1 min read
So there’s this thing! Yeah. Like the Ignite events, only more expensive and less irritating. I’ll be trying to teach everyone in ten minutes how to play story games. (Well, not those exact ones I talk about in that old post; more like a hyper-streamlined, more general, low-impact version. But one that totally works, and currently powers my own play.) If you’re in the area, you should totally come. If you’re not, I imagine there will be videos eventually, and I’ll pass you a link unless they’re somehow incriminating.
4 min read
First it was Betamax. Our household didn’t choose it, but if it had been up to me, we would have. I was ten years old. My dad had just announced we’d be getting a VHS deck, and I remember looking up at him – not many memories of that, we were already close to the same height – and arguing that all sorts of people said that Beta had better picture quality and was more durable. I felt confused and powerless when he wouldn’t listen. Within months the available Beta rentals at Five Star started to thin; within a year they were gone. I felt kind of at peace with that, probably because I had no trouble renting anything.
Then it was the Mac. In 1986 you either had a PC and could play all the games, or had an Amiga and could play mysteriously awesome games no one’d heard of, or you had some other shit and were a loser who hung out at friends’ houses a lot. Don’t get me wrong, we had great stuff at home – we had HyperCard – but we didn’t have status. The arguments didn’t happen to us so much, because there “wasn’t” an Internet yet, but on one notable occasion a friend and I had finagled an invite to the home of a girl I had a crush on, so we could set up her stereo; some other kid who was there started talking smack about Macs for no real reason, and somehow I got sucked into fighting over it feebly with him while my undistracted friend accomplished all the useful, girl-impressing tasks. Yes, I learned to program, sort of, with HyperCard; yes, Defender of the Crown had a certain majesty in black and white when it (finally) showed up. Yes, the Mac II made things a lot better. Still, none of us Mac users of a certain age ever forgot – our superiority was not a real thing. We cooked it up ourselves; when we went out in the world, it had no currency.
Now it’s the T-Mobile G1. All I see is iPhone app announcements and developer opportunities, in the music blogs, the game blogs, the web-dev blogs. The Android platform gets some dap too – it’s evident that this time I have at least picked Sega, not 3DO – but that doesn’t help me when I have to fight with the G1’s camera again, or stumble through the Market looking for something, anything that doesn’t suck ass (illiterate app comments scrawled on the listings like they’re bad YouTube videos), or watch performance slow and slow as I get further from my last hard phone reset. Yes, it’s not that much longer until the apps will get better, but let’s be honest: they’ll never catch up. I abandoned all my noble open-source principles as soon as they failed to reward me. I want an iPhone so bad.
Last month I was at the mall finishing holiday shopping and saw that my shiny new phone was out of power again – I must have left GPS on by accident, damn my eyes – so I stopped into a T-Mobile store to borrow a cup of the ol’ juice. They kindly offered me a power adapter by the G1 display, and I soon found myself in conversation with a prospective buyer, talking the phone up. The social pressure of being in a T-Mobile retail store that was doing me a favor is only a partial explanation. I suddenly recovered all my moral dudgeon against the locked-down, anti-user iPhone and its monopolistic store full of 99-cent farting applications. I told this guy about the $400 unlocked dev version of the phone when the sales guy’s back was turned. I talked about the coming paid apps. I talked up all the promise that I wanted so much to believe in again.
In summary: OMG I HAVE SUCH TERRIBLE PROBLEMS (soon we will all be checking Twitter from the fucking bread line)
6 min read
Here at long last is the compilation of my Twitter notes from George Lakoff‘s talk at the Bagdad in Portland on June 12, 2008, about his new book The Political Mind. I tweeted these all as quotes, but they aren’t exact, so if something here enrages you, check with me first on whether he actually said it or not. Also, I’ve had to edit this pretty heavily to make it make any sense at all, as Twitter apparently drops a lot of your messages when you make two pages’ worth in the space of 30 minutes or so.
Many thanks to Prof. Lakoff for coming to town, and to Powell’s Books for hosting the talk. (And if you haven’t, please take a gander at my summary of the first chapter of Lakoff’s germinal manifesto Don’t Think of an Elephant – it may help all this make sense if you aren’t familiar with his prior work.)
“Reason is supposed to be universal. In the past 30 years cognitive science has discovered that to be completely false.
“Reason is not abstract, because you think with your brain. Your brain is made to run a human body. It can’t do just any old thing.
“If you have a stroke and are cut off from emotion, it turns out you can’t function at all. Because how can you know what to want?
“Frames aren’t just concepts, they’re neural pathways, connected to your neural paths for words themselves, and connected in systems.
“When you use a neural pathway it gets firmer, until it’s permanent. Mostly that happens below consciousness – 98% in fact.
“This book has a lot of the scientific details that haven’t been in my other books. It fills in a lot of the gaps.
“We understand politics through cultural narratives and melodrama. This is how people really reason.
“Barack Obama has a rags-to-riches story. Hilary has a different story, with more privilege but a glass ceiling. Emotional stories.
“When you’re still a child, you learn a lot of metaphor thinking. ‘Gas prices are rising.’ Why is more ‘up’? Why are loving people ‘warm’?
“Metaphors are physical. They are strengthened every time you see the water in a glass go up every time you add more.
“Well-being lives in the brain. This leads to all kinds of morality metaphors. Pure food is better than rotten food; purity becomes moral.
“Wealth aids well-being; we have all kinds of money metaphors for morality. And of course we have family metaphors – two major ones.
“That’s not a paradox. It’s physical, is all. We all have strict-father and nurturant-parent structures. Usually we use both.
“You have people for whom the structures are about equal (swing voters). Then you have others, but there’s no axis between left and right.
“The nurturant-parent family is based on empathy. (Not indulgence – very much the opposite.) Protection and empowerment from goverment.
“Empathy is in our neurons. Seeing someone else do something fires many of the same emotional pathways in us.
“The strict-father model is popular in politics and business too. Ever heard ‘let the market decide’? Well, who’s ‘the decider’?
“Strict-father model is all about direct causation: kid does something bad, spank him. Crime happens, lock up bad people. Systemic causes? They don’t exist. (How do you show systemic cause to a strict-father model thinker? Start with something they know and try to extend it.)
“Why does this matter in politics? Your first experience with being governed is in your family. You physically learn that metaphor.
“Between birth and age 5, half your neurons die. Which half? Depends what you experience. If you don’t experience empathy, you lose it.
“Fear is neurally connected to the strict-father model. What contradicts fear? Hope, and wellbeing. Obama makes people feel calm and cool.
“2 models for foreign policy: ‘realism’ – maximize your state’s benefits invisible-hand style. Clinton’s model.
“Obama’s model shifts from the state to the person: individuals’ concern about water, global warming, food, safety, terrorism. Good article on this in the Am. Prospect.
“No pundit or analyst has talked about this. Not one. But it’s there in actual foreign policy papers.
“Ronald Reagan’s own campaign manager wrote about how people liked Reagan, but when he polled them on the actual policies Reagan supported, they hated them all. He didn’t know at first why his own candidate was winning.
“Why did Reagan win? He ran on values, communication, authenticity, trust, and identity. Mondale, Kerry, Gore all lost to this. Dem strategists looked at this and said, ‘well, he won on personality.’ They were wrong. Those 5 things are all things you actually need to know. Obama’s using them.
“Tell progressives all that and they say, ‘sure, of course.’ But have you ever heard a progressive leader say it out loud? Never.
“Conservatives say (and do) it constantly. On purpose. They’ve spent millions on it – billions. Training people. Progressives haven’t. Why?
“They’re still thinking in pre-cognitive-science terms. They still think reason is pure and untouched by emotion.
“But if you believe enlightenment reason, you should like science, and therefore cognitive science – which shows that enlightenment reason is false.
“Obama doesn’t call himself a progressive, he calls himself an American. He talks about the empathy deficit. ‘Patriotism depends on empathy.’
“But enlightenment reason doesn’t understand that as well as 21st century reason does. We need more strategists and journalists who know this.”
4 min read
As long as I’m bloggin’ it up: for those of you who missed, or irritatedly switched off, my flood of live tweets from this past weekend’s unstructured talk by Understanding Comics author Scott McCloud at Stumptown Comics Fest, well, here you go.
These are my paraphrases of McCloud’s comments as they went by, so if something he “says” here strikes you as horrible, be sure and check with me to make sure it wasn’t my fault. Thanks!
“right now Portland is as great a comics town as Seattle was in the 90s”
“i got into comics right at the point where anyone watching the American comics scene must have thought it was stone dead .”
“when I wrote about all the different genres we would have in Reinventing, I knew it was pie-in-the-sky. and then it happened.”
“Side-door diversification: diversifying comics thru pulling in people interested in a niche subject, not in comics.”
“People coming through the front-door (comics stores) wanted to read what was in the stores already.” [Grognard capture!]
“You have manga feeding in. You have people passing seamlessly between web and print. That wasn’t there in the 90s.”
“Genres are fuzzy, blending into each other and evolving. The first generation of fans of a genre pick it up superficially.”
“But eventually it gets into your bloodstream. You’re not imitating it, you’re just doing something with the flavor.” Example: Scott Pilgrim
“Scott Pilgrim’s on the cover of Shoujo Beat, not Shonen Jump. Who decided it was a girls’ comic?”
“Is there a cartoonist in the room who writes a full script for himself? I find that so strange and wonderful!”
“I failed. I tried to bring about a type of payment model for content on the web, and that has not happened, except for iTunes.”
“Right now the great failing of comics on the web is the long form stuff – graphic novel equivalents – aren’t a good reading experience.”
“Printed comics are the shape they are because we have two eyes, and two pages of a book. Landscape mode.”
“You can turn the pages of a book without disturbing that long-form reading experience. You can’t click through web pages, though.”
“A few people have screen-shaped pages that you can click on anywhere to go to the next page. Do that, or drop the page metaphor.”
“Comics have actually become so cool now that we’re due for a backlash. You’d better get ready. It’s gonna be ugly.”
“We make two mistakes: form apologizing for content, and content apologizing for form. You have to believe in both.”
“Sometimes you can just turn around and say to the reader, ‘Let’s talk about particle physics.’ ”
“Jim Woodring’s silent ‘Frank’ stories are a perfect melding of form and content. You can’t tell where one ends and the other begins.”
“Jim Woodring said the same about Chris Ware, and I get that feeling from him too. John Porcellino sometimes.”
“XKCD is so pure, it’s just pure invention. But it’s not content over form, really – he’s really inventive, he just doesn’t draw faces.”
“Ryan North [Dinosaur Comics] is the Ramones of comics. Because only the words change!” (15 y.o. Sky McCloud’s realization)
Now everyone’s challenging him to fill in half of “____ is the ____ of comics.” “Someone called me the Raymond Scott of comics.”
“Then someone else says I was the Thomas Dolby. So I said, screw you, I wanna be Raymond Scott! We compromised on Herbie Hancock.”
“When I wrote Understanding, manga and webcomics and graphic novels weren’t an issue. Just comics and newspaper strips existed for people.”
“And then I wrote a definition, and – oops! – there went Jeffy. And the Far Side. But I think Gary Larson would call himself a cartoonist.”
“The stuff the definition sliced off was not the point. The huge area of other stuff was the point. Possibilities are the point.”
5 min read
Through no fault of my own (note: lies), I have spent a humongous amount of time on web forums in the last year. And really, they’ve always been a part of my web diet, but only in rarefied varieties – the run-of-the-mill phpBB-style forums have never been to my taste. They just feel a little bit wrong to me, like somebody is trying to hide something in a honeycomb of twisty little text boxes all alike. (It doesn’t help that people keep trying to use phpBB and its clones as blog engines. Stop that!) And increasingly, the form of forum discussions in general have started to feel stultifying, like the hammer that makes all computer-mediated communication look like a nail. An overwhelming, unfocused nail.
Forums don’t consider human needs very well. Typically, they let you know how many postings are new to you (which we know from our experience with email to be a source of nothing but stress for most people), but that’s about it. About the only helpful thing they offer to do is tell you via email when someone’s replied to you. The rest of the time, when they aren’t busy burying you in an info-snowdrift, they are exemplifying every problem and then some from Clay Shirky’s brilliant essay A Group Is Its Own Worst Enemy. (Haven’t read that? Do it now. Seriously. You won’t be sorry.)
It gets even worse when you set loose a lot of game designers. They (okay, we) start trying shit like “okay, everyone, only women post in this thread! Oh, and also, the notice to that effect will be in the same tiny type that the forum software uses for the categories you don’t pay attention to.” We mean well, really, we do, and experimentation is sorely needed. But without code to back it up… as often as not, humans have to intervene, and for all kinds of reasons, that makes for an emotional bear trap waiting to snap shut (usually on small game).
We sorely need actual tools – not just ideas, but tools – for shaping conversations. We need well-thought-out ways to take conversations that go off topic apart into different conversations. We need to give people the ability to restrict a thread to certain posters when they start it (transparently, please – if all we wanted were drama, we already have LiveJournal). It would be trivial to allow thread-starters to set a pace for the conversation – specifying a maximum number of replies before the thread closes to all but the thread-starter, giving them a chance to catch up and open it again. Or some other way. Or every way we can get somebody to write a plugin for. But as far as I know, no one’s even trying.
A bunch of people in the forum communities I’ve been frequenting are excited about a site called Tangler, which seems to just be a place to create your own forum, except Web 2.0’ed up in a bunch of little ways. And that’s helpful as far as it goes, but I’m like, this is all it takes to excite people? (Even though I know that what really has them excited is the simple fact that they can make themselves a new space that isn’t overwhelmed with people yet, and thus get sweet relief from the chore that a busy forum quickly becomes.)
Of course, I can’t do all this bitching without explaining why I haven’t cut some code myself to try to address these issues. Two reasons: 1) I still really need to cut back on unpaid programming projects, and 2) the sorts of problems that need solving in the forum space are not generally problems that anyone wants to admit that they have, let alone pay anyone money to have solved. People tend to think that totally free, unregulated conversation is what makes the Internet great. They are half right, and in the big picture, their half is undoubtedly the most important half. But the other half is holding all of us back. Shapelessness – lack of constraint, that is, and therefore lack of structure – too often saps conversations of all of their power to change things. When you’re lucky, you have human leaders to take charge of forums and keep them on the rails, despite all the social heat they end up taking for it. And that might always be the ideal case.
It’s possible that you can’t add much in the way of conversation-shaping constraints to forums, without making something that isn’t a forum anymore (you know, the same way that email sucks, but if you fix the problems it stops being email and having the strengths of email.) So really, this post is a plea to all of you, to try thinking about forums and how they came about, and what purpose they serve, and about whether we can do some refactoring to better serve those needs. Reading Shirky’s essay, linked above, would be an excellent start. Another start might be to look at the kinds of constraints that people apply to forums explicitly for the purpose of playing games, because games are in the end just social interaction with rules… just like forums.
Here’s a fascinating play-by-forum-post game inspired by the Myst series of adventure games, and here’s a forum that does a lot of play based on tabletop roleplaying games as well as a lot of talking about the play-by-post medium.
9 min read
This is a repost, retitled for the sake of our robot brothers (read: search engines), of an original, my-own-damn-words summary of the most important political writing for anyone on the American left to read today – the first chapter of Don’t Think Of An Elephant!. It’s as relevant now as when it was first published four years ago. Buy it here. But first, read on!
Don't think of an elephant
Example frame: tax relief
Language has to fit your world view
Where do conservative statements, language, and policies all come from?
The nation-as-family metaphor is strong in pretty much all of us
Strict father model
People with self-discipline are successful in competition. People who pursue their self-interest become prosperous.
If everyone pursues their own interest, the profit of all will be maximized (Adam Smith, "invisible hand" metaphor)
If it's moral to pursue self-interest, then "do-gooders" are immoral. They get in the way of the system's proper functioning
Metaphor: "developing" nations. They play the children in the strict father model of foreign policy.
Nurturant parent model
If you empathize, you provide protection.
If you are unhappy, you don't want other people to be more fulfilled than you.
To be fulfilled, a child must
What else do conservatives do?
If we tell people the facts, they'll reach the right conclusions.
It's irrational to go against your self-interest, so normal people reason according to it.
Political campaigns are marketing campaigns. The candidate is a product and the issues and positions are features thereof.
Ideas and language
Orwellian language = stuff that means opposite of what it says
When you think you lack words, what you really lack is ideas
What is taxation?
Follow the money
Why? Large block grants. When you can spend whatever on whatever, you can build your infrastructure, train your future employees.
Left orgs tend not to get large block grants. They get small amounts spread over many different orgs, with stipulations on what the money will go to.
We covered tax cuts. Conservatives also really like tort reform. Why?
One strategic initiative on the left: New Apollo Initiative
Slippery slope initiatives
What we can do
3 min read
I’m not sure what it is about AppJet. Did it really make it more possible for me to say, truthfully, unto you on this day that I made a web application yesterday? Or does it just make it feel more possible, and I could have done it just as easily with some other batch of technologies? I don’t know for sure, but when I think about writing login code, again, I get all angry, so I suspect the former.
And the most recent is The Bucket of Truth, an electronic-wallet app I built solely because dammit, I needed it. It does exactly what’s necessary (except for the parts I haven’t built yet… I guess those are not so necessary) to track my spending against a monthly entertainment budget, and it does it fast, with no damn styling that just borks up my Treo anyway. I totally love it. And I really did write most of it yesterday.
Lastly, Fictionsuit recently changed servers; in the future it’s going to be a testing ground too, for some thoughts I’ve been having about forums. Big, big thoughts. More on that soon.
3 min read
Enso is now freeware. If you run Windows (and there have been allegations of a forthcoming Mac version, although Quicksilver is very good), you need to give this a try. You’ll never know how much time and attention you are wasting in your Start menu if you don’t. And don’t worry, you’ll still have access to something Caps Lock-like – it just won’t trip you up if you fat-finger Shift or Tab, ever again.
The theories behind Enso come from the work of the late Jef Raskin, who more or less created the Macintosh interface. After that went the way it went, Jef left Apple and went on to take ideas from the Mac and combine them with ideas from the command-line world, as well as some rather lovely new ideas like quasimodes, into the legendary, commercially failed machine the Canon Cat. (For a taste of why the Cat was loved by its users as well as why it was discontinued, take a look at Raskin’s open-source project Archy. Not very beautiful, indeed forbidding-looking, but run the tutorial video and its power becomes clear.)
The theories are Raskin’s, but the code behind Enso comes from his son Aza and his now-ex-colleagues at Humanized. As you can see from the Humanized website, the mistake of neglecting appearances was not made again in Enso. It is as gorgeous as it is snappy and resourceful. And unlike the first-glance inscrutability of Archy, Enso is simple – it pulls one salient idea, that of “leaping,” from the elder Raskin’s work and snaps it right into Windows as though it’s always been there. (Note that the actual “leaps” from the Cat and Archy are full-text searches, which Enso doesn’t do.)
Aza Raskin and his co-Ensoers are (mostly) now employees of the Mozilla Corporation, specifically of Mozilla Labs. Labs is already getting up to a lot of interesting stuff, and it is about to get a lot more interesting. I hope that Enso development doesn’t completely abate, or that we get something in a similar vein but even more awesome.
(Want more UI thoughts? Here’s a video of Aza Raskin doing a tech talk at Google. If that doesn’t grab you, root around some more in the Humanized weblog. And, I am sorry I was away. To quote Ze Frank, I didn’t forget about you, and I like you.)