Via Merrilee Proffitt: A Global Digital Format Registry, conceived for the validation, identification, transformation, characerization, rick assessment, and delivery of particular object formats. A simple idea, but a very good one.
Picking up the threads from good discussions over at KF’s (here and here), the Chronicle has a ton of relevant material in the current issue: first, John Unsworth’s essay on “Liberation Technology”, which posits the oughts as the decade of O—open source, that is (open source version available to non-subscribers here); second, “The Promise and Peril of Open Access” on alternatives to the soaring price of scholarly journals; third, and apropos of Palimpsest, as well as Liz’s MT Courseware, this article on “Open Source Course Management Tools”; fourth, an article on “Scholarship in a Digital Era” which discusses problems of digital preservation, including electronic literature—the explicit purview of ELO’s PAD initiative. Plus lots more really worthwhile stuff. Why do these things always seem to arrive right at the start of a new semester?
In a couple of places recently I’ve found references to an apparently thriving German board game industry. For example, here:
Why “German” games? As it turns out, German families spend a great deal of their time doing things together (no, watching TV does not count!) . . . This, coupled with some very clever game designers, has produced games that are simple, highly interactive, games that can be played and enjoyed within 1-2 hours. These games are very colourful, and span a wide spectrum of themes. The mechanisms are also varied, from clever use of geometry to bidding systems, bluffing and negotiations.
Anyone have any more insight into this trend or information about the games?
Palimpsest, a group blog devoted to sharing teaching resources for English language and literature (“good stuff, free”) is now open for business. Palimpsest is the brainchild of George Williams. Check it out.
First day of classes cancelled due to snow. That means that my carefully-planned syllabus is thrown off track already, but it’s also an extra day to prep, tie up loose ends, and read.
Professors like snow days too.
“When the Super Bowl comes, there is going to be thievery. People want guacamole.”
(See “Someone Is Stealing Avocados, and ‘Guac Cops’ Are on the Case,” today’s New York Times.)
As reported on Slashdot some months back, there is another famous scream in our collective unconscious: the Wilhelm Scream, which has appeared in dozens of films from its inception in the now obscure 1951 Warner Brothers’ Distant Drums to Star Wars and Return of the King. Mark my words: the Dean MP3 remixes are only the beginning. Like the Wilhelm scream, Dean’s scream is destined to become an aural easter egg, remixed and remediated through the layers and keyframes of pop digital culture.
Meantime, has anyone found a good set of pointers to the Dean remixes?
Syllabi for my spring courses are now online. I’m teaching ENGL 467: Computer and Text for upper-level undergraduates and ENGL 668k: Introduction to Digital Studies for graduate students. The Computer and Text course, which is being served up with Liz Lawley’s spectacular MT Courseware, has been overhauled to include more of an emphasis on procedural texts, interactive narrative, and gaming. I’d particulary like to have some feedback on the Choose Your Own Adventure assignment.
The Digital Studies course will get a vanilla MT blog some time this weekend; there still may be a little nip and tuck on either syllabus.
Via Liz: Mike Axelrod’s piece on traditions of software development. It’s a nice piece, and the kind of thing I’d like to read more of (suggestions anyone?). Might dovetail well with Ellen Ullman’s recent novel The Bug which I’m teaching in both my classes this semester. Axelrod employs the familiar trope of software as a machine or mechanism—though he gets there via a more organic approach, woodworking. As I said, it’s good stuff. But this is something I’ve been thinking a lot about in the context of my own work, and also by way of Manuel De Landa’s robotic historian’s account of the “machinic phylum” in War in the Age of Intelligent Machines (Zone 1991). As De Landa demonstrates, the clockwork metaphor is the product of specific singularities within the machinic phylum; thus the “clockwork armies” of Frederick the Great (closely packed formations of men moving and firing in unison). De Landa, as is his way, ties this to the epistemology of the age (which is in turn an outgrowth of the technological conditions of war). My question: why are we so drawn to this now anachronistic image (mechanism, machine, clockwork) when talking about software? Can we determine the genealogy of that trope? Hmm, maybe someone should write a book.
I don’t think this is really news, but NPR has a brief write-up of David Byrne’s new book/DVD project, Envisioning Emotional Epistemological Information. The title looks to me to be a reference to Edward Tufte, who has also written about PowerPoint (as well as a well-known book called Envisioning Information).
As I think I’ve mentioned before, I grew up with an Apple IIe. I had a group of friends with whom I’d trade games—Choplifter, Sea Dragon, Karateka, and the like (for personal evaluation of course, to see if I wanted to go out and buy them ;-). One day one of my buddies handed me a stack of 5.25” floppies; sandwiched somewhere in the middle was a disk labelled “Adventure (word game).” I plugged it in and soon had Cave. What I remember most from that first session was having an axe tossed at me by one of the nasty dwarfs. That spontaneous event, a product of what I now know was the program’s world model, sent chills down my spine. Like the character in Richard Powers’ novel Plowing the Dark I never finished Adventure, but I did go on to play a number of Infocom games. And until not too long ago, that’s pretty much where I thought interactive fiction ended.
Enter Nick Montfort’s Twistly Little Passages: An Approach to Interactive Fiction (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2004) which I read over the semester break. It is, in many ways, a perfect book. I don’t mean that it’s a book without flaw or above critique (god forbid) and I even found a typo or two. But it’s clearly the right book by the right person at the right time (and with just the right title too—TLP is a line from the original Adventure, and the “twisty little passages” are of course passages of prose as well as the passages of the cave).
One of the great gifts of the book is the entrée it affords into the contemporary IF scene. Graham Nelson, Adam Cadre, Emily Short, and Andrew Plotkin were all authors who were new to me, but no sooner had I worked through Plotkin’s remarkable “Shade” than I added it to my spring syllabus (which I’ll post soon, btw); and I suspect others will follow suit. In fact I wouldn’t be surprised to find this text canonized amongst a new academic audience because of Montfort’s account of it here. (I should also add that Nick is himself a major author on the independent IF scene, though he avoids mention or discussion of his own creative work.) Throughout the text, Montfort triangulates between an IF work’s tripartite status as narrative, game, and computer program; and it is the riddle which emerges as the figure to bind all three together. If I have one criticism of the book it is that the material on riddles, while fascinating (and convincing on its own terms), does not seem especially well integrated into the other chapters—I’d have liked to have seen a couple of readings of particular IF works that really hinge on their indentity as riddles in the narratological model Montfort lays out.
Something that emerges very early on in the book is a schism, actualized by way of readings, publication outlets, awards, and all the rest of the stuff that goes to make up a literary “community” (a term that in fact comes into question late in the book), between IF and link/node hypertext—both of which Montfort argues, utterly persuasively to my mind, must be considered instances of “electronic literature.” In fact, what I probably most admire about the book is its detailed historical approach, and it become evident in relief that the “other” side of the electronic literature divide lacks any comparable documentary account of its origins and development. Likewise, there’s no work on “traditional” hypertext of which I’m aware that’s comparable to Montfort’s critical (as opposed to technical) explication of the parser and world model as essential computational elements of IF—this is now being called “software studies” in some quarters and we badly need to update the earlier wave post-structuralist readings of hypertext fiction with the insights that come from granular attention to the digital nuances of particular software and systems. (Montfort is meticulous about documenting a work’s original platform and development language.) I’m tackling a few of these things in my own project, to which TLP definitely stands as an inspiration, but most of all it is a book that reminds us of how little we still know, despite all the verbiage and university press ink, about something called “electronic literature”—while simultaneously teaching us that electronic literature has a recoverable history, and need not be essentialized as unknowable. “Twisty little passages” is probably the most famous line to emerge from Adventure, but my favorite was always another: “You are on the edge of a breathtaking view.”
George Williams has floated a very interesting idea regarding the use of social software (blogs, wikis, what-have-you) to share teaching resources for English language and literature. If you’re in one of those fields go check it out and join the emerging discussion.
Happy New Year, everyone. Other than a clutch of links the other day my last contribution to the blogosphere were the now timeless musings on sneakers and toothbrushes which are to be found below. What’s been happening in the interim? Let’s see:
Trip to Alabama to visit Kari’s family over the holidays. In addition to lots of Quality Time with the folks we finally made it to see Return of the King (two hobbit thumbs up, go read Jason’s review); plus I got my local cuisine in with a brace of fried catfish.
No MLA for us this year, so it was back to DC for New Year’s and then (these last two days) a visit from my parents and brother, who drove down from New York. Earlier today we all went out together to the new wing (if you’ll pardon the expression) of the Smithsonian Air and Space Musuem that’s just opened at Dulles airport. The facility (officially named the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center) is a vast hanger-like exhibition space with dozens and dozens of planes parked inside and suspended from the ceiling, including an Air France Concorde, a Boeing 707, an SR-71 Blackbird, the Space Shuttle Enterprise, and dozens of smaller fixed wing aircraft from military and commercial aviation. The most notorious display there is the Enola Gay. The plane is presented matter-of-factly with a brief placard detailing its technical specs and a couple of sentences describing the mission to drop the “Little Boy” 20-kiloton atomic bomb on the Japanese city of Hiroshima. There is no discussion of the blast effects (or after-effects), or the larger military/political/ethical dimensions of the issue. To be fair, none of the aircraft on display have extensive exhibition notes; the Enola Gay’s placard is of a piece with the others, and the plane itself is inconspicous in every way except its aura which dwarfs the mammoth B-29 fusalage and gave my father chills.
I’ve also, I confess, been devoting some hours (and more dollars) to stoking my rediscovered interest in historical wargaming (you can now find some links to the hobby on my sidebar). When I was younger, my approach to acquiring new games was simple: whatever I could lay my hands on at the local hobbyshop. I never ventured out into the wider world of mail order, subscriptions, or the gaming conventions, all of which would have allowed me to build my collection more systematically. So lately I’ve been ghosting the Avalon Hill/SPI auctions on eBay, bidding and for better or for worse mostly winning, and approaching the whole endeavor with a much more specific agenda. My primary interest is the Napoleonic era, and at the tactical rather than the strategic level. This means I’m interested in games that address particular battles, even particular segements of battles, rather than entire conflicts or campaigns. The decision making runs more along the lines of “should this cavalry regiment charge that hill” than “should my army move back to Vienna to secure its supply lines for the winter.” The bigger games, with turns marked off in months or years and maps scaled to hundreds of miles per hex just feel too abstract to me now. I’m also, however, taking a more curatorial approach to my collection: there are certain classic titles I want to acquire, notable because they are early (or influential) game systems, or the work of a particular designer. I’m not interested in paying top-dollar for mint condition copies—I just want to own these games and be able to examine them and of course play them. In short, I want to be able to track how the hobby evolved historically, something that is clearly the product of my adult textualist predilictions and which was uttlerly lacking in me as a sixteen year old.
“Games,” incidentally, are at best a loose fit for these products. The following remarks from the Designer’s Note’s to Wellington’s Victory are revealing:
I will begin by saying that I cannot claim that Wellington’s Victory is an accurate simulation of the Battle of Waterloo. Like Wellington, I believe that an accurate account (much less a game) never has or will be produced on the subject of Waterloo. No soldier, historian, or game designer knows or fully understands exactly what occured that Sunday afternoon more than a century and a half ago. All I can therefore claim is that the game accurately reflects my own carefully constructed interpretation of the events of June 18, 1815. I am grateful that our exhaustive playtesting indicates that when the game is played effectively, it does in fact resemble a reasonably accurate working model of the actual battle.
“A reasonably accurate working model of the actual battle.” That’s exactly what rekindled my interest in the hobby. The designer goes on to add: ” . . . play balance was never a high priority in terms of the overall design of the game. From the outset I was primarily concerned with the game as a teaching device which would enable players (including myself) to gain a better understanding of Napoleonic battle tactics.” Play balance, i.e. giving both sides an equal chance at winning—what one expects from Monopoly or Chess or even a proto-wargame like Stratego or Risk—has been subsumed by historical accuracy, a pronounced pedagogical sensibility, and above all the workings of a well-tuned formal system. It’s perhaps not hard to see the connections between this sort of thinking and my current professional purview of simulation, representation, and textuality.
Now, however, the travel is done, the family’s departed, and the eBay auctions are expiring. Time to get back to work. I’ll be putting together online syllabi over the next couple of weeks, and may be tempted to follow George’s lead and adapt Liz’s MT courseware templates. We’ll see. There’s still the book of course, which I’m eager to get back to in earnest; and proposals to write; and articles to submit.