I stared at the Jackson Pollock painting for hours, thinking it was a Magic Eye image and I wasn’t getting it

  1. I like writing in numbered lists. But when my blog posts get sent to Goodreads, they strip off the HTML numbering, and that makes it look like a jumble of loose paragraphs.
  2. I take albuterol for allergies, and the smell of it is a very direct reminder of my childhood when I took it. They did change the formula at some point, I think to remove CFCs, but the plastic dispenser is the same shade of bright yellow, with an orange cap.
  3. Tennessee Williams died while putting in eyedrops. He would put the cap in his mouth when he tilted back his head, and choked on it.  (I’m sure he was drunk, too.)  I think about that story every morning when I put in eyedrops.
  4. I take too many allergy medicines, and I’m still miserable. I sometimes think I need to detox from all of them, or move to somewhere like Norway or Iceland where I wouldn’t get allergies.
  5. I once read an article or maybe it was an online quiz, where it determined the best places to live to not get allergies. I’d already lived in most of the places, and had bad allergies there.
  6. Although I am an atheist and do not believe in any sort of higher power, I do believe that I have bad luck, like when I move to an allergy-free city and get allergies anyway. But the belief in “bad luck” would define some kind of mechanism or power that would be causing it, which is confusing to me.
  7. I’m writing on the chaise section of my couch, and one of my cats (Loca) is sitting next to me and staring at me.
  8. I think I pay far more attention to my cats’ health than my own. Every day, I feel panicked that someday, their health will fade and they will die, and I will have to deal with it.
  9. It’s the same sort of distant fear that I had about retirement when I wasn’t working. I knew someday it would happen, and I felt powerless about it, but couldn’t do anything in the immediate future to remedy it.
  10. I like to think my retirement is under control, but I wish it was tomorrow and not in twenty-some years.
  11. My tax person called me today and said she was retiring. She’s going to South America. She did give me another tax person, so we’re not in a lurch. But when talking to her, I found it odd, because she’s probably the only person who knows how much I’ve saved for retirement.
  12. Maybe I should look into the allergy situation in South America. I imagine it’s bad.
  13. Everyone I knew who moved to the US from Asia developed very bad allergies. I used to think this was because of the different types of pollen, but there’s a theory that it has to do with the different bacterias in your gut. It’s why, they theorize, people in less hygienic countries never get allergies, and why they are becoming more of a problem now in sterile, developed countries.
  14. You never hear about the Viet Cong stopping a terror campaign because of hay fever.
  15. I read about this theory because one of the new treatment experiments involves implanting hookworms in your guts. You get sick for a few weeks, but then they balance out the immune system somehow. You can’t get it done in the US anymore, because of the FDA. There are clinics in Mexico, and it costs thousands of dollars. It’s a big new fad in other auto-immune disease communities, like MS.
  16. I’ve seriously considered the hookworm thing, except for the cost, the sickness, and having to explain the whole thing to everyone who asked me.
  17. I got food poisoning when I was in Mexico, but didn’t throw up or have diarrhea. I ate a salad at a plantation tour, and knew as I was eating it that it would cause me to be sick. It wasn’t as bad as it could have been.
  18. This was the same trip where my crown fell out and I had to get it repaired at a dentist that did not speak English, and I don’t speak Spanish.
  19. I always hated that when I was on a cane or when I had my broken arm, everyone asked me what happened and expected a full explanation. I couldn’t even buy a hot dog at a cart without someone insisting on a full recapitulation of my entire medical history.
  20. All of the good hot dog carts in New York were the ones that cooked them on rollers. Most of them kept them floating in a tub of hot water, though, and I always found those gross. I imagined catching Legionnaires’ Disease from that water.
  21. Legionnaires’ Disease is a bacterial pneumonia discovered after an outbreak at an American Legion convention in Philadelphia in 1976, where 182 people got sick and 29 died. 
  22. The bacteria was subsequently named Legionella. It circulated in the air conditioning system of the convention hotel. It worries me that there’s something similar at our building, probably a pollution, that is causing my allergies, and I’ll be stuck trying to sell this house and unable to, like those fracking victims that have to bathe in bottled water and can light their tap water on fire.
  23. The best roller hot dogs were the ones at Papaya King. They seemed thinner than normal hot dogs, with a thick, crispy skin that had a lot of snap to them.
  24. At Juno, they would get a birthday cake for you for your birthday. This one girl who worked there did not like cake, so they got her a bunch of Papaya King hot dogs stacked in a pile like a cake.
  25. Now I am really craving hot dogs.

This week in data hoarding

I’ve been busy scraping stuff from open directories and dumping them onto this RAID array. Some of this week’s finds:

  • The complete run of Omni magazine, in CBR format. I wasn’t familiar with CBR files, because I don’t read comics, but they are essentially a collection of lossless images in a compressed container, along with some metadata so you can get all of the page flips optimized. Reading PDFs on the iPad can be a pain, because each time you page flip, the zoom gets all thrown off, and it’s made for scrolling more than reading. The CBR format, along with a copy of ComicFlow, make for a decent reading experience.  Old Omni is a lot of fun to read, because the ads are so goofy and the predictions are all off. It was a big influence for The Memory Hunter, so it’s nice for me to have them all in one place.
  • I’ve been trying to hunt down old Howard Stern audio for various people. I started by trying to find all of Gilbert Gottfried’s appearances, and then it spiraled from there.
  • My UFO PDF file continues to grow. I’ve been scraping FOIA requests from the Air Force and FBI, and I already have too much to read, but I continue scraping.
  • I found this colossal archive of scanned computer manuals, from mainframes and other big iron of the 60s/70s/80s.  It has an insane amount of DEC, Burroughs, Prime, CDC, and other manuals. I haven’t finished grabbing all of this, because there’s too much. But if you ever need to get a Prime 9955 running again, I can hook you up with docs.
  • I’ve also been trying to rip more of my DVDs. I don’t have my DVDs out anymore, because most of our viewing is on cable or streaming, and I don’t even have a DVD player in the living room anymore. I’m not going A-Z like I did with CDs; I’m mostly trying to hit any stuff that I can’t easily find on a streaming site.

So since 10/26, I’ve added 431 GB and counting, but a lot of that was schlepping things from external drives over to the RAID. Fun stuff.



Interactive fiction versus games

I’ve been thinking a lot about interactive fiction, trying to find good examples online and learn how to turn existing books into games, or write new hybrid game/books, and it’s made me consider the definition of the two.

First, I’ve been playing with this tool called Twine. It reminds me a lot of the old Hypercard, which is sadly gone. Twine essentially lets you create an interactive game by creating a bunch of little boxes or cards in its interface (they call them Passages) and then connecting them together. It uses a wiki-like syntax for creating the links. You can also use a collection of macros to do basic if/then logic and set/get variables, or you can use straight JavaScript to do more. When you’re all done authoring, it spits out the target in HTML, which you can easily host wherever.

I’d previously looked at another tool called Inform, which produces a compiled output that can run on a z-machine. Back in the Infocom days of Zork and other programs, they used the z-machine format for text-based games. Now, you can get a z-machine interpreter for just about any platform (including phones) and can play old games like Zork, or a multitude of other games that have since been authored.  (Although playing a game that involves a lot of typing is not that great on a touchscreen phone.)  For me, Inform was a bit of a dead end, because hosting a z-machine game on the web isn’t that intuitive (there are applets and whatnot, but it’s a huge pain and a slightly clunky end-user experience) and learning how to develop something in Inform has a massive learning curve.

As I thought about this, there were a bunch of different types of games or fictions possible with these tools. And in trying to differentiate them, I started thinking about them along three (or four) different axes.

First, there’s the content-per-page axis. Think of a conventional book: it’s got chapters, which vary in size, but are usually a few or a few dozen pages long. In a paper book, where you’re deeply immersed, that’s an okay chunking of the content. Contrast that with a game like Zork, and you’ve got maybe a sentence of content at once. You aren’t thrown long passages of paragraph after paragraph; you are presented with maybe a sentence or two between commands.  (If you don’t remember, here’s a video.)  On a web-based piece of Interactive Fiction, there’s going to be a sweet spot between those two. You want the person to be immersed into what you’re doing, but you don’t want to present them with ten thousand words of scrolling.

Second, there’s the linearity axis.  A conventional paper novel is completely linear: chapter 1, chapter 2, and so on. A choose-your-own-adventure book is a typically a tree structure – here is a great example of one. There’s no real outer bound on this axis, except that you can get more and more insane with the number of nodes, choices, choices per node, and endings. And you can loop. Go dig up an old C343 computer science book and read up on depth and breadth for more info. But there’s going to be a sweet spot there, too. The old Bantam Books CyoA books were bound by their published length, about 120-140 some pages. On the web, there’s no such limitation, aside from the reader’s patience.

(Also a note on linearity: just because a book isn’t having you make choices, doesn’t mean it’s not further down the linearity axis. Even the most rudimentary plotted books are sometimes jumping between the main story and a B story. Fiction can start at the end and work backwards, or jump around, even within a linear book. And things like footnotes and endnotes give you the ability to “jump” to the side for a moment to give you some side info. And you’ve got stuff like Nabokov’s Pale Fire or Cortzar’s Hopscotch, which make Zork look almost linear.)

Third, there’s the game logic axis. Printed novels have no game logic; there are no variables, no javascript, no programming. A game like Zork has a ton of game logic: you have inventory, there are combat rules, things happen at random times, and so on. A dungeon crawler text adventure could be entirely dynamic, spitting out a new map every time you came.

There’s also potentially a fourth axis, which is the presentation level. Books are text, maybe some images.  You could add in more styling, graphics, sound, video, and so on.  If you want to go whole-hog, consider a printed book versus the presentation in a Grand Theft Auto game.

All of this has me pondering what to do for a book like this. The simplest thing would be to take one of my linear novels, like Summer Rain, and make it web-based; a web page per print page, and maybe add in some pretty pictures. That’s pretty boring, and useless – you could just go download the Kindle version. The next level would be taking something like Rumored and arranging it in a tree-like structure, with wiki links between the nodes. That could be interesting. It also makes me think about going in the opposite direction, writing a book that’s interconnected in a web-based structure, and then flattening it into a linear print book. I kinda-sorta did that with The Necrokonicon, which went from wiki to print.  All of the hotlinked words were bolded in print, indicating you could manually page over to that topic.

A project I started messing with was the idea of a game based on a book, something with game logic built into it. I started writing a Twine mashup of Summer Rain and the Necrokonicon. You wake up in a boarding house room in Bloomington in 1992, and then you wander around the sandbox of campus, almost GTA-like, getting dressed and walking to Lindley hall to log into a VAX computer, find people to hang out with, spend your few dollars getting something to eat on Kirkwood.  This was a fun project to start, but exhausting. I needed a solid set of stories to tree up within this large matrix of the campus topics, like people you would need to meet or tasks you would need to accomplish, and I ran out of steam on that.  I also wasn’t finding the right balance on axis 1, unsure of how much text to put on each page. It was a fun distraction, but within a few days, I barely had my house and the few blocks around it mapped out; I could easily burn a thousand hours trying to world-build the thing, and that wouldn’t even get into the story.

I’ve got to get back to other writing, but I do want to do something with this at some point.


Unreliable narrators and autobiographical fiction

This Lena Dunham book has been huge in the memetic ten-second news cycle lately.  I haven’t read it, but the gist of the argument is that her autobiographical(-ish) book has some stuff in it about how she used to share a bed with her sister and various things may have happened (or not, whatever.) There’s a group of people who want to see her hung from a lamppost, and another who are defending her and saying that it’s normal behavior and/or they’re just jealous of her success and/or they don’t get how this could be fiction or an unreliable narrator situation.

I won’t get into my opinion on Dunham, because who cares.  But this demonstrates what I find an interesting flaw in the creative nonfiction genre.  Some people will take everything you say as face value, and even if you write an extremely exact, factual, researched and cited account of a situation, you will still have people tear it apart and give you shit about it. That gives you no latitude to be creative. If I were writing autobiographical fiction and I glossed over some event or fact or tried to frame things so I didn’t look like an asshole or looked worse off than I really was or whatever else, eventually someone is going to come forward and nitpick your work.

Was Lena Dunham adding in this stuff because her work is creative nonfiction and she’s free to be an unreliable narrator for the sake of art?  Maybe, I don’t know. But if she’s going to do that, she’s going to get people who don’t get it and freak the fuck out.  It’s one of the reasons I don’t like writing creative nonfiction anymore.  Any time I write a story about college or childhood and then fictionalize it by changing places and backgrounds and morphing together characters and altering sequences for the sake of storytelling, I always get some genius from the past who shows up and says “HEY MY CAR IN 1988 DIDN’T HAVE FOUR SPEAKERS IT ONLY HAD TWO.”

It’s just like how there’s always some asshole who’s got to reply to my one-line jokes on Facebook by closely analyzing it like I’m writing a peer-reviewed paper on nuclear physics.  It’s a goddamn joke.  Yes, I know that a duck can’t walk into a bar because all doors on commercial spaces open outward and the duck would need fingers to pull open the door.  That’s not the point – go do something more constructive, like telling kids there isn’t a Santa Claus.

What’s odd is that James Frey seemed to have the opposite trouble as Dunham about ten years ago.  He wrote a creative nonfiction book, which was pitched and sold as a straight biography, and then got torn apart because his crazy tales weren’t true.  I think at the time the Frey stuff happened, I thought he was a fraud and the whole thing was phony, but now in retrospect, I like the idea. I think if I did write a “nonfiction” book, I’d purposely make it outlandishly fake, and talk about my time in Japan studying to be a ninja, or how I do heart surgery on the side.

It’s almost bordering on Hunter Thompson’s Gonzo journalism.  And in the same sense, there’s been this whole cottage industry of picking apart HST’s life to prove what is and isn’t true.  (Same with Bukowski, same with Burroughs, and with a million others.)  But that’s the genius and the art of it: it’s all fake. Nothing is true; everything is permitted.  Good luck to Dunham explaining this to her humorless detractors, but it’s something to keep in mind when writing.


More on this “return to blogging” thing

Okay, so Marco Arment says this:

And I agree, on a few things.  First, I never understood twitter. It’s a good format for telling a fast dick joke, or dumping a link to a news article with no comment. But it’s not a good way for me to communicate. I can’t even start to think in 140 characters, and even when sharing a simple news story (which I seldom do these days) I need some context around it.

The problem, though: I have this big blog and I have over a thousand posts of over a thousand words each, and I have this subliminal pressure that each new post here has to be a “thing,” like a complete newspaper article or short story. The bar is set too high for me to do anything less than that, and because of that, I go weeks without saying anything.

To me, this isn’t a tool thing. I don’t think anything beyond WordPress would naturally change things. It would give me a new box to not fill up, and make me worry about what belonged in New Thing versus what belonged here, just like how I worry about what belongs in books versus short stories I publish versus here versus twitter.  I could start a new blog, and call it something else (an “update site” or a tumblr or whatever) but, same problem.

This article is closer to my mindset on this stuff.  I need to stop over-thinking what belongs as a post here. I also need to stop thinking about tags and post types, and I especially need to stop thinking about what traffic I get, or how I can get more traffic.  That’s irrelevant. So’s the idea that if I put enough quality text here, that people will somehow find it by searching. The days of searching and SEO are largely dead.  I rarely fire up a raw google box and type in “cool stuff about ninjas” and expect to find a quality site or blog that I will fall in love with.  I shouldn’t waste my time trying to write content with that kind of mindset.

But I do enjoy reading sites like that, personal sites by people with content about their lives, and not just top ten lists masquerading as articles, or news sites.  It seems like all of the content I now read is nothing but this. I feel like I’m not alone in this, and if people actually blogged genuine, sincere content, people would want to read it.  The next question everyone will ask is “sure, but how do you make money with it?” And that’s the problem.  We need to stop fucking asking ourselves how we’re going to make money on it, and actually live.