A Sense of Place

I found this vitriolic rant by James Howard Kunstler about American urban planning, the automobile slum, and pathological environments extraordinarily captivating. I strongly encourage you to watch the entire thing – it’s 20 minutes long, and gripping – but if you’re short on time, here are some choice excerpts that really don’t do justice to the man’s intense and savage humor:

The public realm has to inform us not only where we are geographically, but it has to inform us where we are in our culture – where we’ve come from, what kind of people we are. And by doing that it needs to afford us a glimpse of where we’re going in order to allow us to dwell in a hopeful present. And if there is one great catastrophe about the places that we’ve built, the human environments we’ve made for ourselves in the last 50 years, it’s that they’ve deprived us of the ability to live in a hopeful present.


One of the problems with the fiasco of suburbia is that it destroyed our understanding of the distinction between the country and the town, between the urban and the rural. They’re not the same thing, and we’re not going to cure the problems of the urban by dragging the country into the city, which is what a lot of us are trying to do all the time. […] A lot of this comes from the fact that the industrial city in America was a such a trauma that we developed this tremendous aversion to the whole idea of the city, city life, and everything connected with it. And so what you see fairly early in the mid-19th centuy is this idea that we now have to have an antidote for the industrial city, which is life in the country for everybody. […] But what happens is of course, it mutates over the next 80 years, and it turns into something rather insidious. It becomes a cartoon of a country house in a cartoon of the country. And that is the great non-articulated agony of suburbia, and one of the reasons it lends itself to ridicule. Because it hasn’t delivered what it’s been promising for half a century now.

And finally…

We are entering an epochal period of change in the world, and especially in America, a period that will be characterized as the end of the cheap oil era. […] We’re gonna have to downscale, rescale, and resize virtually everything we do in this country, and we can’t start soon enough to do it. We’re gonna have to live closer to where we work, we’re gonna have to live closer to each other, we’re gonna have to grow more food closer to where we live. The age of the 3000-mile Caesar salad is coming to an end. We have a railroad system that the Bulgarians would be ashamed of. We gotta do better than that, and we should’ve started two days before yesterday.

Seriously, give it a watch. You won’t be disappointed.

Small Game: The House (draft)

This is a prototype for a role-playing game in which the players explore one another’s memories. It was conceived and created in a single afternoon, and has not yet been playtested. It’s inspired by the novel House of Leaves by Mark Danielewski, by the novel Passage by Connie Willis, by my hypertext fiction work The Museum and by my understanding of how my own memory operates. It’s called The House.


Come Inside

The House has a thousand rooms, a million, a hundred million. We came here together, brave explorers all, but we walk alone through its shadowed corridors and dusty galleries. Each room is unique, and upon examination reveals certain artefacts, real and tangible things with a story to tell. I could spend days in a single room, exploring the facets of even a single object’s tale, but this is the tragedy of the House: sooner or later I must move on, must go to the next room and leave what I have seen behind.

What the objects describe is sometimes only a moment, a poetic glimpse of the fading sun above arctic ice or a woman clutching her child’s hand and screaming in rage – at whom, I cannot guess. Other things tell fuller tales, stories with beginnings and middles and ends; or else whisper only a single word. But all of them, each and every thing that I have found in the House, has something to show me; and, if I never leave, I will not have time enough to hear them all.

Some of us came here in search of something they had lost. Others are treasure-hunters, collecting what others have discarded and returning these to the light. My purpose is not so clear, but I think I’m trying to understand what the House is and what it’s trying to teach me. I have the feeling that each closed door will open upon some great revelation; and instead there is another room, another object, another story, and another door.

Exploring the House

The House is a game for three to five players. In a single sitting, you take turns opening a door in the House and exploring the room that lies beyond it. The other players describe the room and the objects within it, as described below. You may take one of the objects, triggering a story from the player who created it; or you may approach the next door, in which case the next player takes a turn. When you have taken three objects, the stories you have collected become too heavy to carry onward, and you must either drop one or decide to remain in the room until the end of time.

Inside a Room

When you open a door, the player to your left must describe it. Many rooms in the House are mouldering, abandoned, cobwebbed and attic-like. But some may bear the traces of recent exploration: footprints in the dust, a window admitting fresh air and birdsong, food wrappers and soda cans littering the corners. Others may bear traces of the purpose for which they were once intended. Perhaps a battered bedframe and stained pillows suggest an erstwhile bedroom, or a chipped marble circular staircase vanishing into the shadows of a high dome recalls the beautiful masques of ages past. Perhaps the door leads to a room that another player previously passed through – did they leave anything behind? What does this player notice that the other may have missed? The House is yours to build, so spend time on the details, investing in the reality of the place.

Heavy Things

Every room has something in it, and every artefact has something to tell you. It’s up to you whether you stop to listen or keep walking; and be wary, for what you hear you must carry with you, and when you leave something behind you will never have it again.

After you’ve entered a room, the player(s) to your right must describe at least one object that you find within. These may be incongruous with the description of the room itself – perhaps that’s why you’ve noticed them – or they may relate to their surroundings like a knife hidden in a dessicated bouquet.

It’s your choice which object, if any, you will pick up to carry with you. When you take an object, the player who invented it tells you its story. This may be a poem, a song, a moment or a tale; but if you’re already carrying anything else, it must connect in some way to the stories another objects you have.


After picking up an object, you may leave another object behind. If you do this, you may never pick it up again – some other player may discover it, but it is lost to you forever. If you pick up a third object and drop nothing, you have decided to remain in this room forever, immersed in the story you have found; and this sitting of the game comes to an end for everyone.

Programming lolcats

For those unfamiliar with the curious Internet phenomenon of lolcats, I encourage you to read Anil Dash’s deliciously sardonic introduction to the concept.

Now that you’ve got the basics down, brace yourself and prepare to meet the dorkiest techno-cultural fusion this side of cosplay. That’s right: lolcats can has programming language!

Greg Costik gives a quick rundown here, but you can get some idea of what’s going on by reading example source code:

  BTW this is true
  BTW this is false

So, it’s one part BASIC, one part kitty slang, and 100% genuine Internet culture mutant. I look forward to object-oriented and AJAX-enabled variants: “CAN I HAS WEBMETHODZ?”

Shaping the Future

A fascinating glimpse over on Charlie’s Diary of how new technologies will change the lives of our descendants more profoundly than advances like the Internet changed ours. Choice excerpts, with pithy commentary, follow.

You know something? Keeping track of those quaint old laws about personal privacy is going to be really important. Because in countries with no explicit right to privacy — I believe the US constitution is mostly silent on the subject — we’re going to end up blurring the boundary between our Second Lives and the first life, the one we live from moment to moment. We’re time-binding animals and nothing binds time tighter than a cradle to grave recording of our every moment.

The thrust of Charlie’s essay is that the quaint old notion of privacy will face its gravest challenge not by totalitarian governments and corporations, but by a slow, inevitable cultural shift that is taking place. What child living in MySpace America truly believes that their lives are wholly their own, or ought not be shared in all their gory details?

As a side note, the phrase “binding time” is very expressive. I would even go so far as to call it “clinging desperately to time as it slips through our fingers”.

Total history — a term I’d like to coin, by analogy to total war — is something we haven’t experienced yet. I’m really not sure what its implications are, but then, I’m one of the odd primitive shadows just visible at one edge of the archive

Oddly, although few of us anticipate “total history” to the degree that Charlie implies, I would venture that many of the Baby Boomers’ children have the sense that we are shadows on the edge of some great change. Maybe it comes of having lived through the great transformations wrought by the advent of the Internet, of seeing a vast cultural shift pull the rug out from under our parents’ worldviews. We don’t know what’s coming, but we know it will make us obsolete.

One of the biggest risks we face is that of sleep-walking into a police state, simply by mistaking the ability to monitor everyone for even minute legal infractions for the imperative to do so.

This, I think, is the most crucial message in the essay for those of us working in any corner of the technology industry. Please, please, please remember to ask “but should we?” at every turn.

GM Types

Those who have run or played role-playing games (RPGs) may enjoy this summary of the Laws of Good Game Mastering booklet.  It describes seven GM behaviors – The World Builder, The Duelist, The Plotmeister, The Master of Ceremonies, The Actor, The Director, and The Provider – and draws distinctions between them based on objective, behavior, and interactions with the players.

I wouldn’t call these hard-and-fast distinctions.  Actually, I think that different archetypes would describe me at different times, depending on the game: Arcadia was a game about ritual and atmosphere, and so I tried out a hard-line Master of Ceremonies angle, whereas Threshold was World Builder all the way.  Perhaps that makes me a Provider, but I would say it makes me a restless experimentalist.

Indeed, the Provider is the archetype that I find least compelling.  Shouldn’t every GM aim to please his players?  Aren’t all of these archetypes modes of behavior, tendencies perhaps but hardly rigid codifications?  Why then create a separate slot for GMs who meander from one mode to another?

Instead, I think it would be sensible to define “The Provider” as a sort of meta-classification: how many archetypes does this GM adhere to, and under what circumstances, and why?  That is to say, how does the GM make these archetypes serve him?  “The Provider” sublimates his own preferred archetype(s) to the interest of his players, whereas a “Hard Liner” might stick with one archetype no matter how well or poorly it’s working, and a “Scientist” might try out a different archetype each time.

If you’ve run a game, how would you describe your GMing?  Are the descriptions in the Laws of Good Game Mastering a good fit?