Inform: Not Ready for Prime Time

I’ve tried. Honestly, I have. My latest project is 95% finished, almost ready for testing. I’ve been at it for several months.

And I’m not a dunce. I’ve completed and released three or four other text-based games, written in Inform 6 and TADS 3. I’m not a computer science whiz, but I’m a halfway decent hobbyist programmer.

Inform 7 has defeated me.

I was sailing along, and things seemed to be going well. But then I hit a snag. So I posted messages on the newsgroup ( asking for help with the snag. The suggestions, posted mainly by Inform 7 guru Emily Short, make no sense to me. Read more

A Penny Saved

I’ve hit a really annoying pothole in my 95%-finished game. This is my first try at using the Inform 7 programming language. If you’ve just joined the party, Inform 7 is a radical new design tool for writing text-based games, also known as interactive fiction (“IF” for short).

Not to bore you with all the gory details, but in my game the player can find three pennies. The three pennies have to be given to a shopkeeper in exchange for another object. The command I want players to be able to use is ‘give pennies to shopkeeper’. But by default, I7 does not allow multiple objects to be used with the ‘give’ action.

The resident I7 guru on the interactive fiction newsgroup, Emily Short, is going above and beyond the call of duty trying to help me get it running — but after literally hours of trying different things, I’m still tearing my hair out.

It would be easy to throw up my hands and say, “Inform 7 sucks!” (I’ve said that several times in the past three days, believe me.) But the reality is more complex, Read more

Shake It Up

I grabbed Neal Stephenson’s fat new novel, Anathem, off of the hot-items one-week-loan table at the local public library. I guess I’m just not in tune with modern SF. I waded through about 50 pages and found it extremely dull.

There were several problems, in my view. The story was packed with unexplained made-up words, which made the reading process anything but smooth. There were long descriptions of architecture, which is not exciting to begin with and didn’t really give me a very clear visual picture either. I couldn’t make out whether the story was set in an alternate universe or our own future. The social structure and historical matrix in which the lead character lives struck me as highly unlikely.

But worst of all, there was no drama, no action, no high-profile story problem to kick the book into gear: It seemed to be just muddling along at about 5 mph.

Literature can muddle along at 5 mph for a while, because (one hopes) the writing itself is engaging enough to hold our interest. Plotted fiction requires a kick-start.

Years ago, some people in San Jose had a contest for a bad lead sentence for a story. (It may still be running. It was the Bulwer-Lytton Contest, if memory serves.) I submitted one, but didn’t win. My sentence probably wasn’t bad enough. What I did was satirize the idea that an action story needs a hook.

Here, for your amusement (?), is a very bad opening sentence for a nonexistent science fiction story:

Naked and bleeding, young Jorn crouched on the rocky ridge with the first stiff sleet of winter whipping across his unprotected shoulders and watched in mounting horror as the Xinthi raiders herded the weeping women and wailing children of his peaceful tribe into their squat, black, heavily armored space cruisers.

This is awful not only because it packs far too much into one sentence but because the whole plot is laid out before us. We know exactly what’s going to happen in the story: Young Jorn is going to conquer the Xinthi raiders (somehow) and rescue the women and children. It can’t happen any other way.

I wish Stephenson had given us at least a taste of young Jorn and the Xinthi raiders. Somewhere between those two extremes lies storytelling.

Automatic Pilot

I’ve been re-reading a couple of books by neurologist Oliver Sacks — The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat and An Anthropologist on Mars. What I get out of Sacks is an appreciation of the stunning complexity (and fragility) of the human brain.

Our brains are constantly doing tons of extremely sophisticated data processing, all without our having the slightest awareness of it. Things that seem perfectly transparent to us — looking at a coin and seeing that it’s round, for instance — are not to be taken for granted. Read more

Cello Lessons

I’ve been posting an ad for my cello teaching business on the local craigslist. Another fellow, Peter Metcalf, is also advertising cello lessons. He may be a wonderful teacher and a fine musician; I’ve never met him or watched him teach. But his ad leaves me a little uneasy. Since craigslist is not really the place for a critique or a dialog, I figured I’d comment on his ad here. All of the quotes below are verbatim.

Here’s how his ad starts: “For the professional, child, adult, or…musical newborn!” Personally, I’m not charmed by the image of the musical newborn — it makes me think of spitting up, drooling, diapers, and a total inability to understand simple verbal instructions. But perhaps that’s just me. On the other hand, that may be the sort of student Metcalf is angling for. The most likely explanation is that he’s trying to say, “No prior training is necessary,” and is just doing a really clumsy job of it.

“I provide for my students the tools for realizing swift musical growth.” All good teachers do that. But in my experience, the swiftness with which a student progresses depends primarily on how much time the student spends practicing and on their innate talent. Read more

Inform vs. TADS

After writing several text-based games in TADS 3, I decided to try Inform 7. As I roll into the final stages of writing an I7 game, it’s time for me to evaluate the experience. If I should happen to write another game (likely, but maybe not for a few months…), which system will I use?

I7 is being used by a lot of people (comparatively speaking), and I wanted to understand why they like it. I’ve been thinking about teaching a class of kids to write interactive stories, and the easy, friendly appearance of I7 makes it an obvious choice. Plus, I just like learning to use new software toys.

Several people who know more than I do have weighed in on the I7-vs-T3 debate. Read more

Steady As She Goes

The shrinking of the global economy has a lot of people feeling gloomy. Today we learned that auto sales are down worldwide by 20%.

But you know what? That’s not bad news; that’s good news. Automobiles are a dreadful waste of natural resources. They foul our air with particulates, they spew out greenhouse gases, they use up metals, they’re manufactured with all sorts of toxic plastics — hell, we should be going for an 80% reduction!

Thirty years ago, my father was a fan of public transit. After he retired, he used to ride BART, the Bay Area Rapid Transit trains, from Livermore into San Francisco — not just because he loved San Francisco but to make a point that you didn’t need a car to get there. Public transit was healthy for everybody, more convenient in that you didn’t have to find a parking place when you got there, and profoundly egalitarian at the same time.

He also introduced me to the little-discussed idea of the steady-state economy. Read more

Dead Zone

I’d love to find some good local musicians to play with. Unfortunately, the Livermore/Pleasanton area seems to be pretty much a dead zone musically. The most dynamic venue in the valley seems to be … Borders, the bookstore-with-a-coffee-house chain.

Googling for “music livermore” or “music pleasanton” turns up an assortment of retail stores, teachers, and an occasional wedding band, but not much else.

Livermore Downtown (a civic organization) hosts “Music On The Green” on Tuesdays in warm weather. This is a 3-hour outdoor gig, complete with traffic noise. Read more

Pop Culcha

Just finished reading the new Michael Connelly, The Brass Verdict. It’s as good as his other books. The guy is amazing — he doesn’t miss a trick. The surprises at the end were maybe a little over the top, but he does keep you turning the pages.

On NPR this week I heard Terri Gross interviewing some film critic or other about his Ten Best list for 2008. And I couldn’t remember the last time I went to the movies. All these great films have come and gone, and I missed every single one.

I have nobody to go to the movies with, that’s what it boils down to. But I don’t insist on the Big Screen Experience. Maybe it’s time for NetFlix. Pop a DVD in the MacBook Pro. If I can spare an evening to read Connelly, surely I can spare a couple of hours to watch The Dark Knight. The imagination needs its food.

I tried reading some literature this year — Vanity Fair, if you want to know the truth (Thackeray, not the magazine). It was utterly charming, up to a point, but about the time the main characters all set off in a jolly cavalcade to fight Napoleon, I got bored and dropped it.

Then, at a Solstice party this week, some people were talking about Nietsche, so I borrowed a fat book of his writings. I dipped into Beyond Good & Evil, which my friends assured me sets forth Nietsche’s philosophy most cogently. I found it utterly impenetrable … but perhaps worse, there was not a crumb of illumination that made me feel the effort required to follow the thread of his rambling discourse would be repaid in any coin I care to hoard, or spend. (This metaphor has been intentionally run through a Cuisinart.)

Yeah, NetFlix is sounding better all the time.

The Key

I haven’t been writing much about music technology for the past few months. The magazines are getting skinny, so I haven’t had many calls — but also, I’m feeling pretty bored with the whole subject. Another sequencer? Another workstation keyboard? Another synth plug-in? Been there, done that.

Plus, I no longer have a sense of mission in writing about technology. There was a time, not so many years ago, when helping musicians understand technological developments was an important job. Having the right gear and knowing how to use it were vital to your career. Today, though, there’s so much great gear, and so many musicians who are reasonably current on how to use it, Read more