I have never attended a computing convention, but thanks to YouTube I have watched a lot of the talks which take place at them. Sometimes I watch them because I’ve required precise technical information about a subject for my day job and sometimes I watch them out of curiosity. !!Con (Bang Bang Con) is a curiosity. Very little of what is discussed has any immediate relevance to my profession, which is great.
I’m going to preface the three talks I’m sharing as talks which I learned a lot *and* enjoyed the hell out of the weird enthusiasm for fringe topics. !!Con is literally the best at combining an energetic sense of wonder at finding the cool shit computers can and also give you a sense of understanding at the reveal mystery.
There are thirty-one videos to choose from. I haven’t watched them all, yet, but here are three of my favourites so far.
(And I’m not sure what the selection criteria for favourite is.)
“What Alien Invaders, Birds, and Computer Simulations have in Common: Flocking!!
Real flocks aren’t what they’re like in the movies. You’ve probably seen flocking behavior in The Avengers, the latest Star Trek movie, or even in the Ender’s Game books. Flocks are groups of individuals, usually birds (or invading aliens when it comes to Sci-Fi), that are collectively moving together. The flocks in movies show individuals forming complex patterns, but they’re all easily taken down by targeting a centralized point of command. In reality, flocking behavior is a lot simpler and there doesn’t need to be any coordination between individuals–that means your favorite protagonists probably wouldn’t have won when they came up against flocks!”
So this is a great talk because there’s an interesting behavior being explored here. It’s also a lovely demonstration of a person exploring a question with a tool they know well, but I have literally no concept of using. Jan takes the flocking behavior we’ve seen in films and peels back the underlying processes behind shoals of fish and flocks of birds in a neat way which allows for exploration.
DHCP: IT’S MOSTLY YELLING!! by Mindy Preston
“The Dynamic Host Configuration Protocol (DHCP to its friends) is the magic by which your laptop knows how to get to Twitter on a brand new network about which it knows nothing. DHCP can tell your computer what its address should be, and where it should go to connect out to other networks. It can also tell your laptop weird stuff, like that it should run all the traffic through a proxy you’ve never heard of!! IT ALSO WORKS MOSTLY BY YELLING!”
One facet of !!Con which I love is the short topics on the hidden things which are everywhere. DHCP is one of those ubiquitous things that having an understanding of (however limited in my case) makes living in the contemporary world a little bit less scary. Are you having problems with a WiFi router in a crowded place? Well there’s a chance that it has ran out of IP addresses to assign you via DHCP. This talk involves performative yelling and a little bit of malicious activity.
HDR Photography in Microsoft Excel?! by Kevin Chen
“Have you ever taken a photo with areas that are too bright or too dark? As any photographer will tell you, high dynamic range photography is the right way to solve your problem. And, as any businessperson will tell you, Microsoft Excel is the right platform to implement your solution.
“In this talk, I’ll explain the algorithm from one of the foundational papers about HDR imaging ― no prior image processing knowledge required. Turns out, it’s just a system of linear equations! So, obviously, the next step is to implement HDR in a spreadsheet. Because we can. The end result reveals how this complicated-sounding algorithm boils down to a few simple ideas.”
At seven minutes fifty seconds when Kevin says, “So that’s the first step to turning Excel into an image editor,” your head will probably explode.
When I first saw the title for this I was initially dismissive of how interesting I’d find it. I don’t really do Excel or spreadsheets. However, I watched the talk this morning with my coffee and am very much prepared to admit I was wrong. This is both a very clever and super cool way of demonstrating how high dynamic range imaging. 10/10 would recommend.
I’d like to make a small observation regarding the reactions to the Shadow Clarke
Award that I’ve seen on social media. More time on Reddit and Twitter has been
spent voicing opposition to the shadow jury for viewing some of the Clarke Award
novels through the lens of commercial vs non-commercial. Many bytes have been
expended telling the shadow jury that this is a bad distinction to draw, with the
possible subtext that they shouldn’t think this way.
My opinion on if commercial vs non-commercial is a good (read: interesting) lens
to review the shortlist with is that it’s simply a device to filter preconceived
notions. I don’t presume that any of the jury take it to be the only critical
sieve available to them. There are surely other dialectic opposites they will
have considered using or will use in future reviews. As critical knives go, it’s
sharp, but also clumsy. A meat clever rather than a scalpel. Good for getting
the joints off the beast and dividing the parts into neat piles before proper
But I haven’t read all of the shadow panel’s reviews yet and they haven’t yet
published anything apart from a heavily edited conversation, so I may be proved
to be wrong.
And of course, audience participation is to be encouraged, but we should let
the project run its course before starting our dissections, least we vivisect
the subject to death.
I will end by saying that it is right that we consider it crass to send author’s
unsolicited negative reviews of their work. It should also be considered equally
crass to tell a critic what to write, to think, in their reviews while they are
still writing them. I say this not to close down conversation or opinion.
Everyone is free to disagree with everyone else. However, the words we write can
change the reader of those words. If we accept that, then it’s worth considering
in these discussions why we are attempting to drive that change. Is it to add
another opinion or is it an attempt to make someone else think the same as you?
It is the middle of a Saturday afternoon in February. Jenny and I have done the week’s food shopping, and now that I’ve made us both a coffee, we are settling into an afternoon of reading and writing.
Last month I attended the first Hello Worlds event at the National Video Game Arcade in Nottingham. It was a writing/reading group for interactive fiction. The next event is scheduled for this coming Thursday (9th) and will feature a demonstration of Viktor Ojuel’s game Ariadne in Aeaea and a group discussion about it. Ahead of attending, I have also been writing a short game using Twine called “Nazi Punching Simulator 2017.” More on that later.
Jonathan McCalamont may not want your award nominations and we should honour those wishes, but he deserves our critical attention. His essay on the New Weird, Nothing Beside Remains, was one of the best pieces of long form writing I read last year and something that I’m still trying to engage with critically. Not only does Jonathan write good essays and reviews, but he also occasionally curates a series of link posts called Thought Projectors. They are all good. Read the latest one here.
Coffee is the drink which I obsess over. Not only do I enjoy its varied flavors, but I associate it with being comfortable and relaxed. At home I put a lot of effort into brewing coffee and own a plethora of specialist equipment to make better, more interesting variations on black coffee. Recently I have started watching Chris Baca’s YouTube channel and listening to the podcast, Cat and Cloud, which he co-hosts and is associated with his roasting business and cafe in Santa Cruz. It’s all very boisterous and enthusiastic, which was initially off putting, but there’s genuine thought and attention put into those videos, which finally won me around.
As an aside, I work as a System Administrator/DevOps type person and the discussions about customer service, customer experience, and training staff all resonate strongly with me, because these are things which my industry is only within the last five years or so are starting to learn. Chis Baca’s insistence that the aim of his cafe is for people to leave feeling happier than when they entered, regardless of the reasons they went in, is a smart goal to work towards in most professional situations.
Coffee as a pleasure is something which came up recently in my life. At work things do go wrong. In the past I have almost self-medicated my way through disasters by drinking more coffee. After some pretty serious incidents which left me both physically and mentally drained I made the decision to not drink coffee while actively stressed. Coffee is for good times. Dr Pepper is for the bad. A recent event showed this to be a wise decision. Removing a consumable from my life during a specific, short period of doom meant that I could return properly to it as a comforter in the days after while recovering.
Dan North has become one of the people I follow for good practice in software engineering/operations management/project delivery. Again, like with the Cat and Cloud people, he’s often promoting a sense of empathy and understanding of the people we deal with. Unlike the Cat and Cloud peeps, he also gives presentations on subjects which I can directly implement in my professional life. The slides for his talk at PubConf (which I sadly missed) were recently posted onto the internets and have the provocative title of “Why Every Single Element of SOLID is Wrong!” I’m convinced by his conclusions and entertained by the reduction.
I said that I’m making a Twine game, but I hate the interface for Twine. It’s a point-and-click GUI, which is basically just awful and doesn’t fit into my workflow. So I’ve been using a project called twee2 to generate the Twine files. This works better for me as my process for writing prose at the moment generally follows these steps:
Write bullet points on paper. [PROTOTYPE]
Expand bullet points into rough paragraphs. [PROTOTYPE]
Shuffle bullet points and rough paragraphs around and rewrite until the shape feels right. [PROTOTYPE]
Type up the mess into a text document of some description. [MINIMUM VIABLE PRODUCT]
Expand and revise the mess until complete. [ITERATE]
Having to work through Twine’s GUI gets in the way of the prototype and iteration stages. Twine as a tool seems designed to get people to produce a minimum viable product quickly, but by sacrificing having a decent interface to work with producing text.
The primary purpose of Nazi Punching Simulator 2017 is to learn how to write a choose your own adventure game, so the content of the game is almost secondary (although I do of course condone punching Nazis) and there to provide a simple narrative to hang the questions and tools and process off. The next steps after I’ve written this game will be to actually play more IF games.
To play more IF games I may start playing games on the train to and from work. That time has usually been spent reading, but for some of the last week I’ve replayed Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, which has been a pleasant piece of nostalgia. Also slightly worrying how much I remember from nearly twenty years ago.
Todo This Weekend
Finish the first playable version of Nazi Punching Simulator 2017.
Type up a short fiction prototype and start expanding.
Start drafting a new prototype.
Watch a David Cronenberg film.
My evenings are short now that I am working elsewhere. The chores and tasks of existing do not vanish because you arrive home an hour and a half later in the evening, etc. There is the precious reading time to consider though. The first month of my commute has taken me through Kim Stanley Robinson’s 2312, a Martin Beck novel, and I’m currently nearing the final quarter of The Breaks of the Game. Anyway, this post is a placeholder for something I want to write about later and do not want to forget about.
Jonathan McCalmont, of Ruthless Culture and Interzone, has been reviewing the films of Andrei Tarkovsky as part of the current reissuing of his films, so that mortals can actually see them. I managed to see three of them at the cinema: Stalker, The Sacrafice, and Solaris. It is Stalker which I wish to write about, since Jonathan has added a fine piece of the genre of criticism about and around the film Stalker in the form of his review for FilmJuice. It’s a good piece with plenty to think about. It’s shorter than Geoff Dyer’s Zona too. His post around it can be found here.
The placeholder of an idea is a question. Why do certain films (Stalker being a prime example) invite rewatching, reinterpreting, and replaying to a degree of intensity more fervent than written fiction, especially the shorter forms?
I have unverifiable theories. And I will probably end up citing my own reading and rereading of the stories found near the back of M. John Harrison’s Things that Never Happen.
Time to clean up cat litter and apply flea treatment to the mangy moggies.
Recently I have been thinking about the kinds of games I enjoy playing. It is fashionable among my circles to enjoy grand strategy games which pit you as the mind behind a civilization. These games have my attention because they’re so intricate and clever, but they do not have my playtime. My ability to focus on them and understand their systems is too short.
It was through the Idle Thumbs podcast that I found my comfort zone.
The podcast has been going for a number of years now, although I only started to listen to it about nine months ago. In that time the panel have made numerous references to Far Cry 2’s shared experience of the live grenade rolling back down the hill towards you. Interested I took the opportunity one Steam sale and bought a copy. I’m seventeen hours into my first play though and thoroughly enjoying myself. My standard mode of play is to take a rifle and to calmly snipe my way through encounters. No check point of mercenaries is safe from me if they are in my line of sight.
This style of play: a deliberate and thoughtful adventure but without all of the mechanical trappings or heavy narrative of role-playing games. It works for me. And now that I have gotten my head around how the game works, I’m starting to find that experience in survival simulator The Long Dark.
The comparison which I’d make to this experience is from one of the opening scenes of No Country for Old Men. I attempted to find a suitable clip on YouTube and found that someone has made the comparison between it and Far Cry 2 for me already.
The prose from Cormac McCarthy’s novel better captures the stillness I’m searching for.
MOSS SAT WITH THE HEELS of his boots dug into the volcanic gravel of the ridge and glassed the desert below him with a pair of twelve power German binoculars. His hat pushed back on his head. Elbows propped on his knees. The rifle strapped over his shoulder with a harness-leather sling was a heavy barrelled .270 on a ’98 Mauser action with a laminated stock of maple and walnut. It carried a Unertl telescopic sight of the same power as the binoculars. The antelope were a little under a mile away. The sun was up less than an hour and the shadow of the ridge and the datilla and the rocks fell far out across the floodplain below him. Somewhere out there was the shadow of Moss himself. He lowered the binoculars and sat studying the land. Far to the south the raw mountains of Mexico. The breaks of the river. To the west the baked terracotta terrain of the running borderlands. He spat dryly and wiped his mouth on the shoulder of his cotton work shirt.
The rifle would shoot half minute of angle groups. Five inch groups at one thousand yards. The spot he’d picked to shoot from lay just below a long talus of lava scree and it would put him well within that distance. Except that it would take the better part of an hour to get there and the antelope were grazing away from him. The best he could say about any of it was that there was no wind. When he got to the foot of the talus he raised himself slowly and looked for the antelope. They’d not moved far from where he last saw them but the shot was still a good seven hundred yards. He studied the animals through the binoculars. In the compressed air motes and heat distortion. A low haze of shimmering dust and pollen. There was no other cover and there wasn’t going to be any other shot.
DRINKING: TITANIC BREWERY – PLUM PORTER
All the cool kids are doing link posts now and because I’ve had such weird days working for the past few weeks I’ve collected a bunch of things that I think are worth making some notes on.
First off there’s this talk by Harry Schwartz at the Boston Emacs Meetup called Getting Started with Org-mode. Fantastically nerdy stuff. In my experience there are several categories of tools for manipulating text. There is Microsoft’s Word, obviously, which is good enough for most people’s purposes. And then there are the more minimal text editors from the default notepad application which appears on every computer’s operating system and has a greater or lesser set of features depending on the system’s target audience. (Notepad on Windows is shit. Gedit provided with some Linux desktops is pretty good.) Then we have your integrated development environments. Scrivener, a tool for writers, is equivalent to the tools available from Jetbrains, who produce specialist IDEs for various programming languages. These provide tooling and automation for common tasks in the problem domain. They are often very good, but have a tendency to force you into a work flow.
Vim could be said to be a minimalist environment, but it’s customisable and has plug-ins available. I use it for work because it’s installed on pretty much every server in existence. It’s good, but not for me.
But I’m an Emacs user. And I’m an Emacs user for two reasons: firstly it’s inherently programmable and you can change it to adapt to your work flow. It is an old joke that Emacs is a fantastic operating system in need of a good text editor. And while that’s got a genuine core of truth in it that’s slightly unfair. Mostly though I use Emacs because of Org-mode. The talk linked to above is an hour long outline of some parts of Org-mode, but is in no way an extensive tour. Like Harry, I use Org for todo list management and also for writing technical documents. At various times I have tried to use it for writing prose in, but find my optimal process often involves paper & pen then typing up, so text generally goes straight into Scrivener.
Anyway, look at that talk. Emacs and Vim are fascinating as they will likely be around for as long as we have computers and have parallel solutions for many tasks.
My evangelism caught the better of me there.
The next thing which has caught my interest has been the ongoing discussion around the Clarke Awards. It started with Nina Allan and continued with Martin Petto and Jonathan McCalmont. I suspect that my contribution to the discussion has been minor and betraying how junior I am within those circles. Broadly I’m less interested in literary awards than having a robust & boisterous culture of debate around literature. I nominally write SF, but only one example of it has been published anywhere of note. I’ve ruled out submitting material anywhere this year, as I just want to get good enough to my own standards and I’m not quite comfortable with what I’m attempting to articulate yet. To have spaces for lively arguments which are conversational is something that would help me get there.
The genre (whatever that is) has gotten better over the last fifty years, but everyone seems happy for us to be in situation where writing at a Hard Difficult level is the accepted norm. Personally I want to see myself pushing into the high E numbers along with my friends. It’s the critics who’ll get us there.
Related to the above I’ve been reading Lavie Tidhar’s HebrewPunk. It’s good and definitely of a high standard than is usual. Will have thoughts later.
I start work in an hour and a half, so best make another coffee. Tonight is the night that I resort to chemistry to power me through to 6AM.
See below for a selfie.
Last day of the holiday.
I’ve been good by not checking my work email since Thursday 28th It’s been good to have the time off. I did no project work at the weekend as I was mostly reading and taking some time to play Far Cry 2. I’m still enjoying that. Still struggling with the politics and have just reached a difficulty spike, which isn’t that fun.
The big success of the weekend was finding an iced coffee recipe which used the Aeropress. I took the recipe from Serious Eats and added a dash of soy milk to it. I was using the Foxtrot blend from St. Martins and will have to try the recipe with their house blend, Intrepid, as that’s what I tend to buy for week-to-week drinking. The Intrepid blend or their single origin Old Brown Java taste good/the same after being left in a vacuum flask for ten hours. Some of their other delicate roasts change flavor in ways which aren’t necessarily unpleasant, but make the other coffees I drink during the day taste sour. (I make coffee the night before work and put it in a Zojirushi flask to keep it warm because what I value most when I get to my desk in the morning is a cup of really good coffee.)
As usual the scrum notes for today are below. These are the last I intend to do for the duration of this project. The retrospective should be up later this week.
MUSIC NOW: THE SOCIAL NETWORK ORIGINAL SCORE (Not seen the film)
My holiday is now in its final phrase. I’m back to the millstone on Tuesday and I already expect it will be a mildly unpleasant day. Part of doing these scrums has kept me honest although I’ve dropped the sprint planning and retrospective phases of the process, which has caused discipline to drop. The game will get a public alpha release on Sunday for people to take a look at. Once that’s done I’m going to look towards doing a full retrospective and post-mortem on this project.
Do I want to add to this work of IF? Yeah, I think I do. I’d like to keep it around as an experimental sandbox for ideas. Do I want to write other IF? Sort of. Yes. I’ve got a vague note scribbled on Wednesday to write a work based on my reading of The Buried Giant which uses gameplay mechanics to explore memory. Is this something that I have the time and expertise to do? Not really, but writing IF works is more enjoyable than writing short science fiction. Both are niches within niches. However IF is a niche which hasn’t yet been monetized by MFA programs.
I suspect also that my narrative tics fit better into contemporary IF than they do into short SF. As Jen frequently says, I’m aiming for most of my writing to have a quality similar to Scandinavian light — diffuse but just in the right, golden way. Also it’s hard to escape the process differences between prose and working in the Inform 7 language. Prose is not computer programming and while Inform 7 is roughly analogous to a natural language, it is still possible to write with agile, incremental, and rapid prototyping processes.
Oh that’s food for thought.
MUSIC NOW: Pig Destroyer’s Mass & Volume, a CD I bought years ago, ripped, and never listened to until now. Very nice.
I had too much fun yesterday evening reading The Buried Giant in a beautiful garden and then in a bar drinking beer & rum. Today I am paying for one of these things with a headache and lethargy.
The new J. Grimwood novel, Moskva, came out today. It was delivered to my Kindle at midnight in the moments before I slipped into strange anesthetized dreams. I’m two chapters in and it’s great.
Notes today will be kept short. I’m not sure if I’m due a sprint planning session or a retrospective. They’ve not been too important for this project as the momentum of writing the scrums has kept me on a pace.
HEADACHE STATUS: NURSE!
Yesterday was not the easiest day to motivate myself. A lot of it was spent either looking at the source code for The Market Underground feeling daunted at the amount of details which need adding or spent working out how the story SILVER CHORD is going to work. Today presents its own obstacles for my attention, but the worst of the time sinks, refactoring my Emacs configuration for this quarter, has been dispensed with after spending some hours hacking it into a better shape.
There are many features which I adore in Emacs and most of them are a consequence of its programmability, but the one which I keep coming back to is Org-Mode. It kicks the shit out of other time planning and document markup languages in terms of ease of use and the number of features it contains. The biggest stumbling block for me using it has always been that I work in an environment where sharing data by the cloud or any other means is at best frowned upon and actively discouraged by both policy and implementation. The logical consequence of this is that I can’t keep one unified organizer environment across my personal and current professional existence. In the past I’ve tried to reconcile the two in order to have a better todo system as per Getting Things Done or Tom Limoncelli’s Time Management for System Administrators, and I’ve always failed.
I’m not going to do that anymore. I want to use these tools to make me happier, so I’m going to have to accept that there is going to be a dividing line between the two spheres of my life.
The next exercise in distraction will be hooking Emacs up to my email. :)
THE SKY IS: BLUE