Geoffrey Long
Tip of the Quill: Archives

September 2008 Archives

A day full of awesome. (Mediawise, that is.)

Consider this a public service announcement that Neil Gaiman's The Graveyard Book, Terry Pratchett's Nation AND Jonathan Carroll's The Ghost in Love are out today. TODAY. Go! Stop reading this and go, dammit! Hie thee to a bookstore! Or Amazon!

I could also note that the 2-disc Blu-Ray set of Iron Man is out today, but I suspect that will take care of its own sales figures, thankyouverymuch.

Two additional things I will note, however, is that Jonathan Carroll's has received an astonishingly beautiful makeover, using a palette similar to my own and a design that I wish I'd thought of (and may indeed lift bits of at some point in the future, especially the gorgeous blend of blacks and parchment and breathtakingly beautiful photography); and that Kelly Link's Pretty Monsters is out next week, so you might as well pre-order that while you're clicking away at Amazon. I mean, it's just the efficient thing to do.

(I myself would be clicking away if I weren't so damned impatient. Off to the mall I go ASAP after work, I suspect...)

Building the Storyweb of Things.

I'm seriously stimulated by all this talk about the Internet of Things, particularly these talks from PICNIC, which led in part to this post from Bruce Sterling, which references this RFID-enabled wine rack, this wooden bowl (which I swear I first saw done in Hiroshi Ishii's Tangible Media group at the Media Lab), this nifty mirror and this hella tempting RFID starter kit, which is only fifty bucks on Amazon.

I've been thinking about how to mash up RFID tags with transmedia narratives for a while now; methinks it may be time to start putting my money where my mouth is. I wonder...

Death of a black bag.

It saddens me to announce that this morning I was forced to part company with something dear to me, something that had been with me a long time. We had literally seen the world together, but in the end, it wasn't enough.

When you come home from a trip and one of your cats pees on your black duffel bag, you can scrub it with the natural cleaning supplies and try your best to get the smell out. You can even largely succeed, but when you do you find yourself putting the bag in the basement and opting for a different bag the next time you go on a business trip, for fear that said bag will cause great hordes of drug-sniffing dogs to go crazy at the airport, or, worse, your good clothes will emerge from the bag smelling like cat pee, which is, of course, awesome when presenting at conferences or meeting Big Important People™. So, into the basement it goes.

When a great whopping hurricane comes barreling its way into your town and brings water into your basement, and when it comes into only that part of the basement where the black duffel that may or may not smell like cat pee currently happens to be residing, well, that's a goddamn sign.

Farewell, black duffel bag. We had some great times. You're gonna be hard to replace. (But the next time I'm at the outlet mall, I'm sure gonna try. And then I'm keeping it away from the cats. And the basement. Yeah, that's the plan.)


Announcing Eludamos Volume 2, Number 2.

I'd like to announce the release of Eludamos, the Journal for Computer Game Culture, which is now available for reading online as HTML or downloading as a PDF at The table of contents for this issue includes:

  • An introduction by Gareth Schott

  • "Using Literary Theory to Read Games: Power, Ideology, and Repression in Atlus' Growlanser: Heritage of War" by Johansen Quijano-Cruz

  • "Video Game Play Effects on Dreams: Self-Evaluation and Content Analysis" by Jayne Isabel Gackenbach and Beena Kuruvilla

  • ""You Are Dead. Continue?": Conflicts and Complements in Game Rules and Fiction" by Jason Tocci

  • "A Review of Agent Emotion Architectures" by Stuart Ian Slater, Robert Moreton, Kevan Buckley and Andrew Bridges

  • "Thinking out of the box (and back in the plane). Concepts of space and spatial representation in two classic adventure games." by Connie Veugen and Felipe Quérette

  • ""We don't want it changed, do we?" - Gender and Sexuality in Role Playing Games" by Arne Schroeder

  • "Play belongs to Everybody": An interview with the Ludica Collective by Cindy Poremba

  • "Mass(ively) Effect(ive): Emotional Connections, Choice, and Humanity" by Natalie M. Ward

  • "Grand Theft Auto IV Considered as an Atrocity Exhibition" by Martin Pichlmair

  • "The 3D Story" by Tamer Thabet

This is the first issue where I'm serving as a section editor and proofreader, and I'm honored to be included in the editorial staff of this up-and-coming journal of game studies. Check it out!


Graphic Journalism.
Geoff and the box

One day this week I came into the lab and discovered a big, hefty box on my office doorstep. In it was the large order I'd sort of forgotten that I'd placed from the big huge sale that Top Shelf was having earlier, including a big stack of the diary comics of James Kochalka, Superstar. Above I've posted a quick diary comic sketch (one panel does not a comic make) from the day it arrived; I should note that my nose is not that big at all, but hey – it's a rough sketch. I have more that I should scan and post from other days this week (including yesterday, when I spent the first half at Worcester Polytechnic giving a game adaptation workshop with Matt Weise and the second half cursing at and bemoaning the condition of Laura's car, which is apparently deciding to give up the ghost at a very inopportune time). We'll see what I can do.

Right now I'm still struggling to catch up on my workload, a state of affairs that is truly exacerbated by feeling a little down in the dumps due to the weather (cold and rainy) and the aforementioned condition of said car. Better times will ensue shortly, I'm sure – especially since I have the twin pleasures of the new Lego Batman game and seeing McCain get utterly spanked in tonight's debates waiting for me at home.

Man, I hope Obama brings his A game. This should be something to behold.


A fuzzy renaissance.

The New York Times published a great profile of Disney's attempt to revive the Muppets this week. The piece profiles both the company's mismanagement of Kermit and company over the last couple of decades and its new plan of attack to bring these old friends back into the public consciousness.

There are bits and pieces in here about the failed "America's Next Muppet" (man, I'm glad that never made it to air), about the upcoming build-your-own-Muppet workshop at FAO Schwartz (which I'd feel better about if those stores weren't so astonishingly rare) and about the distribution of new Muppet shorts as viral videos on YouTube (which seems like solid idea). Still, at the end of the day the reporter nails one solid aspect of the Muppets that Disney all too often seems to forget: the Muppets were designed primarily for adults, and pulled no punches. I'm particularly miffed by the way in which Disney seems to be forcibly tying the Muppets to "hot" issues, including having Kermit shill for 'green' lifestyles. Yes, he's green, and we're all supposed to be green, we get it, but what happened to the Kermit we could all identify with? The Kermit running the Muppet Theater by sheer luck and determination and stressed-out good faith? If nothing else represents the state of the American dream in this current recessionary economy, it's the bloody Muppet Theater. So why not simply bring back the Muppet Show, the same old formula with new stars and new Muppets? The last incarnation of the Muppet Show faltered a little because it tried too hard to imitate late-night TV – remember Clifford, the dreadlocked purple host? No? I don't blame you – he was no Kermit, and why would anyone in their right mind try to replace Kermit?

Seriously, Disney – you want to reintroduce the Muppets? Stop trying to reinvent a formula that worked. Stop trying to give us the "New Coke" version of the Muppets and give us more of the stuff we loved so much back in their heyday. It's still not easy being green, but remind us of what that meant before "green" had all these ecological connotations nailed onto it. It's not easy being an American, given our current troubled times, and that's what Kermit was all about – it's not easy just being. That's the kind of reconnection the public needs right now, it needs non-corporate, non-homogenized individual struggling and hope and joy.

We need Kermit again. Old school, honest, heartfelt Kermit. Can Disney give that to us, minus all the requisite weight and obligation and responsibility and PC-ness of Disney?


On writing interactive fiction.

First off, let me assure all my friends and co-conspirators that yes, I have returned from Texas safe and sound, and actually Ike gave Austin a wide enough berth that aside from a number of uncomfortable-looking evacuees camping out in another part of the Austin Convention Center, there was very little evidence of anything out of the ordinary in Austin itself. This, alas, does not extend to the lives of my other friends in Texas, such as Natalie and Jen-Jen, both of whom came down to visit me and/or my fellow GAMBITeers during our brief stay, and regaled us with tales of Life in Houston Without Power, which were also accompanied by a number of phone calls to and from my folks, who regaled me with tales of Life in Ohio Without Power. I myself was only mildly inconvenienced by Ike, and I wish I could say the same for everyone else. Still, AGDC was awesome as always – I managed to reconnect with a number of friends in the industry and out, the workshop that Matt and I presented went very well, and there was much consumption of barbecue. (Hey, it's Texas.)

One thing that AGDC did hammer into my skull, though, was a renewed desire to put my money where my mouth is and get writing again. Therefore, this morning I broke out Inform 7 and took another crack at writing IF, or interactive fiction. While I'm well aware of the debate surrounding the superiority of either Inform 6 and its more traditional programming environment or Inform 7 and its wacky natural language programming environment, I've gotta say I'm getting a kick out of using the natural language thingamawhosis. It takes a little getting used to, sure, and I'm definitely still coming to terms with its features and foibles, but I'm having a terrific time realizing an idea for an interactive storyworld that hit while I was at the conference.

After several hours' worth of work I now have a small storyworld that can be more or less successfully navigated and played with, including the requisite key for unlocking the requisite door, the ability to pay attention to the bugs and the birds and the sun in your environment, and a whole whopping ton of Gothic-esque language riddling the whole thing through. I blame the season and the stuff I've been reading lately (particularly Mignola's Hellboy and Peake's Titus Groan), but it's really quite cool. I have no idea how long it'll take me to whip this thing into anything resembling a serviceable shape, but I'll post something here when it's ready to be tested. Right now it's just fun to be experimenting again.


Rock me like a...

Next week is the Austin Game Developers Conference, wherein my fellow GAMBITeer Matt Weise and I will be presenting our video game adaptation workshop. I'm excited, because this will be the first time I've presented at a GDC event, but I'm also a little apprehensive – not because of the whole public speaking thing (which is cake), but because Hurricane Ike is scheduled to make landfall in Texas at the same time that we were.

Luckily, the active word in that sentence is were: JetBlue earned even more bonus points with me today for relocating all three of us to the Sunday morning flight from the Saturday morning flight. There's still a chance that the weather will cause some sucky delays on Sunday morning, but it's way, way less likely that we'll be trying to land in a hurricane on Sunday than on Saturday. Now we'll just be landing in a puddle.


Anyway, I hope all my exes down in Texas (well, not exes – I don't think I have any exes in Texas, but I do have a lot of friends) are doing well, have successfully battened down all the appropriate hatches and are keeping dry! Jen-Jen, Ben, Joel, Leiathis means you.


Fringe benefits.

FRINGELast night I settled into the couch and watched the two-hour series premiere of JJ Abrams' new series Fringe. As a follower of Abrams' work (I'm a latecomer fan to LOST, I caught Cloverfield in its original theatrical release and his TED talk is one of my favorites) I'd been looking forward to this for months, and I'm happy to report that the final product did not disappoint.

Most critics share the same list of talking points when discussing Fringe: the premiere's US$10M budget (again, that's just for the premiere), how the show feels like an updated take on The X-Files, what the results of this mind-meld between Abrams, Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci might suggest for their upcoming Star Trek reboot. Kurtman and Orci are best known these days for having written 2007's blockbuster Transformers, although they were also responsible for Mission: Impossible III, The Legend of Zorro, and a whole mess of episodes of Xena: Warrior Princess, Hercules: The Legendary Journeys and Alias, which is where they presumably first worked with Abrams.

The results are a little different from what one might expect: for starters, the first ten minutes of Fringe are much gorier than anything we've seen on LOST so far, including one particularly 'jaw-dropping' effect (if you've seen it, you know what I'm talking about). It's obvious where they spent that film-sized budget – there are so many extremely convincing, high-definition close-up shots of a translucent "visible man" that it's easy to think of this episode as more of a feature film than a television pilot.

The writing only sort of measures up to the quality of the spectacle – the dialogue definitely exhibits notable improvement over Transformers (there's no giant robot saying "My bad", for example) with a few hysterically funny moments of character interaction. The inclusion of a cow into the lab is explained away as a source of near-human tissue samples for experiments, but Bessie's very presence adds a degree of absurd character to the set reminiscent of Mulder's I WANT TO BELIEVE poster. However, some of the general story structure is still fairly weak. The main character, FBI agent Olivia Dunham (Anna Torv), is very obviously a cipher for the audience and is, at least so far, much less interesting as an actual character than either Mulder or Scully. The show opens with a fairly gratuitous sex scene between Dunham and her secret lover, fellow FBI agent John Scott (Mark Valley) that both gives the teenage-boy demographic a cheap thrill and very clearly telegraphs to rest of the viewing audience a sense of cheap doom. All the doe-eyed lovey-dovey treacle that bounces between the two of them is fairly unconvincing, culminating in an absolutely groanworthy "I haven't been very good at this... until you" gush from Dunham (approximately; I don't currently have the clip at hand) and only serves to sketch out Dunham's personal motivation for the rest of the episode after – surprise, surprise – Scott gets infected with the same mysterious flesh-destroying virus that caused all the ooey-gooeyness in the show's opener. Anyone who's seen any dramatic TV shows knows that this relationship is doomed, because a female lead in a serious, all-too-perfect monogamous relationship almost never flies – especially one that is so blatantly trying to replicate the success of The X-Files, where Mulder and Scully's will-they-or-won't-they served as a major dynamic for most of the show's lifespan.

The rest of the pilot follows Dunham's panicked race to save her lover, which opens the door to the show's most farfetched key gimmick – rescuing "this generation's Einstein," Dr. Walter Bishop (The Lord of the Rings' John Noble) from a mental asylum with the unwilling assistance of Bishop's estranged son Peter (Dawson's Creek's Joshua "Pacey" Jackson). It's Bishop's mad scientist vibe that really makes the show work, leading to the aforementioned brilliantly funny inter-character exhanges between Bishop the Elder and Bishop the Younger, Bishop the Elder and the desperate Dunham, Desperate Dunham and Bishop the Younger and so on. Cows are involved, and Harvard (although I found myself wondering repeatedly why they weren't here at MIT instead), and mental institutions, and LSD. One can imagine the hijinks that ensue.

Added into this mix is the Department of Homeland Security's Agent Phillip Broyles, who will (of course) eventually offer this motley crew a regular gig saving the world. It's worth noting that Broyles is played by Lance Reddick, who has appeared in everything from LOST to The Wire to CSI Miami to Numb3rs to Law and Order, but who bears enough of a passing similarity to Heroes' Jimmy "The Haitian" Jean-Louis to give me a chill of forboding the first time he appears on-screen, and I'm sure that was no accident. Fringe has enough conspiracy theories installed in its supernarrative to tick off that requisite X-Filean checkbox with aplomb: there's a secret connection between the virus and the FBI! There may be a vast conspiracy of this fringe science experimentation being done on an unsuspecting public! The government may be involved, as well as Microsoft a massive techno-corporation! Surprise, surprise – the only real surprise is that the creator of such an astonishingly original show as LOST is mining such conventional genre tropes here.

Still, given Abrams' past history I'm more than willing to give him some time to pitch us some inevitable curveballs – I'll admit that I'm a huge sucker for shows like this, and this summer's The X-Files: I Want to Believe made me want to believe that it was time for a comeback for Chris Carter and his agents. While it looks like Mulder and Scully have ridden off into the sunset for good, it's possible that Dunham and the Bishops will pick up where they left off. If they keep building up the supernarrative, develop Dunham into a real character instead of leaving her as the same wild-eyed spastic from the pilot, and continue to enable the Bishops to bring the funny, we could be in for a wild ride.

My final verdict? It may be an X-Files knockoff, but at least it's a pretty good knockoff. What can I say? I want to believe.


Artistic progress.

It's taken me a long time, but I think I'm finally getting better at drawing women.

Victoria Ravenswood

While I was moving my files around and moving into the cloud this weekend I realized that I hadn't been scanning or posting anywhere near the amount of sketches and drawings I tend to do in my spare time, so I've resolved to change that. I've resolved to crank up my creative output in general, actually, but this is one part of that. More to come, hopefully.


Moving Into the Cloud.
There has been much made lately of the tech sector's newest favorite buzzword: cloud computing. Like many such newly-minted terms, there is some dispute about its actual definition; I wrote about one such permutation in a previous entry for the C3 Weekly Newsletter when the MacBook Air was about to be unveiled at the Macworld conference in January. In it, I conflated the terms 'cloud computing' with 'ubiquitous computing', but in retrospect I should pull the two terms apart somewhat. They're still linked at a very basic level -- both cloud computing and ubiquitous computing hinge on the idea of decentralization, which I'll get back to in a bit -- but by attempting to distinguish these two terms, we begin to gain a clearer idea of where our digital culture is heading next.


Money well spent.

There are an uncertain number of things in this world that are worth every penny you spend on them. This summer I've been blessed with two of them: our trip to Greece in July (especially the extra time Laura and I spent on the island of Santorini) and now, as of this afternoon, the two super-high-quality tickets to Cirque du Soleil's Kooza that I bought on impulse Friday morning.

It was the perfect thing at the perfect time – I've been having a rough go of it at work for the last week or two due to the usual start-of-semester shenanigans (believe me, it's even worse for the staff than it is for the students, although perhaps not as bad as it is for the actual full-fledged faculty), so when I spotted a Cirque clown on the cover of this month's WHERE BOSTON in the lobby of the Marriott Hotel in Kendall Square, I grabbed it up and flipped to the article about how Cirque was opening up in town this weekend. I jumped on the website and discovered two amazing tickets for the 5PM Sunday show (five rows back, more-or-less center stage!) and I nabbed 'em. Pricey as the dickens, but worth every penny.

The show was amazing. Wheel of Death! Confetti cannon! Contortionists (and Jesus are the contortionists impressive when you're sitting right up close). Wheel of Death! High-wire acts with a bicycle! An acrobat balancing himself on a chair ten stories tall! Wheel of Death! Thus usual Cirque array of clowning around! Really, really great music! And did I mention the freaking Wheel of Death?

If you're in Boston and can spare the scratch, get yourself down to the Expo Center before October 10 or thereabouts. You'll be very, very glad you did.


Links list: 09-06-08.

It's a very Steampunk Saturday today for some reason...


Moving into the Cloud.

(The following is a draft of an essay I'm kicking around and will probably post over at the C3 blog. I'd appreciate your thoughts and comments – it's less of a blue-sky thinking piece and more of a clarification and "this is what I'm doing in this space" piece, so it's a little different from my normal fare.)

There has been much made lately of the tech sector's newest favorite buzzword: cloud computing. Like many such newly-minted terms, there is some dispute about its actual definition; I wrote about one such permutation in a previous entry for the C3 Weekly Update when the MacBook Air was about to be unveiled at the Macworld conference in January. In it, I conflated the terms 'cloud computing' and 'ubiquitous computing', but in retrospect I should pull the two terms apart somewhat. They're still linked at a very basic level – both cloud computing and ubiquitous computing hinge on the idea of decentralization, which I'll get back to in a bit – but by attempting to distinguish these two terms, we begin to gain a clearer idea of where our digital culture is heading next.

Ubiquitous computing, or 'ucomp' for short, posits a world populated by reactive data points everywhere you look. Similar to the world put forward in Stephen Spielberg's Minority Report, these digital interfaces react to your presence and present useful information often embedded in the very objects we hold. Ucomp is a world of intelligent objects, of RFIDs and spimes, and its patron prophet-saints are Adam Greenfield (Everyware: The Dawning Age of Ubiquitous Computing, New Riders 2006) and Bruce Sterling (Shaping Things, with Lorraine Wild; MIT Press 2005). This is the world where the early settlers are the Nike+ sneaker, the GPS-enabled iPhone 3G and Wal-Mart's embedded inventory systems.

Cloud computing, on the other hand, is the result of users divorcing themselves from individual computers and moving their data onto the web. In a way, this is a return to the era of the public terminals in college libraries that represented the earliest exposures to the Internet for me and others of my particular generation – only it's no longer just e-mail being stored remotely in Hotmail or Gmail or IMAP accounts instead of being downloaded to local hard drives, now it's all of our data. While we have become used to, if not addicted to, the twin pleasures of amassing vast amounts of content and working with it anywhere through laptops and smartphones, the two pleasures simply don't play nicely with each other – unless you can unshackle the content from the access device.

For example, while the initial draw of websites like Flickr was the appeal of sharing my photographs with others, now the big perk is becoming the ability to access my photo library from any machine I want, anywhere I want, anytime I want. I personally maintain a photo library that clocks in at over a quarter of a terabyte, so the idea of being able to fit said library on my laptop and pull up any photo I want anywhere I want becomes laughable. Add to that the additional bulk of MP3 collections and the staggering girth of digital video collections and the issue becomes clear.

This shift was crystallized with Apple's introduction of the MacBook Air: the initial revelation that the machine only came with a relatively tiny 80B hard drive was shocking, but once you took into consideration that said drive was only supposed to contain your operating system, applications and a bare minimum of actual data, it began to make more sense. The reinvention of Apple's .Mac service as MobileMe was even more telling – although the new name is fairly hokey, placing the word 'Mobile' in the service's name points directly to the intended unshackling of the user from any fixed location. Even more telling is the service's new iconography: MobileMe's remote disk on your desktop is represented by a purple hard drive with a fluffy white cloud on it, and the service's logo is another happy little cloud with your apps embedded in it.

That said, this cloud is obviously still forming. Logging into your MobileMe website gives you access to browser-based versions of, iCal, Contacts and Gallery that Apple happily describes as "your desktop on the web", but I have a confession to make: while I've been trying to make the move into the cloud like a good little early adopter, I have yet to ever find a use for these applications. Perhaps it's because I am so hardware-heavy that this unshackling isn't meant for me: I carry a first-generation iPhone in my pocket, I often have my MacBook Pro with me and I have one very high-powered Mac Pro in my office at work and another lower-powered but still quite hefty dual G5 in my office at home. If I were to rely more upon the public computing clusters here on the MIT campus or in public libraries, these applications might be really handy, but so far that scenario has never come up.

Instead, I've cobbled together a strange hybrid of traditional local computing and cloud computing. In my current transitional model, I've offset my paranoia of storing all my data on someone else's server by installing a 2TB MyBook Studio Edition external drive on my home G5, which I've then striped as RAID I for redundancy. (I had a hard drive fail and nearly wipe out my entire music collection earlier this year, hence the paranoia.) Onto this drive I've moved all of my archived data – old projects, photos, music, videos, and so on. I've then made that home machine accessible via MobileMe to my other two machines from anywhere. This huge amount of data is on my machine, in my office, and is (relatively) secure. Meanwhile, I've moved my time-sensitive data, all my currently open projects, onto a 25GB MobileMe iDisk, so that this 'hot' content exists in the cloud and can be, again, accessed more quickly from anywhere. This iDisk is then mirrored on the desktop machine and Mac OS X's Time Machine application backs it up to a second external 1TB drive. Once a project is done, I remove it from the iDisk and archive it on the home machine. InDesign files, Word documents, images of quick sketches, all this new stuff exists in the cloud until it's no longer active, and then gets shunted off to the archives. Meanwhile, more group-centric documents are handled through web applications like Basecamp and Google Docs. While I'm intrigued by online replacements like Mint for my old standby financial app Quicken, the only thing I've been convinced to rely upon for security reasons is the online banking suite offered by Bank of America. While it's entirely possible – even probable – that apps like Mint are perfectly safe, in some respects I'm definitely a conservative old codger, thankyouverymuch.

This is still a relatively new experiment, and anyone interested in following its progress should let me know. It definitely has its drawbacks – for one thing, keeping massive photo and music libraries on a RAID-striped external drive can add some serious time drag to read/write speeds because it's essentially writing everything twice, and for another, I'm still running into serious issues syncing simple things like Safari bookmark files between multiple machines. Still, it has the electric tingle of What's Next about it, which is certainly a lot of fun, and the promise of someday upgrading my relatively heavy MacBook Pro to a MacBook Air has an appeal all its own.

Like I said before, though – this cloud is definitely still forming. In his terrific lecture to the 2007 EG Conference (made available online in a terrific TED podcast), "Predicting the Next 5000 Days of the Web", Kevin Kelly describes the future of computing as shifting away from a mass of individual machines and towards a horde of tiny portals into one singular machine: the Internet. This is another linking node between both ucomp and cloud computing – as both our iPhones and our Nike+ shoes become I/O ports for this one singular machine, and all of this data is combined and made interchangeable, some very exciting shit will be going down. Right now, though, my iPhone doesn't do a great job of doing much computing – but the promise is there. It's possible the greatest buzzword of the 21st century so far is abstraction: the abstraction of content away from presentation through XML and XSLT, transmedia stories and shifting media formats, data and computing hardware. These ideas are all connected, just like these terms, just like this one machine – and that's where our culture is most definitely, yes, converging.

Bring it on.


Links list: 09-03-08.