I began yesterday with an idle visit to a certain news website where an opinion writer quipped a comparison between some current item and Garfield Minus Garfield. And because I hadn’t commenced my day’s work yet, this meant that I could bend the entirety of my mental attention towards an unresolved mystery that has bothered me ever since that particular bit of comics-remix tomfoolery rode its own shooting star, a few years back.
I summed it up in a tweet, thus:
I *swear* that “Garfield Minus Garfield” was *preceded* by a funnier variant (by another person?) that left Garfield in but erased his thought balloons. So it wasn’t a man screaming at nothing, it was a man screaming at his cat, staring silently. Objectively funnier; unfindable.— Jason McIntosh (@JmacDotOrg) May 15, 2019
Delightfully, this within minutes had caught a double-digit amount of reactions from both friends and strangers, all of whom agreed with me that, yes, they all remembered something matching my description, and yes, it was funnier than Garfield Minus Garfield. As Leon Arnott so excellently summed it up, this dimly recalled work was basically the Threes to the other’s 2048: something amazing and original that became almost immediately eclipsed by an inferior clone, which then through some fluke managed to capture all the world’s love and attention — and leaving the fist thing’s tiny cadre of fans forever bitter at the injustice.
Expanding this a little: Garfield Minus Garfield turns the strip into nonsense, deriving its humor mainly by playing on life-long familiarity (for anyone born after 1970) with Garfield characters. Read with no cultural context, it merely depicts Garfield’s owner Jon as a gibbering lunatic, shouting at the walls of his empty home. Its untitled predecessor — let’s call it Garfield Can’t Talk — does better than this: it transforms Garfield’s greeting-card pabulum into the chronicle of a pathetic man who talks to his cat all day, and the cat responds only by staring back, or wandering off, or glancing wearily at the reader. Sometimes these staring silences stretch across multiple panels.
I would not make the case that Garfield Can’t Talk is a good comic strip; I wouldn’t want to read it daily, no more than I would its source material. But it did present the world with such a wonderful example of a purpose-built but elegant remix-filter: just cut this little bit out, and watch this comic strip about a snarky cat and his silly owner turn into that comic strip about an indifferent cat and his pathetic owner. When considered in this light, Garfield Minus Garfield feels like the creation of one who liked this a lot too, and thought that cutting out twice as much would make the result twice as funny, and thus missed the point entirely.
Anyway, I posted that tweet. And then a beautiful thing happened: so many of the people that it unexpectedly jolted on a Wednesday morning felt compelled to scour the web for evidence as to the forgotten project’s existence. Collectively, they did some excellent detective work, some of which you can see for yourself in the replies to my first tweet.
If I may summarize their findings: As best as anyone can tell, what I call Garfield Can’t Talk first appeared on the forums of Something Awful, a pre-Reddit cultural trash compactor responsible for a great deal of the infectious remix-catchphrasing of the early web. (Remember “All Your Base”?) It may have started to vector into the wider world by way of a now-defunct website called “Truth and Beauty Bombs”; this 2006 article by Eric Burns-White describes the phenomenon from a point of view contemporary with the game’s discovery, and points to an apparently lost-to-time thread elsewhere.
From these origins, other websites joined in on the fun, including this LiveJournal community (hollow with age, but with a few strips still clinging to its rusting skeleton), and these comics by Tailsteak. We can see how quickly folks started their own twists to the game, such as redrawing the strips from scratch in their own style, but otherwise remaining faithful to the originals. And Garfield Minus Garfield seems to have begun in that spirit: well, what if we erased even more, ha ha? And then, because nothing in life needs to make sense, that became the permutation that caught the world’s favor for a while.
Interestingly, the subtler humor of Garfield Can’t Talk looks like it gets independently rediscovered and re-implemented every so often in our fallen, post Garfield Minus Garfield world. See, for example, Realfield, which finds another in-between spot for the gag, replacing every appearance of Garfield with a more realistically drawn (and therefore always blank-faced) orange cat. See also Silent Garfield, which apparently re-posts a pared down Garfield strip as soon as the original appears on its own website, with a mechanical fervor that cares little for the humor value of the result.
So, that’s my report to the internet on this topic. I wasn’t imagining this older, funnier Garfield permutation, and neither were you. Some, indeed, keep its candle lit, more than a dozen years later, standing in the long shadow of Garfield Minus Garfield. This BoingBoing article re-discovered the joy of the original joke in 2014, describing it as something new. I see this as emblematic as anything that for long as Garfield continues, people will continue to rediscover and re-share this mutation of it.
I shall conclude by noting how my pal Joe misread me as casting shade on the more popular work. I do not mean to disparage Garfield Minus Garfield, or suggest that it does not deserve the attention and financial reward that it caught. I merely claim its utter inferiority to that which came before. Indeed, I can only find it on-brand for a late-aughts web project to have taken the sloppy beauty of a many-handed effort spread across multiple domains, and create fame and fortune for one artist through a slickly packaged effort that all but snuffed out any cultural awareness for its predecessor.
Over the weekend of June 14 you can find me at MIT attending Narrascope, a new conference about narrative games. Narrascope is a production of IFTF, the digital arts nonprofit that I help run. Happily, the conference itself rests entirely in the hands of more capable and less distracted people than me, and I know it’s gonna be pretty great.
Said organizers have posted its schedule, and I shall cop to my inevitable presence on the “Meet the IFTF Board” panel on Sunday morning. But, goodness, don’t come to see me — come for one of the Friday-night workshops on building or teaching with interactive fiction, or Natalia Martinsson’s keynote address on Saturday morning followed by two days of amazing presentations and conversation about adventure games, interactive narrative, and all that good stuff.
Registration is open only through Friday, May 17, so hop to it if you’d like to join me there. It costs less than $100 for a standard ticket, and we offer a lower-cost option for folks who need it.
On May 30, find me at AS220’s main stage in downtown Providence (115 Empire Street) as part of Stranger Stories, a bimonthly evening of true stories read by local writers. The theme of this month’s event is “Made It”, and I will read this 2016 Fogknife post about a sandwich. (I made the sandwich, you see.)
Admission is free! Doors open at 6 PM, and the readings begin at 6:30. (AS220’s restaurant is still closed for renovations, but the new bar’s open!)
Post-Narrascope, I intend to spend as much of 2019’s latter half as I can pursuing my own projects. I haven’t let myself have something like that in a long while. I can afford it now — and if I don’t do it now, I risk some gnarly burnout. So, it’s time.
I recently had reason to re-read my retrospective of 2014, and it really spun my head around; by some measures, that was surely the single most productive year of my life. I did all that stuff all while starting two new business-client relationships, traveling to Maine every other weekend to wind down a family crisis from the previous year, and moving house that autumn to Rhode Island. It’s also the year I got married, on my 40th birthday. What a year!
If I haven’t quite had such an impressive one-year hit-list since then, it’s largely due to tending open projects rather than launching new ones — and many of those projects have their roots in 2014. These include Fogknife, which I have somehow managed to keep updating more-or-less weekly ever since, and IFComp, whose software I continue to maintain. And my work on IFComp begat IFTF, which led in turn to my chairing a game-accessibility program whose final report to the community I am now writing, with a Narrascope due-date.
I’ve been working very hard on all these — and just as hard on client work, with a year-long project looking to wrap up at last next month. After all that, I feel the call to travel more, write more, and spend more time “in the lab”. Expect more from me in the IndieWeb sphere, especially; earlier this year, and with some difficulty, I put all my jumpy and distracting project ideas regarding Plerd and IndieWeb to one side so I can finish everything I need to do before Narrascope.
So, I’m very much looking forward to Narrascope, and I’m really looking forward to after-Narrascope.
Didn’t know about this 1972 book — with John Berger’s name alone on the cover, but a Berger-led committee of five credited within — before discovering it quite by accident while killing time at a downtown bookshop. That stands to reason, I suppose, because I’d never seen the TV series upon which this book is based, and I hadn’t heard of that prior to Berger’s death two years ago. Seemed a good a prompt as any to finally dive in.
Ways of Seeing suggests, in four essays, methods and vocabularies for examining art in ways that reach beyond the content of the frame. Using oil paintings as a focal lens, Berger challenges readers to consider not just a work’s surface subject matter and composition, but the social context in which the work was created — including who painted it, and for whom, and why. Steeped today in Twitterish wokeness, this all seems par for the course now, but I get the impression that a half-century ago this book’s core theses came across as downright provocative. I found them to still pack a punch, today.
The first essay lays down this groundwork through the central example of a 17th century commissioned portrait of some upper-class Dutchmen, one by an elderly and impoverished painter who found himself utterly beholden to the subjects’ ongoing charity. Berger challenges scholarship, contemporary with the book, that study of this painting must focus only on its composition and color and lighting and so on, and not allow informed speculation about the artist’s attitude towards his benefactors to cloud one’s perception.
This essay did not explicitly evoke “death of the author” arguments from literary criticism, but brought it to mind for me nonetheless, and my own ever-changing relationship with it. The article further asks us to consider the meaning — the baggage, really — of an original, historically preserved work of art in an age where reproductions of it can appear anywhere with relatively little effort. Berger had television in mind when he wrote this, and he offers his own book as another example. Given the low visual fidelity of both TV and mass-market books in 1972, and the ultra-high-resolution reproductions of that same art that I can now literally summon into my hand whenever I wish, the article still feels very relevant.
The other three essays form a thematic trilogy regarding what I, a layperson to art criticism, might try to cleverly call the object of a work — given that the subject is the thing depicted. The articles ask to whom certain works of art are addressed, and what sorts of assumptions the work itself might make about the flesh-and-blood people gazing upon the oil-and-pigment people who, in turn, aim their own attention right back out.
The first of these addresses role of the nude as a genre of oil painting, and — startling to me, reading this nearly 50 years on — an introduction to the now-common idea of “the male gaze”, albeit prior to the coinage of that particular tidy label. The true subject of a nude, says this book, is the assumed man standing outside the painting, gazing for as long as he wants at the naked lady-or-ladies who are arranged specifically for his gazing-upon, and posed to allow for easier imaginative access. Berger draws a distinction between nudes and paintings which, though they also feature naked women as their subject, dresses them in some amount of agency or purpose other than self-objectifying presentation to the viewer — and therefore exclude themselves from this category.
This essay also contains the source of a quote I know I’d seen paraphrased many times before: a summary-indictment stating that the male gaze doesn’t merely wish to see an image of a lovely naked lady, but also wants to feel superior while doing so, so it presses a mirror into her hand and titles it Vanity.
After this comes a study of the social context that oil paintings existed in, and the practical purpose they served, during the handful of centuries that saw them as the dominant art-form in the western world. How paintings were “not so much a window as a safe”, displaying to the viewer a catalog of the commissioner’s possessions, either literally or allegorically. The vast bulk of work painted during this period served this boastful and utterly pedestrian purpose, Berger asserts, and the work that has survived and continues to have relevance today all represents subversion of the form, artists using the tools and techniques developed specifically for stroking the egos of rich patrons and turning them in wholly unconventional directions. I felt like I received a nice little art-history education from this chapter alone.
Finally, the book studies how advertisers of the 20th century brought the visual language of oil paintings into their own service. This use also subverted the ancient form, but for a grindingly capitalist purpose: where the commissioned work of the renaissance displayed the patrons’ wealth back to themselves, modern advertising instead displays to its viewer a visions of the wealthy, glamorous, and desirable person that they could become, in the future, if only they buy the thing depicted.
As an artifact in itself, the book reminds me in format of McLuhan and Fiore’s The Medium is the Massage. Both books are dense but compact paperbacks originally published by Penguin in the neighborhood of 1970, and both with an interest in the power of images and their modern dissemination. As such, both make heavy use of illustration.
But where Medium makes a masterful juxtapositional funhouse of itself, its photographs and other graphics filling entire pages, Seeing limits its visuals to little thumbnails that politely share the page with the text. Printed in monochrome, and not at a resolution higher than one might find in a newspaper of the early 1970s, the reproductions surprised me with their humility — especially when found in a book about art appreciation. I did take advantage of one side-effect of my reading this book in 2019, never hesitating to look up every intriguing gray smear on my phone. (Every reproduced work has full attribution in the book’s endnotes, allowing for exactly this treatment.)
I forgive the book this aspect, since it’s ultimately about its own text, but I can’t help but imagine a new edition that would use newer printing techniques, letting the book have the modern typesetting and larger, full-color reproductions it clearly wants. In its essays, the artwork serves as simple illustration for its text, not as intentional and precisely laid-out collage, as in Medium.
All of which is to say that I did love that text. This book remains a great little volume and I feel fortunate to have crossed paths with it.
Heaven’s Vault struggles to contain itself. Packed so full of stuff, so much story it wants to tell, the game bulges at its seams while presenting the tale of an archaeologist’s quest to pinpoint her own place in the uncertain history of her surreal world. Sometimes those seams tear open, sending loose rivets of its own overtaxed structure pinging around your living room. Even at its best, the game resembles less a vault than a spilling cornucopia — and I feel I can hardly find fault with that. In spite of its self-unraveling nature, it has given me such a strange, ever-surprising, and thoroughly wonderful experience.
The game’s creative team at Inkle built Heaven’s Vault on their previous major effort — and major success — the beautiful and clever narrative sandbox called 80 Days. That game uses a wholly original, polished, and watertight UX to let the player build dozens of little travelogues. It invites you to repeat your globe-trotting adventure again and again, each iteration playable in its entirely within a single sitting, and always tantalizing with glimmers of roads not taken. Heaven’s Vault carries over many elements from 80 Days: the map that grows based on hard-earned in-game knowledge, the ever-shifting inventory of items useful as both situation-specific keys and generic trading goods, and the sense that moving forward down a certain path means leaving others behind.
To this, it adds its signature feature: a mini-game, reliably encountered several times at every location, where the player must decipher the faux-ideogrammatic language of an ancient civilization with a penchant for rampant graffiti. This fills the same thematic pace-setting role that battles or puzzle-rooms serve in countless other modern adventure games, and it feels great. The reward for chewing through these challenges mixes the satisfaction of collection (as your “dictionary” of known words grows slowly larger) with a sense of marching-forward narrative, no matter what happens. Aliya the archaeologist can bumble through scenes without correctly deciphering anything and cussing with frustration, or she can make insightful breakthroughs and carry these to deeper conclusions about her work and her world.
Either way, her story gets told, with every bit of Ancient script she runs across, translated or not, resulting in a new notch appearing on the timeline that she methodically updates during your travels with her. This timeline presents the single most 80 Days-esque part of the game’s original UI, a simple and beautiful interactive view (if a little tricky to manage with a PS4 controller) that not only organizes all the information Aliya collects, but also shows — without her having to say a word — how her mind works, the way she views the world and its contents, and the fractal way that she sees her own lifetime and experiences as just another fold inside an infinitely crinkly global history. It sits in its own nook in the world-line, alongside that of every other person, place, and thing she encounters. I knew I loved the game the moment this struck me.
And getting to this moment required me, the player, to overcome all the places where the game clearly chafes against its own real-world container. Instead of the completely abstract, map-centric travel and exploration of 80 Days which used a stack of still, stylized images to suggest the player’s changing location and the people found there, Heaven’s Vault uses a point-and-click-adventure-ish interface where the archaeologist and her robot sidekick can roam around 3D-rendered cities and fields, looking for people to talk to and artifacts to unearth. Unusually, the game renders both these characters and everyone else they meet as two-dimensional, very casually animated drawings — each frame of every person or animal very obviously and laboriously hand-painted — who literally drift through the world.
It makes for a striking effect, and I recognize some amount of it as intentional. The people leave no footprints (or robotic tread-marks) as they walk, and raise no dust. (Indeed, the game doesn’t even show Aliya’s feet, just fading her legs out at the ankles.) Against a very light ambient-sound backdrop, everyone glides around in complete silence, even when speaking or otherwise engaging in noisy activity. Aliya leaves ghostly after-images of herself as she moves, and people always feel free to just pass right through one another. I took much of this as playing right into the main character’s worldview, of all the people — herself included — acting as mere blips in a permanent history that stretches back farther than anyone knows. They all live in “The Nebula”, you see: a dreamy, sci-fantasy setting of tiny, disparate worlds floating through a luminous cloud of unknowable size, navigable by a network of sky-flowing space-rivers. The protagonist is a graduate student at a named university, but nobody knows how the university got there. It has statues and sculptures whose origins and meanings faculty argue over. It fits that the people of such a place would appear, to my earth-bound eye, to flit about like mist.
But these mixed-dimensional exploratory scenes manage to trip over themselves in less intentional ways. From time to time the camera will wander off behind a wall, or allow one speaker in a conversation to drift out of frame entirely — dragging their word-balloons with them. Quite frequently, characters will vanish entirely for a second while walking around, typically when the game needs to swap in an image of them facing a different direction. Once, early in my playthrough, the main character lay down to rest, and the sparkling effect that normally indicates that the player can control her got somehow stuck to her crotch for the length of a cutscene. And so on: many wobbly, scraping interface glitches like these keep coming, and they do seem out of character for an Inkle game, which I associate with more abstract but mirror-polished experiences. But I understood quickly that these came as the perhaps inevitable result of a tiny team with a small budget making something very, very large. Even when I came to this conclusion, and decided to forgive the game its foibles, I had no idea its true size.
I have completed a single playthrough of Heaven’s Vault, where I found myself surprised again and again at the depths of my excavation; this game feels way bigger on the inside. Or maybe I was just digging in circles, looping around the Nebula like any of the swirling Ancient glyphs I never tired of collecting? I had a magnificient and compelling time either way, and when I finally caught up with an ending, I almost immediately started a new game. (The “New Game Plus” mode, here, lets you carry over all your earned linguistic knowledge from your past playthroughs). I know from friends who have completed the game before me that it contains plenty more for me discover still, with entire alternate histories you cannot see except by replaying, choosing different paths and adopting different attitudes.
And this is where I found the other uncomfortable tension in the game’s scaffolding: because any beginning-to-end voyage through Aliya’s story takes so long, the work of several real-time hours, and because the game gives you only one, automatically updated saved-game slot, Heaven’s Vault precludes the sort of gimme-more accretive play that makes 80 Days so good. At least twice so far in my second playthrough, I have missed a chance to do something I wanted to: once because I failed to act quickly enough, and another time because I simply forgot my own plans temporarily. I own both these errors, but the lack of any ability to rewind stings. Playing through the game once has transformed the poor protagonist into an unwitting future historian, now more shy about trudging ahead into rather-less-unknown lands, while I the player feel quite reluctant to restart the story from the beginning just to see if I can nail a one-try-only timing challenge that occurs a fair distance in.
But what hubris I have, trying to control multiple histories! I can accept that this may run quite counter to the lessons that Aliya learned, while she and I spent hours together defining her story — and the story of my defining it — all knotted up and flowing in one direction only, the way history does, like a current in a cloud. Heaven’s Vault presents a thoroughly unique and memorable experience, and I hope that more people get the chance play it.
Disclosure: I purchased this game for myself. I played its PlayStation 4 edition, shortly after its initial release. It’s also available for PC via Steam.
If you enjoy reading Fogknife, you might also enjoy exploring the following websites — each of which I myself subscribe to, via their respective RSS feeds.
This list of links also appears in the sidebar of every Fogknife page, which in turn links back to this page. I reserve the right to update this list at any time, according to my own ongoing discovery (or tardy recollection) of other blogs that I admire. I order the list alphabetically, by website title.
(I also, of course, encourage all my fellow web-writers to add prominently visible link-lists like this to their own websites. Whether or not to refer to it as a “blogroll” I leave up to each individual writer.)
Blue Renga — The centerpiece of Jason Dyer’s interactive-fiction-focused blog is “All the Adventures”, where he aims to play and write about “every adventure game ever made in (nearly) chronological order”. Looking over his shoulder as he progresses through so many strange and sparse virtual worlds is a treat.
Daring Fireball — John Gruber writes about technology and culture, usually posting several updates every weekday. He has a particularly deep fascination with Apple technology, but I find that you needn’t share it to appreciate the breadth of his writing.
The Digital Antiquarian — Jimmy Maher writes long and deeply researched essays about digital history, with a particular focus on home computers and the cultures that they wrought around the world, and a particular focus within that on the games people played on those computers. There are bibliographies.
Maher’s newer effort, The Analog Antiquarian, brings the same approach to other aspects of history, beginning in 2019 with an study on the strange journey the Pyramids of Giza have taken through human culture over the last few centuries.
Emily Short’s Interactive Storytelling — Emily has been one of the most important voices and talents in the realm of interactive narrative since the start of this century. Her main role has shifted over the years from creator to toolmaker, but she has ever kept up her observations on the art-form through her blog, and continues to do so.
Ethan Persoff — A marvelous, comics-focused junk-shop of “political ephemera, drug hysteria, vintage sex & health items”, and quite a lot of original work as well. Every update, however infrequent, is a treasure.
Four Short Links — Nat Torkington comes through every weekday with just what it says on the tin. The “short” describes Torkington’s attached commentary, never longer than a paragraph; the material linked to might be anything at all.
Julia Evans — Julia is a technologist who writes frequently about on-the-job discoveries that pique her interest, sometimes compiling them into tidy zine-shaped explainers of core Linux system administration and development tools.
JWZ — Jamie Zawinski is a hacker-turned-club owner who shares all kinds of things. Includes frequent meditations on the realities of running a nightclub and otherwise living in an increasingly off-kilter San Francisco, and many topics besides.
Kottke.org — Jason Kottke has been running this arts-and-culture website since the previous century. Like its cousin Daring Fireball, it primarily presents an ongoing scroll of curated links with commentary. Kottke (along with his occasional guest bloggers) has become very good at this, with a broad eye for interesting material to share.
L. Rhodes Digest — The thoughtful and culture-spanning link-blog of an Atlanta-based writer, updated a few times every month.
Outside Your Heaven — Scholar and game designer Matthew Weise writes some of my favorite short essays on video games and cinema — often at the same time.
VGJunk — Smartly curated video-game retrospectives. Its anonymous author approaches the subject with a wittily respectful attitude that, even when witheringly sarcastic, never swerves from its service to a deep love for the medium and its history. The blog almost always manages to share something wonderful from even the most obscure and inaccessible work from years (and personal computer systems) long gone by.
Warren Ellis LTD — Ellis writes unceasingly for a variety of popular media, primarily comics and television, and blows off steam with a churn of blog / stream / podcast / newsletter projects. LTD is the most traditionally web-accessible of them, at the time of this writing, and as worthwhile a follow as any. Primary topics include contemporary art and the open web — whether considered separately or together.
Zarf Updates — My long-time friend and non-profit collaborator Andrew Plotkin has, like Emily Short, written for many years about interactive narrative, albeit with more of a focus on studying individual works of note. He keeps up this practice on this blog, alongside updates about various other projects he involves himself in.
Rory Frances and Jae Bearhat’s Little Teeth follows a few days in the twisted-together lives of a young, queer, polyamorous tangle in the Pacific Northwest, rendering them all as various funny animals in a simple, expressive cartoon style. The point of view wanders around, but it mainly follows an endearingly grouchy fox girl (whose name, like most of the book’s characters, we never quite learn). Pushing thirty, she considers herself a village elder, slightly above the fray; she leaves it to the younger characters to have fights over bed-sharing and TV-control rights in the same breath.
We first meet the fox while she works up the nerve to dump her latest experimental date, and — mismanaging her own nascent old-lady cynicism — she proceeds to do so with a sloppy callousness that horrifies her friends. The inevitably dramatic backlash serves as backdrop for all the other threads that weave through Little Teeth’s 200 pages. The stakes remain low-key, in all cases; this is a “slice of life” comic depicting a bunch of young people in the throes of intense living-and-learning but not necessarily experiencing any singularly life-changing moments.
My favorite thread of Little Teeth’s fabric involves its most tidily self-contained story. One of the friends, a rising star in electronic music who calls herself “Slumber Party of One”, has become romantically involved with her on-stage collaborator. They want to keep this on the down-low for professional reasons, but “SPO1” feels happy to blithely ignore the strain this creates, to the other’s chagrin. When a YouTuber crashes into their dressing room before a show for a rumor-chasing interview, they find themselves forced to start confronting it, and entirely in the form of dodges and parries to the interviewer’s questions. A clever and graceful comedic drama, worth the price of admission in its own right.
The whole book wraps up soon after that story does, with the fox re-focusing her attention on her primary partner, and all the other tumbling critters experiencing moments of coincidentally quiet grace in their respective stories — with the sense that they’ll all resume careening around the next day, as well they should. Little Teeth made me smile and laugh a lot — I should note it’s very funny, with crackling dialogue and beautifully loose-goofy cartoon art all the way through — and I feel very happy to have spent a couple of evenings with it.
Disclosure: I purchased this book myself, prior to its publication, and I can’t remember how I learned about it. I bet it was someone’s retweet. Thank you, probable person who retweeted about this book maybe!
On March 14 of this year, I restarted @AcrosticPi, a twitter bot I created in 2014. As its homepage explains, it attempts to post one digit of the decimal representation of π every 15 minutes. The bot tries to make this interesting by encoding this digit via the first word of an English-language post to Twitter, potentially created by anybody, and usually only a few minutes old. (Sometimes it doesn’t find any reasonable new tweets, and posts nothing, trying again with the same digit 15 minutes later.) It also updates its own user-profile message to indicate its current position in the sequence.
I intended @AcrosticPi as a sculpture which has an obvious meaning (or, at least, a pleasing pattern), and yet despite existing wholly on social media it proves entirely resistant to sharing. Like an art installation — my very favorite kind of sculpture — you have to “visit” @AcrosticPi in its context as a full Twitter-based stream to appreciate it. You cannot effectively retweet or otherwise pull-quote any part of it, at least not while continuing to present the tweet as part of the artwork. Displaying any of its individual tweets individually reverts them to their original, default context, removing any trace of the new role that @AcrosticPi gave them.
If you want to visually share the work, the best you can do is take a screenshot of your Twitter client with some slice of the sequence loaded up, much as you might take a photograph of your experience with an installed work an art museum. Thus my illustration for this post, a grab of my Tweetbot window from late last month.
To my good fortune, the six tweets that started the sequence off this year (decimal point included!) are benign, even pleasant in tone. Unsurprisingly, this attitude does not dependably hold. As I write this, 373 accounts follow @AcrosticPi, but I am not one of them; every time I try, I find myself unsubscribing after a few days, at most. Even though its RTs bring me joy so often, they also put disturbing stuff on my timeline, the very sort of thing that would get me to disable retweets on a friend’s account (a practice I wholeheartedly recommend).
It happens that short news messages that start with a number often go on to describe some crime, injustice, or other misfortune visited upon that many people. And, not always people: the most recent trigger came from an animal-rescue group’s claim of how many poor doggies and kitties needed immediate adoption from a certain shelter, else face destruction. My stomach flipped at the uninvited emotional manipulation, and I hit my own creation’s unfollow button. Yes, sometimes this does seem hypocritical of me, putting art out into the world that I myself can’t bear to look at. It weighs on me just enough to doom me to try again, every so often. Having written all this out, all right, look, I’ve gone and done it again. We’ll see how long I last this time.
Other than recounting bloody headlines like this, @AcrosticPi does manage to avoid a lot of more obviously uncomfortable material by way of an extremely conservative language-filter, one that discourages the bot’s retweeting pornography or other NSFW content. This ban encompasses a long list of words relating to human sexuality or anatomy, and this required me to override my own deeply conditioned distaste for automated filtering. If I learned that a web forum I used prevented its visitors from writing words like “gay” or “breast”, I would feel quite disgusted with it. I came to accept, though, that neither @AcrosticPi nor its audience would either miss anything or censor anyone by giving these entire lexical categories a pass. No speech suppression can possibly happen here, not when the critter’s entire modus operandi involves taking material that others have already, successfully published, and then re-publishing it in a surprising and — yes, let’s be frank — uninvited new context.
I began writing this post just to acknowledge this sculpture’s fresh start. I’d originally launched the work prior to Fogknife’s own beginning, and so I thought I’d get an easy article out of it. But thinking about @AcrosticPi more than a little lets me discover a surprising amount of subtle depth in the output of this ridiculous little script, and ponder further directions I might take it. (Perhaps an open-mic reading of a contiguous swath of its numbers lay in our future.) At any rate: here’s to another 7.28 years of this little invention of mine continuing its absurd recitation of everyday joys and horrors, bound to the dance of an infinitely irrational cosmic constant.
The most cyberpunk thing I’ve ever seen is a small, bullet-riddled drone, decorated in sacred colors, that survived its participation in American Indian resistance to the Dakota Access Pipeline.
I came across this critter at Brown University’s Haffenreffer Museum of Anthropology last month. The little museum’s two exhibits, as I write this, both involve Native American resistance to environmental degradation: one against the Trump administration’s desanctification of Bears Ears in Utah, and the other addressing the well-publicized protests against DAPL.
According to the placard that accompanied this case-displayed drone, it was operated by Myron Dewey, a journalist and filmmaker. Dewey is part of the the Water Protectors, a movement created around resistance to DAPL, led by the Sioux of Standing Rock Indian Reservation and joined by allies from across the country, both Native and otherwise.
Dewey was one of several protesters who used drones like this one to surveil the pipeline construction, the masses of gathered protestors, and the police and security forces hired to keep the protestors at bay. The police, in turn, felt free to fire on the civilian drones that watched them; this drone in particular bears a prominent bullet hole near its left leg, visible in this photo.
Strikingly, it also has four pieces of colored cloth tied to its four legs: white, yellow, black, and red, reading clockwise. These are the colors of the Lakota Medicine Wheel, a symbol held sacred by Native American Plains tribes. You can see that Dewey had also marked up the drone’s carapace with Water Protector slogans, but its subtle evocation of the Medicine Wheel struck me like a thunderbolt. By applying those colors, Dewey pressed this bland hunk of off-white consumer technology into a sort of religious-militant service. It feels to me that he also somehow transformed the drone itself into a “living” instance of the Wheel symbol, assisted by the drone’s own rounded-square shape.
I realize I have an easily-dazzled outsider’s vantage point, but I can’t deny how the thought of Indigenous protestors daubing drones’ legs in the four sacred colors and then flying them on surveillance missions over disputed land takes my breath away, more than — say — the thought of an overseas American soldier painting one up in stars and stripes and buzzing it around a battlefield, or something similarly pedestrian. Somehow, the Water Protectors’ use of symbology make their drones seem more like will-bearing agents than merely flag-bearing tools.
Videos shot by this and other drones play on a loop in the Haffenreffer Museum, and you can see them on YouTube as well. Many of its mechanical comrades did not survive their sorties, blasted from the skies by security forces — but this one did make it back to its operator, scarred but intact, its mission complete.
And that is the most cyberpunk thing I have ever seen.
I attended a sort of lecture-duet at Brown University a few days ago, with Stephen Pinker and Paul Krugman giving their respective responses to the prompt question “Is humanity progressing?” This was my first drop-in to an installment of the university’s Janus Forum lecture series. While I get the impression that the two speakers invited to these events often take up starkly opposing views, Pinker and Krugman — while not agreeing, exactly — complemented one anothers’ points in interesting ways.
(This post expands some running side-channel commentary I phone-tapped into a private chatroom throughout the talk, which I hope explains its rather sketchy and illustration-free nature — I felt it worth expanding just the same.)
Pinker’s turn at the podium mainly involved a tour through a slide deck showing one line-chart after another that illustrated improvements in various human affairs — often with an X-axis traversing hundreds of years, and often with a focus on moving away from darkness than towards any particular light. Slavery, torture, child labor: all have stair-stepped downwards in their global prevalence since the 18th century, and have stayed low. International wars between great powers, once ubiquitous, have become a fading memory. All of these facts present an extremely unusual state of sustained peace and increasingly common prosperity when one takes in all of recorded human history.
Pinker ended on an exhortation to not confuse his argument with a call for complacency: all of these advances came as a result of large-scale popular struggle, a project that demands ongoing maintenance and invention from all members of human society, always. He hopes, rather, that even during times of localized setbacks, the people engaged in this hard work can look at the bigger picture — and all the successes that their forebears had already achieved — and resist the temptation to marinate in fatalism.
I found Krugman’s talk a little less clear. His point seemed to be that everything Pinker said about the past was true, but alas we now find ourselves stuck in the present. We — and future generations — face challenges unlike anything overcome by those who came before us, and all of Pinker’s charts did not give give Krugman the confidence that all their positive-bending trends will continue through the current century.
Krugman’s freewheeling presentation noted ways that societal regression has happened in the present, or the near past: a decades-long spike in murders that plagued New York City, a downwards slump of life expectancy in Russia. He paired this with a much more dramatic example from the ancient world, holding up the decline and fall of Rome as proof that a civilization’s wealth, growth, and technological advancement cannot protect it from complete destruction, if things go badly enough.
I did like the simple social thought-experiment framing device that Krugman used to define societal regression, from the subjective point of view of one inside that society. Ask that person: If you could be live in any period of history up through today, what would you choose? Almost any rational and educated resident of the 20th or 21st-so-far centuries, already familiar with the gist of Pinker’s charts, would say “Right now”. (Or as Krugman himself said: “If I could trade places with Louis XIV, I wouldn’t do it! He didn’t have modern medicine. Or decent coffee.”) But when he casts his thoughts forward to imagine posing this question to a citizen of 2050 A.D., Krugman finds himself unable to assume the same response.
Krugman ended his talk on this applause-line: “We can screw this up massively, and there’s a pretty good chance that we will. Thanks.”
During the subsequent moderated mini-panel between the two speakers, they agreed that they didn’t disagree: if Pinker’s ultimate point was “We as a species have been wriggling in the right direction, and we can keep doing it,” Krugman’s was “But things can always go to hell if you let them,” and these positions really do not seem mutually exclusive.
Most of the questions during the Q-and-A period came from undergraduates in attendance, and I noted with interest how many focused on climate-change concerns — a topic that both speakers had lightly touched on, during their talks, but hadn’t put in the center of either argument. Both easily reeled off news and statistics that suggest the long-term ascendence of renewable energy, though Krugman added his already-familiar caveat that populist ignorance can still render it all moot, if allowed.
I felt glad that two students did get a chance to (respectfully!) call out Pinker and his charts from what we might caricature as very American-university viewpoints. One young man took him to task for perceived Eurocentricism of his data, and another young woman asked how his trend-lines showing increasing racial harmony made any sense because have you even seen the internet lately? Pinker accepted these challenges with a patient smile and responded deftly, to the latter point naming further studies that really do seem to indicate a decline in American racism — while also acknowledging that, yes, the internet allows once-isolated racists to find one another and combine into completely novel threats. Krugman, all about completely novel threats, nodded along.
Both speakers surprised me when they rebutted another student’s question regarding the short-term thinking shown by far too many people in power today, a suggestion I certainly find quite accurate. Krugman didn’t, though, taking the trouble to draw a distinction between short-term thinking and ill-informed thinking: mere ignorance, more than lack of will or direction, lies at the center of our troubles today. Pinker agreed with this, adding his observation that both government and college campuses in America tend to assign blame to malevolent people with evil agendas when they should focus instead on society’s failure to stop the spread of destructively ignorant ideas. And that gave me some prompting for personal and quiet reflection.
Three weeks ago I reported on my new drive to start treating my current city of residence as adoptive, and not merely my latest crash-pad. I bear, unexpectedly, an update of some small relevance: I’ve joined What Cheer Writers Club, a local nonprofit that offers a number of services to writers in Providence.
The club, itself only a year old, has a very lovely and modern co-working space right downtown with a number of interesting common areas, work-nooks, side-rooms, and studios. When I first toured it a couple of days ago, I felt a little dizzy: it didn’t seem like such a large, dedicated arts space could come into existence in the middle of a city, and so casually. I thought this way in part because I had spent 14 years living in the Boston area, where this project would have proved laughably, impossibly expensive. I have otherwise lived in very small cities — Newport, Bangor — whose miniscule populations could never have supported such an effort, either. In Providence, I may have found a city large enough to sustain arts resources like What Cheer, but not so large as to fall into the economic greenhouse effect that my beloved Boston and other coastal cities have fallen victim to? I can only speculate, but it feels worth hoping for.
In some ways, I feel that my membership to this club is the first tangible thing that all my work on Fogknife has earned me. Half-price memberships are available, you see, to anyone who either earns a nonzero amount of their income from writing, or who publishes some free thing of any shape that has an audience of at least 150 people. While over 3,000 unique IP addresses pass through Fogknife.com every month, my much more stringent rules for counting regular readership — using Bise, my own yardstick for this purpose — result in a number hovering right around 170. I delighted to see that What Cheer had set its minimum required audience level just underneath the water-line I found myself bobbing at with Fogknife, and took it as a sure a sign as any that I ought to join up.
That said, I know that I have a blog must count as one of the most attention-meltingly boring sentences possible, so in the few conversations I’ve had in What Cheer context so far I lead instead with I help run an interactive fiction nonprofit. I wouldn’t know how to begin measuring “my audience” there, so I feel no scruples about using Fogknife as my ticket in and IFTF as my claim to relevance. (Related: I late last year resolved to describe my role at IFTF when people in any context ask me what I do with my time, because my only other answer would be I write web software, which surely beats out the blogging claim in terms of making oneself look hopelessly uninteresting.)
At any rate, here I am, a ten-minute bus ride from my house. (Or a half-hour walk, when the weather favors it.) I plan to use the space to work on Fogknife content, and maybe the other services and opportunities that What Cheer offers will end up becoming part of my greater efforts involving Plerd or IndieWeb-related work — the pursuit of which I plan to resume come mid-summer. I look forward to finding out.
Something I didn’t know before moving to Providence last year: The city’s official motto is What Cheer? — yes, including the question mark. Given the graphics present on the city seal, I tacitly assumed it a historically mangled transliteration of an indigenous greeting, like the story of how Texas got its name (and a hundred more stories like it). But, not quite: according to Rhode Island’s own origin myths, it derives from the plain-English salutation that a party of Narragansett locals offered to Roger Williams as he crossed the Seekonk River to meet them for the first time. The phrase looks odd today, but — if I understand it correctly — it is merely the archaic construction of what we would today phrase as What’s up? or How’re you?
Therefore, should I wish to make myself very slightly happier for a moment, I now have the means to envision a variant of my city’s official seal, with the stately embossed motto replaced with ‘Sup? And that makes me smile.
Previous post: I bought an expensive chair and I love it