• "That is how the internet first appeared to me: as shared experience of make believe and dreams. And while much has changed in the decade since: that slipperiness, those mutable boundaries, the capacity for experimentation and imagination still is here. The internet is made of dreams."

Nostalgia for the MUD

21 April 2013

In a Belgrade bar, over a dark lager, Joanne interviewed me for Nostalgia for the Net – the oral history of people’s first encounters with the Internet that she and Melissa Gira Grant maintain.

My interview is now online. In it, I talk about my first online encounters before the Internet proper – over Wireplay, BT’s dial-up gaming service that simulated IPX networking for DOS games of the mid-nineties. And, more specifically, my time in MUD2, their recreation of the Essex MUD.

It’s a story I’ve told before, but I don’t think in public, so I don’t feel bad about repeating myself. You might enjoy it.

I have fond memories of the time I spent in the MUD. Reading old transcripts, I see player names I haven’t seen for years but have vivid memories of – as vivid as you can get, when you only have text to go on. The graphics were years ahead of their time, so to speak. It was a small community, but a tight one, and very friendly. It didn’t have the feature of MOOs, but still rewarded creativity in your interactions and encounters. And there was something about it – in the Land, in the writing, in the world, in the interactions – that felt very… British. Our own little corner of the net.

A small community still exists, playing in a Land I can map almost from memory (though I’ve forgotten the route through the mines to the Dwarven realm now).

Happy memories. Nice to share them over a beer.

Machines showing us mind; entertainment derived from the machine showing us non-mind

12 January 2012

Adam Gopnik’s “How The Internet Gets Inside Us“, in last year’s New Yorker, is a remarkable read. This leapt out:

…at any given moment, our most complicated machine will be taken as a model of human intelligence, and whatever media kids favor will be identified as the cause of our stupidity. When there were automatic looms, the mind was like an automatic loom; and, since young people in the loom period liked novels, it was the cheap novel that was degrading our minds. When there were telephone exchanges, the mind was like a telephone exchange, and, in the same period, since the nickelodeon reigned, moving pictures were making us dumb. When mainframe computers arrived and television was what kids liked, the mind was like a mainframe and television was the engine of our idiocy. Some machine is always showing us Mind; some entertainment derived from the machine is always showing us Non-Mind.

…but really, the whole thing is half an hour well spent.

  • "His base is too good, and I don’t have the choke. He proceeds to take a more dominant position, scores points, and my body is burning from the effort. The choke he applies toward the end of the match is almost a formality, since I’m far too tired to do much more than hang on. Second place. Second place because I’m learning the triangle choke, not learning Jiu Jitsu. Chipp never wins tournaments." A fantastic piece of writing, about beat-em-ups and combat sports, and the mindset you get into as you play both. I'm not a combat sports man, but it nails some of the inside of your brain when you've played a lot of beat-em-ups, for sure.
  • "But to my eye, GIF is the most popular animation and short film format that's ever existed. It works on smartphones in millions of people's pockets, on giant displays in museums, in web browsers on a newspaper website. It finds liberation in constraints, in the same way that fewer characters in our tweets and texts freed us to communicate more liberally with one another. And it invites participation, in a medium that's both fun and accessible, as the pop music of moving images, giving us animations that are totally disposable and completely timeless."
  • "My wife and I talk about this. We talk about the protocol of the fertility clinic. We talk about her support group, and failure to produce. We talk about adoption, which is expensive and ambiguous. We talk about giving up on the process and living our lives without the ghosts of unconceived children (the most adorable ghosts there are). We talk, and talk, and wait." Powerful, sad, brave writing from Paul Ford. Sometimes, you wish things were nice for the good people in the world.
  • "I needed to get up to speed with doing recursive node structures so I coded up a project that would put a dot on the screen. When you tapped this dot, it would create a bunch of orbiting child-dots. These children could also be tapped, creating even more child nodes. This prototype took less than a day to create and I naively thought we would be done with the whole thing in a week, max. Silly me."

    Marvellous, dense post from Robert on designing Planetary: lots of show-everything, material exploration, and plussing. What detail looks like.

  • "Years later, when recounting his conversations with Beckett (which he did often), André the Giant revealed that they rarely talked about anything besides cricket."
  • "In this scenario one sunny day you're working on low-level NoSQL projects at the Gootch or wherever, and you get an email from Facebook and you go for the interview and Zuckerberg is talking about scaling PHP and suddenly pauses, gets this look in his eye, pulls his hoodie over his head and says “You have sixty seconds. You should be running.” Because engineers, as we are often reminded, are the ultimate prey."
  • "A problem with the human mind – your human mind – is that it's a horrific kludge that will fail when you most need it not to. The Ugh Field failure mode is one of those really annoying failures. The idea is simple: if a person receives constant negative conditioning via unhappy thoughts whenever their mind goes into a certain zone of thought, they will begin to develop a psychological flinch mechanism around the thought. The "Unhappy Thing" – the source of negative thoughts – is typically some part of your model of the world that relates to bad things being likely to happen to you."
  • "Designers get handed a tool kit that has as many tools as a good swiss army knife, and the maps reflect these tools. Millions of people use them to make appointments across town, find restaurants, and drive home for the holidays.

    But what if, instead of a swiss army knife, we used a box of crayons? Or charcoal and newsprint? Or play-doh? What would those maps look like? What could they tell us about the world?"

  • "One thing that I learned during the launch of the original Macintosh in 1984 was that the press usually oversimplifies everything, and it can't deal with the reality that there are many people playing critical roles on significant projects. A few people always get too much credit, while most people get too little, that's just the way it has always worked. But luckily, it's 2011 and I can use the service that I helped to create to clarify things." This is Good And Proper. (Also it's good management).
  • How ads used to be made. Some beautiful photographs here.
  • Useful notes on the modern way of deploying Rails applications with Bundler and Capistrano.
  • '"The expectation is slightly weird here, that you can do this stuff without killing yourself," added McNamara. "Well, you can't, whether it's in London or New York or wherever; you're competing against the best people in the world at what they do, and you just have to be prepared to do what you have to do to compete against those people."'

    This is what McNamara considers responding to controversy. I'm furious that men like this are allowed to manage other human beings.

  • "This is an atlas, then, made by that other nature, seen through other eyes. But those eyes have been following me, unseen and without permission, and thus I consider provoking breach a necessary act." This is good.
  • "csvkit is a library of utilities for working with CSV, the king of tabular file formats." Ooh.
  • "Synapse is an app for Mac and Windows that allows you to easily use your Kinect to control Ableton Live, Quartz Composer, Max/MSP, and any other application that can receive OSC events. It sends joint positions and hit events via OSC, and also sends the depth image into Quartz Composer. In a way, this allows you to use your whole body as an instrument." Oooh. OSC into anything; really nice, dead simple, and exactly the sort of thing I've been considering poking.
  • "Twenty-one years later, an anonymous software engineer pulled together various digital artifacts to create a multiplayer game for his son.

    Tonight, while playing that game, I ran into my 15-year-old self."

    What magic smells like.

  • "The value of the web is in its history. The value of the web is that it grows over time and that it spiders out making connections, just as often doubling back on itself to find previously unseen patterns and connections. It is not a linear progression through time and space always discarding the near past. Or if it is then I'm sorry for wasting everyone's time because that sounds about as exciting, and about as valuable, as any given season of canned television programming."
  • "That is the point that I am trying to make. The web is not, despite the desires of so many, a publishing medium. The web is a customer service medium. “Intense moderation” in a customer service medium is what “editing” was for publishing." Paul Ford is great.
  • "I have worked for an hour to create this sight, shedding the mistakes of my previous drafts as I go. But each ill-fated Meat Boy, each mistimed jump and buzz-saw victim, deserves to be here in the replay with me. Without each of them, my successful run would not exist. By collapsing my attempts into one moment, Super Meat Boy depicts not time wasted on failed runs, but experience gained as I slowly perfected my craft." Like I said, one of my games of the year, and this deftly explains why.