Via Infovore, here is a pretty sweet comprehensive introduction to the Salty Bet scene, written up by Rich McCormick for Eurogamer.  There are enough bizarre details that you should just read the article.  But the gist, which is more than sufficiently outrageous, is that there is a site where you can bet (with pretend money) on streamed live AI-played sidescrolling fighting game matches, which are done in an open-source fighting game engine called Mugen, using characters from a fairly extensive collection of nerdly sources (existing fighting games, anime, whatever users suggest.  From the article, here is a fan favorite, in which Barney fights someone from Dragon Ball Z).

I don’t think I would ever want to participate in something like this, but I’m extremely pleased to know that it exists.  And think of all the pieces of popular culture and technology that have come together to make it a real extant thing.

Intentionality and Nice Things

I had been meaning for a while to say more about Tom Dibblee’s LARB review of a history of Anheuser-Busch, which is pretty sweet, and ends up functioning mostly as a meditation on the author’s personal relationship with Bud Light Lime and a summary of the parts of Anheuser-Busch’s corporate history most relevant to this personal relationship.  I really admire the craft, and I am especially pleased that the first comment on the piece is some poor hipster oaf (apparently) earnestly trying to convince the author that he should, if he likes BLL so much, consider trying an objectively better craft beer in the same style.  This is classic lifemanship, but the commenter is apparently insufficiently on top of things to understand that the old “heartfelt recommendation of better craft beers” gambit, while possibly useful in some circumstances, is an automatic fail when used in response to a long essay about the authentic love one feels for deeply inauthentic engineered products.

When I was chatting about the essay with a friend, he mentioned that he had recently been at what sounded like a deeply authentically crafty party, at which, at one point, the conversation had revolved around the way that most of the participants had totally gorged on Fruit Loops when they arrived at college and first had the agency to totally gorge themselves on Fruit Loops.  The friend suggested that the lesson here has to do with “the real pleasure created by foods that have been carefully designed by deep-pocketed corporations to give real pleasure.”  He gave Doritos and McGriddles as other examples of this working in practice.

I don’t know about this, because to me that stuff is obvious poison, and I can’t get into it.  There was a thing on Kottke a while ago (incidentally more or less contemporaneous with the LARB piece) that touched incidentally on the similarity between “McDonald’s super-processed food and molecular gastronomy,” (actual phrase from a piece in The Awl that Kottke was linking to) trying to use the comparison to elevate fast food, but to me this comparison mostly works to demonstrate the inherent vapidity of molecular gastronomy. Nevertheless, I don’t think that authenticity in itself (or “soul” as Dibblee has it) is a very useful marker.  We like a decently-raised pig from up the hill because it tastes better and isn’t bringing a lot of hideous unpriced externalities with it, not because it is ye olde pigge in the classic style.  I am as nonplussed as anyone by long menu notes about sourcing, but a lot of the things you get at those restaurants are pretty nice.  And I like a good straightforwardly hopped up beer like Two-Hearted Ale because that is the kind of beer I like.

I do, though, think that there is a significant difference between trying to be good and trying to be liked, and that this difference, when you can pin it down, is pretty useful.  This is not to say that I would encourage excessive sincerity or whatever, but I think there might be something here to help sort out what is and is not worthwhile.  Anyway, I strongly recommend reading that essay.

An Unfinished Note about Making Games

I have been thinking a bit about what would make a good iPhone game, a big catalyst for this being the times I have been traveling recently, during which I would have liked to have a good iPhone game on which to pass the time. I think a key element would be some sort of persistent and semi-emergent (which is to say not all that scripted) setting or characters, in the mode of something between the Sims and SimCity. So Dwarf Fortress for iPhone, basically, but with an interface that leaves it legible. It would be nice if it also generated something interesting and relatively unique, so that the game also ended up being a kind of composition tool (Dwarf Fortress, Minecraft, and a lot of the Maxis games kind of do this already, and there is probably more to be said elsewhere about “the saved game as a document and the document as a saved game” or something like that).

There was a pretty great piece in Rock, Paper, Shotgun about the general badness of story in games, followed by a somewhat less convincing counterpoint (by the same author, who was using them to set up for a panel discussion he was going to have on the topic, although the discussion didn’t really adhere to the parameters he’d set out in the two pieces) that brought me back to some general questions about narrative in games and what games are good for.

I would claim that there are at least two big categories of narrative in games, which are the narrative laid out explicitly in a game’s fiction, to be followed as you would follow the plot in any of the traditional storytelling media, and then the narrative that gets generated in an individual player’s experience. Explicit narratives are almost always really cheesey and unhelpfully genre, although you will in the course of your life run into that dude who cried at the twist in whichever Final Fantasy it was. But they will still, executed properly, sometimes be pretty ok, and often serve as decent frameworks for hanging fun game elements on. Generated narratives are the part I find really rad, because they will so often feel more real and more funny (it is the difference between “we had been asked by the king to solve the problem of the ancient evil again” and “before the necromancer could finish his first menacing sentence we kicked him into the lava pit because Catbite the Monk had specialized in Necromancer Kicking”). There will often end up being a pretty funny disjunction between these two narrative categories.

The big newer games have kind of worked toward a place where explicit narrative is privileged, and seem to be aspiring, in many cases, to be more like bad action movies, with a lot of very deliberate spectacle that only ever plays out as specified by the scriptwriter (this is a tendency that is taken apart really well in the anti-story RPS article linked above). I would categorize this move as unequivocally bad. I am also against conscious level design, which is sort of in the same vein as overscripting, insofar as it works to create the illusions of choice and the possibility of failure while pushing players into situations that are actually kind of linear, obvious, and hard to ultimately fail.

I should probably finish this later.

-the decent random games, lessons we might learn from them.
-the utility of games as pedagogy, looking particularly at the frog spawning interactive we did for Discovery Place and the Oregon Trail meets Ticket to Ride mail delivery game we did for NPM.

Machines for

Here are a couple of posts that I think go together pretty well:
Timothy Burke on not forgetting to be humane about things – if only there were some way to automate this and save ourselves the constant work of being alive.

Alex Harrowell on machine interfaces making things easier but in some cases not actually making them easier – I strongly recommend watching the embedded video, which is a lecture on autopilots and safety.


Last night we went to a gallery in DUMBO to see a Times art critic get pilloried for having written some intemperate things about women and black people. We were there mainly because our friend was scouting it to see what it might be like when they have a second pillorying next month at PAFA.

In what is a funny twist of continuity for our lives recently, one of the the shows he had reviewed was up at PS1 when we were there, and so we had just been through it and had a sort of vague opinion (it was OK, with some pretty super highlights).

We had been getting an early dinner in midtown, so we arrived somewhat late and had to sit in the downstairs part of the gallery (the pillorying was happening in an upstairs room, which was packed with I guess cool kids, and anyone who wanted to show up was sitting in the downstairs, which had a bar and a bunch of tables on a kind of scaffold over a pond. I would really like to go back there if there is ever a worthwhile show, because it is a pretty sweet space and you can imagine drunk people falling entertainingly into the pond, although it has a railing. The events transpiring upstairs were being shown in real time on a big projector in the downstairs space, which added an interesting layer of distance).

The actual pillorying was a pretty mixed bag. The critic’s intemperate remarks were definitely intemperate, in a sort of Bulworth-style “older white dude believes he is expressing basic truths by finally letting himself say racist/sexist things, and feels that his credentials as a big liberal and the fact that he is expressing what he feels to be basic truths should be enough for everyone to be cool with it” mode. The panel was not very good at coherently taking this apart, and in particular there was one young artist on it who talked at length in what might as well have been self-parodic jargon. There were also some very excellent coherent people, and at a couple of points you kind of felt there was a pretty decent debate happening. But then the critic’s friends in the audience decided they had had enough of the pillorying (which, despite protestations from some of the panel, was really a straightforward case of everyone on the stage being there to at the very least give the poor old critic a pretty aggressive interrogation about what he had written) and began to heckle a bit. Here is my advice for cases where you are an older white dude friend of an old white dude critic who is doing pretty decently at engaging a semi-hostile but ultimately somewhat ineffective gang of interlocutors: you may feel some outrage, but your cause and the cause of your pal will be best served by you keeping it to yourself (you might also want to meditate on how talking unselfconsciously about marked and unmarked categories could be an indication that there is still a lot of privilege floating around).

My Notes from Seeing Stross and Doctorow at MakerBot

We are in Brooklyn now, and Stross had mentioned on his Twitter feed that they would be doing this event. It seemed like a bit of a thing, and I was interested in what the walk up to MakerBot from our apartment would be like (it was relatively long and a bit hot, as this was still the infamous “hot” part of September).  I didn’t get any pictures, but I have these notes.


The MakerBot space: cavernous. Some iMacs. The Ikea overhead paper globes. Plastic folding chairs. The table in the middle with two 3D printers and a big array of 3D printed Stross and Doctorow heads. I noticed an old empty vending machine, and then, closer to the door, a vending machine with brightly-colored weird toys in it.

By the time Stross and Doctorow arrived (they were a little bit late, according to Bre Pettis, because Doctorow had a flat (which seemed to suggest some kind of joke about his blogging balloon/dirgible, but the joke didn’t quite materialize) the place was pretty crowded, with people standing in the back and another big clot of people by the door. It was not a good space to arrive late to, as an audience member, because you had to kind of move across the middle of everyone’s attention (and once the thing started, pretty much in front of Stross and Doctorow) to get to the decent standing room.

The actual arrival of the authors themselves was pretty casual (and the whole thing was really interestingly casual). They just tumbled in and said hey, apologized for their (really slight) lateness and were guided to their places at the table of 3D printed heads. Stross asked for a glass of water, and remarked that his 3D printed heads looked a bit Lenin-esque (and they did in fact have a strong superficial resemblance to the white chocolate bust of Lenin that we used to have).

Doctorow opened with the plan, which was that they would each explain a bit about the project, then each read a bit from the book, and then fill the rest of the time with questions from the audience. He followed this by explaining their general process, starting with the collaborative story “Jury Duty,” which had sort of started the roll of ideas that turned into the book (which ended up taking seven years, and is in three big sections, all of which –I think– ran as freestanding novellas or short stories or whatever, which makes Accelerando the obvious point of comparison, both content-wise and shambolic-form-wise). This bit was a little inside-baseball ish. Although who is to say.

Stross’s talk was about the history of the singularity as a concept, and what they mean by Rapture of the Nerds (which is Ken MacLeod’s term), and how this fits in with broader eschatology. This is a topic that is covered really well on his blog, and it was extremely interesting to hear him talk about it, because he is such a lucid and thorough thinker, but I think is hampered a bit by the inherent goofiness of lecturing as a person in front of a bunch of people. Which is to say I felt the blog posts are in general a better way to convey the concepts, and a better medium for Stross (who is really a perfect medium-long form blogger, as far as being able to kick around ideas in a kind of agile but still very well-considered way). Anyway: key concepts: Kurzweil, Vinge, Federov, the extropian dudes of the 90s, Moore’s Law, Lapsarianism, the Scottish Enlightenment, cognitive clankiness that emerges when humans try to build predictive frameworks that head toward unbounded states, the basic idea from Vinge that once you put a mind in a computer and speed it up a bit it will design a better mind and a better computer more or less right then and soon humans generally will be uploaded or irrelevant, a kind of diversion to Federov and early Marxist/Leninist cosmic utopianism as a vision of the proto-singularity, and the Rapture as a flipped Singularity (or vice versa). This comes through somewhat jumbled in my memory, and was interspersed with sort of tone-based jokes in the delivery (speaking of delivery, I had somehow expected him to sound Scottish, but he only lives in Edinburgh and is actually from Leeds, so he had a very soft slightly northy urbane BBC accent, as far as I am capable of interpreting that stuff).

The readings were: our tech-phobic protagonist, having previously undergone an involuntary sex change, is yanked out of her house by her mother’s posthuman golem and forcibly uploaded (Stross). And later, taken to participate in a judgement of (post)humanity’s general worth by the Galactic Authority, said judgement to be administered in a virtual space running on computronium that has been manufactured from the moons of Jupiter (I think Io and Calypso specifically), our protagonist realizes that her overriding objection to uploading was the kind of horrible banality it engenders, and then, in a simulated gross hotel, watches TV that has been rendered impossibly interesting by honing it against simulated copies of herself (the simulated copy thing is a pretty funny chestnut of upload fiction) while worrying that she herself might be one of those copies, and that she’ll be terminated if she changes the channel. She then goes on to watch TV for a hundred subjective years.

These were both fairly amusing passages, and I think they went over well. Stross is a somewhat livelier reader than Doctorow, and he had the protagonist say “shitbiscuits,” which I guess is something one might say if one is about to be killed and put into a computer by one’s hideous superhuman robot mother.

The questions were for the most part surprisingly good. Someone wanted to know how Rapture of the Nerds fits with Accelerando (you should read them back to back, with RotN in the unicorn chaser role, according to Stross). What were the logistical issues of collaborating? (Doctorow has a really funny git-based snapshotting script that you can get on github, and Stross was in charge of general version control.) How disruptive do they think 3D printing is going to be? (Very, and they both have books about it.) Did they have big disagreements about ideas? (No.) Do they think the view of the singularity and of technological progress in general is informed by gnosticism? (Doctorow tags Charlie, Charlie says “yes.” Then adds a bit of elaboration about lenses. I would personally say that a lot of people’s approach to tech is super gnostic.) Well if they didn’t have disagreements about big ideas, did they have fights about passages? (Yes, and those were resolved by shelving disputed passages to give everyone time to cool off, or by phone, which as we all know, is a really drastic move in these times.) I forget what else. There is probably video. (There is.)

Toward a More Socialist Network

I have said in various settings that I think we should nationalize Facebook, but I don’t know that I have done much to set out the argument, or explained that I mean it more or less sincerely (although I was also kind of making a jokey catchphrase out of it).

The issue is that something like Facebook probably needs to exist, but the stupid hand of the market will inevitably kind of wreck instantiations of it that are run for profit, because if you charge users for the service (which in general seems like the right way to provide a lot of services) you almost certainly won’t get a critical mass of users, whereas if you don’t charge users for the service, you will have to either go out of business or make users the product and advertisers the secret real customers, which leads to unpleasantness.

But if we recognize some kind of social network as a public good, it should follow that the obvious right move is to establish a taxpayer-funded independent Social Network Administration along the lines of the NTSB or NOAA.

Confusion about Terms

The other morning as I was cantering over to the car a woman asked me where the Union Memorial was. I wasn’t sure, but since she used a definite article I thought she must be looking for the statue of a Union soldier that stands at the southeast corner of Wyman Park Dell. So I said she should keep going down 31st street and she couldn’t miss it.

This morning I was looking at a very pixellated map of the neighborhood in the Charles Villager (it was a map explaining how they will probably ruin the farmer’s market by spending a lot of money to add pavilions and things to the parking lot where it’s held) and I saw that Union Memorial is actually a hospital just to the north of us. I hope the woman enjoyed her walk, and that she met someone on St. Paul Street who was able to point her in the right direction. And if she didn’t meet someone on St. Paul Street who was able to point her in the right direction, I hope she found the statue of the Union soldier to be edifying.

Stonewall Jackson’s Arm

We were walking past the Jackson and Lee statue on the other side of the BMA and I told Laura the story of a Marine general exhuming Stonewall Jackson’s arm because he didn’t believe it was buried where some dudes said it was. But I misremembered it as Chesty Puller, when in fact it was the rather more awesome Smedley Butler (from Wikipedia we learn aka “The Fighting Quaker” and “Old Gimlet Eye”) (and this is somewhat less distressing than attributing “who’s your fat friend” to Oscar Wilde, but not much).

Anyway, as described here:

In 1921 the U.S. Marine Corps conducted training maneuvers on farms adjacent to Ellwood. The legendary and eccentric commander of this force was General Smedley Butler. According to the then owner of Ellwood, Butler dismissed the notion of Jackson’s arm being buried there and ordered a squad of Marines to dig beneath the Smith marker to prove that nothing was there. Much to his astonishment, they unearthed the arm. Butler had it reburied and ordered a bronze plaque cemented to the top of the stone.

The main thing I take from this anecdote is how funny it would be to have squads of Marines to order around when death is not on the line. When I had been thinking about the story earlier, I had not remembered that the exhumation happened while they were on maneuvers, and had instead imagined Smedley Butler going around to parties and things accompanied by a small troop of Marines, presumably with a disassembled field piece distributed among them so that they could storm the occasional fortified position.

And I think that “The Adventures of Smedley Butler and Stonewall Jackson’s Arm,” in which the somewhat zombified arm flies around and is conscious, would make a pretty sweet comic.