local weather report instead of a news headline. (And, yes, I was in Providence when recording this.)

Sweat is the followup to Brickfielder, and indeed represents the implementation of the “fun and extremely opinionated fetaures” mentioned at the end of the blog post that announced it. It’s got all the features Brickfielder had, all the ones demonstrated here, and more besides, as its documentation shows.

I consider the project unfinished but useful enough for a public release, and I plan to continue improving it for a while yet. I feel very pleased with this work, my attempt to share my enthusiasm for the seven-minute workout’s rewarding discomfort. I hope that Sweat encourages more people like me — lazy, but roused into motion by the promise of novelty — to exercise regularly.

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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, 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 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.

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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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