Notes from Sebtember, 2001. Latest notes

Sep 01 26 2001

On The Road

Infrequent updates this week; I'm in Erfurt, Germany, for p0es1s. I'll be talking about Card Shark, Thespis, the reason we woudn't want to meet Hamlet on the Holodeck, and the mysterious absence of tragedy and comedy from hypertext literature,

An interesting historical survey of book covers, by Tom Dyckhoff for The Guardian.

Times and web logs change.

In this emerging community, we've been talking a lot about the world, and we've been talking quite a bit about games and game theory. Sorting one from the other might be hard for a newcomer. And perhaps you're only interested in game theory!

The answer, in Ceres, is simple: create a new page that archives the topic. The page could be built automatically, using Ceres' software agents. For the time being, I'm building technocrit by hand -- dragging aliases of notes into the TechnoCrit page takes only a second or two.

It's much better than copying and pasting items, because you never accidentally copy the wrong text and foul up the HTML, and because it's easy to add new topics and revise the whole architectural scheme.

A fine little movie about the things we do for our children. Fold the laundry, pick up son from school, try to get loan to pay son's extortionist, go to daughter's ballet recital....

New in the Hypertext Kitchen: Justin Hall (probably the inventor of the Web memoir) reviews the new journal,
An oddity of game theory today is that, while game theorists are arguing that games are not narratives, playwrights are relying on games to explain the nature of drama.

Eskillenen writes that viewing games through the prism of drama is "conceptually weak and ill-grounded.... derived from a very limited knowledge of mere mainstream drama or outdated literary theory.

Mamet writes that, "We rationalize, objectify, and personalize the process of the game exactly as we to that of a play, a drama. For finally it is a drama, with meaning for our lives. Why else would we watch it?" (Three Uses For A Knife, p. 11) Indeed, Mamet describes "The Perfect Game" as the archetype of the three-act structure. "The ball game, then, is perhaps a model of Eisenstein's Theory of Montage: the idea of a SHOT A is synthesized with the idea of a SHOT B to give us a third idea, which third idea is the irreducible building block upon which the play will be constructed."

Part of the problem, I think, are the arbitrary scraps of narrative that some game designers tack on to games as chrome: cutscenes, campaign sequences, and so forth. These rarely matter to the game, but it's easy to think they are important because they're so visible.

"He married, out of love, a woman out of legend." Henry II's autobiography, a lovely phrase from Goldman's The Lion in Winter. Everyone else seems to be quoting Yamamoto; something needs to be done, but it would be wise to choose the right thing to do.

From the movie site's current home page:

"Of course he has a knife. He always has a knife. We all have knives. It's 1183 and we're barbarians."

Cameron Barrett in {Fray}: "At that moment I realized that the terrorist attacks weren't just an attack on America, they were an attack on the world.... I am an American, and I am not afraid to fly.

Dave Winer: "From the US, it's damned simple. We don't want our cities to get nuked. It's probably going to happen anyway. Then, what? If not now, when?

Rogert Ebert: Make it green. " If there is to be a memorial, let it not be of stone and steel. Fly no flag above it"

The mood in the US has changed tremendously in the past week -- more, I think, than my friends abroad appreciate. Americans usually don't like change: the American revolution was about resisting new taxes. But, suddenly, change seems better than living with people willing to blow up everything and anything.

Last night, Bush's speech was shown between periods at a professional hockey exhibition. When the speech turned out to be longer than the interval, the crowd insisted on hearing the speech. That's amazing: a hockey crowd that would rather hear a politician than finish the game. I don't think that's happened since William Jennings Bryan in 1892.

People know that there might not be a good answer. They know that military action might not help. That it might make things worse. People don't care about that. People want to try to fix this, and they're convinced that discussion won't help.

Last night, the president of the United States referred to our Civil War as a war against a foreign power. Southerners think this way, but it's heresy: the war was fought because the South was not and could not declare itself a country. For the president of the Union to make this slip was remarkable; nobody noticed.

Americans armies -- aside from the Civil War years -- have been notoriously good at improvising and famously reluctant to accept casualties. Last weekend, a reporter asked Hilary Clinton about the prospect of casualties; without blinking, she said, "We already have 5000." Hilary is a dove and a liberal, folks, and she takes terribly heat whenever she is seen to be unladylike. People are ready to do something.

People would prefer a clear, productive path to a solution. But, in this mood, people want to DO something. Even if there's no assurance it will work, something with a chance is better than nothing. Maybe, something with no chance of success is better than nothing.

Bush has been inept, bumbling, tongue-tied -- just as you'd have expected. Nobody cares; people accept his limitations. Perhaps they wish they had someone better in the job, but they don't and they're prepared to back Bush.

I don't agree with most people. But I'm part of a small minority, a fringe, like the folks who thought Nixon wasn't a crook.

People are talking about wild things. Completely reconstructing the Middle East. Occupation. Nuclear weapons.

Sep 01 23 2001

New Yorker

Art Spiegelman 's black-on-black cover of the September 24 New Yorker is wonderful. See it.

(Imagine editing a magazine. Bad things happen: you need to scrap the entire issue and put together a new one with the staff on hand. And who do you have? Hertzberg, Updike, Angell, Sontag, Gopnick for starters. )

An HBO film on the making of the Wannsee protocols. (Thanks to Mr. Fishman for lending me the tape) Aside from the obvious and important reasons to see this (and it might be an especially good thing to see in the coming month), it's a chance to watch two fine actors, Branagh (Heydrich) and Tucci (Eichman) work hard. They both seem to be miscast, and perhaps that makes the movie better than it would have been with more natural casting.
Sep 01 22 2001

I'm at Bree.

I'm rereading The Lord Of The Rings very deliberately: one chapter a night. It's a challenge to read a book you know well.

(More on game studies) If you're a scientist, you can't escape responsibility for overlooking a fact because "the book wasn't assigned" or "nobody studies that" or "it's not in the canon." None of that matters.

If your conclusion rests on the contention that Crows are black, and someone raises their hand and asks, "What about Blue Jays?", you're sunk. It doesn't matter that someone else forgot to study Blue Jays, or that Blue Jays are unpopular. It doesn't matter that Blue Jays might have been unknown to science until the bastard in the back row raised his hand. Blue Jays are crows, and Blue Jays are blue, your argument is wrong, and it's time to go back to the drawing board.

Ornithologists study birds. Not just "popular birds" or "birds we like to study at my university" or "birds that made lots of money." Of course, your primary interest might be one family or one species or even one individua bird. Of course, you know some aspects of the field better than others. But you need to be prepared to bring any evidence to bear on your problem.

The same thing holds true for historians: you need to know, and account for, everything related to your subject. Every footnote, every inscription, every source.

Yes, it's hard. Unreasonable. An impossible standard. But it's the only possible standard of scholarship: otherwise, it's just a popularity contest.

Don't get me wrong. Torill is right. So is Markku, for that matter. And so is Justin. This is the site of scholarly discourse nowadays, at least in this field, and we are changing it from within.

Sep 01 21 2001

Buffy Lives

Sighted on a billboard in Saugus. Web site, too!

An important intellectual problem -- one that the Web should help solve but, so far, doesn't, is finding the best book on a given topic. For example, I wanted to read a biography of Nelson as background to my ongoing affair with O'Brian's Aubrey-Maturin novels. I'm reading Wade's Nelson (1978) because my library had it, and because it looks right. But even knowing what a good source looks like requires some expertise: I know to look at the end of the book so see how the writer treats his sources, but unless you've read a lot of history you wouldn't know this trick.

On a campus, you can always phone someone in the appropriate department out of the blue. I do that occasionally even though I'm not an academic. Casual critical discussion is the currency of scholarship, most scholars are refreshingly willing to take a phone call or answer an email, and there's still a dim, collective memory of the time when simply having a Ph.D. was a sufficient calling card among scholars, whatever your discipline.

But it's still hit-or-miss, error-prone, and expensive for everyone.

Torril Mortensen assesses Justin Hall's recent review of GameStudies. Mortensen thinks that Hall's complaint is that GameStudies is too vague and too academic, and observes that "What he doesn't see is that there is a definition of what computer-games are not, what does not work."

I believe Hall's central concern lies elsewhere: Hall questions whether the scholarship behind GameStudies is sound, whether the scholars know the games as well as they ought. When he writes, for example, that one of the authors overlook " two games [that] are a part of an electronic entertainment canon," he's complaining of an absence of scholarship, not an excess of pedantry.

Is Jack Aubrey really better than Horatio Hornblower? In Books.
Military historian John Keegan writes: "One undoubted effect of the World Trade Centre disaster is to heighten the likelihood of war in the Middle East, which may indeed, in a perverse way, have been its planners' immediate desire." ( Daily Telegraph; thanks Arts and Letters )
The right is blaming feminists, lesbians, neo-pagans, and opponents of Christian prayer in public schools for terrorist attacks.
Sep 01 17 2001


to Victor Lombardi, who says some nice things about Card Shark and Thespis. (Thanks to El.Pub for making it their creative technology site of the week)
I suspect that past days have seen a remarkable realignment of Web traffic, as people search for information, reassurance, and compassion. Web memoirists like Cameron Barrett and Dave Winer report huge traffic spikes -- up to a tenfold increase in readers. In part, this may have been triggered by access problems at the big news sites on Tuesday, but in part it's community: people want to know what they should be thinking about and doing. Within the last few hours, for example, posting pictures of your missing family and associates has become a spontaneous, widespread Web phenomenon, a new custom.
A graceful essay by Dan Bricklin, CTO of Trellix. "I find [this Wen journal] the closest thing to a personal diary, and I know I'll look back on it over the years (as I have so far), so please indulge me while I record some personal feelings and events during a time that makes your personal problems seem so insignificant."
Last night, someone called a Boston radio station to propose that the US deport all the "Middle Eastern" students at colleges and universities in the Boston area, because they might be terrorists. The host, Ted Sarandis (who is normally a sensible fellow) agreed that this might be a good idea. Last night, someone called to worry that all the gas stations seem to be owned by "people like that", and perhaps they were all planning to blow them up. The Boston Globe reports that a convenience store in Somerville was set on fire by kids who (mistakenly) thought the owner was an Arab.

We need a very good speech and we need to hear it soon. The President is the natural choice, but Bush is probably incapable of pulling it off. With luck his staff knows this. He can say a few words and introduce someone who can do the job. Peter Gomes? Gerald Ford? Jesse Jackson? (Why not? He's a fine orator, it's time for him to leave the stage, and what better way to come together than to have Dubya introduce Jesse?)

Bad news will be with us for weeks, months, every day bringing a new revelation of some additional terrible detail. We need the ritual words to set everyone moving toward something worthwhile, toward a new birth of freedom, lest we again descend into bitterness we later regret.

Sep 01 16 2001

Email drama

Jill Walker has compiled a valuable list of email drama -- stories that unfold through electronic mail.

Unfolding in time is much on my mind these days. I've recently started to reread The Lord Of The Rings, a wonderful book that I've read many times but have avoided revisiting for several years. Rereading a very familiar book can be difficult; for this reading, I am being careful to read no more than one chapter a day. So, for the next two or three months, Frodo's journey there and back again will be a constant companion from day to day.

Sep 01 15 2001

Still there

Thanks to all who wrote yesterday, from all corners of the world.

Last night, I saw a clip of members of Congress singing "God Bless America," the Republican Party anthem. That's wrong. First, it's now a partisan song, Reagan's campaign theme.

But, more important, the US has a song for the occasion. It was written the last time something like this happened here. "Oh, say, can you see, by the dawn's early light, what so proudly we hailed at the twilight's last gleaming?"

The news media here keep mentioning Pearl Harbor. But that misses the point; Hawaii was then a territory. People have mentioned Antietam, but here in New England they still call it the War of the Rebellion, a fight with rebels, not foreign invaders. The last large-scale violence planned abroad and executed within the United States was, I believe, the Battle of New Orleans, the 1815 skirmish at the end of the Napoleonic Wars. Americans have short memories: it's almost as if the last time this happened was Cannae or Agincourt.

May there be peace.

Sep 01 12 2001

Apocalypse Now!

See the new cut. Do not put it off, no matter how fresh the original cut is in your memory.

Unlike the recut Blade Runner, which remains quite close to the original release, the new Apocalypse Now is a far broader, more ponderous, and even stranger movie. The experience of seeing an old movie remade is itself a strange kind of remediation, rendered stranger because our attitudes toward Vietnam, toward government, toward madness have all changed. It's changed, too, because we've seen Hearts of Darkness and know so much about how this movie came to be made.

I saw the new Apocalypse at the new Boston Common complex: this is a film that merits the outrageous ticket price ($10!) for true widescreen, first-class sound, and a projector that isn't artificially dimmed.

Sep 01 10 2001


Reaction to the US government's decision to let Microsoft off the hook has been strangely muted. In essence, it appears the Bush administration is happy to let Microsoft's punishment for the crimes of which is has been convicted amount to a promise that it won't break the law so flagrantly in the future. Criminal justice, it appears, is to be swift and stern unless you're Microsoft.

Microsoft's pending promise to behave has apparently been broken in advance. Reportedly, if you mistype a URL in the new MSIE browser, you won't see an error message. Instead, Microsoft's browser will automatically send you to an Microsoft search page.

Coupled with the recent stem-cell policy, this policy may well lead US research teams to consider moving to institutes in Canada, Europe, and Japan. And look for US Computer Science enrollments to plummet, as students move on to the next big thing.

Sep 01 9 2001


The Boston Globe is all a-twitter about the Norwegian royal marriage. Americans have a certain fascination for European royalty, in part because we know it can't happen here. So too, it seems, do Europeans; the Globe says that about 1/4 of the population of Oslo came to see the wedding.

Yet another Hypertext '01 highlight: spending the afternoon after the conference at Legoland with Marlene Mallicoat and Ted Nelson, discussing multidimensional morphing in ZigZag while Ted videotapes an airport made from a million Lego blocks.

Finding Forrester, Wonder Boys, and Hoop Dreams. (Finding Forrester is the story of a writer's initiation into the craft. The main problem with Finding Forrester is that the screenplay doesn't believe in the craft, and doesn't really believe in words. Instead, music rises up whenever the writing is good, as if to tell us, "This Is Good Writing. :Still, it's a good, if sluggish, movie; Sean Connery works hard, and F. Murray Abraham does a wonderful job as a preposterously annoying teacher, without contantly reminding you he's F. Murray Abraham)

And don't miss Sunshine, a simply wonderful look at a vanished world, refracted through the lives of four generations of affluent Austrian Jews.

Sep 01 8 2001


Nearly every piece of Spam I receive (and as postmaster for several domains I receive a lot) is fraudulent. I get pyramid schemes, breast enlargement nostrums, plans for defrauding the Nigerian government, promises of FREE Bahamas vacations. But I almost never see honest spam -- a simple advertising offer for a legitimate product.

Contrast this with telemarketing. Cold calling is even more intrusive than spam, and is much more expensive to screen. Yet I get cold calls all the time for legitimate offers: phone companies, stock brokers, insurance and benefits plans, head hunters, even the foolish minister of the local Baptist church who set his family to cold-calling prospects for salvation one Sunday afternoon during the height of the football season. These may not be exciting advertising offers, but they're genuine propositions; why is spam limited to fraud?

Whatever you think about movies, Roger Ebert is a master of the short essay. His reviews and columns are lively, readable, and compelling -- even if you don't much care about the movie in question. Ebert meets art on its own terms, without not trying to fit into ideoology or theory, he always remembers what movies (and Drama) is for, and he always considers carefully what the work is trying to do. This lets him write about ideas, not just about the best way to spend $8.50.

For interesting comparisons, visit the wonderful movie review compednium site, Much reviewing is silly or dishonest -- not just in Hollywood, but in New Media and academe as well.

Sep 01 6 2001


This strange (but rather good) sim game puts you in control (more or less) of an underdeveloped Carribean island. It's not politically correct -- it's not even in the same county as PC -- but it has a certain charm. Oddly, Tropico (like almost all recent SimCity descendants) has few building variations. This may ultimately be a question of budget -- most likely the space budget for fitting the game onto a CD, for the current fascination for gorgeously detailed, photrealistic rendering and animation imposes a substantial tax on each new building type. Tropico uses every ounce of power in my Wall Street PowerBook, and some to spare, it's consistently interesting, but I do wonder whether such literal realism and such expensive chrome really help the game.

I'm convinced that realistic animation actively harms The Sims, where the near-miss realism causes distraction and encourages players to distance themselves from the protagonist. This leads to the game's ironic, half-mocking tone that is neither quite funny nor quite consistent with the game's ambitions. Still, like Tropico, The Sims was a fine game.

A first cut at the Web slides for my Hypertext '01 talk on Card Shark and Thespis: two exotic systems for hypertext narrative is now here. This version is best on screen; I'll revise this shortly to make it somewhat more accessible on the Web. I've received lots of requests for these -- thanks!
I'm testing a new style of trouser that features special PDA pockets. The ads don't quite call them PDA pockets, but that's their size and their function. So far, it's very pleasant indeed: much more comfortable and also safer, for example, than using your shirt pocket.

At one level, this is mere consumerism. But it's also the way clothes evolve. Whenever I buy a jacket, I need to choose details (one vent? two?) intended to make you comfortable on horseback. I rarely ride a horse to the office. Decades hence, will people buy clothes with PDA pockets even though PDAs have become an archaic memory?

Sep 01 4 2001


BloggerdyDoc (is "bloggerdy" an adjective?), an intriguing weblog by comparative media scholar Elin Sjursen, debuts at a new (and unmemorable) URL.

Someone should take a good look at clustering phenomena in Web logs. For example, consider the interesting and active cluster of media-theory Scandinavian-flavored weblogs from Sjursen, Walker, Klastrup, Frasca, Miles, and others. The Web design community has recently been sharply critical of co-citation practices, which some regard as merely a way for elites to reinforce their influence and which has led to the suspension of and K10K pending the arrival of cooler heads. I suspect, though, that these clusters are more interesting, and less strictly political, than they may seem at first -- perhaps a visible manifestation of discipline-formation in proceess.