The purpose of art is to delight us; certain men and women (no smarter than you or I) whose art can delight us have been given dispensation from going out and fetching water and carrying wood. It's no more elaborate than that. — David Mamet

Festival of Artisanal Software

The 2014 Winter Festival of Artisanal Software is now open.

We’ve gotten together with six other developers to offer great prices on great software for writing and thinking. Get ready for the new year with great new tools, at great prices, right at the vineyard door.

  • Tinderbox
  • Scrivener
  • DevonTHINK Pro
  • Nisus Writer
  • Aeon Timeline
  • TextExpander
  • Take Control Books

Back at Wikipedia, talk page discussion has (astonishingly) returned to a defense of Vivian James and her color scheme, which famously alludes to a rape image. One experienced editor, slumming as an anonymous newbie, avers that:

There's no reasonable way to argue for non-consent between cartoon characters in an animated GIF

Great. That’s fine then.

Meanwhile, the infection has spread: GamerGate letter-writing convinced Jimmy Wales to intercede in defense of the page on Cultural Marxism, which was to have been deleted and which currently begins with the immortal words:

Cultural Marxism is a pejorative term with links to the Frankfurt School conspiracy theory and alleges an organized and concerted effort on the part of Marxists to subvert the traditional Christian values and cultural norms of western society [1]. Historian William S. Lind and other American commentators, such as Patrick Buchanan, have further claimed that "Cultural Marxism" is a dominant strain of thought within the American left, intended to promote "the capture of [Western culture]" [2].

Glad to see we don’t have any pusillanimous pussyfooters to restrict Pat Buchanan’s defense of Christianity from the left-wing marauders.


My Wikipedia user page now holds my retirement notice and three short essays that explain my departure, two concerning the Jews and Communism fiasco which was satisfactorily resolved, and one concerning GamerGate, which was not. They predict just what’s happening now: an organized professional cadre can and will dominate any unguarded Wikipedia page simply by swamping it with seemingly-competent, apparently well-meaning editors who share a common goal. Against professionals, volunteers seldom stand a chance; the volunteer must appeal to reason, the professional just calls Howard in the London office and asks him to get to work.

I do have a sneaking fondness for these notes, especially the nomination for deletion of Jews & Communism. In my line of work, you don’t generally get much call for this sort of rhetoric. It’s fun to take a hand now and then.

Some editors take exception to these essays, which are critical of Wikipedia, and want to delete them. That’s fine with me: I could move them here. This page gets lots more readers, and I bet I could find pages with lots more than this page sees. This would break some WikiLinks, of course, but that’s a drop in the ocean.

But what’s on the User Page of the fellow who wants to delete my essays? Chiefly a picture of a young woman who, it seems, has misplaced both the top of her bathing suit and her contact lenses, and who is in consequences crawling about the pavement in search of one or the other. Now, that’s crucial to the project, isn’t it.

About once a day, Eastgate gets a very peculiar robocall. Each time, it appears to derive from a different phone number — lately, they’ve been apparently-residential numbers in Texas. The calls are as follows:

  • About 20 secs of hiss, garbles, and chirps.
  • Some clearly-audible voice from a man saying that he is going to hook up the splitter and will need about 30 secs of speech.
  • An apparently recorded message saying that the Canadian Embassy in Havana is currently closed.
  • Another minute of garbles, chirps, and hiss.

Does anyone know what this is? Email me.

I have fantasies of a dead robocall network that someone started to set up (on zombie PC’s?) and then never remembered to either use or disconnect.

After a day of comparatively moderate weather at Wikipedia, we’ve got a fresh storm as an experienced user decided that an Amherst freshman’s op-ed in the The Amherst Student required lots of discussion on the Gamergate talk page. The story, which has since been pulled, repeats the long-discredited canard that Zoe Quinn exchanged had dinner with a fellow, or something, in exchange for favorable coverage.

The Amherst Student has apparently withdrawn the article, but that won’t stop the Wikipedia discussion.

Though all the participants have known these accusations to be untrue, the entire matter must be dragged out and discussed in detail on the Talk page, and again on the Sanctions page, because …. well, I guess because people like to talk about Zoe Quinn’s social life, even though everyone knows that it’s none of their business.

No responsible adult with the admin bit is willing to step up and stop this continuing and shameful obsession.

In my NaNoWriMo notes, I kept a tab with an outline of characters. This is a sprawling project, as school stories tend to be, and so it’s good to have a reference. What’s the science master’s name? Who is Cassie’s roommate? When you’re cranking a couple of thousand words, it’s easy to invent facts, but today’s facts are tomorrow’s continuity blunders. So, I have lots of notes like this one, describing one of the senior students:

May Elster was born in the village, as were her father and her grandfather, both shopkeepers. May’s father owns an important general store has served as alderman. Her features bear the stamp of the Eastern traders from whom she is descended.

May’s family still uses some evocative phrases of Eastern language when they are at home and no visitors can hear. Her Eastern grammar and accent are abominable, but May can, with difficulty, manage a simple conversation in Eastern. When she is angry, May knows a number of very imaginative Eastern curses.

She rooms with Cassie (and also, briefly in chapter 2 flashback, Amy).

Aside from continuity, I found myself using this chiefly for two reasons. First: I’d often need to add someone to a scene and had not particular idea who to add beyond “another student” or “one of the instructors”. Second: I’d quite often know exactly who I meant to add (“the lonely gay line cook you invented the other day – yeah, that one”) but had forgotten the name.

It occurs to me that these character notes should have been agents. The agent looks through the draft for notes that mention the character’s name:

Query: descendedFrom(/Draft) & $Text.contains("May")
Sort: OutlineOrder(original)
DisplayExpression: $Name+" ("+$Role+") "+$ChildCount

This gives us a quick summary of the scenes in which each character appears.

Character Agents

Now, we’re not finished here. The regular expression needs to be tweaked, for example, so it doesn’t think every sentence that begins with the word “maybe” is mentioning our character. But that’s a messy detail. Main point: we have the same quick reminder of the name of each character, the same handy place to store notes as the character accretes detail, plus now we know roughly how many scenes each characters figures in, and we can get instant access to any of those scenes.

by Gabrielle Hamilton

A delightful portrait of a chef, masquerading as a cookbook. This looks like a collection of recipes, but the recipes are written (and the book designed) not as if they’re adapted for the home cook, but instead as if they’re odd sheets of instructions to be handed to new line cooks. There are lots of canny and charming words of warning and advice – including several mentions of shortcuts that we wouldn’t take if we were “a real restaurant.”

There’s an entire chapter on garbage: how to use up food that even professional kitchens would throw away. (Example: sardine heads and bones: season, deep fry, and send ’em out to guests who are chefs, line cooks, or other professionals who’ll understand; not to be wasted on mere VIPs.)

In prepping the paté for a bar snack sandwich, the recipe advises that for a half batch one should make a cardboard and foil partition so you can use half the paté pan, and if you don’t know how, you should “find me and we’ll do it together.” Yes, chef. In prepping a dish based on lamb-filled wontons, the recipe calls for grabbing any intern or trailer in the house that night, because the prep is such a bitch. You don’t get this stuff from Joy of Cooking.

Recipes are scaled for service — but that often works out conveniently to 8, which is to say a dinner party, and we all know division. There’s some reverse-snobbery at work here too: a “duck liver garbure” is made with foie gras (and, we’re warned, is not really a garbure so don’t call it that if you get a job someday in a real restaurant).

This is impressive writing; in the guise of writing yet another restaurant recipe book. Hamilton has written an intelligent and sympathetic response to Kitchen Confidential.

Dec 14 2 2014

NaNoWriMo Notes

  • It’s been a while since I tackled 50,000 words in a month. It’s not nearly as arduous as I’d expected.
  • The goal here was to have a big pile of eventful fiction that could be used to explore new hypertext formalisms. I’ve got that, I think, though we’re still shy of the story’s end.
  • The length of writing spaces/screens/lexia has a vast influence on the shape of hypertext stories, and influence way out of proportion to the amount of critical discussion this has received. I now suspect that many of the shortcomings of narrative games arise chiefly because there’s too little screen space; writers wind up trying to say too much with too few words and end up falling back on archetypes and cardboard.
  • I believe everyone in our electronic cohort made their quota, which is nice as well.
  • I’m tempted to recast this – or at least a part of this – in a Storyspace hypertext as well as the planned Card Shark romp. The two projects strike me as quite different, though the media are also very similar; it would be interesting to see the same story addressed in both ways.
NaNoWriMo Notes
My NaNoWriMo Tinderbox dashboard
  • Here’s my dashboard. In retrospect, I ought to have added some agents with summary tables for characters of various sorts – the faculty, the service staff, the nefarious Security police, the Resistance fighters, and the townies.
  • Frequently-used Tinderbox tabs included ❧ dashboard ❧ draft ❧ map of the school and its environs ❧ outline of characters with notes about their names, families, and other loose ends ❧ notes about actual places that resemble the setting, which were fun to compile and useful to have seen but which I seldom consulted.

Game developer Zoe Quinn has just published a lengthy and generous exploration of Gamergate and Journalism, Let’s Talk About Ethics – No Really!. Readers will recall that Quinn was the original Gamergate target.

Weather Report

Stacey Mason is starting a study of Gamergate’s history. Above, see a part of her Tinderbox map of the origins of Gamergate.

Yesterday, game developer Brianna Wu’s pet dog, Crash, died. Gamer gate responded by flooding her email and Twitter stream with pictures of dead dogs.

Over at Wikipedia. Brianna Wu’s page is now the arena of renewed edit war today, as single-purpose accounts attempt to insert suggestions that she lied in reporting threats of rape and murder, or that she sent the threats herself. A proposal to recast the Gamergate article itself as an open question – misogyny or ethics? we report: you decide! – will continue to unsettle the talk page. Ardent efforts to discuss a job that Anita Sarkeesian might have had ten years ago appear to have stalled for now; look for a change in weather and a new storm front. Gamergate continues at ArbCom (16,700 words so far, another 10,000 on the talk page), at General Sanctions, at AN/I (two open complaints), and AN (just closed).

A long time ago, we honored scientists and engineers by naming things for them. Chemists have the Diels-Alder reaction. Electronics has Ohms and Volts and Amperes. I think this custom was charming and harmless, and that we should revive it.

Here’s a proposal.

Randi Harper (@freebsdgirl) invented a handy tool for dealing with #Gamergate harassment, in which a gang piles onto their intended victim and Twitters at them incessantly, making it impossible for them to use Twitter because their stream is entirely filled with garbage and threats. To stop this, Harper automatically compiles a list of Twitter users who follow multiple Gamergate leaders. If you're swamped by Gamergate junk twittering, the tool will block thousands of them instantly and give you back your feed. (You might be cut off from a bunch of other people — for example, games studies professors and sociologists who follow Gamergate intensely for their work but who don’t condone or take part in the harassment campaign, but if you're getting thousands and thousands of abusive tweets a day, you might be willing to cut yourself off from a few sociologists for a time.)

This auto blocker is an interesting intentional intervention in the social graph: its users choose to cut themselves off from thousands of hostile voices. This would be bad if there were reasoned discourse that they might miss – if this were a conversation. But Twitter is being used as a weapon to drive women out of the industry and the auto-blocker blunts the weapon.

It occurs to me that we have several measures of social graph connectivity: graph diameter, cutset rank, and compactness, and several more. I’ve surfed this literature, but I’m guessing that plenty of my Hypertext and Web Science readers will know the best current metrics (and some are probably using them right now to study GamerGate.)

Randi Harper’s been doing good pragmatic engineering to save social networks from destructive abuse – abuse specifically aimed at driving women out of computing. We owe thanks – not least because this isn’t her job, she’s not an academic, and in undertaking this necessary task she’s incurred a lot of abuse herself.

Proposal: let’s take a good metric and name it the Harper. For example:

“We sampled the social graph of 13,762 users of the XXX App on its August 1, launch date and again on August 22. In three weeks, the social graph tripled its cohesiveness, jumping from 13.7 kiloHarpers on Aug. 1 to 44 kHp on August 22. (Fig. 3)”

Good interview of Michael Joyce at The Literary Platform. (

MJ: The main opportunities, as the above suggests, are collaborative; the main challenges are, as always, finding an audience in the midst of the maelstrom of seemingly ubiquitous, often ridiculous,  work spewed forth by media conglomerates, would-be prospects for media conglomerate buy-outs, and such. The question is to find the living tissue, the live wires, and connect them.

(Why is an interview with Michael Joyce headed with a photo of Amaranth Borsuk?)

Nov 14 24 2014

Station Eleven

by Emily St. John Mandel

National Book Award nominee, featuring a front-cover blurb by Erin Morgenstern, author of the estimable The Night Circus.

This is the story of the end of civilization and what came after. It’s a pandemic flu, but that’s not the point: the point is the people who keep going, and where they go.

Planetary romance is the a problem for all Armageddons; if civilization becomes the central character of the story, then the story becomes simple a pathetic deathbed scene or, if life marches on, a hospital melodrama. Here, Mandel uses avant-garde fragmentation to straightforward and evocative narrative effect: frequent time shift and changing points of view leave us in little doubt with regard to the Great Questions of whether civilization is saved and whether everyone is wiped out, and this leaves us space to build a moving novel of small achievements and small (but pressing) desires amidst the universal wreckage.

Randi Harper (@freebsdgirl) has been getting death threats.

A staggering number of men that I know and respect have spoken to me privately, apologizing because they didn’t know this was happening. I’ve related those conversations to other women, and they were shocked. They didn’t understand how men could not see these problems.

When I was a doctoral candidate in chemistry, about half of my fellow candidates were women. A little less than half – we weren’t there yet, but we were getting close.

When I was getting started in Hypertext research, about half of the top researchers were women. A little less than half – we weren’t there yet, but clearly many of the top people in the field were women. Two of the first three Hypertext program chairs were women, and program chair was the seat of power. Another of that crew has since been president of the ACM and has been knighted.

Throughout my career, my perception has been that about half my colleagues were women. A little less than 50%, perhaps, but we were still getting there. I don’t teach and I don’t spend time in universities, but naturally I do try to know the top grad students and best young scholars in my field, and it’s been clear throughout that more than half have been women.

It’s also clear that I’ve been fooled by a statistical illusion. Enrollments in physical sciences are roughly what they were, enrollments in medical school have remained roughly the same, but the proportion of women in computer science is way down. I’m not seeing this because I’m not seeing a sample: the average student doesn’t come to my attention. I’m only likely to notice the best – the ones who not only publish papers as students, but the ones who publish good papers as students, the ones who are already near the top of the field before they leave school.

And I had no idea of the venom that could be directed – not just by crazed zealots but by supposedly neutral and sensible Wikipedians – against women in computing generally, and specifically against one particular woman who may once have romanced a reporter. She’s an adult, she can have dinner with whomever she likes. But the Wikipedia pictures and headlines must name her and shame her (Allegations Against ___), and we must discuss at endless length, over and over, just what she might have done and whether anyone anywhere has said that it was wrong, because a campaign of GamerGate supporters is ever-vigilant for any way to condemn her and women like her, which is to say women in computing.

And then, an editor – a Wikimedia admin! – writes about this specific woman that:

I know other other allegations exist but will not state what those on WP are because that would be a BLP violation at the current time.

and

We need to be aware that there are other things the proGg side would like WP to say but we are nowhere close to having any sources

Holy McCarthy! In my view, no one can honorably assist an enterprise that condones this.

So, yes, GamerGate has been an eye opener.

A reminder of why I won't be missing Wikipedia.

AVONO: And this [225] could possibly constitute slander.

ME:

I wrote there that Christina Sommers is

A prominent right-wing supporter of

The Gamergate Conspiracy. I said

It there and on this page I here

Repeat those words and hurl defiance at

Your feet. And WTF?

AVONO: I would advise Markbernstein to immediately retract that statement.

ME:

That she is prominent is clear: she has

A wiki page, so she is notable.

That she’s right-wing may lack some nuance, but

You know, she is employed By AEI,

A famous think tank, right wing as they come.

Regarding her support of Gamergate,

I do agree the case is tenuous

And oft before I’ve urged she be removed

From Gamergate’s own page, but there my pleas

Have been rejected ’cause her photo shows

That some young woman somewhere does support

Some aspect of this sad and tawdry plot.

AVONO: Oh. I’m German: I thought “right-wing” meant “Fascist.” It must be a cultural thing. Never mind.

ME:

Dude!

Meanwhile, some of the Gamergate folk have figured out who’s behind the nefarious Wikipedia account MarkBernstein, perhaps because it says so on my (former) Wikipedia home page, or perhaps by using the Google. Either way, my twitter feed and mailbox this morning will doubtless bring some special joys. As you see here, I haven’t been up to looking.

A Wikipedia admin is trying to help whitewash the GamerGate article, which is currently critical of the effort to threaten women in the video game industry with rape and murder. He argues (with respect to the Vivian James cartoon) that

one static image cannot readily imply rape

This will probably surprise my readers who are art historians or semioticians, as well as the shades of Picasso, Goya, Rubens, Bernini, and plenty of others.

Besides, he says, the underlying meme was just a “locker room joke.”

Meanwhile, another editor (whose screen name is Japanese) was denounced yesterday as “Shlomo Sheckelstein” and instructed to go back to editing articles about Israeli homosexuals. On 8chan, they’re talk about that editor sitting in his room and counting his “Jew gold.”

What a charming bunch of volunteers! In Wikipedia, I guess you can accomplish great things with the aid of a rogue administrator. How in pursuit of The Wiki Way did we come to this?

Tell me again about the wisdom of crowds, and how the net routes around damage, and how this will end well? It’s been a lousy week: I need a bubbe meisse.

This War Of Mine, a new game game by Grzegorz Miechowski. examines war from the viewpoint of the people caught in the middle. It’s set in a world like WW2 Warsaw, a half-ruined city in which desperate civilians scramble for food, shelter, for anything that can help them manage a few more days.

This War Of Mine

This might have been a simple romp or a power fantasy, but it’s not. You start in a house with three guys, each with distinct personality and talents. New helpers can arrive with their own talents, and those talents are realistically useful or otherwise. I’ve had a mathematician and a high school principal – splendid folks and good company, but these are not the skills we chiefly need right now. Choices have consequences and the consequences are deep: you can steal stuff, but it makes you feel pretty awful; you can hide from the armed gangs who are threatening people who have nothing to do with you, but you’ll always wonder if there was something you should have done.

Onboarding is not this game’s strength. To preserve the morality of the game, it’s hard to save your progress, to back up and erase your mistakes. That’s perhaps the right answer, but it makes things less fun.

Perhaps that’s part of the point.

Revolution 60 by Brianna Wu is an intriguing hyperfiction performed as an animated film. A tactical team of four (very talented) operatives have been called in to deal with a hijacked space station, working in the service of a AI overseer. Holiday, the player character, is a motorcycle-riding combat specialist. She’s teamed with Valentina, advised by tech-savvy Amelia, managed by a manipulative suit named Minuete, and opposed by a conspiracy we don’t understand.

Revolution 60

A good time is had by all.

In formal terms, this is a fairly conventional branching hypertext in which decisions accrete tendencies or stats, and the accumulated stats ultimately determine the ending. That this works at all rests on two piers. First, we’ve got a team of four women whose interactions with each other are complexly nuanced, and the stats play nicely into shifting professional alliances and attitudes. Should Holiday behave “professionally” or should she let her violent roguishness show? Should Holiday flatter management, or should she align herself with her technically-adept peer? These are not melodramatic morality tales, but intriguing choices with consequences, taking us back to the question at the beginning of literary hypertext, “Do you want to hear about it?and the opportunity to answer, “No.”

Second, we’re not simply telling a gender-switched story (as in Hunger Games, which is to say Robin Hood) or a familiar quest tale that happens to have a female protagonist: we’re actually exploring (fairly) real depictions of office behavior in contemporary business culture, extended to an epic stage. When push comes to shove, should you support your manager, who claims to have special knowledge, or the new girl from MIT, who claims to have a different kind of special knowledge? In the last analysis, you’re unlikely to achieve an ideal fantasy outcome: what shortfalls can you accept? And whom will you sacrifice to get where you want to be?

I’m not sure this is entirely successful as a game or a sustainable model for hyperfiction. But it doesn’t have to be: it’s $4 and it takes a couple of hours. (There’s plenty of replay value – hypertexts demand rereading – so no worries there.) Enjoy it for what it is, and look forward to the next adventure.

Nov 14 17 2014

In Real Life

by Jen Wang and Cory Doctorow

A suburban teenage girl goes online, joins a Massively Multiplayer Roleplaying Game, and discovers that there’s a big and complicated world out there. Before she’s finished, she’s a key figure in a new Chinese labor movement. A power fantasy for a new age, but a good time is had by all.

Amid much Gamergate foolishness swirling at Wikipedia and elsewhere, I’ve been thinking of ways to re/mediate Gamergate.

When you have a hammer, everything problem looks like a nail. When you have narratology, every problem looks like a plot device.

But seriously: one problem here is narrative: the conflict concerns who is to be the protagonist of this melodrama. And if that were the only conflict – if this were all a game without consequences – that would be dandy.

But what if it weren’t a melodrama? How about a nice Shakespearean comedy: Much Ado About Games, with Zoe Quinn as Hero and Brianna Wu as Beatrice? Or, after A Day At The Races and A Night At The Opera we could have A Midnight At 8chan. It is a truth universally acknowledged that the Gamergate PR operation has always been worthy of the Three Stooges with the Marx Brothers thrown in for good measure.

Or how about music theater? I can see a big, serious musical here, something like Oklahoma! or – better – Carousel. As I recall, Carousel has two choruses: New England villagers and Carnival Workers. We could have two choruses too: a chorus of feminist game developers and a chorus of “gamers”.

Stonecutters cut it on stone

Woodpeckers peck it on wood

There's nothin' so bad for a studio as

A gamer who thinks he's good!

It won’t stand up to scrutiny, of course, but what’s the use of wondering? And I like the potential for a gender-switched Soliloquy:

Like a tree she'll grow with her head held high

And her feet planted firm on the ground

And you won't see nobody dare to try to mansplain or toss her around!

As you see, I’m in a rotten mood, but This War Of Mine, a new game game by Grzegorz Miechowski about surviving as a refugee in a place that might be Warsaw in World War 2 promises a light little change of pace.

Nov 14 16 2014

Parties

One of the things I disliked about my early work in picosecond photoacoustic spectroscopy was that, when strangers asked me “what do you do?”, there was no good answer. Either you were self-deprecating, which is a bore, or you try to explain to people, which is annoying, or you oversimplify, which is pretentious. Or you try to find a polite way to say “you wouldn’t understand,” but there is no such way, and so you mutter to yourself that “they aren’t going to understand” and it’s usually true but nobody’s better off.

Nowadays I make software for writers and researchers, software that helps people write articles and books, manage research, plan departments, make investments, design new stuff. But I find that people increasingly assume that all software pretty much exists already and that working on it now is like ditch digging or assembly line work, work that nobody would do unless they had no choice at all. Anyway, all software comes with your computer, except perhaps for those 99¢ app things we don’t let the kids buy.

Maybe I need to find better parties.