Dust Gets in Your Eyes

Watched Stardust tonight. It’s a charming movie. I haven’t read the novel, but I’ll make a point of seeking it out; I’m a Neil Gaiman fan already, so I was pretty sure the movie would be good. Aside from one really annoying plot complication near the end — the old Romeo & Juliet message-that-goes-astray trick — the story was amusing and effective.

Earlier in the evening, I spent an hour and a half playing Blue Lacuna, a new interactive fiction by Aaron Reed. It’s far above average — a fine piece of IF. Strong writing, a vivid sense of place and mystery, and an innovative user interface.

In 90 minutes with Blue Lacuna, the story went precisely nowhere. I met one old man who’s charmingly loony and quite talkative, but he’s doing nothing, just hanging around on the beach. The big action-filled moment was when I got Read more


Inform 7: Not Just Kid Stuff

My first three-month adventure teaching interactive fiction to kids has come to an end, and a new class is scheduled to start next week. It’s tricky to generalize on the basis of one group of eight students; maybe these kids (ages 11-14) are unusually intelligent or motivated. But my impressions so far are completely positive. And I think maybe I understand why they enjoyed the process.

With interactive fiction (IF), it’s not just the end product — the text-based computer game — that’s interactive. The process of game development is also extremely interactive. That may be the key ingredient. If you’re, say, 12 years old, writing a conventional story may very easily look like drudgery. You may have some neat ideas. You may write a few paragraphs, or even a few pages. But then the stuff you’ve written will just lie there, on the paper or on the screen, staring at you. It’s static. It doesn’t come alive.

When writing IF, you can create a few rooms and a few objects and then take your work for a test drive. You can walk around in the little world you’ve imagined and experience it as a participant. The computer responds to you, Read more

Same As It Ever Was

This post will probably end up embarrassing me somewhere down the road, but right now I feel a need to get it off my chest.

When I was in my 30s and craving a close relationship, I did some poking around among the Singles ads. In those days they were print ads. In the South Bay you could join a big club called Trellis, put ads in their newsletter, and respond to others’ ads. You responded by mail, including an actual snapshot in the envelope. Last year when I moved, I found a few stacks of snapshots that never got sent out.

I did actually get in a relationship once through a singles ad — it didn’t last very long — but eventually I gave up the whole idea. The cross-section of humanity that I was encountering in the ads (and occasionally over coffee) was just too darn discouraging. Hundreds and hundreds of ads, almost none of them placed by women with whom I could sense even a slim thread of common interests. This may have been when I first realized I was living on the wrong planet. The cliches (“warm-hearted,” “sense of humor,” “tired of playing games,” Read more

Brave New World

This morning’s email served up a surprise announcement from Gino Robair that he has been laid off as editor of Electronic Musician. “Due to a corporate restructuring,” he says, “my position was eliminated.”

Let’s see, now … the corporation publishes magazines. And they restructure a magazine so that it has no editor. This makes sense how, exactly?

Keyboard did exactly the same thing a couple of months ago. Laid off Ernie Rideout, leaving the magazine without an editor. For now, Steve Fortner is functioning as Keyboard’s editor, though without the title, the pay raise, or the staff he would need to do the job.

Last year Virtual Instruments had to close its doors. My most recent word from Markkus Rovito at Remix (which is owned by the same company as Electronic Musician) was that he would be able to pay only a small fraction of his former rates for articles, because Remix has gone online-only. And of course Kylee Swenson had already been laid off as editor at Remix. Gossip (totally unconfirmed) is that while Craig Anderton continues at EQ, his pay has been cut rather drastically.

This is all very discouraging if you’re in the music magazine business, but ultimately it’s musicians who suffer.

Three factors have combined to bring us to the present state of affairs: a worldwide economic depression, corporate stupidity, and the Internet.

The Internet nibbles away at magazines from both sides. On the editorial side, readers can get huge slabs of information for free, so why pay for a subscription? Plus, the Internet is blazingly current; a print magazine is always six weeks behind the times. On the advertising side, manufacturers all have websites now, so they have less need to buy print ads to tout the virtues of their products. It’s a deadly combination.

Corporate stupidity is a separate topic. I’ll save it for another time. Let’s just observe that a dinosaur can run downhill at a pretty good clip and still look like it’s in control — but when it has to change course due to a fallen log in the path, expect to hear a loud crash.

Here’s a perspective from an industry insider. I won’t reveal this person’s name, but it’s someone who has looked at the numbers. Magazines are paid for by advertising, and that has become a big problem: “The advertising-supported business model will not be able to sustain print magazines much longer,” says my source. “With ad revenues at an all-time low and magazines being distributed for free to ‘subscribers’  (not to mention the newsstand problems of printing copies and throwing away 80% of them), magazines do not generate nearly enough revenue to cover the costs of being produced, printed, and distributed.  Subscriptions and advertising rates have been discounted way too much over the years, and too many copies are given away for free — all to sustain rate bases that advertisers have insisted on but never wanted to pay for.”

Musicians still need good solid information about all sorts of things — technology, career-building, musicianship, current events, other artists to keep an eye on. The trouble with getting your info off the Web is that it’s unmoderated. You’ll be subjected to all sorts of bias and blather, and weeding through it will become an endless time-sink.

That’s what magazine editors are for: to sort out the bias and blather. In recent years (since the late 1980s or thereabouts) bias has started to creep and ooze into the magazines’ editorial pages, due to unremitting pressure from advertisers and corporate cowardice in resisting that pressure. So I’m talking the theory of magazine editors here, not necessarily the reality in all cases. (If you’re an editor, past or present, please try not to be offended by that observation. I can back it up with facts.)

All the same, editors perform a valuable social function: They figure out what’s important, they fact-check information to make sure it’s reliable, and they package the results in a way that’s easy and convenient for readers to absorb.

Maybe I ought to start a music magazine. The idea has crossed my mind a few times. I can think of a few talented people I’d hire, and I’m pretty sure they’re all looking for work.

What does anybody think? If you were starting, not a print publication but a timely magazine-like information source that employed editors to prepare the content, what would you include? What would you leave out? Tell me a story.

Space Is the Place

Saturday night. Decided to pig out. Watched three sci-fi movies streamed from Netflix — two Stargates and then Serenity for dessert.

I’m using the pejorative term “sci-fi” advisedly. I’m not sure any of this qualifies as actual science fiction. Okay, I’ll admit Stargate: Continuum had a time travel element that wasn’t handled too badly. But mostly it was just silly stuff. The good guys getting beaten to a pulp by the bad guys, but somehow coming out on top in the end. The far-flung interstellar societies in these movies make not a lick of sense, the armaments and combat are preposterous, and you could drive trucks through the holes in the logic of the plots.

But that doesn’t matter. Film has the power to make us believe it’s all true. We can see it, hear it, practically taste it.

In Serenity, no explanation is ever offered for River’s ability to defeat dozens of well-armed bloodthirsty maniacs, all by herself, in hand-to-hand combat. (River is a slim 17-year-old girl.) The main reason that sequence was in the movie was because Joss Whedon needed an excuse for Buffy-style kung fu combat scenes.

As we near the climax of Stargate: Ark of Truth, all seems lost. Earth is surrounded by hostile spaceships, and we lack the armament to defend ourselves. So the good guys open a sort of stone sepulchre, which they’ve been at some pains to recover, having been spurred on by … well, by a vision of Merlin, actually. A beam of intense white light emerges from the sepulchre, and suddenly the enemy ships lose all interest in attacking Earth.

I could go on, but why bother? You can see what I mean. It’s complete, utter nonsense, most of it — and the typical viewer (a category in which I would cheerfully include myself) doesn’t care. If they release another Stargate movie or another Firefly movie, I’ll watch them.

Film has power.


Newspapers across the country are in big trouble. And let’s face it, a democracy needs reliable sources of news. Which means newspapers and news magazines. Bloggers are bullshit. Television is hyperactive fluff.

Not that anybody is paying the slightest attention to me, but I can tell you how to fix your major metropolitan newspaper.

First — don’t publish daily. Today there are better sources of instantaneous news. Publish two or three times a week; Sunday and Thursday would be ideal. Take a little extra time and get the story right. Publish longer stories. Add depth.

Second — get rid of the crap. No comics, no horoscopes. Just give us news, analysis, and commentary. The crap sold papers sixty years ago, but people today already have way too many sources for free crap. Reviews of local plays and concerts, sure. We need that information. Reviews of TV shows? I’m not so sure.

Third — cheap sensationalism is not news! Don’t report on gory crimes at all. Instead, give us news that actually affects our lives. Tell us more about what the legislature is up to. Tell us about the environment we live in.

Fourth — don’t print wire service stories verbatim. Intersperse every wire service dispatch with intelligent analysis by local writers.

Fifth — and this may be the most controversial suggestion of all — hire delivery people who can get the damn paper up on the porch, not leave it lying in the gutter in the rain. Is that too much to ask?

The Meat Grinder

Conservative commentators (not that I listen to them, but their blather is hard to avoid) have been accusing Obama of rushing the U.S. down the road to socialism.

Would that be such a bad thing? Why, exactly?

Conservatives view the hallowed Free Market with a toxic and inflammatory religious zeal. This mantra goes back a long way, but it got a big push in the 1980s thanks to Ronald Reagan. The Free Market, we were repeatedly told, would solve all our problems.

Has it done so? Not that I’ve noticed.

But of course the conservative knuckle-draggers can come up with villains to blame for our current crop of woes, and we could parse recent economic history until the cows come home (assuming there are any cows left — not a safe assumption). So let’s look at the theory instead.

I’m not an economist, I’m just a reasonably smart person who sometimes pays attention and thinks about stuff.

The way it looks to me, the free market requires two bedrock conditions in order to operate effectively and produce the kind of beneficial results that we’d all like to see. When these conditions are present, the free market works a treat. When they’re not — watch out.

First condition: Buyers and sellers have to be in a many-to-many relationship. If I don’t like the widgets you’re selling, I have to be able to Read more

Poet Lariat

The time is drawing nigh when the city of Livermore will select a new poet laureate.

Livermore is not known as a literary hotbed, and there’s no reason why it ought to be; if there are any world-class writers living here, they’re keeping a low profile.

Our chief claims to fame are the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (where they design atomic warheads and other such amusements), the plethora of local wineries, and our yearly rodeo, which is a genuine relic of the Old West and a big deal in civic circles, complete with a parade down First Street. Oh, and Max Baer, the “Livermore Larupper,” who was a heavyweight boxing champion in the 1930s. So the selection of our next poet laureate, as Phil Ochs put it, “really wouldn’t interest anybody outside of a small circle of friends.”

Nonetheless, the person who is selected will have some influence on civic affairs. The Livermore City Council, whose members know no more about art than you would expect Read more

Always an Adventure

It must have been about 1979 when Jon Sievert (who belonged to a Kaypro users’ group, where floppy disks were passed around like candy — there was no such thing as copy-protection in those days) handed me a disk and said, “Check this out.”

On the disk was a copy of Adventure, the very first computer game. They say you always remember your first time….

I don’t know that I ever finished playing the game. It was mystifying, and difficult. I’m not sure I even figured out how to catch the bird, though Jon may have told me. Even so, I was captivated. The idea of exploring an entire underground world Read more

Loading In, Loading Out

Thinking vaguely (and not for the first time) about doing some gigs as a solo cellist. I have a couple of hours of very nice backing tracks, which I recorded into my computer. All finished, mixed, and ready to go. Doing two sets would be easy.

Not easy: cartage. I’ve had a minor but persistent backache for the past three days. Looking at the amp I use for my electric cello, I’m thinking, “There is no friggin’ way I could lift that thing in and out of the trunk of my car.” I’ve done it many times, but this week I wouldn’t even attempt it. I know better.

This whole thing about being 60 — it sucks. And I’m ridiculously healthy compared to a lot of people my age. I work out. I look around 24 Hour Fitness and I’m generally the oldest guy in the gym. But then I get a backache from sitting too long in my easy chair.

I need acolytes. Minions. Roadies. Servants. I suppose I could dragoon one of my high-school-age cello students into helping me load in for a gig. That would work once. But not as a regular thing.

Last year I looked into buying a car with a lower rear cargo compartment. Forget it — they don’t exist. And you don’t even want to know how much a van with an electric lift costs.

If I book a gig, I have to know I’ll be able to show up and do it. A backache is not a reason to cancel a gig.