Over at my home-for-work, I write a bit about Week 16.
A new location for weeknotes: I’ve overhauled http://tomarmitage.com and will use it as a professional portfolio and outlet (whilst continuing this site as my primary home and blog). To that end, weeknotes will get published there, and I’ll make sure I link to all developments from over here. But you might like to check it out.
Last weekend, BERG invited a selection of friends to participate in their first Little Printer hackday. Over the course of a short Saturday, we were asked to explore the API for making “publications” for Little Printer, and test them out on sample devices.
I had a few ideas, but decided for expediency to return to my “Hello World” of connected things: Tower Bridge.
My publication would be something you could schedule at pretty much any time, on any day, and get a list of bridge lifts in the next 24 hours (if there were any).
I could have made this a very small, simple paragraph, to fit into a busy list of publications. Instead, I decided to explore the capacities of the Little Printer delivery as a medium.
I was interested in the visual capacity of the Printer: what could I communicate on a 2-inch wide strip of paper? All of BERG’s publications to date have been very beautiful, and the visual design of publications feels important – it’s one of the many things that distinguishes Little Printer, and I wanted to try to aspire to it at the very least.
So I built an Observer’s Guide to Tower Bridge, based on a chlidhood of Observer’s Guides and I-Spy books. As well as listing lifts for the next 24 hours, I’d show users pictures of the boat that would be going through, so they could identify it.
I also visually communicated which direction upstream and downstream are. I don’t think it’s immediately obvious to most people, and so the “downstream” icon shows that it’s towards Tower Bridge, whilst the offset of the “upstream” icon illustrates that it’s towards Big Ben and the Millennium Wheel. It felt like a natural way to make this clear visually, and was economical in the vertical dimension (which is one of Little Printer’s bigger constraints).
Early versions showed a photo for every lift, which turned out to make the publication too big: I needed to shrink that vertical axis. I did this by only including photos of an individual boat once per delivery – you don’t need multiple pictures of the same boat. The second time a boat passed through the bridge, I instead displayed a useful fact about it (if I knew one) – and otherwise, just the lift time.
By making the publication shorter, I also avoided an interesting side-effect of running the printhead too hard. The grey smudging you see above is where the printhead is running very hot having printed eight inches of bridge lifts and photos (it prints bottom-to-top, so the text is the “right way up”). Because I’d printed so much black up top, it seemed like the head had a bit of residual heat left that turns the paper grey. This is a side-effect of how thermal printers work. You don’t get this if you don’t go crazy with full-black in a long publication (and, indeed, none of the sample publications have any of these issues owing to their careful design) – a constraint I discovered through making.
The Observer’s Guide was an interesting experiment, but it made me appreciate the BERG in-house publications even more: they’re short and punchy, making a morning delivery of several things – bridge lifts, calendar details, Foursquare notes, a quote of the day – packed with information in a relatively short space.
I was pleased with my publication as an exploration of the platform. It’s not open-source because the LP API is very much work in progress, but rest assured, this was very much a live demo of real working code on a server I control. If I were making a functional tool, to be included with several publications, I’d definitely make something a lot shorter.
It was lovely to see Little Printer in the world and working away. It was also great to see so many other exciting publications, cranked out between 11am and 4:30pm. I think my favourite hack might have been Ben and Devin’s Paper Pets, but really, they were all charming.
Lots of fun then, and interesting to design against the physical constraint of a roll of thermal paper and a hot printhead.
So: a new season of Dan Harmon’s marvellous Community has begun in the US. It’s a very, very funny sitcom. It’s also a very funny sitcom that frequently plays on the expectation that the audience is deeply versed in pop culture, with entire episodes that pastiche movies and genres. You should watch it.
In S03E01, which aired last week, Abed – the TV geek inside the show – is distraught that his favourite show (Cougar Town) has been moved to mid-season – “never a good sign“. Afraid it’ll be cancelled, his friends try to find him a new favourite show. And, eventually, they stumble upon “a British sci-fi show that’s been on the air since 1962“:
This is already a fairly brilliant joke – the phone box! The reboot-pastiching title card! And, you know, I hope it’ll return to haunt the rest of series.
But: then, the internet worked its magic.
The thing that has been entertaining me beyond all measure this week is Inspector Spacetime Confessions.
This is a tumblr account of a popular format: the “Confessions” format, in which fans of TV shows, books, movies, etc, post “secret” confessions about their take on characters, episodes, or arcs (sometimes, secret crushes) as text written across images. Amateur photoshop at its best. It was huge on Livejournal, and it’s ideally suited to Tumblr.
Except: there are, currently, about fifteen seconds of Inspector Spacetime in existence.
This, of course, does not matter when you’re TV literate. What’s happened is: fans are just making it up. They’re back extrapolating an entire chronology based on fifteen seconds of “tone”, and their entire knowledge of the Doctor Who canon.
So, they’re diving into gags about former Inspectors:
They’re torn about Stephen Fry:
The Steve Carrell TV movie wasn’t well received:
And of course, they’re concerned about pocket fruit:
But there are more sophisticated jokes emerging. Like this one:
This presumes, in the form of a “fan confession”, that: the showrunner of Inspector Spacetime is also running another show – Hercule – which appears to be a modern-day Poirot reboot, and of course, because Benedict Cumberbatch is starring in Hercule, he’ll never be the Inspector.
This is sophisticated on a bunch of levels, but its elegance is in the way that entire gag is contained in one sentence and a photograph.
Or how about this:
which presumes Inspector Spacetime lives in that land of fictional TV shows, and thus a fictional actor (Alexander Dane) who starred in Galaxy Quest really ought, one day, to return to SF as the Inspector.
There’s a slowly emerging canon, thanks in part to the Inspector Spacetime forum. A lot of the canon is useful – the DARSIT feels better than the CHRONO box, everyone’s sold on Fee-Line – but it’s sometimes nice to see people buck it, or introduce new ideas (and Inspectors) in the most throwaway of Confessions. All this, from a fifteen-second joke that we don’t know will continue (or if it’ll introduce continuity we don’t know about yet).
And yes, Dan Harmon knows about it.
In the week between the two most recent episodes of Community, this has given me a vast amount of joy; I’ve been rattling the various configurations of Inspectors and Associates in my head, trying to remember my favourite episodes of a sci-fi show that never existed. And then giggling at the ingenuity and brilliance of some of the other confessions appearing – of the whole fictional history they bring to life, of Liam Neeson’s run in the 80s or the creepiness of the Laughing Buddas.
It’s really hard to explain the joy (especially as someone fascinated by the inner workings of serial drama) that this brings me. It’s a funny kind of magic – it’s unofficial, didn’t happen on TV, and just relies of fans’ understandings of not only TV shows, but how telly itself works. The results are just brilliant.
I’m off to write my own confession now. There’s always room for one more.
Buried, somewhere in the inbox I use for the Tower Bridge account, was an email from Twitter Support. So, let’s get the apology out of the way: Twitter did contact me. It was buried in an old GMail account. And, sure enough, on the first of June, here we go:
Twitter responds to reports from trademark holders regarding the use of trademarks that we determine is misleading or confusing with regard to brand or business affiliation. It has come to our attention that your Twitter account is in violation of Twitter’s trademark policy:
This account has been suspended.
Let’s see what they have to say at the URL:
Using a company or business name, logo, or other trademark-protected materials in a manner that may mislead or confuse others with regard to its brand or business affiliation may be considered a trademark policy violation.
OK, I can see the reasoning behind that. There’s not much space in the Bio field to explain that it’s not official, but their policy is clear: it doesn’t matter if you were attempting to mislead; if there’s any likelihood of confusion, you’re breaking their rules.
They go on:
- When there is a clear intent to mislead others through the unauthorized use of a trademark, Twitter will suspend the account and notify the account holder.
- When we determine that an account appears to be confusing users, but is not purposefully passing itself off as the trademarked good or service, we give the account holder an opportunity to clear up any potential confusion. We may also release a username for the trademark holder’s active use.
OK. So, what they did was the first thing.
There was no intent to mislead. Seriously, what else would you call a bot that did this? I can think of several alternatives, but in 2008, it seemed obvious.
Does it break the current terms of service? Perhaps.
What I’m really, really annoyed by is this: I have not been giving opportunity to clear up the potential confusion. I’ve just had the account suspended, the username taken, and, well, that’s it.
The account didn’t pretend to pass itself off as a trademark, or a registered company, or as anything related to the exhibition that runs within the edifice. If it passed itself of as anything, it was the structure itself. And everybody knows that really, bridges don’t talk, and certainly not that politely. There’s an interesting question – perhaps for a separate, less emotional post – about the relationship between the Instrumented City and the corporations that own the things that are Instrumented – but that’s not for now.
For now: I’m going to pursue this with Twitter, and at least resurrect the bot somewhere. When it comes back, it seems unlikely it’ll be at the original account name.
This site was down for about four days, from Saturday, owing to a server failure.
We’re now back in the world, after a hair-raising few days. Usual service now resumed.
It was History Hack Day this weekend. My friend Ben Griffiths scraped the Commonwealth War Graves Commission’s register to try to contextualise the death of his great-uncle in World War II.
Before you read on, please do read his story. It’s worth your time.
Ben’s hack is intelligent and, as ever, he explains it with precision and grace. But really, it wasn’t the hack I wanted to draw to your attention; it was the story he tells.
Like many hacks at such events, it begins with a data, scraped or ingested, and Ben’s plotted it over time, marking the categories his great-uncle is represented by.
But data over time isn’t a story; it’s just data over time. A graph; or, if you like, a plot. What makes it a story? A storyteller; someone to intervene, to show you what lies between the points, what hangs off that skeleton. Someone to write narrative – or, in Ben’s case, to relate history, both world and personal.
I’m left, after all this, thinking of just how young these bomber boys were. Looking at this data has been a much more moving exercise than I was expecting.
I found it very affecting, too, but not just because I was looking at the data: I was looking at it through the lens that Ben offered me in the story he told. When you consider it’s the story of one tragic loss amid 12,395 others, you pause, reflect, and try to perhaps comprehend that.
In the end, I couldn’t, entirely, but I tried – and because somebody told me just one story, about one individual, his plane, and his colleagues, I perhaps came closer to an understanding than I otherwise might have. And, because of that, I’m very grateful Ben shared that single story. I’d call that a very worthwhile hack.
I don’t think we’ll ever notice the age of cyborgs, because we do these things one at a time. We roll them out in small ways, and increment them across society. We quietly piece together a know-everything machine, make its connections invisible, then put it in a small box we built as a talk-to-anyone-machine, and carry it around with us. (The first and ultimate prosthetic of the species being community, and so our most powerful magics will always be incantations to one another.) We hand out drugs to everyone that make them more ready for capitalism as a warm, tasty beverage. While we talk about powersuits and armies of robots, we get into metal boxes next to explosion chambers and extend our proprioception to their edges. We do this so that we can then hurtle down ribbons of death we’ve built all around the landscape at speeds not naturally found very often this side of celestial interaction. We call this commuting and consider it one of the most boring things humans do.
I’ve already linked to it on delicious, but this Snarkmarket post demanded a decent quotation:
…you start to see cyborgs all around you. It’s not just people with, you know, gun-legs; it’s anybody who uses a cell phone or wears contact lenses. It’s anybody who brings a tool really close in order to augment some capability.
Aren’t there people who have brought media that close? Aren’t there people who manipulate it, in all its forms, as naturally as another person might make a phone call, or speak, or breathe?
When you think of someone like Kanye West or Lady Gaga, you can’t think only of their brains and bodies. Lady Gaga in a simple dress on a tiny stage in a no-name club in Des Moines is—simply put—not Lady Gaga. Kanye West in jeans at a Starbucks is not Kanye West.
…which is about as much as I can quote without reproducing the whole article. But there’s so much good stuff here. Media as force-multiplier and prosthesis. Media as true-geography. Media as identity. It’s really, really good, overlapping with so many of my own interests, making a convincing point.
Everyone’s doing it, so let’s get this out of the way.
Almost certainly top of the list: this topic has been bugging me for a long while now, and I’m slowly finding ways to express what I mean by it. In a nutshell:
The standard of literacy around/about games is pretty bad. By which I mean: the understanding of games as games. What does that cover? It covers the understanding of them not as “movies with choices” (although they may have a narrative or plot), but as things in their own right, built around systems and players, and the interactions thereof. This isn’t about raising the standard of capital-C Criticism, as seen in magazines and papers and countless blogs around the internet; it’s about making lower-case-c criticism more prevalent, better understood, and even possible.
Also: there’s something about Alan Kay’s explanation of literacy, namely, the ability to read and write in a medium. Read-literacy is better than ever when it comes to games; write-literacy is perhaps worse than ever. How do you go about solving that?
In a nutshell: what does literacy for a systemic medium look like, and how do you go about improving it or educating it? How can we claim to be literate when we still need to remind professional games developers that “Theme Is Not Meaning“?
(I cut a vast chunk of exposition and further analysis here, and I’ll put it together in another post shortly).
I talked a bit about Waldschattenspiel (video here) at Wonderlab, and it left me thinking a lot about asymmetric games and systems that, whilst asymmetric are, nevertheless, fair. To keep using games as an example, for now: games that offer the players different (though sometimes complementary) skill-sets, sometimes differing in capability, sometimes in power – and yet manage to be fair, well-balanced systems.
There’s something delightful in discovering the power in what initially felt like an inherently weak position. There’s something lovely about affording all the players different capabilities, that slowly turn out to be useful. It’s very easy to make a balanced system by simply mirroring capabilities – and it’s a very easy system to “read”. But I think the more satisfying ones are asymmetric, where series of rules interact with each other, and more delightful to be part of.
I’m trying to work out how that applies to systems that aren’t games.
I’m a self-confessed IF fan, even if I’m not as up-to-date as I was. When Peter asked me for a quick tour of the genre, I ended up playing a whole pile of adventures again and got sucked in. There’s so much invention and great writing buried in this genre, and it’s a real joy to find its gems. And, of course, it got me thinking about what I could do with the genre…
…which is why I now appear to be writing a text adventure. Or rather: before I can write the one I’d like to, I’m writing one about tidying my flat, purely as a learning exercise. It’s turning out to be surprisingly challenging but also great fun – in part because Inform 7 is a surreal joy to write. Here’s some sample code so far:
The bedroom window is north of the bedroom. It is scenery, a door and open.
Instead of examining the bedroom window:
if the bedroom window is open, say "The bedroom window is open. [first time] A gentle breeze wafts through the bedroom. [only] Through the glass, you can see [description of the neighbouring gardens]" in sentence case;
if the bedroom window is closed, say "The bedroom window is closed tight. Through the glass, you can see [description of the neighbouring gardens]" in sentence case.
Talking to Pat and Momus at Wonderlab last week, I hit briefly on the idea of a history of music through preset sounds: the default timbres built into electronic instruments, before they become edited or overwritten by musicians. This is mainly a product of the digital era, when preset memory became possible, but it has a nice: from original Mellotron tapes, through default disks with early samplers like the Fairlight or Synclavier, into the 80s and the FM synthesizers (and all those DX7 presets – the pianos, the basses), and then into the PCM era.
But, of course, there’s a separate history: one of the original sounds being sampled by musicians who couldn’t afford the real instrument; one of entire records being sampled, presets from one era burnt into the music of another; one of software and hardware being capable enough not to sample but actually model or emulate the instruments in question; and right up to the restoration and repair of old instruments – or the way circuit-bending takes old presets and makes them eternally new.
Mainly, though, I was thinking of a history of music seen through the TR-909 hi-hat – which is a sample, not analogue, a cymbal played in a studio somewhere in the world and reproduced across music for thirty years – or Fairlight Orchestra Hit 5, echoing across music and soundtracks for generations.
This year, I completed my New Year’s Resolution for 2006 (and, frankly, 2009-present) by passing my driving test. I now own a small car and have become a driver.
And it’s really reshaped the way I see the world. The country is now a different shape, for starters: it used to be pinched around train stations, between which I could travel quickly, but then was reliant on cabs and lifts and walking. All of a sudden, places that were surprisingly tricky to get to are now trivial. And also: places that were quick to get to can now be slow, should I choose. (Thanks, Old Kent Road).
My requirements for the road system are now different: I now care more about the A-roads I might have to take than when really, the only roads I needed fixed were in Southwark, making my bus rides bumpy. My requirements of the economy are different: I don’t feel great owning a petrol-powered car in 2010, especially as I watch two oil spills on opposite sides of the world, but I recognise the convenience I’m buying at a cost. I love trains (when they’re on time), because I like the views, and I work surprisingly well on them. I can’t work in the car, but I gain agency and a strange kind of relaxation.
And, of course, the systems return. It took driving alone to understand it: driving isn’t an action you perform, it’s a system you join. Traffic is lots of people driving all at once, and as long as they all roughly conform, not much bad happens. Driving’s frightening at first, because it feels like everything is on you: you have to be perfect all the time. But in fact: everyone else is juggling that responsibility as well, and we all make up for other deficiencies, and a system slowly emerges. The point of the driving test is not to assess perfection: it’s to assess if you’re good enough to be part of the system. And then the system takes over, and you fit in with everybody else.
As Jeff Noon pointed out in Pollen, the cars are the map. It took learning to drive, and doing it, to realise what that really meant.
And that’s my list, I think. A bit long, but definitely what’s on my brain right now, and a rough glance at what thinking about it feels like to me.
(Yes, there are no comments on this post. Feel free to email me, or link to this, or talk about it in your own space. These are very unformed thoughts that require further thought. I’m interested in discussion, but as a furthering exercise, not footnotes)